2020 was meant to be a super year but it has ended up being deeply traumatic for all of us.

We all now know the human health and economic consequences of what happens if we fail to treat nature with respect. 

While the origin of the coronavirus remains uncertain, one silver lining is that there is now greater public understanding about zoonotic diseases and how habitat degradation and wildlife trade may exacerbate the risks.  And, through the incredible spring, many in the UK reconnected with nature and were reminded just how important nature is to our own wellbeing.

Yet, even though the pandemic is the greatest disruption to global society in more than a century, this is the foretaste of what may come as a result if we fail to deal with the nature and climate emergency.

That is why there is nothing more important than the RSPB’s mission to inspire a world richer in nature. 

And it is a testimony to all of our staff, volunteers and partners that, despite everything, our charity achieved incredible things this year.

So, if you are in need of some winter cheer, grab yourself a drink/mince pie and enjoy some highlights from the RSPB year.

Below I offer a few examples of how we have (thanks to our staff, volunteers, supporters and partners) helped transform places, recovered species and engaged more people in conservation.  However, I start with a reflection on how the politics has changed this year because, say it quietly, things seem to be shifting in a good way.  As part of civil society, we have been working hard to create the political space for these announcements and there has been a lot to welcome including:

Clearly, throughout 2020 we have had to adapt to changing government restrictions around the world.  Yet, we have still managed to deliver some major practical conservation interventions which have helped enhance wildlife including for…

  • Vultures: which received a boost when in October, the RSPB assisted with the landmark release of eight white-rumped vultures in northern Haryana, India.
  • Albatrosses: as the Namibian Albatross Task Force achieved major reduction in seabird bycatch (details will emerge in early 2021).
  • Saiga Antelope: which had an incredibly successful year on Altyn Dala in Kazakhstan, with one herd producing 530 calves compared to only four in 2019.
  • Curlew: for which we have secured £3.7 million for our new ‘Curlews in Crisis’ recovery programme. RSPB Northern Ireland West Area team have also been conducting crucial habitat management for breeding waders on Lower Lough Erne, including an incredible seven hectares of scrub removal. Not only have curlews been seen and heard using the improved habitat, but so have lapwings, oystercatchers, and redshank.
  • Hen Harrier: for the first time in recorded history, hen harriers have established a breeding population on the Isle of Lewis. The Hen Harrier Life Project came to an end in 2020. Since its launch in 2014, the project has achieved; monitoring and protection of over 100 nests and 150 roost sites, engagement through talks and events with over 13,000 people, frequent press releases and blogs, and crucial population monitoring – for example the satellite tagging of 117 Hen Harriers.

In 2020, we have also had some fabulous results from our 220 nature reserves (covering >160,000 hectares and home to a staggering 18,458 species):

  • Avocet: Pullborough Brooks hosted its first ever breeding avocets – two pairs successfully fledging four young.
  • Roseate Tern: the numbers of Roseate Terns on Coquet Island again reached the highest number since the 1970s with 130 pairs (fledging 122 chicks). Populations on all three major colonies in Ireland & the UK (Coquet, Rockabill and Lady’s Island Lake) are 30% higher than at the start of the successful LIFE project.
  • Spoonbills: following years of effort to encourage them, spoonbills have fledged four chicks at Havergate – the first in Suffolk for 300 years.
  • Red Necked Phalarope : habitat management on Fetlar saw the number of Red Necked Phalarope males double from 15 to 30 in a year!
  • Corncrake: which returned to our Orkney reserves after a five-year absence.
  • Stone Curlew: record numbers of breeding stone curlew were recorded on RSPB reserves. At Winterbourne Down seven pairs successfully raised 16 chicks!
  • Cattle Egret: Cattle egrets bred at Pagham Harbour for the first time; five pairs raised five young.
  • Cattle and Sheep (!): through the Cooperation Across Borders for Biodiversity Project, we have acquired a new ferry (cot) to transport cattle and sheep to the islands of Lower Lough Earne, where their grazing will be a vital management tool for breeding waders.
  • Silver-studded blues: Silver-studded blues have responded positively to habitat management in Farnham heath – in some areas the population has trebled.
  • Bittern: For the first time in over 200 years, bitterns have successfully bred and fledged young at Newport Wetlands nature reserve in South Wales.

And, all of this is boosted by engaging more people in conservation for example through:

  • The Time is Now Lobby: as over 13,000 people joined the virtual lobby of government and over 90,000 people have signed up to the ‘Revive Our World’
  • The Swift Mapper app and website: which, developed in partnership with Natural Apptitude, Swift Conservation, Action for Swifts, and the Swift Local Network, was launched in May 2020. Over 14,000 records have been submitted since 1st This, combined with the records of swift nest sites and screaming parties submitted to our previous online mapping systems, brings the total number across the UK to well over 50,000! The tool has been well received by the volunteer and local swift conservation community, and will continue to be promoted as a freely available long-term conservation mapping system.
  • Breakfast Birdwatch: conceived during lockdown and building on the success of Big Garden Birdwatch, tens of thousand of people spent an hour every morning of lockdown looking at their garden birds and sharing their stories. More people discovered nature on their doorstep and it helped us cope by relieving boredom, reducing anxiety and providing much needed inspiration during this incredibly tough year.

And finally, this week we heard that red kite has been downlisted (ie extinction risk reduced) in the Red Data List for birds published by BirdLife.  Like the bison which was highlighted as a conservation success in the wider Red List of a couple of weeks again, this is the latest example that targeted conservation action for species works – and RSPB can take some credit for spearheading a recovery programme in the UK over three decades ago!

2021 will, we hope, be a super year.  We will challenge world leaders to deliver ambitious global deals of nature and the climate, challenge politicians across the UK to match the global ambition in domestic law, policy and funding and play our part in delivering some major conservation projects.

For now though, THANK YOU for your support through this incredibly tough year, have a great break over Christmas and best, best wishes for 2021.

*images courtesy of Ben Andrew (avocet), Andy Schofield (Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross) and Norman Morris (red kite) all rspb-images.com