It's been quite a year.

Language that was absent last year is now centre-stage: we face a climate and ecological emergency.  The heightened profile and urgency are because the statistics are dire (as demonstrated by the latest IPCC and IPBES reports) but also because civil society is mobilising with Greta Thunberg rightly named as Time magazine’s person of the year

There are tentative signs that politicians recognise the need for a major transformation of the world economy for example with the publication last week of the EU Green New Deal.  But even this Deal falls short and lacks adequate plans for nature restoration so the challenge remains huge.

Getting the right ambition, laws, money and institutions in place to exercise this transformation will take a monumental effort as we move into a new decade.  This will provide the focus of our future campaigning efforts because we need to influence the global agenda in 2020, the so-called Super Year, through our work with BirdLife International and we need to shape the activities of governments across the UK.  I shall say more about this in the new year.

For now though, as this is (for me at least) the last working Monday of the year, I want to reflect on the contribution that we have made in 2019 thanks to our amazing partners, the dedication of our staff, volunteers and members. 

It has, for the RSPB, been a year of renewal.  We have agreed new priorities, made changes to the way that we work, and established new structures so that we get the biggest bang for our finite charitable buck.

I am proud of the contribution we are making to tackle the emergency.  In 2019, we helped organise the Time is Now (the largest ever climate and nature lobby of Westminster MPs), supported the Youth Climate Strikes while demonstrating people’s connection to nature by getting a single of pure bird song in the charts to help let nature sing.  But we know we must do more, which is why this year we refreshed our plans to respond to the climate crisis.

In 2019, the case for action at home was bolstered with the publication of the third State of Nature report.  Our scientists led the ever-growing coalition of organisations that produced and published the report which provides a common evidence base for the whole nature conservation sector about state of species on land and sea in the UK and on our 14 overseas territories.

Our determination to find solutions to the major 21st century conservation problems was shown with the production of our nature-carbon map which shows that protecting and restoring the best places for nature will help fight the climate crisis.  Meanwhile, Puffarazzi continued to be a great citizen science success for the RSPB with the second phase focusing on getting historic pictures of puffins with fish, which give us a handle on how their diet has changed. By October, some 2500 photographs from over 40 colonies had been submitted by the public.

Evidence underpins our advocacy and in a year dominated at home by Brexit, we have through Greener UK and the country Environment Links made real progress in making the case for new laws to drive the recovery of nature and for fundamental reform of farming/fisheries policy and funding across the UK.  Clearly this continues through 2020 – the year when world leaders will also need to agree new ambition for nature and the climate.  Next year, we need more announcements like the decision of the Welsh Government to reject the M4 relief road and the one made by Ascension Island Council which voted to protect 100% of their offshore waters as a no-take marine zone. At 440,000km2, this will be the Atlantic’s largest marine protected area.

And finally, through our practical conservation work, we continue to demonstrate that we can improve the natural environment.  Below, I list a small selection of the successes in 2019.  I hope that these stories inspire everyone to do more in 2020 and provides optimism that together we can address the planetary crisis.

The RSPB continues to ensure land is well managed for nature…

….the Flows to the Future Project came to an end on 31 October 2019, having started in July 2014. Over the last five years, almost £6 million has been spent on peatland restoration at RSPB Forsinard Flows. Non-native trees have been removed from deep peat, forestry furrows and drains have been blocked and peatland has been cleared of regenerating non-native conifers. These restored peatlands will provide a home for nature and make an important contribution to mitigating climate change.

RSPB Forsinard by Eleanor Bentall,

…as one project ends, another is launched with the Celtic Rainforest Project (led by the Snowdonian National Park Authority and funded by EU-Life) promising to restore Western Atlantic Oakwoods for its special birds, lichens and bryophytes.

…while many other projects continue such as the Co-operation Across Borders for Biodiversity project which involves six-partners working together to improve the habitats for birds, butterflies and plants across Northern Ireland, Ireland and the west coast of Scotland.

…there was good news from Wallasea as habitat work completed in 2019 already saw 146 pairs of breeding avocets and 124 corn bunting territories recorded in the summer. And in winter, 21,400 waterbirds were noted. The recently created saline lagoons are supporting lots of waterbirds with more than 5,300 birds recorded at the last Wetland Bird survey in October.   There is a lot to learn from this mega project because we need to massively increase our ambitions for coastal habitat restoration in line with our vision in Sustainable Shores.

…thanks to generous support from the Rainforest Trust, the RSPB purchased approximately ten acres of biodiversity-rich, tropical dry forest in the Cayman Islands. This is a pocket of tropical dry forest that has been saved from potentially damaging development and is home to a significant proportion of the Grand Cayman Blue Iguana population, a once widespread species, as well as many globally threatened endemic trees.  It is our first acquisition of land on a UK Overseas Territory and feels like a brilliant (if wee) complement to our efforts with BirdLife partners to protect and restore Gola, Altyn Dala and Harapan.

The RSPB continues to save threatened species…

…2019 was the third year of vulture releases in Nepal, with plans afoot for the first releases in India in early 2020 as part of the SAVE programme. In Nepal, the wild vulture populations are steadily increasing and so endorsing the route we’re taken in removing diclofenac from veterinary use. Extra good news is that our partners in Cambodia have successfully achieved a veterinary diclofenac ban just a year after the drug was confirmed in veterinary use there!

…one of RSPB’s biggest ever projects, the Gough Island Restoration Programme (a partnership project with the UK/South African Governments, Tristan Island Community, Island Conservation and BirdLife South Africa) managed to raise >£6m to remove invasive non-native house mice from the island (2/3 of the total funding costs). The operation is now set to take place in the austral winter in 2020 and the intention is to secure the future of Tristan albatross and Gough bunting two critically endangered species for which the UK is responsible.  The urgency has grown with new video footage showing the house mice attacking adult albatrosses and so if you would like to support this project, you can donate here.

…the RSPB celebrated the bitterns’ best year since records began, with over 100 male, booming bitterns recorded on reserves for the first time, and almost 200 males across the UK.
Lakenheath Fen had the highest number of boomers recorded, whilst Avalon Marshes continued to be a stronghold.

Bittern by Ben Andrew,

cirl bunting numbers were as fit as a butcher’s dog at Labrador Bay, where we recorded the highest number of pairs to date!  Meanwhile, work at Ashill continues and 23 territories were recorded last season, with 30 also at Labrador Bay further demonstration that these bespoke reserves are working well.

…in the Forest of Bowland, RSPB staff and volunteers showed extraordinary dedication to look after all five hen harriers nests through to fledging, marking it as the most successful breeding year in Bowland since 2010.  It remains scandalous that hen harriers and other birds of prey continue to be persecuted and disappear in suspicious circumstances (as shown through the latest publication of Bird Crime) but the publication of the Hen Harrier Life Project report shows the way forward.  Over 5.5 years, we have protected over 100 nests and 150 winter roosts, tagged over 100 birds, catalogued 328 bird crime incidents, shown how moorlands can be managed sustainably, talked about the issues facing hen harriers with nearly 13,000 people and raised awareness of this beautiful bird.

…two pairs of corncrakes bred on Rathlin Island in 2019. This is the first time in over 30 years that this has happened and it’s down to the dedicated Reserve staff and ‘Give Corncrake a Home’ Volunteer Team.

pine hoverflies were successfully bred in captivity this year, which is a first for over a decade. This work fees into future reinforcement/translocation aspirations so it’s an important first step.

…the response of butterfly species to all the efforts at Winterbourne Downs has been spectacular, with Small blue finding the specially created butterfly banks in 2016, Marsh Fritillary arriving at the reserve in 2017, and Adonis blue colonising both banks in 2018. The icing on the cake was the sighting of three Duke of Burgundy butterflies in May 2019, amongst the cowslips in the sheltered area of longer grass. This has brought the total number of butterflies at the site to 34!

This is just a taste of what our charity has achieved in 2019. 

Thank you for your support and here’s to saving more nature with you in 2020.