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The story behind the red list

Curlew profile

Image: Steve Round

Have you heard  about the latest birds added to the 'red list'?

Curlews and puffins have joined other species like cuckoos, house sparrows and turtle doves on the list of birds whose populations are in big trouble.

But what does being on the list actually mean?

And what do we do with this list? To find out, Dale talked to Dr Mark Eaton, one of the RSPB's Principal Conservation Scientists. 

'The red list in the Birds of Conservation Concern 4 report (BoCC4) is a big thing for me' admits Mark.  

'I'm responsible for collating the data  from many sources. I work with a group of experts, representing the nine BoCC4 partners, to assess the data, produce the red, amber and green lists, and then write this up so we can publish the findings both as a scientifically rigorous paper so the facts are there for scrutiny, and as a summary report .' 

Who collects the data?

Mark and his team analyse hundreds of statistics from monitoring schemes such as the Breeding Bird Survey and the Wetland Bird Survey. 

Mark explains where the data comes from 'Thanks to  thousands of volunteers – counting birds, doing surveys, getting their data to organisations such as the RSPB, BTO and WWT – birds are probably amongst the best monitored groups of wildlife on the planet, and especially so in the UK.'

Mark says 'We produce lots of stats which enable us to assess whether each species should go onto one of our lists of conservation concern. Either amber for moderate concern or red which are the ones we are really worried about.'

'To be on the red list you need to be a bird of highest conservation concern, meaning you're in a pretty bad way. You've declined very rapidly, you're at risk of extinction globally, or you are historically depleted, meaning you are much lower population levels that you were in the past.' 

Upland birds 

Mark explains that there are 20 new species on the red list and highlights which species worry him most. 

'The most noticeable thing is that we've got a number of new upland species on the red list. So we have increased concern there, particularly for curlews as our UK population is internationally important.

We have about a quarter of the world's curlews breeding in the UK and we know that they are doing badly elsewhere as well. So there is real international concern for curlew.'


It's not just upland birds - Mark draws attention to our seabirds that are also of heightened concern. 

'We're seeing kittiwakes, puffins and shags join the red list this time around. So we're particularly worried about what's happening to our marine ecosystems and the impact that's having on our seabirds.' 

Mark's been working on Birds of Conservation Concern for many years and in his time in conservation he's seen some huge changes. 

Mark says 'Three species have disappeared as breeding species in UK. Wrynecks were once very widespread, breeding in 54 UK counties in the 19th century. If you look in the RSPB magazine back in 1908 we were selling nest boxes suitable for wrynecks to be put in gardens, but now they're gone'. 

Bittern flying over reedbed

Targeted conservation work has moved bitterns from red to amber.

Image: John Bridges

Hope for species recovery

It's not all doom and gloom. There is hope as species move from red to amber and amber to green. 

Mark says 'We've seen bitterns and nightjars move from red list to the amber list. Bitterns are a wonderful story because they were almost extinct from the UK, with less than a dozen males 20 years ago, but because of our conservation action it’s now thriving.'

Red kites have also moved onto the green list. 

'The very first red data book had a red kite on the cover because it was a perfect example of a threatened bird, hanging on in a just a few Welsh valleys, but now they’re widespread, a common sight in many places.'

'What’s particularly pleasing is that thanks to the support of from our members, and partners from other organisations we have been able to demonstrate that we can turn things around if we have resources and support. It’s not a one way journey – we can bring them back.' 

How we're using the list

Mark explains how we're using the red list to help us focus our conservation efforts.  

'We use the red list to prioritise our action. We use it to identify which species need help immediately and take action. So, if there is research to do to find out the what the problem is, and how to tackle it, then we’ll do that, then once we know what needs to be done to help them we’ll get on with it, whether it’s land management, species recovery projects or lobbying government.'

'Prioritising is vital as we don’t have money and resources to work on everything, even within the red list we can’t prioritise action for all 67 species. In some cases we have to just keep a watching brief on a species until we have more resource to take action.'

What can we do to help?

A number of our garden birds like house sparrows, starlings and song thrushes have been on the red list for a while; this time around we see the addition of mistle thrushes. Five of the six species of UK breeding thrush are now on the red list. Mark explains what we can do to help. 

'The first step is considering what to do in your own outdoor spaces to create better habitats for wildlife. Those who have a garden could consider wildlife friendly gardening - create a pond, plant pollen rich flowers, or plant shrubs with berries for birds.'

'Most of the data we use if collected by volunteers –if you know a little bit about birds you could get involved in data gathering with monitoring schemes, such as those run by the BTO in partnership with the RSPB.'

How you can help

The best way you can help these birds is by supporting our work. If you're already a member, thanks! We couldn't do any of this without you. If you're not, why not add your voice to ours and stand up for nature?

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