From campaigning to protect key wildlife sites to engaging people with nature, we've had an eventful year.

Fighting to #SaveLodgeHill

The past year has seen us fighting a familiar battle: to save the UK's most important home for nightingales from development. 

Lodge Hill in Medway, Kent, is so good for nightingales that in 2013, it was designated by the government as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). However, its owners (formerly the Ministry of Defence; now Homes England) and the local authority, Medway Council, have long touted this former military training ground for the development of up to 5,000 houses. 

In early 2017, the Council put out its draft Local Plan for consultation, which proposed allocating Lodge Hill SSSI for development. By May, 11,600 people had joined us and our conservation partners in the flagship campaign to #SaveLodgeHill. Our case was that the proposed destruction of a SSSI would flout national planning guidance and would set a terrible precedent for SSSIs everywhere. For many, the prospect of losing so many nightingales in unthinkable; this famous songster is a red-listed species, which has declined by more than 90% in the last 40 years. 

In parallel to all this, we had been building up to a national planning inquiry into the original 2014 planning application for 5,000 houses at Lodge Hill, but this was dropped in September by the developers. However, the Lodge Hill issue was far from over. By March 2018, a revised Local Plan was on the table, with a proposal for reduced but still extensive development right in the heart of the SSSI. Alongside this, Homes England announced that a new planning application was on its way. 

We remain clear: destroying parts of a nationally protected site is wholly unacceptable. The impacts on the nightingales would still be devastating and the implications for SSSIs everywhere are unthinkable. This vital battle continues, and public support for the #SaveLodgeHill campaign remains crucial.

Marine conservation

Protecting seabirds

Elsewhere in the UK we have been fighting another potentially damaging development, this time one that threatens seabirds.

In September, the Danish company DONG/Ørsted received planning permission to build the world's biggest offshore wind farm off the East Yorkshire coast, despite RSPB objections. The RSPB objected because of a lack of sound evidence about the effects of turbines on birds.

Our reserve at Bempton Cliffs is one of a number of key seabird breeding sites along that stretch of coast. We're now working with DONG/Ørsted, which is funding tracking and population monitoring of seabirds on the Flamborough and Filey coast. We hope this research will enable us to get a better assessment of the impact of turbines, and an understanding of how seabirds might change their behaviour after turbine construction. It is in the interest of us all to ensure future decisions are based on the latest, shared evidence.

Marine Conservation Zones

In 2016, we submitted proposals to Natural England for six Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) for seabirds and two for sandeels, the fish that are a staple diet of many seabirds, particularly puffins. One of these sites was for a completely new MCZ, the others being proposals to add species and extensions to existing or recommended MCZs.

The decision about further consultation and designation now rests with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and we're building support among MPs for positive results in 2018.

Across our sites

New Forest on a new scale

In an exciting development, we acquired our first land in the New Forest National Park, one of the most visited landscapes in the UK. The area, known as Franchises Lodge, covers 386 hectares (almost 1,000 acres), and includes a large number of veteran trees, which are vital for wildlife. 

Over half of it was gifted to the nation in lieu of tax with HMRC transferring to the RSPB as a trusted organisation, together with a legacy and a grant from the New Forest National Park Authority. We look forward to giving more updates over the coming years.

Good news at Snettisham

The story of the terrible storm surge that battered Snettisham on the Norfolk coast is has a happy ending. This year, we secured funding to rebuild the hide that was smashed in the storm. What’s more, it has been designed to be “climate-proof”, so that exceptionally high tides in future will not have such a damaging effect. 

Part of the £140,000 was raised through an innovative crowdfunder. Other generous donors included WREN, Norfolk Environmental Waste Services, the Geoffrey Watling Community Trust, the Paul Basham Trust, Jeanne and Ray Arnold, and the Leslie Mary Carter Charitable Trust. Look out for the new hide in early 2019.

Progress at Sherwood Forest

We've also been busy building for the future within perhaps the most famous forest in the UK. Seven months after we put in the footings for a new visitor centre in Sherwood Forest, we celebrated the building becoming watertight in a topping-out ceremony with our partners on the project. The new centre opened to the public in August 2018. 

Hope Farm lives up to its name

More good news came from Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire, which produced an extraordinary crop of wildlife last year. The farm, which the RSPB purchased at the turn of the millennium, is home to 17 of the UK’s 19 “at risk” farmland birds, and numbers have risen by a staggering 226% on average since 2000. 

Yellowhammers have shot up from 14 territories to 34; skylarks from 10 to 35 pairs; and linnets from 6 to 22 pairs. Grey partridges, lapwings and yellow wagtails have all recolonised the site since it came under RSPB ownership. Butterflies are doing well too: we've seen a 213% increase in butterfly numbers since that first summer and the brown argus, common blue, purple hairstreak and small copper are all new species for the farm.

Visitors also flocked to Nottinghamshire's East Leake Quarry when a hat-trick of brilliantly-coloured bee-eaters arrived from tropical Africa again last year. Once security for the nesting birds was ensured, we opened the site to visitors and 10,000 people came to see the beauties. 

Local volunteers worked wonders, quarry owners CEMEX were generous hosts and farmer Brian Burton loaned us a field for parking. Sadly, wet weather meant that none of the chicks survived, but it was a glorious and much-appreciated attempt, which we hope will be repeated again next year.

Satellite-tagging reveals secrets

From one rare bird now to another: the Montagu's harrier. We learned a great deal this year when satellite tagging showed that our Montagu’s harriers winter in Senegal and Mauritania. The tagging also revealed that the four or five pairs which breed here return every year to the same area – the same field even. 

They may be our most vulnerable regular breeding birds too. The Norfolk female dubbed “Sally” on BBC Springwatch disappeared – another suspected victim of persecution. Our investigations team’s work to protect the harriers has relied on cooperation with landowners, the expertise of the Dutch Montagu’s Harrier Foundation and support from Mark Constantine, owner of Lush cosmetics. 

Active in Nature

More than 7,000 people have got fitter and enjoyed nature at the same time thanks to a pilot project funded by Sport England. Visitors to Strumpshaw Fen in Norfolk enjoyed activities such as Nordic walking, kayaking and cycle rides. Rainham Marshes locals also tried walking, cycling and running, as well as “bouldering”, a type of rock climbing without ropes. We're aiming to expand the Active in Nature programme to other reserves, encouraging wider audiences to our sites.

Nature-friendly developments

Finally, our partnership with Barratt Developments has been renewed for another three years. Together we are setting new standards for wildlife-friendly developments across the country, focusing on features such as swift bricks and hedgehog highways.

People are already moving into new wildlife-friendly homes at Kingsbrook near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, and the innovations and lessons learned there are starting to be included in Barratt Homes and David Wilson Homes developments elsewhere.

Significantly, the Government is taking notice of our hard work. Kingsbrook was highlighted as an exemplar site in the Government's 25 Year Plan for the Environment. And this year former Housing Minister, Alok Sharma, visited the site, commenting that new developments should “complement and enhance, rather than threaten, the local and natural environment”.