Vital spaces for nature

An update on the vital work we're doing for wildlife on our network of more than 200 nature reserves.

RSPB reserves

Rich places for wildlife

As we look back on the past year, it’s impossible not to mention our Minsmere reserve in Suffolk, which celebrated its 70th birthday with a series of events. Minsmere is home to some of the UK’s rarest wildlife including avocets, bearded tits and bitterns. But it’s not just Minsmere. All our reserves are incredibly rich places for wildlife. A staggering 16,000 species are present on our 218 nature reserves, which cover a total of 152,791 hectares. We’re constantly working to ensure that our reserve network provides the most suitable conditions for these species.

On our reserves

RSPB reserves support more than 10% of the UK wintering population of about 35 species. The majority of wetland bird species are faring well on RSPB reserves, as are our priority heathland species, whilst farmland and upland species, and seabirds, show more variable trends. 93% of UK land mammal species occur on RSPB reserves and we are pleased to have found dormice at Radipole Lake in Dorset and Exminster Marshes in Devon, adding to our four other reserves that host this beguiling rodent.

We have identified 65 priority bird species, on which we report the population status across our reserve network. Of these, 40 are faring well; 13 are struggling, but we have identified measures to increase their populations; and 12 are faring poorly, mostly due to factors beyond our control. Our work over the coming months will be focusing on improving the outcomes for these bird species.


Bitterns are booming

I’m pleased to announce that the numbers of bitterns on RSPB reserves is at a new high of 77 booming bitterns, including 19 at Ham Wall in Somerset. Even better, in 2017 the number of sites with nesting activity was the highest recorded since nest monitoring began in 1994.

Bitterns nested at both Otmoor in Oxfordshire and Cors Ddyga on Anglesey in 2017, following their first breeding at both sites the previous year. At Otmoor, there were two nests, one of which fledged chicks, whilst at Cors Ddyga there was one nest, which fledged one chick. With another two booming bitterns at Valley Wetlands on Anglesey, we hope that they have finally established a presence on the island.

Numbers are growing

Other rare colonising herons have done well, too – on Ham Wall, the number of great white egrets continues to grow, little bitterns nested again, and night herons nested locally for the first time. With specific management actions in place, nine pairs of great white egrets reared 16 young in 2017. In addition, seven pairs of cattle egrets raised eight young, and a pair of spoonbills raised three young at our Fairburn Ings reserve in West Yorkshire.

Habitat management and exclusion fences

More dynamic habitat management at Berney Marshes in Norfolk has enabled combined numbers of lapwings and redshanks to increase to 226 pairs, from 174 pairs in 2016.  Elsewhere, predator exclusion fences, which allow chicks to thrive, have proved very effective and lapwings reached their highest ever levels at Cors Ddyga (76 pairs compared to the previous high of 46).

In Northern Ireland, there were record numbers of redshanks at Lower Lough Erne in County Fermanagh (90 pairs). Nearly 100% of the redshanks in Northern Ireland are now restricted to our Lower Lough Erne and Lough Beg reserves.

Our work

A team effort

The success of black-winged stilts on RSPB reserves this year follows a tremendous effort by reserve staff, volunteers, and members of the Reserves Ecology and Investigations teams. At Cliffe Pools in Kent, the plan involved encircling an area of the pools with a predator exclusion fence in 2016, and attracting stilts to nest within the fenced area by cutting and grazing the vegetation, and providing suitable water levels.

At Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire/Norfolk, rapidly rising water levels posed a threat to the nesting stilts, and reserve staff successfully raised the stilts' nest to prevent it from becoming flooded. At both sites, the nesting stilts were continually watched over by staff and volunteers.

Toads in Scotland and England

Natterjack toads have been doing well on two of our reserves. At Mersehead in Dumfries and Galloway, we counted a record 240 males as the population responds well to habitat creation, notably a series of newly-dug ponds. Likewise, at The Lodge in Bedfordshire 500 toadlets were counted in 2017, five times the count in 2016, following pond and bare ground creation.

Rotting fish and rare beetles

Rotting fish was the key to finding six examples of a rare carrion beetle on our Loch Leven reserve in Perth and Kinross. Thanatophilus dispar is classed as critically endangered in the UK and is globally rare. Loch Leven is one of only two places it has been recorded in Scotland. Anna Jemmett, Loch Leven’s assistant warden set up pitfall traps with rotten fish in them to catch the beetle. She was delighted to catch three beetles in an area they have been found before and three in a new part of the reserve.

Nightjars, black grouse and cirl buntings

Nightjars continue to prosper on our reserves, with a high count of 172 recorded, and at our Geltsdale reserve in Cumbria, black grouse numbers increased from 27 in 2016 to 45 in 2017.

Meanwhile, in Labrador Bay in Devon cirl buntings have increased in numbers from 7 to 29 pairs since we began managing the site in 2008.

Bad news for Slavonian grebes

Sadly, it’s not all good news. 2017–18 was a poor year for Slavonian grebes, which declined from 15 to 11 pairs at Loch Ruthven in the Highlands of Scotland. The main issue here is low productivity.

Breeding cranes on our reserves declined slightly in 2017, down to ten pairs from 12. RSPB reserves have been key to the re-establishment of cranes in the Fens and this year, three pairs reared four young at the Nene Washes in Cambridgeshire. Elsewhere, the re-introduced cranes bred successfully at West Sedgemoor in Somerset for the first time. Reintroduced cranes also made their first nesting attempt at Greylake in Somerset. Cranes attempted to breed at Otmoor in Oxfordshire for the third year in a row, but were again unsuccessful.

Homes for wildlife

Translocations and releases

On a happier note, we’re proud of the success we’ve had in translocating and releasing various species. Thanks to Veolia funding, we released ladybird spiders at two new locations at our Arne reserve in Dorset in March 2017. Spiders were taken from two other sites and captive-reared, and we released 15 individuals. Further releases at new locations are planned in 2018 through the Back from the Brink programme, funded by the National Lottery. 

In Wales, efforts to restore wavy St John’s wort at the Mawddach Valley in Gwynedd were rewarded with over 300 flowering plants.

We’re part of an exciting project to restore native alpine plants on the fells around Haweswater in Cumbria. Our new partner, the Alpine Garden Society, is helping to propagate and grow locally-scarce species such as the globeflower, roseroot, water avens, wood crane's bill and bitter vetch. These have been collected on the crags and our partner will help replant them at Mardale Head.

More land for wildlife

Crucial to the development of our reserve network is the acquisition of new land and we have made good progress this year. For example, at Langford Lowfields in Nottingham we have been restoring a sand and gravel quarry in partnership with sustainable building materials group Tarmac. 

Phase three of this large-scale habitat creation project is now complete and a range of new islands have been created. This area is now attracting marsh harriers and bearded tits, while booming bitterns were first heard at the site in 2011.

On the northern edge of the New Forest, we have recently acquired two adjacent areas of land covering a total of 386 hectares (1,000 acres). This new reserve, which will be called Franchises Lodge, includes areas of broadleaf woodland and grassland, as well as conifer plantation which has the potential to be restored to wood pasture and heathand.  

There is also a fantastic opportunity to engage people with nature at this site. Further funding will be needed to complete the restoration work required to allow the site to meet its full potential for nature.

Looking forward

In the future, we’ll be focusing our work more on our priority species and reserves, in order to give the best possible outcomes for nature. Thank you so much for all your support.