Yesterday we heard the latest, if expected, grim news from WWF’s Living Planet Report - that global wildlife populations have plummeted by an average of 68% since 1970.  WWF’s report precedes the UN’s own Global Biodiversity Outlook which will be published next week, no doubt with a similar punchline that we have failed to stem the tide of loss.  This is even though we have had global commitments to halt the loss of biodiversity under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity with targets meant to have been met by 2010 and then 2020. 

It is no surprise that, in her new collection of essays on the ecological crisis, Vesper Flights, Helen MacDonald says that being attuned to nature now means “opening yourself to constant grief”.  She's right, living and breathing these statistics on a daily basis can be corrosive.

That’s why it was important that WWF offered hope by referencing the models which show that we can turn things round provided that we take rapid steps to transform the way we live especially our energy and food systems.

We need hope and we need optimism because that gives energy to the nature conservation cause.

To me, optimism still comes from knowing that we have a good track record of making things better.  This week, three things made me feel good.

First, our UK Nature Based Solutions webinar profiled the work we have done to restore woodlands (at places like Abernethy in the Cairngorms), upland peatlands (at places like Dove Stone in the Peak District) and coastal habitats (at places like Medmerry, Minsmere and Wallasea).  Large scale habitat restoration delivering great results for wildlife and also helping to deal with some of our societal challenges such as mitigating or adapting to climate change, improving water quality or providing inspiration to improve our health and wellbeing.  I would have felt even better if I was in at least one of these fabulous places.

Second, this week we reported that spoonbills have successfully raised chicks for the first time in Suffolk since 1681. The birds were discovered nesting on RSPB Havergate Island nature reserve and it means that all the hard work over the last 15 years encouraging spoonbills to breed on the island has finally paid off.  It’s a fabulous addition to the UK population and testimony to the creativity and hard work of our team of staff and volunteers (one of whom, Steve Everett, took this fantastic photo).

And that was the theme of my third bit of good news which emerged from the roseate tern webinar this week.  I have a soft spot for this species not just because it is our rarest seabird or because it is very pretty but because its only UK breeding colony – Coquet Island - is my view at my family’s holiday hut on the Northumberland coast.  The two day conference is an opportunity to share the results of the five year EU funded LIFE Roseate Tern Projectwhich was a partnership of Birdwatch Ireland, North Wales Wildlife Trust and the RSPB.  Its objectives were to:

  • improve productivity at nesting sites by improving breeding conditions
  • Prepare habitats for recolonization at new sites
  • Improve our understanding of the ecology of the species including its diet
  • Create a network of roseate tern conservationists to share experiences
  • Develop a long term strategy

The results shared are impressive: the LIFE project has supported a spectacular recovery of the NW European population, which has increased at the average rate of 6% per year in the last decade and there are now over 2100 pairs breeding in the UK, Ireland and France.  And Coquet has been at the heart of the success reaching a record number of 130 pairs since the site became a RSPB reserve exactly 50 years ago.  There are only three other colonies supporting more than 50 pairs in Western Europe and these are Rockabill and Lady’s Island Lake in Ireland and Ile aux Moutons in Brittany, France. 

Despite the growing trend, the relatively small size of the population and its limited distribution makes the species vulnerable to threats on the breeding grounds, during migration and wintering. The increased rate of climate change-driven violent storms and prolonged periods of poor weather contribute to the mortality of chicks already in trouble because of predation.  What’s more low laying coastal colonies are frequently flooded and we also worry about a long-term availability of food for terns as sea warming changes the delicate dynamics between zooplankton, pelagic fish and top predators such as seabirds.  So this is a species that isn’t out of the woods just yet.  We need to build on the work started as part of the LIFE project to prepare more sites for the roseate tern colonisation, which will ensure more resilience against stochastic events and climate change driven impacts. 

But as with the spoonbills and our nature reserves, the positive results depend on the people to do the work and so huge congratulations to all those involved in the project. 

And finally, more congratulations to the brilliant Dara McAnulty and the equally brilliant Ben Macdonald – worthy winners of the two Wainwright prizes for their books Diary of a Young Naturalist and Rebirding.  Do read their books if you have not yet done so - they give hope and vision which is absolutely what we need right now.