June, 2010

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Way out west

South west England is rich in wildlife - from the high moors to the coast and out to sea, it's one of the most wonderful regions in the UK. This blog celebrates all that's wild about the region. Here we will share insights into our work to protect
  • Gulls

    The charge sheet against gulls is long. They can be messy. They can be menacing. They have a taste for pasties and ice cream. I have a postcard on my desk with a picture of a south west coastal town and a (badly) superimposed image of a particularly mean looking gull entitled `Public Enemy Number One'. No one would deny they can be a nuisance. But, before gulls are found guilty on all counts of crimes against seaside resorts, let's look at a case for not viewing them so harshly.

    There are forty-five species of gull; a successful worldwide group of aquatic scavengers. Please note, they are not now, nor have ever been, scientifically described as `seagulls'!

    Traditional nest sites are sea-cliffs and islands but the since the 1940s, gulls have used flat and apex roofs for nesting, often beside the chimney. This behaviour has increased since the 1970s, so that around 8% of the UK's herring gulls and around 3% of lesser black-backed gulls now nest in towns .

    Their nest is a well-constructed cup made of twigs and grasses. The clutch of two to four eggs is incubated by both sexes for up to 30 days and the chicks hatch fully covered in down, tended by both parents. It's at this stage that gulls are most aggressive to humans that stray to close.

    Recently we’ve had reports, as we do in other years, of gulls dive-bombing passers-by in defence of their young. Obviously this is not a pleasant thing to happen, especially when they make contact and our commiserations do go to those on the receiving end of such unwanted attention.

    But rest assured such territorial behaviour is only short lived. Once the young have fledged, it will stop And while its happening our advice is to simply try and avoid the area if possible of carry an open umbrella to stop the birds.

    Gulls are semi-colonial, and in rare instances can form large colonies of thousands of birds. Of the five species that are found in towns, the great black-backed gull has the smallest UK population. The other four species all have populations in excess of 80,000 pairs, but it often comes as a surprise that many qualify as species of conservation concern The UK herring gull population has declined by more than 40% since 1970. Similarly the black-headed gull population has declined by around 40% since the mid 1980s. The cause of the declines is not yet known, but could be a result of changes in their marine environment. Whatever the cause, it's worth bearing these declines in mind before leaping to hasty judgements about the birds.

    Its also crucial for people to understand the law with regards to gulls. Like other species, they are protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act. This makes it illegal to intentionally injure or kill any gull, or to take, damage or destroy an active nest or its contents. However, the law recognises that in some circumstances control may be necessary. For instance with regards to gulls action can be taken to prevent the spread of disease, to ensure public health and safety or to prevent serious damage to agriculture.  

    But, and this is a big BUT, under European legislation, there is a requirement to be satisfied that there is a likelihood of serious damage before any action is taken to remove birds. The legislation also requires non-lethal measures to be considered first. Nuisance or damage to property are NOT legitimate reasons to kill gulls. If non-lethal measures are completely, and provably, unworkable, then may the birds be killed, but only in a safe and humane way and with the proper licence from Defra.

    However, and bearing in mind that many gull species are of conservation concern, where gulls pose a real risk to public health, the RSPB accepts that measures to prevent them nesting may be necessary. But what can be done?

    The most effective measures involve reducing the availability of food and reducing the attractiveness of nest-sites. However, this is not an instant solution. Clearly it's best to avoid feeding gulls. Some local authorities are considering by-laws to prevent this. To be effective, however, councils also need to ensure that landfill tips are well-managed and that streets are regularly cleaned.

    If there is a genuine reason for not having roof-nesting gulls, it is better to deter them rather than to destroy them. A system of wires on a frame (30 cm deep) can be fitted into the area the birds are using. This prevents gulls from landing and folding their wings. You must however check all fixtures do not breach fire regulations or constitute a fire risk from lightning strikes. Any physical barriers need to be regularly checked and maintained to ensure their effectiveness and prevent them from turning into traps.

    So please, before rushing to condemn gulls for simply being a nuisance, consider that some these birds are of conservation concern, and that, if needs be, deterrence is always always better than killing. And also, some people may actually like them!

  • The joy of Cornish Choughs

    I’ve seen them in winter on the remote sand dunes of Islay. I’ve seen them picking at scraps ‘round picnic tables on Anglesey. I’ve seen them drifting lazily across the Grands Causses in southern France. But nothing beats seeing chough in the wild in Cornwall. So closely are chough linked to the Duchy, historically, mythogically, culturally, that I really do think that the towering cliffs of the far west are their home nation.

    And the splendour of the Cornish coast is to my mind the best place to see them. What could be better than sitting above the ocean on a lofty precipice, with huge booming waves pounding the ancient granite rocks while watching these ink black creatures drift and tumble through the spray filled air. Its quite a treat. And a treat that is getting easier to enjoy now the population is steadily growing.

    The story is reasonably well known. The birds returned completely naturally in 2001 and went on to nest at Southerly Point on the Lizard. I say “naturally” because recently I’ve read in numerous publications that these birds were re-introduced. They were not – they made it on their own, no doubt either from France or Wales, without our assistance.

    Once here though, they most certainly did have our assistance – a huge and highly successful project has been running since year one to make sure that Kernow’s choughs have everything they need. It’s been a great partnership between ourselves, Natural England, the National Trust and the people of Cornwall, especially those living near the birds who have given countless hours to their protection.

    The original pair have consistently produced young, and those young have gone on to nest themselves. Its a slow process, but with the grazed coastal cliffs in tip top condition, and providing the habitat the choughs require, they have spread around the coast.

    This year three pairs have raised nine youngsters, and we’ve had a couple of young pairs “practice” nesting as well. It may not seem like a lot, but these things take time, and with time we just know the birds will continue to go from strength to strength.

    If you’d like to see the birds yourself, Southerly point on the Lizard is the best place to visit. And if you see birds around the Duchy, please do let us know. The birds are ringed, so if you see them, make a note if possible of the colours and arrangement (ie which colour ring is on which leg!) and where you saw them and mail us at chough@rspb.org.uk. I love the fact they have their own email account.

  • Offshore power

    Albatross know this. So do fulmars and manx shearwaters. There is abundant energy offshore. The winds that carry these birds on their often epic journeys are a free, huge and above all limitless supply of power. And this is not only available to the birds, with the right planning, design and investment, its available to us as well

    A report published recently by the Offshore Valuation Group clearly defined the potential. In its 108 pages it concluded that by 2050 if we harness just 29% of the available resource at sea the UK could meet produce power equivalent to North Sea oil and gas production and become a net exporter of electricity. That’s a staggering claim, and indeed exceeded the authors own expectations.

    Just imagine it. A limitless supply of power equivalent to 1 billion barrels of oil a year, for ever. Its the sort of ambition that makes you want to drop everything, throw yourself into renewable energy system design and save the world.

    But of course, one does need to temper such youthful dreaming. If only it were as easy to achieve as it is to imagine. And is it achievable? And what are the risks?

    What we are talking about here is the generation of power through a combination of huge offshore windfarms and, where practical, the harnessing of tidal power. The first question of course is – do we have the skills and technology to do this. The answer here must be a resounding yes. Perhaps inadvertently one of the good things to come out of our experience extracting oil is the ability to build huge structures in hostile marine environments. The second question is a little more involved.

    If you live right next to a windy place, then wind power is just fine. But if you don’t must you be denied a share in this free and abundant resource? The answer is probably no. But its going to take some thought and huge investment. The efficient distribution of power, of electricity, is one of the key issues that renewable energy has to overcome if it’s to succeed. Otherwise those that don’t have wind and tidal power will be required to maintain their dependence on fossil fuels, with all its consequences.

    What is being proposed is a European SuperGrid for the efficient transfer of power. Using the most advanced technologies available it should be possible to move electricity from the Atlantic to mainland Europe without huge efficiency loss. But it’s going to take inventiveness and investment.

    So, harnessing offshore wind is undoubtedly achievable, with the proper funding and engineering. But what of the risks?  What are the environmental consequences of such developments?

    In June 2005 a consortium of wind farm developers (London Array Ltd) submitted applications for a flagship offshore wind farm in the greater Thames Estuary. The proposal included c.271 turbines, with a generating capacity of one gigawatt – enough to power 750,000 homes in London. Once developed, the wind farm will be the biggest in the world.

    The developers had worked constructively with the RSPB and others throughout their pre-application studies. During the baseline surveys for their Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the developers identified a previously unknown internationally important population of wintering red-throated divers, both in the proposed development site and in the Thames estuary as a whole. This newly identified population more than doubled the previous wintering red throated diver population estimates for the UK. Because of the likely disturbance impacts of the wind farm upon the red throated divers, the RSPB initially objected to the proposal.

    However, following further successful negotiations, London Array Ltd agreed to limit the number of turbines that can be initially constructed to 175. This number of turbines will not adversely affect the wintering red-throated diver population of the estuary. Once built, the developer will monitor the effect of these turbines on the red-throated divers. Only if the impacts are considered to be acceptable in the Environmental Impact Assessment, will any further turbines be allowed.

    Permission has now been granted for the offshore development. A Special Protection Area (SPA) is also likely to be designated for the wintering red-throated divers in the greater Thames Estuary.

    This case shows how early and continuing consultation and negotiation by a developer, both willing to listen to concerns and act on them, can lead to a positive outcome for nature and for renewable energy.

    And with forthcoming wind farms proposed around the south west, off the Dorset coast and in North Devon, it is this approach we will adopt; we will consult and work with the companies involved from the outset to get the best outcome for both wildlife and renewable energy generation.