In today’s blog, Head of Monitoring Conservation Science, Professor Richard Gregory talks about the essential work of the Conservation Science Centre, and its scientists, in supporting biodiversity conservation at a highly critical time.

From its roots, the RSPB has focussed on the protection of birds and their habitats. While that is a key goal, and an area where we have had great success, the Society is increasingly working to save nature in a broader sense. That means working on a great variety of taxa and tackling a wider range of environmental pressures - like land-use change, environmental pollution, invasive alien species and climate change.

A long-term study of the Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix has helped researchers to understand more about the causes of the species’ decline in the UK; Dartmoor, Devon, June 2013. (c) Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

RSPB’s remit is both domestic and international. Works overseas is carried out primarily with our partners in BirdLife International, focusing on the 14 UK Overseas Territories, home to an array of diverse but highly threatened wildlife including albatrosses, penguins and parrots. RSPB seeks to recover populations of highly threatened species and to protect, restore and manage habitats for wildlife, both within its UK nature reserves and outside. It also acts to influence national and international environmental ambition and policies, and to encourage sustainable living across society and in different policy sectors.

The RSPB prides itself on being an evidence-led organisation seeking, where possible, to find practical solutions to the most pressing environmental issues.

Back in 2014 the RSPB set up its Centre for Conservation Science aiming to develop evidence-based solutions to address the biodiversity crisis, and to bridge the gap between science, policy and practice.

The RSPB Centre for Conservation Science model for conservation science delivery.

RSPB’s current priorities are to intervene to save species and sites directly; to empower more people to act on behalf of nature; and to work with partners and other organisations to tackle the drivers that threaten our vision for a world richer in nature.

Investment in conservation science helps to keep the RSPB focussed, successful and credible, and to ensure that policies and practice are based on the best evidence. Our scientists help identify and prioritise conservation problems, diagnose their causes, discover solutions, and then test the efficacy of those solutions when implemented. The science team comprises around fifty scientists plus technical and support staff based at more than a dozen locations in the UK and working on issues across the globe. In addition, we support nearly 30 PhD students at a range of universities at any one time, and many Masters projects.

Much of our science is undertaken in partnership, including NGOs, universities, institutes, statutory agencies and government departments.  We publish our results in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, generating over 100 scientific papers each year. While scientific publications represent one tangible product from our work, our aim is to have a positive impact on conservation, which is more difficult to measure.

The starting point for conservation science is to identify and prioritise the most important conservation issues.  We do this by conducting and supporting monitoring schemes and surveys, often in close collaboration with expert partners.  Monitoring allows us to identify the species that are most threatened, the sites that are most important to protect, and the environmental challenges that are the most pressing to tackle. These biological priorities frame much of our work.

Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris, RSPB Minsmere, Suffolk, March 2014. Work on this species provides a notable example of the stages of conservation management, from diagnosis, through solution testing, to a plan for population recovery. (c) Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

Once the key conservation problems are identified, we need to diagnose their causes. This generally involves painstaking and careful detective work, often focused on single species, or groups of species.  For birds, this might involve locating nests, measuring breeding success and survival, and marking individual birds in different habitats or regions to follow their life history in detail.

If all goes well, that work leads to potential solutions that we can test in field conditions. Testing solutions on a small scale is often critical to gain the confidence of land managers and other stakeholders prior to wider implementation. It is important to understand the practicality and economic feasibility of any solutions. It is also the case that trial management might prove to be the best way to understand causes. RSPB is fortunate in having access to over 200 nature reserves and several working farms in the UK, as well as being involved with conservation projects overseas, such as rainforest sites in West Africa and Indonesia. This estate is central to our diagnostic and solution-testing work, providing a research platform for scientific observation and experiments.

Ultimate success comes when our science is translated into effective conservation action in the form of environmental policies and wildlife comes bouncing back.  This ‘virtuous circle’ continues as we go back to monitor the state of nature and scan the horizon for emerging and potentially threatening issues. There is always more to do.

This in a nutshell is science at the RSPB and in a new paper just published in British Birds, I describe the way in which the RSPB goes about organising and delivering its conservation science, illustrating each step with recent published examples, before discussing some of the scientific opportunities and great challenges that face those involved in nature conservation.

The year 2020 is set to be the 'crucial tipping point for nature' so let’s hope it lives up to the potential.

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