The news, today, has been featuring footage of the crushing winter of 1962/63. I can just remember it. My Dad and I rescued half a dozen moribund redwings from under the garden hedge and took them inside to warm up. Looking at those huddled bundles of feathers standing on the kitchen table is one of my earliest bird memories.
That winter occurred at the dawn of organised monitoring of common birds and the data showed the massive population crashes of birds like wrens and goldcrests followed by recovery in subsequent years. One bird that was almost wiped out by that brutal winter was the Dartford warbler (pictured in warmer times) – this tiny resident bird was reduced to just six pairs in the following spring. They clung on at Arne in Dorset, a special place that was later to become an RSPB reserve.
The modern history of this little bird has been one of success against the odds. Always vulnerable to cold weather, they are one species that has benefited from warmer winters in recent decades. Their distribution is also limited to lowland heathland. Dartford warblers really need special places to live – and that’s where the RSPB and partners have been able to help them directly. In Dorset and elsewhere we have been re-creating heathland and this has helped them to spread out and means, quite literally, that their eggs aren’t all in one basket. Alongside recreating heathland and caring for it on some of our nature reserve we have also regularly stepped in to object to development proposals that threaten to damage or destroy vital heathland sites - our most recent success was at Crowthorne in Berkshire.
The cold weather of February 2009 reminded us of just how vulnerable they still are as the healthy population on the Thames Basin and Wealden Heaths Special Protection Area (SPA) crashed by 88% from just over 1000 pairs to just 117 (it was part of this site that we fought for at Crowthorne). Ecologists call these stochastic events (ecologists like their Greek – it just means random) – but if a population of birds is stuck in a small area and it’s hit by a random event it can be in real trouble. This latest freeze is a second random event hard on the heels of last February. This time, the freeze is over a greater area but enough Dartford warblers should survive the winter to kick-start their recovery in the spring – provided, of course in the long term there’s enough heathland in good condition to support them.
Looked at just through British eyes, Dartford warblers appear to have benefited from climate change. Milder conditions have helped to drive their spectacular population increase. But on continental Europe the picture is not so rosy – the climate suitable for these little specialists is predicted to move northwards, indeed the centre of their population is set to move towards southern England. The UK will become evermore important for Darties, yet even as the climate changes we aren’t immune from a blast of old fashioned winter. You can find out more about our work to help predict changes to the climate suitable for Europe's breeding birds here.
For the birds that visit our gardens there are practical things we can do, they are the generalists and our feeding and watering can really help them. For the specialists it’s a harder job – and you might like to consider helping us to restore 50 square meters of heathland.
It’s not just Dartford warblers that are confined to their special places. Bitterns need to be able to find food in their wetland homes – it will be tough going for days yet and I expect to bring you news of how bitterns are faring. Many wetland birds have the option to move and the cold, easterly weather system will be driving waders and waterfowl westwards in search of easier conditions. For our wildlife to cope with the pressures of a changing climate or to get through some very old fashioned winter weather they need enough space, enough special places to enable them to survive.
It’s certainly a good year to be a migrant.
The International Year of Biodiversity (IYB) has got a hard act to follow. It is true to say that the global climate crisis is but one side of the coin shared with the parallel biodiversity crisis but following the climate bun-fight that was Copenhagen, the devastation of our natural world has some ground to make up (in media terms at least).
Well the year has now been launched – it hasn’t yet led calls to hold the front page but it’s a start. But the year is still young and I’m determined to remain positive – and there are some reasons to do so.
In England our network of Sites of Special Scientific Interest includes the best representative sites for wildlife where their value is documented and based on sound scientific principles. It’s long been known that just designating sites is but a start – its how you deal with the management of the sites and the threats they face that determines whether its going to do the job. Getting 95% of the SSSIs on the road to recovery by 2010 has been a binding target for Natural England and they are likely, more or less, to get there.
A central part of the European Union’s strategy to conserve nature is the network of Natura 2000 sites. This is another success story built on the strength and flexibility of the Birds and Habitats Directive. Research has shown that the Birds Directive has produced benefits that can be measured in terms of the conservation of some of Europe’s most threatened birds.
The two Directives regularly come under scrutiny often because they have been effective at producing outcomes that protect nature and this is spun as bad for business and economies. The RSPB has recently produced a report that highlights the importance of the Birds Directive in securing sustainable development outcomes. Sometimes that means stopping a badly conceived project in its tracks – far more often it’s about finding a solution that allows development whilst ensuring effective protection of the natural world.
Recently the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso wrote to the Prime Minister of the Netherlands in response to a call to review the Directives (this is political code for weaken) – Mr Barroso’s helpful response is available here (you need to go to the bottom of the article which is in dutch, and click on 'Lees hier de brief van Barroso' at the bottom of the page).
An effective and well tested legal framework is vital – so are the resources necessary to deliver for our natural world. We have now launched our Letter to the Future campaign (and here) which gets to the heart of why now is the wrong time to cut back on our support for nature. If you haven’t signed yours let – here’s a link.
The big freeze cropped up in this blog yesterday – and it is inevitably going to occupy our thoughts for some time to come. For wild birds, the impact is likely to be felt well into the future.
Yesterday I focussed on Dartford warblers – we are considering whether it will be possible to put out supplementary food for them, though one real key to the survival of individual birds is how well they can continue to find food under the domes of snow kept off the ground by heather and gorse in their heathland homes.
With the intense cold freezing wetlands solid, their birds face tough choices. Reports are coming in of secretive and rarely seen birds such as water rails (here’s a picture taken by Tom Kirby at our Saltholme nature reserve) are becoming much more visible as they hunt for food.
Bitterns (picture below) have been a recent success story for nature conservation with their population having been nursed back to a relatively healthy population of just over 80 booming males (they are difficult to count apart from when the males are giving their far-carrying booming call). The freeze puts their recovery in serious jeopardy.
They can move looking for milder conditions – but with the whole country locked in ice their options are limited. We are taking the unusual step of putting out small fish at key reserves as an emergency response. I spent a morning back in the 90s with John Wilson, then the warden of our Leighton Moss reserve, helping him put out fish during an earlier freeze (well, I carried the bucket).
Experience of previous harsh weather like this means we can expect reports of distressed bitterns turning up in unexpected places.
Some good news from South Africa (in stark contrast to the current state of the third Test Match in Cape Town!) is that high profile campaigning by our partner organisation, BirdLife South Africa, has succeeded in saving the Langebaan Lagoon from a proposed port expansion. This Western Cape wetland is the most important site for wading birds in South Africa and is designated as an Important Bird Area and Ramsar site as a result. You can read about the background to the case here.
One of the important species that spend our winter (the South African summer) at Langebaan Lagoon is the sanderling (pictured) – it’s sobering to think that the same birds could have stopped to feed and gather strength for their epic migration on a UK estuary.
The great migration flyways link our planet and for waders like sanderling their ability to make these staggering journeys depends upon the health and survival of coastal wetlands. Port development is but one of the threats these fragile ecosystems face but, to state the obvious, ports are usually on the coast and often close to (or in the middle of) internationally important coastal wetlands. So, it is of little surprise that port development and conservation have often come into conflict.
Here in the UK, the RSPB has put a considerable amount of work into building constructive relations with the ports industry off the back of some bruising encounters in the latter part of the 20th century. And it has borne fruit. The London Gateway container port is set to be built next to the Thames Estuary and Marshes SPA. Like other major port schemes on the Humber and Stour and Orwell estuaries, the predicted damage to intertidal habitat led (via an objections by the RSPB and others) to comprehensive mitigation and compensation measures that enabled the development to proceed alongside effective protection of some of the UK’s most important wildlife sites.
And, yes it is entirely possible a sanderling sunning itself in the South African summer could have visited the Thames on its way south.
But there is a big cloud on the horizon – in the shape of the ports National Policy Statement (NPS). We’re working on our response to the consultation and will be pressing hard to ensure that what is a poor and unsatisfactory document doesn’t risk setting back port policy in the UK to the dark days of a decade or more ago.
I’m often asked if the current proposals to build an airport in the middle of the Thames estuary with roads and barriers linking both the Kent and Essex’s coasts is ‘serious’? The sub-text for the question is usually ‘should the RSPB be putting resources into developing a position on what looks like a project unlikely to happen’.
It feels serious – and it would be wise to assume that those promoting the project are serious about it. The time an idea like this really starts to call on our resources is when the plans develop beyond their current ideas stage.
We’d rather they didn’t go any further because the scale and impact of the airport plus its associated infrastructure would profoundly damage the Thames estuary (let alone it’s contribution to climate chaos). We think it’s a seriously bad idea.
A good indicator that a project is going to ‘go large’ is the amount of support it starts to gather, so the lack of support from David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, is timely. Is this the end of the latest estuary airport proposal? Almost certainly not, though the lack of political backing is a major handicap for Mayor Johnson’s plans. Is this the last airport proposal for the Thames? History indicates that would be an unlikely hope. The future of the Thames estuary is very important to the RSPB – our commitment to this special place is considerable and that will continue and grow, seriously!