April, 2014

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t
  • Turbulent times for turtle dove

    I’ve been focusing on migrants on my blog over the past couple of weeks partly because it is spring, partly because they are in trouble but principally because of the heightened profile that Chris Packham has given to impact of spring hunting in Malta.

    The thing about migrants is that they, perhaps more than any other group, show the interconnected and fragile nature of our planet. The sight of our first swallow, a cuckoo calling or the song of a nightingale are hard-wired into national consciousness - but their survival requires international cooperation and enforcing laws here and across Europe.

    I am focusing on turtle dove because, as I said in my blog on Sunday (here), it is probably our most rapidly declining bird (94% in 40 years; 77% in the last decade) -.and their demise is echoing the extinction of the passenger pigeon in North America a century ago (the subject of a forthcoming book by my predecessor, Mark Avery, see here). 

    It is time to act.

    If we want to reverse the declines in our migrants, we have to do what we can to address all the problems they face throughout the flyway with a partners such as the BTO and Birdlife International.

    As we know, turtle dove is hunted in huge numbers in the Mediterranean (see Monday’s blog here) but as I will profile later this week, it is also subject to habitat destruction throughout their flyway and getting the habitat right in its breeding grounds here in the UK is equally important.

    Perhaps less well known is that turtle dove is also prone to disease – the topic of today’s blog.

    Scientists at the RSPB, working with colleagues from the University of Leeds, have discovered that a very high proportion (95%) of adult and nestling turtle doves sampled in East Anglia were infected by the Trichomonas parasite, which can lead to the disease trichomonosis. This parasite is common among pigeons and doves, is a serious threat to the endangered endemic Mauritian pink pigeon, and has also been implicated in the decline of greenfinch populations across the UK.  And it is not pleasant: the parasite causes lesions in the throat of infected birds preventing them from feeding and leading to death by starvation.

    Turtle Dove by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

    Although the infection rate is very high, relatively few of the birds actually showed clinical signs. All of those that did died of the disease, but it remains uncertain what effect the parasite may be having on the other infected birds. There were more birds showing clinical signs in 2012, a very wet summer in which many of our breeding birds suffered poor productivity. This raises the possibility that the effects of the parasite may be exacerbated by food stress, a potentially interesting link to the reduction in food availability or change in food quality, due to a reduction of seeds of arable flowers caused by changing farming practices, that have occurred over the period of the turtle dove’s decline.  I shall return to this in tomorrow’s blog.

    There does indeed appear to be a link between infection rates and food availability. Birds were more likely to be infected on farms that provided supplementary food for gamebirds, which also attracts pigeons and doves. This may be a similar problem as faced by greenfinches, where transmission of the parasite occurs at garden feeders that attract many birds. In support of this idea, a single red-legged partridge that also died from trichomonosis was found to carry the same strain of the parasite as the doves, also raising the possibility that the disease can be transmitted between doves / pigeons and gamebirds.

    So, our researchers have begun to learn a lot about disease in turtle doves, but many questions remain. What effect is the parasite having when a bird has no clinical signs? Is it the same strain of the parasite that is found in greenfinches (early evidence suggests that may be a relationship)? And perhaps most importantly, is the mortality associated with the disease contributing to the continued decline of this iconic species?

    We need to find answers to these questions and then identify and roll out solutions – something our scientists excel at.

    Tomorrow, I shall return to the challenges turtle doves face in finding enough food on their breeding grounds

  • Migrants and the European Union: feedback from the Question Time

    I think it is fair to say that political hustings have become livelier since UKIP began to join panels about five years ago.

    Yesterday's event on the forthcoming European Parliamentary election was a case in point even though the chair, Camilla Cavendish of the Sunday Times, said that debate about the UK's membership of the EU was off limits.

    In his opening 3 minute pitch, the UKIP's environmental representative, Stuart Agnew MEP,  blamed raptors for the decline in songbirds, grey squirrels for the decline in most other species, said climate change was a complete sham and wind farms were destroying the economy.  I paraphrase a bit, but it was quite a speech.

    He did concede that the decline in bees might have something to do with the way we farm and that farmers should look to set aside land for managing wildlife.

    So it was good that there was something we could agree on.  After the event, Mr Agnew and I talked about predation and I promised to send him our latest scientific understanding of the impact on birds (which I have shared through this blog on many occasions).  With UKIP riding high at 31% in opinion polls, I am sure that we shall have another chance to discuss this issue.

    There was more common ground when I asked the panel about their views on Maltese spring hunting of migratory birds such as turtle dove.  Julie Girling MEP (Conservative) was pleased to be able to report on positive meetings with the Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik where the promise was given to put more European Commissioners on the ground to monitor hunting on Malta.  

    The other MEPs on the panel, Linda McAvan MEP (Labour), Keith Taylor MEP (Green) and Chris Davies MEP (Liberal Democrats) seemed united on taking action on this issue and if elected it is reassuring to know that there will be a cohort of UK MEPs keen to exert their influence to end spring hunting in the Mediterranean once and for all.

    In fact, I was pretty impressed by the knowledge and track-record of the MEPs.  On issues as varied as climate change and energy security, CAP, CFP and neonicotinoids, the majority of the panel were able to explain what they had been doing in the European Parliament to secure positive outcomes for the environment and displayed genuine passion to do good.

    They all struggle to be visible to their electorate, despite their best endeavours - Chris Davies made the point that his constituency is as large as 13 of the EU's Member States.  And they all, rightly, bemoan, the lack of informed coverage of Europe in the media.  Camilla Cavendish, when put on the spot, did suggest that the complexity of the European processes did make it difficult to sell a story and also admitted that since the recession it has been a lot harder to run environment stories in the media.

    We won't give up trying to raise the profile of Europe and the environment.  We are planning further hustings events across the country in the run up to 22 May poll. We've also set up new webpages (here) outlining what we want to from candidates and videos of some of the spokespeople outlining what they are offering.  Next week, I shall explain how you can help get involved to make their your voice heard and vote count.

    Tomorrow, I shall return to the plight of the turtle dove.

  • Migrants and the European Union - a good topic for Question Time

    Tomorrow, the Wildlife Trusts, WWF and the RSPB are hosting a hustings event for the environment spokespeople of each of the major parties (Conservative, Green, Labour, Liberal Democrat and UKIP) running in England in the 22 May European Parliamentary election.

    It will be run in the style of 'Question Time' and it should be fun - Europe lends itself to a calm and reasoned debate doesn't it?

    But irrespective of their particular views about UK membership of the EU, I look forward to hearing how each of the representatives intend to deal with cross-border environmental challenges such as tackling climate change and conserving migratory species.  And it would be good if they could offer a positive vision for the future of the Common Agriculture Policy - one that  delivers public benefit for the c400 billion Euros of taxpayers money.

    Each of the panellists are current Members of the European Parliament so should be well-versed in EU environmental policy. They should be well aware that much of our current environmental legislation emanates from the EU including the Birds and Habitats Directives.  They should know that these directives were established in 1979 and 1992 respectively and were designed not only to conserve European wildlife but also to prevent any one country gaining competitive advantage by trashing the environment.

    Although the Directives occasionally get bad press from those wishing to pursue economic growth at any cost, in truth they offer sensible tests of sustainable development and smart developers invest the time and effort to work with the legislation rather than seek to bypass it.  More than that - if properly implemented they would be the principle legislative tool by which Member States would meet the shared commitment to halt the loss of biodiversity and begin its recovery by 2020.  

    I also look forward to hearing how the representatives respond to the raised profile of spring hunting on Malta and the desire of the conservation community to bring it to an end as quickly as possible to improve the conservation prospects of species such as turtle dove.  I do not expect them to be aware of all the legal detail (see below) and history of spring hunting - but they should have a view on whether it should continue and, if they think it should stop, how they would go about bringing it to an end.  

    There will obviously be disagreement about whether Membership of the EU is in the best interest of the UK.  But I hope that we do get agreement that all parties want to protect and enhance the environment across Europe.  The battle for ideas about the best way to achieve that can then be joined.

    I'll let you know what happens.

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    A crib sheet for those interested in the legality and recent history of hunting migratory birds in the EU

    Article 7.4. of the Birds Directive obliges EU Member States, in national legislation, to see that the species to which hunting regulations apply are not hunted during their period of reintroduction or during their return to their rearing grounds (ie. their breeding season or spring migration).

    At present, Malta is the only country in the EU that applies a derogation from the Directive to allow spring hunting of quail and turtle dove.

    In 2008 and 2009 no spring hunting (of quail and turtle dove) was permitted, for the first time ever, due to an injunction from the European Court of Justice (ECJ). This followed a BirdLife Malta complaint to the European Commission in 2005 and a petition to the Prime Minister of 115,000 signatures from RSPB members.

    However, in 2010 spring hunting was reopened. This was despite an ECJ ruling that by allowing spring hunting in 2004-2007 Malta had failed to comply with the conditions for derogation and thus was in breach of the Birds Directive.

    Birdlife Malta's proposed referendum is designed to end spring hunting once and for all.

    Some of the species (such as turtle dove) legally hunted in Malta, may also be legally hunted elsewhere in Europe, particularly across the Mediterranean region. Hunting of this species is restricted to the autumn migration period elsewhere in Europe. Published annual bag statistics for this species from across the EU help put the scale of hunting in Malta into the wider context. For example, more than 20 times more turtle doves are shot in Spain alone each year compared to Malta (annual bags of 52,782 in Malta compared to 1,200,000 in Spain).  These figures are from a report published in 2007 (here), and so may now be different. But it does perhaps raise a few questions. The RSPB has recently commissioned a report that will try to establish what the current figures are likely to be in Western Europe, and to put these into the context of recent population estimates and data for breeding productivity for this species.

    For some 10 years, hunting interests in France tried to weaken the Birds Directive to allow the long French hunting season. BirdLife successfully fought this with support from RSPB members and in March 2000 presented the largest ever conservation petition to the European Parliament (2.2 million signatures from across Europe with 521,000 from the UK and one million from France).

    In July 2002, France reduced its hunting seasons and staggered them. Since then hunting has begun in September except on maritime public property where it can open in August for water birds.

    In January 2005, for the first time, France set a fixed closing date for the hunting season. It now ends on 31 January for all species except pigeons and thrushes (10 February) and doves, quail and woodcock (20 February).

    Cyprus was also the subject of a BirdLife complaint to the EU for opening hunting under the guise of crow control for six days in spring 2008. This followed a written warning from the Commission to Cyprus for permitting two days of turtle dove shooting in spring 2007. Spring hunting has not since been opened.