Martin Harper's blog

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
  • Turning the tide for the albatross

    Following Stuart Housden's series of blogs in the run up to BirdFair, Steph Winnard of the RSPB/Birdlife Marine team reports back on the work carried out by the Albatross Task Force, since the receipt of BirdFair funding seventeen years ago.


    Much has happened in the birding world since the BirdFair focussed its efforts on raising money for Global Seabirds.  In 2000, vast numbers of seabirds were dying in fisheries around the globe, including 100,000 albatrosses on longlines every year- that’s one every 5 minutes!  With the help of the funds raised from that year's BirdFair we were able to kick-start action to reduce this threat. Since then huge progress has been made to save the albatross, and we are striving to save even more.

    Image courtesy of Bokamoso Lebepe

    The Albatross Task Force (ATF) was formed as a partnership between RSPB and BirdLife International to bridge the gap between knowledge that already existed about how to stop birds being killed (using certain cheap and cheerful techniques) and getting these techniques on to boats and fishers using them. Funding was desperately needed to employ and train people who could go onto fishing vessels and show fishers the simple methods available to drastically reduce seabird deaths. These measures include; setting lines at night when birds are less active, adding weight to the line so it sinks faster out of reach of hungry birds, and using bird-scaring lines which are brightly coloured streamers towed behind the vessel that scare birds away from danger areas. From humble beginnings of employing just one team in South Africa, to the current work programme across seven priority countries in South America and southern Africa, the ATF has driven efforts to reduce bycatch in longline and trawl fisheries.

    Image courtesy of Ruben Dellacasa

    Ten fisheries were selected as the highest priority fleets for albatross, and since then we have concentrated on reducing seabird bycatch in these fisheries. One of the first tasks was to conduct experiments to test the techniques in each fleet, and make any adjustments depending on the vessel design and the fishing gear used, as well as environmental conditions. For example in Argentina we had to develop a towed device called a “Tamini tabla”, that stops bird-scaring lines from being blown sideways by the strong cross-winds found in that part of the world and entangling in the fishing gear. Lucky for us the ATF team is innovative and passionate about what they do, and time and time again come up with solutions to problems that initially seem insurmountable.

    Image courtesy of LeoTamini

    In South Africa in 2006 we calculated that over 9,000 birds were being killed every year by the Hake trawl fishery. Amazingly by 2013 we showed that albatross deaths had been reduced by an astounding 99% by using bird-scaring lines. By the end of 2017 we hope to show that the trawl and longline fleet in Namibia (previously some of the worst fleets globally) have also achieved significant reductions in deaths, following the introduction of legislation to protect seabirds, and a campaign to provide all of the vessels with bird-scaring lines, made by a local community group.

    These successes are not easy to achieve and require a huge amount of effort. Firstly none of the work would be possible without getting the fishers and local communities onboard. ATF instructors visit the ports day after day to talk with the fishers, hold workshops and training events, and visit schools to educate the younger generation about how we can save seabirds and why it’s important that we should.

    Once you’ve gained the respect and trust of the fishing industry you then need to test the measures scientifically to prove that they reduce bycatch. In all of our fisheries we showed that bird deaths could be reduced by at least 80%. Implementation is paramount in reducing deaths over the long run, so the ATF instructors don’t only have to be sailors, scientists, teachers, and inventors but they also have to be advocates and lobbyists to encourage governments to require the use of these measures by law.  9 out of the 10 fisheries now have legislation to protect seabirds, which is testament to the dedication and tenacity of the teams.

    Image courtesy of Fabiano Pepe

    The final step is to make sure that the fishers are complying with the law, and in some countries this is easier than others. Scientific observers are employed in some places to monitor fishing activities on vessels. They are mainly concerned with the fish being caught, but after attending an ATF seabird ID training course, they have the skills to monitor for seabird bycatch. We’ve recently held training events in Namibia and South Africa, and have had hugely positive feedback from the observers, who now know their black-browed from their Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross, and are keen to start checking for compliance.

    It’s a long road to saving the albatross, but thanks to funding from BirdFair, the Albatross Task Force has been able to make good progress toward reducing the vast numbers of birds killed every year. In some colonies albatross numbers are starting to increase, and in others the declines have levelled off. We hope that through our continued engagement with fishers the tide will truly turn for the albatross, and one day we will be able to say they are no longer threatened.

     Image courtesy of John Paterson


  • Vultures: Where is the learning curve?

    Today’s guest blog is from Andrew Callender, who leads the RSPB’s international policy programme work.

    Vultures used to be a very common sight in the early 1990’s across the Indian sub-continent. A decade and a half later, 99.9% of white-rumped vultures  and 96.8% of the combined populations of long-billed  and slender-billed vultures in India – well over 40 million birds – were dead. The absence of vultures left millions of tonnes of livestock carcasses every year for other scavengers. Feral dog populations have sky-rocketed, increasing the risk of dog attacks and the transmission of rabies.

    The cause of this population collapse was by no means obvious, but, in 2004, it was shown to be the veterinary drug diclofenac, a popular anti-inflammatory pain-killer, to which vultures were exposed through consuming carcasses of treated cattle. Vultures are highly intolerant to even small doses of diclofenac, which causes irreversible renal damage and death (preceded by characteristic drooping heads as seen below); indeed it is so toxic to vultures that the presence of diclofenac in only 1% of carcasses across India caused the observed declines and near extinction of South Asia’s vultures.

    Dying white-rumped vulture Image credit: V. Prakash

    The RSPB worked with BirdLife Partners and other NGOs to lobby successfully for diclofenac to be banned in India, Nepal and Pakistan in 2006 (and then Bangladesh in 2010), and, fortuitously, a vulture-safe alternative to diclofenac was identified – meloxicam – in the same year. In 2011, we spearheaded the formation of Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE), a consortium to coordinate the breeding vultures in captivity for future release, establishing Vulture Safe Zones free from diclofenac and working in partnership across borders. This work is on-going, and there are signs that the declines in vulture populations have slowed and possibly reversed for one species (white-rumped vulture); however, the number of vultures remains dangerously low.

    With such a clear link between the vulture population crashes and diclofenac, and the existence of a vulture-safe alternative to diclofenac, that should have been the end of its veterinary use. However, that has not been the case and we continue to fight against the misuse of diclofenac manufactured for human use in livestock in South Asia. In addition, diclofenac is not the only vulture-toxic drug in veterinary use in South Asia; and so we are lobbying for bans on other veterinary drugs as well.  

    We certainly would not have expected that the drug would find its way into Europe. Yet, diclofenac is now licensed for veterinary use in a number of EU countries: it was licensed in Italy in 2009; and gained approval in Spain in 2013. Italy has a small, but growing population of vultures in the north; but the real concern is in Spain where 95% of all Europe’s vultures live, with approximately 26,000 pairs of Eurasian griffons, 1,600 pairs of Egyptian vultures, 2,000 pairs of cinereous vultures and 125 pairs bearded vultures.

    Bearded Vulture in Spain Image Credit: O.V. Gjershaug

    Veterinary diclofenac does not have central marketing approval from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) as it is authorized independently by each Member State. The EMA did issue advice in 2014 that veterinary diclofenac did represent a real risk to European vultures, but it stopped short of an outright ban, claiming that it did not have sufficient information or the scope of remit. Instead it suggested Member States should recommend and implement risk mitigation measures regarding the drug’s application. This has not happened.

    The longer the drug remains in circulation, the greater the risk to European vulture populations. Europe’s eagles, including the Spanish imperial eagle, are at risk too because we have shown that eagles are also intolerant to diclofenac. Moreover, although the focus must remain on banning diclofenac, this is clearly not the only veterinary drug that is toxic to vultures and eagles. The pharmaceutical industry needs to do more to support the development of vulture-safe alternatives.

    So what can you do? Ban Vet Diclofenac is an initiative by our Spanish and Portuguese Birdlife Partners (SEO and SPEA respectively), the Vulture Conservation Foundation, WWF Spain and BirdLife Europe and Central Asia to ban veterinary diclofenac, a drug that could potentially wipe out vultures in Europe. The link to the petition is here

  • Will you be a Guardian of Sherwood Forest?

    A guest blog by Michael Copleston, RSPB's Regional Development Manager for the Midlands

    The anticipation is now palpable as the days and months creep forward to RSPB opening a brand new visitor centre and take on the management of the Sherwood Forest National Nature Reserve.

    I’ve just been at another superb Robin Hood Festival with my 2 year old daughter, along with thousands of other families, and how brilliant it was to see people having fun in the heart of an historic forest. So many people love Sherwood, and from all walks of life.

    RSPB and its many partners in Sherwood have a huge job to do. We’re now getting to the business end of the project when bricks and mortar, timber and stone, and all of the landscape design that goes into creating new facilities for hundreds of thousands of visitors start to be pieced together.

    Artist's impression: 3D view of planned visitor centre from amphitheatre. Image credit: JDDK – rspb images

    I’m mindful that the Major Oak has seen pretty much everything come and go in the past thousand years or more, Kings, Queens, Vikings, and civilisation as we know it, but I hope this really is where legends still grow, and the RSPB and partners can build a legacy to be proud of for the next thousand years.

    There is no doubt RSPB’s new chapter at Sherwood Forest is a bold step in combining our great love (and purpose) of protecting our finest places and priority species, together with an unprecedented opportunity to grow support and connections to nature.

    Sherwood is clearly known first and foremost for its Robin Hood connection which transcends countries and cultures globally, but interestingly one of the hidden marvels of Sherwood for many is the internationally significant collection of Ancient Oaks. Every one of these weather-worn trees, a living sculpture, has watched over this wild kingdom for more then 600 years.

    In fact, this collection of Ancient and Veteran trees is arguably the largest group anywhere in Europe, being a curious remnant of the Royal Hunting Forest landscape and a historical artefact of our ship building past.

    Ecologically, ancient oaks offer shelter and sanctuary for hundreds of species, some of which may only exist in tandem with the unique habitat provided by massive, twisted, gnarly oaks filled with countless pockets and holes of living and dead wood. The eminent Forester Oliver Rackham once wrote “Ten thousand oaks of one hundred years are no substitute for one five hundred year old oak tree” which gives a serious indication of their value.

    But importantly, the RSPB knows that together with others such as the Sherwood Forest Trust, the land owner Thoresby Estate, Woodland Trust and further stakeholders throughout the Sherwood landscape that there is a significant plight and conservation need. These ancient oaks have seen their forest home shrink by over two-thirds in the last two centuries. If Ancient Oaks like the thousand individuals left in the wider Sherwood landscape are to survive for future generations, they need nature lovers like us and you to help them.

    The main man: Robin Hood taking aim in the forest. Image credit: Colin Wilkinson

    We know that improving the existing habitat and survival of these Ancient Oaks will benefit a huge variety of species, and across the wider National Nature Reserve mixtures of open heath, wood pasture and open rides benefits many others, such as woodlark, nightjar, redstart, as well as broader assemblages of invertebrates and flora. Interestingly Sherwood is still home to the lesser spotted woodpecker, a bird the size of a sparrow, and our work behind the scenes will continue to target species such as this diminutive bird that since the 1970s has suffered such disastrous decline that over 75% have been lost in the UK.

    Here is your chance to be a part of this. Please visit and enjoy the new facilities and incredible reserve when we open the doors next year, but first if you can, we would greatly appreciate your support at the start of this special project. We have a great team but a huge amount of work ahead of us. We would love for as many of you as possible to become a Guardian of Sherwood Forest, helping us raise £250,000 before the 11th of August and support our new legacy for Sherwood and help its ancient oaks and the wildlife they shelter.