Before I complete my migration from the RSPB to start my new job as BirdLife International's Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia, I want to offer some final reflections from my decade as Conservation Director. Today, I talk about our species recovery work.
While I am convinced that area-based approaches will deliver huge amounts for wildlife, the RSPB will never take its eyes off the needs of threatened species which may need bespoke solutions to aid their recovery. The fate of species is still the ultimate test of conservation effectiveness. This is why the State of Nature reports focused on species populations, trends and extinction risk and it is why I think the UK Government was right to focus its proposed new legal target on species (although halting decline must be the first step before moving on to restoration).
Over the past decade, we have adapted our strategy to refocus our species recovery priorities on three of the most threatened groups: seabirds (both in the UK and globally), sub-Saharan migrants and species associated with the UK uplands. It will take a huge effort to turn round the fortunes of species like kittiwake, turtle dove and curlew, but I believe the programmes we have established over the last few years give us a fighting chance. My confidence comes from knowing that these programmes are led by brilliant and dedicated people but also because we have already shown it’s possible to reverse declines of species like bitterns, red kite, white-tailed eagle, stone curlew, cranes, cirl bunting and, this decade, our rarest nesting seabird, roseate tern.
Tim Melling's image of roseate tern (rspb-images.com)
Removing threats to species which experience collateral damage through reckless but probably unintentional behaviour – such as the inadvertent introduction of non-native species to a seabird island - is incredibly hard work but, as we have shown on Lundy, St Agnes and Gugh and the Shiants, if you remove the problem (in these cases rats beyond their native range), then species can bounce back pretty quickly. It's also why we have embarked on perhaps the RSPB's boldest venture to date: the Gough Island Restoration Programme*.
Yet, those species that are perceived to conflict with human activities – as has been the case with birds of prey that eat gamebirds which some people want to shoot – then the challenge is much more complex. I have written and spoken enough words on this issue over the past ten years but it would be remiss of me not to offer a final reflection especially as illegal bird killing will continue to dominate my new life as I support BirdLife partners across Europe and Central Asia. Here are my closing thoughts on bird of prey persecution in the UK:
Tackling longstanding conflicts like this takes time but one of the RSPB’s huge strengths is its determination to build a programme and follow it through however long it takes.
One of the particularly pleasing outcomes this decade has been the massive reduction in illegal songbird trapping on the British Military Bases in Cyprus. When I visited in 2017, it felt like the UK Sovereign Base Authorities were losing the battle – trapping infrastructure was everywhere and the previous year we had reported that c.2.3 million birds had been illegally killed on the island the year before. But Chris Packham had worked hard to raise the profile of the issue and the RSPB investigation team had a longstanding partnership with BirdLife Cyrpus, the Committee Against Bird Slaughter and the SBA to crank up our covert surveillance methods to catch trappers in the act, leading to stronger court sentences. By the end of the decade we were able to report a ten year low in the numbers being killed. The threat has clearly not gone away, and BirdLife Cyprus has recently reported an alarming rise in the use of lime sticks as a substitute for trapping birds through mist nets. What’s more we have now highlighted the new development threat to internationally important habitats. The work on Cyprus needs to continue but we should take heart from the impact we have already made in tackling illegal trapping of songbirds.
We have had a similar experience in Asia. The catastrophic decline of Gyps vultures were first reported in the 1990s and its causes (vulture-toxic veterinary drugs like diclofenac) diagnosed by the Peregrine Fund in 2003. The RSPB rolled up its sleeve to work with the local BirdLife partners in the region and forged the SAVE programme. Eighteen years on and we have celebrated the success of finding vulture-friendly alternative veterinary drugs, successfully advocated the ban on use of vulture-toxic drugs in some areas, established a captive-breeding programme and begun to release vultures into safe zones. We have a long way still to go before we can relax, but the partnership is strong and the RSPB will stick at it until recovery is secured.
Another multi-decadal conservation programme is the Albatross Task Force which is part of BirdLife International’s Global Marine Programme led by the RSPB. Over the past fifteen years, we have reduced the extinction risk to some of the albatross species by alleviating threat of bycatch from long-line fisheries. This has involved working with fishermen, national governments and influencing international agreements and the results have been incredibly impressive. For example, this year we reported that the Namibian Albatross Task Force achieved a 98% reduction in seabird bycatch. As we have done elsewhere around the world, we worked with the target fishing industry (in the case of Namibia, hake) on-board boats to demonstrate so called ‘mitigation measures’ like bird-scaring lines meaning that 22,000 birds will be saved each year. It is results like these that make this, in my eyes, the most successful trans-continental conservation programme in the world. But, as with the vulture programme, while we have found a recipe for success, we need to methodically roll out our solution to problem fisheries around the world.
Learning from the SAVE and ATF experience, we have been building the foundations of a new programme to save our threatened migratory birds across the East Atlantic Flyway (from the Arctic circle to southern Africa). Over the last decade we have improved our understanding of the relative significance of the different pressures migrants are facing along the flyway and also, through our tracking work, where they are going. It is a massive challenge because to save just one species such as Europe’s most rapidly declining migratory bird, the turtle dove, we need to reform agriculture within its breeding grounds because lack of available food is the cause of declining productivity, reduce hunting pressure along the flyway and also understand the impact of and changing land use pressures in their wintering grounds in West Africa. Building on existing initiatives like Operation Turtle and the European Turtle Dove Action Plan, ten BirdLife partners across the flyway have developed a plan to identify and manage key sites, build capacity of key country partners and influence the policy framework (both within individual nations and through global conventions) to address drivers for decline.
Ben Andrew's image of turtle dove (rspb-images.com)
The RSPB and BirdLife are global leaders in stopping extinctions and recovering threatened species. We have a method that works (of identifying reasons for decline, trialling solutions and evaluating their impact when applied) and we are prepared to stay the course often over decades. The urgency of the nature and climate emergency may provide a temptation to move beyond targeted action for species recovery but I believe that would be a mistake because if attention is diverted, species may be lost and with that the optimism that we can and do make things better. Whatever others decide to do, I am sure that species recovery will always feature in future RSPB and BirdLife strategies.
*You can keep up to date with the Gough programme, which is reaching a critical phase this month, by visiting the Gough Twitter and Facebook pages.
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