While news of the Birds of Conservation Concern report might leave you feeling deflated, it’s important to acknowledge that this isn’t a hopeless situation. Thanks to coordinated conservation work over the decades, some birds have bounced back.

Bitterns, nightjars, woodlarks, stone-curlews, red kites and ospreys are just some of the birds that featured on the Red List in previous Birds of Conservation Concern editions. But, thanks to your support and the efforts of conservationists and organisations, whether through creating and managing suitable habitat, running reintroductions projects or campaigning for better policies and laws to provide protection, they have all been moved to the Amber List as their populations have recovered.

Bittern

This secretive heron is a perfect example of conservation action done well. Bitterns completely disappeared from Britain in the 1870s. Although these shy birds with booming voices made a comeback in the 20th century, they were back at the brink of extinction by 1997 when numbers dropped to just 11 males.

Thanks to funding and intensive conservation efforts that have protected the birds’ preferred habitat of dense, wet reedbeds, bittern numbers have been revived. In addition to managing existing reedbeds for bitterns, the RSPB has been actively working to restore reedbeds and create new ones.

In the 2015 Birds of Conservation Concern report, bitterns moved from the Red List down to Amber. In 2019, the RSPB celebrated the bitterns’ best year since records began, with more than 100 male booming bitterns recorded on the charity’s reserves for the first time and almost 200 across the UK.

White-tailed eagle


In the latest report, the UKs largest bird of prey, the white-tailed eagle, moves from the Red to the Amber List as a result of decades of conservation work, including reintroductions and increased protection for this spectacular species.

White-tailed eagles became extinct in the UK as a result of extensive habitat change combined, particularly in the 19th century, with persecution. Before their reintroduction, the birds last bred in England and Wales in the 1830s, in Ireland in 1898 and in Scotland in 1916.

A reintroduction programme by the Nature Conservancy Council (now NatureScot) and the RSPB started in 1975. In the following ten years, 82 young eagles from Norway were released on the Isle of Rum in the Inner Hebrides.

The first successful breeding took place on Mull in 1985, and since then a growing number of pairs have nested successfully every year. Whilst their population remains at a fraction of their historical numbers, the project is now able to support new reintroduction projects in England through the donation of chicks.

Swift and house martin

Identifying the problems facing a bird which travels through so many countries can often be difficult. While the causes of population decline for both swifts and house martins are not fully understood, two factors are highly likely to be playing a part, at least in some regions of the UK.

As our houses are renovated and old buildings demolished, swifts find themselves shut out of the nooks and crannies they make their homes in. In addition, habitat loss, pesticide use and other factors may well have affected their insect prey, potentially making it harder for swifts to find enough food to breed successfully.

Put simply, without the food and nest sites they need to successfully raise chicks, swifts are likely to keep declining. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

How you can help

You can provide replacement homes, whether it’s a home-made swift nest box attached to the side of your house, replacing a brick with a specially designed ‘swift brick’ or fitting artificial house martin nests under your eaves.

Where new developments are taking place, existing buildings are being renovated or buildings must be demolished and replaced , remind your local authority planning department of their obligations to protect and promote biodiversity in the built environment. Check planning applications on your local authority website and write to ask that they take swifts into consideration.

As house martins and swifts feed entirely on insects caught in flight, they cannot be attracted by providing food. However, using fewer pesticides, growing plants for insects and digging a pond will help insects thrive in your garden and ultimately provide the essentials for these birds. A muddy pool or puddle where house martins can collect nesting material is helpful, especially during a dry spring.

How the RSPB is helping

The RSPB works with developers, councils, conservation volunteer groups, and other conservation partner organisations, to encourage the use of suitable nest boxes or alternative nesting opportunities for swifts and other birds during the design and construction of buildings.   

We are also running a number of Swift City projects across the UK to raise awareness of the plight of swifts and create new homes for these birds.

Changes in the food supply of both species may have played a part in their declines, as both depend on flying insects. Declines of house martins have been greater in the more intensively managed and drought-prone south and east (England and Wales). It has been suggested that insect populations have been harder hit in those areas of the UK due to greater land-use intensification and a warming, drying climate.

As well as actively campaigning for climate change prevention and more sustainable land use policies, the RSPB is working to boost insect populations in our cities, gardens and countryside, which will not just benefit swifts and house martins, but a whole range of other species too.

Hope for the future

There’s no one size fits all solution when it comes to actions to protect and restore populations of these vulnerable species, as the threats they face are many and varied. But there are some critical opportunities coming up over the following year.

In England, the ground-breaking Westminster Environment Act sets a legal target to halt wildlife declines by 2030. This is a global first for nature and we now need to see its equal in the other countries of the UK. However, setting a target is just the first step, bold policies, such as reforming our agricultural system, are needed to ensure ongoing species declines, like that of the house sparrow, are halted and reversed.

On the global scale, there is also hope. Countries around the world are developing a new international plan to recover nature (the Convention on Biological Diversity’s post-2020 Global Framework), which will be finalised at the UN Biodiversity conference, COP 15, in spring 2022. 

As part of the new set of global biodiversity targets under the Convention on Biological Diversity, the RSPB and BirdLife International are advocating for strong outcomes for species. An ambitious global goal that not only looks at preventing extinctions and recovering our rarest species, but commits countries globally to bend the curve of population abundance loss by 2030.

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