Blog post by David Gibbons, Head of the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

I’m incredibly proud of everything my colleagues at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science have achieved during 2018.

It’s been a challenging year, for many reasons, but we continue to do high quality and informative science, that underpins the RSPB’s conservation work. There’s far too much great work to mention here, but here are some of my RSPB science highlights for 2018.

An understanding of the status of our birds is crucial for their conservation, so I was delighted that in the spring we (supported by SNH) published the first survey and population estimate of breeding snow buntings in the UK. Our knowledge of this poorly-known species previously dated back to between 1930 and 1950, so you can see how important it was to update that!

Snow bunting. Image by Ben Andrew (

With the next State of Nature report due out in 2019, I was delighted to see an overview of its methods and findings published as a peer-reviewed paper in July. It has helped us guide how we approach the next report and show’s we’re on the right track.

Continuing studies

We’re getting closer to working out what is causing declines in two species we’ve been studying for several years. During 2018, my colleague Will Peach published a paper showing that populations of house sparrows in London aren’t limited by food availability, but hinted that atmospheric pollution may be a problem.

Hawfinch. Image by Andy Hay (

The second paper from our hawfinch project – run jointly with Natural England looks at the species nesting success. In our two study areas (Wye Valley and Dolgellau, north Wales), nest survival and productivity appear sufficient to maintain the current populations. Both these studies help us isolate the problems affecting these species and points future research in the direction of other possible causes.

Soundtrack of the summer

A cuckoo’s call is sadly now a fading memory for many. We have lost over three-quarters of the UK cuckoo population since the 1980s yet know little of the reasons why. Against the UK-wide decline though, cuckoos are increasing in Scotland. This stark difference in their fortunes was the focus of a PhD study undertaken by Chloe Denerley and supported by the University of Aberdeen, the RSPB and Natural England. It showed the abundance of moth species preyed upon by cuckoos has declined four times faster than that of other moths.

Cuckoo. Image by Ben Andre (

Overall, Chloe’s findings suggest that agricultural change in the UK may well have played a part in driving cuckoo declines, pushing the birds increasingly out of the farmed countryside and into heathlands and the uplands.

Looking to the sea

From some of our most familiar species, to perhaps one of our lesser-known. A paper published in the autumn looked at sources, sinks and implications for conservation management of roseate terns. It compared two breeding sites, Rockabill in Ireland and Coquet Island in Britain, and showed that Rockabill has long been a source for the roseate tern population, while Coquet has been a sink. We’re hoping that with our conservation efforts to increase Coquet’s population, then it too will become a source; certainly 2018 was a very successful year there.

Unlike roseate terns, whose populations are on the increase in Britain and Ireland, Arctic skuas have declined by 81% in recent years. A study published this year by Allan Perkins (and others), who works in our Scottish research team, eloquently describes the combined bottom-up and top-down pressures driving their declines. While it’s a drastic decline, now we know more about what is causing the problem we can look at ways of stopping the decline.

Conservation solutions

One question in conservation is what solutions are available if a protected bird of prey is predating the chicks of a threatened species. Jen Smart and Arjun Amar’s paper summarising 17 years of studying the impacts of kestrels on little terns helps give us potential solutions. They provided diversionary feeding in six of the 17 years; in those years predation levels were 47% lower and productivity of little terns almost doubled. It shows that diversionary feeding may well be an important conservation tool, and could be used more widely.

Looking to our UK Overseas Territories, we’ve known for a while that mice are eating seabird chicks on Gough Island in the S Atlantic, but how many are they eating? A new paper involving RSPB scientists shows that it’s around two million a year – double the previous estimate. A staggering number, and the main reason the RSPB has set up the Gough Island Restoration Programme. In one of our most ambitious projects to date we’ll eradicate the mice, save species from extinction and restore Gough to the seabird haven it once was.

Staff recognition

I’m delighted that Juliet Vickery, our head of International Research, was awarded the Marsh Award for Ornithology. This award goes to an ornithologist who has made a significant contribution to the field, and Juliet has certainly done that! She leads a team of scientists undertaking research in collaboration with partner organisations throughout the world. This, along with her external activities, means this reward was richly deserved.

Juliet Vickery


Our science communication continues to go from strength to strength, with our @RSPBScience Twitter account going past 10,000 followers.

Our highest-scoring Altmetric paper this year wasn’t about birds! A paper by Adam Watson and Jeremy Wilson on mountain hare populations gained a score of 849. It includes a dataset of mountain hare counts going back 70 years, and shows populations are now at just 1% of their original population. It’s a shocking decline, brought to the world in this paper.

Mountain hare. Image by Ben Andrew (

Back in the spring we launched a new and innovative starling research project in Bristol. It will hopefully shed some light on why starlings are declining. But our communications around it made it so much bigger.

We recruited volunteers via a blog and Twitter, and then BBC Springwatch came to film it. Since then we’ve written features and update blogs on the project. Keep your eyes peeled for this project in the future: this year was just a pilot.

My favourite highlight

All these other highlights have been magnificent, but there is one that stands out for me. During the summer, Ron Summers published his ‘love-letter’ to Abernethy Forest! His book on the history and ecology of this special Scottish pinewood has been 30 years in the making, and it truly is a labour of love. Well done Ron!

These are just some of our achievements in 2018 and I’m indebted to the skill, dedication and hard work of my team to keep doing this incredible science. All of our science is done in partnership with others, both funders and other scientists, and I am indebted to them, too.

Have a wonderful Christmas and New Year.

  • Thanks very much, David, - a very readable and informative summary that has led me to follow up quite a few of the links for things I wasn't aware of - well done to all in your team for the great work underpinning conservation!