BB eye: The changing nature of bird conservation – some reflections

Published on 18 May 2020 in Editorials

Mike Clarke

My last formal engagement as the RSPB’s CEO was to help celebrate the 60th anniversary of the British Birds Rarities Committee (BBRC) at the Birdfair last August. The BBRC archives and database of rare taxa in Britain together provide a valuable tool to help assess population changes through time, charting the occurrence of globally threatened species in Britain and their identification criteria. RSPB’s sponsorship of BBRC began soon after I became CEO, so it felt a fitting event on which to finish, especially since I was an avid teenage reader of BB. When I first subscribed, the journal had become the ‘go to’ source for new discoveries and frontiers in bird identification; at that time, the only definitive guide to British birds, the Witherby Handbook, was both out of date and out of my financial reach.

In the early 1970s, DDT insecticides were still used legally on crops and permitted to accumulate in the human body through the food chain; it was a time when vast and devastating oil spills at sea were regular headline stories, and when hedgerow destruction in the UK was accelerating towards 5,000 km a year. When I started birding in my home county of Kent, both Common Buzzard Buteo buteo and Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus were thought to be extinct as breeding species, with pesticides a major factor. By the time I left school for university, I had seen more Rough-legged Buzzards B. lagopus in Kent than Common Buzzards.

Membership of the RSPB and other nature conservation charities had been growing dramatically since the 1960s. Most of the birders I knew had joined the RSPB, many donated to nature-reserve appeals and some got involved in the local community members’ groups that were the powerhouse of RSPB’s early and meteoric growth.

Our voice was heard. The growth in public support enabled the Society and other wildlife and countryside organisations to have real impact. In the following decade, regulations were brought in to remove dangerous chemicals in food, so that it was safe for mothers to feed their babies; single-hull oil tankers were banned; and laws were adopted to protect wildlife and the countryside.

By the time I joined the RSPB’s staff in 1988, we had begun to tackle the causes of nature loss at a public policy level, as well as the symptoms. Nature conservation was taking on the world of economics. The chancellor’s budget, soon after I started, was a huge moment of celebration, when successful lobbying closed the forestry tax loophole that was funding the destruction of the wild and wonderful peatlands of the Flow Country.

The EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives now provide the strongest site protection legislation in the world. Major battles have been necessary to ensure that these are not simply ‘paper laws’, but are also put into practice by governments – think of some of the planning inquiry victories to protect estuaries in the UK, and that which stopped the motorway being built across Poland’s Biebrza National Park.

Previously, most of RSPB’s budget for new nature reserves was spent on acquiring places that were (in theory) already legally protected, as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. But as a result of this protection, in the last two decades that I have been an RSPB executive director, the Society has been able to invest as much into restoring unprotected sites and creating new habitats. Today, the RSPB’s nature reserves are bigger, are in better condition for nature than they have ever been and are more joined up with other valuable habitats; and the direct destruction by development of internationally important sites for birds, such as the UK’s estuaries, is minimal.

However, despite the many battles won in nature conservation, it is clear that we are not winning the war. Rare birds are facing an increasing risk of extinction, and common birds are becoming less common. In the last 50 years, we have lost 44 million birds in the UK (Hayhow et al. 2019), and European farmland has seen a loss of between a third and half a billion birds (a biomass of over 15,000 tonnes) since 1980 (BirdLife 2013). In North America it is estimated that there has been a net loss of three billion birds since 1970 (Rosenberg et al. 2019).

The declines in the variety and abundance of bird populations are part of a systemic degradation and simplification of habitats, food webs and natural systems globally. The root cause is the human consumption of natural resources for food, fibre and energy, coupled with greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. Human consumption of chicken and other domesticated birds means that the global biomass of poultry is now about three times that of the biomass of all wild birds on earth (Yinon et al. 2018). There is ample evidence that the effects of global heating are already having a significant impact on biodiversity. It is estimated that some 23% of bird species studied so far worldwide are negatively affected by climate change (Pacifici et al. 2017).

These trends have been evident for much more than the last decade. And yet, in 2010, when I became Chief Executive, national governments at the UN summit for biodiversity simply committed to ‘one last heave’, based on business as usual for another decade. But, during my last year as CEO, two UN-sponsored reports have changed everything. The global assessments from the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2018) and the Inter-Governmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES 2019) have escalated the severity of impacts on the natural world and the urgency of response required. They make it clear that life on earth increasingly faces the risk of worldwide environmental breakdown, owing to global heating and biodiversity degradation.

We have been on a journey of environmental understanding since modern nature conservation (and birding) started in the 1960s and 70s. Put simply, everything is connected: the future agenda of the domestic nature conservation movement cannot consider the UK, its component parts, and our precious landscapes in isolation. In addition to global heating, some of the biggest drivers of current and future biodiversity loss are ‘trans-boundary’ in nature. The excess nitrogen loading due to air pollution, for example, is affecting soils and food webs at regional scale in northwest Europe (Payne et al. 2013). We undoubtedly need to restore the natural functioning of biologically diverse landscapes on a large scale. We do, indeed, need to ‘rewild’ or ‘rebird’. But we also need to recover – and this amounts to a wholesale recovery of the natural functioning of the planet (Lovejoy 2019).

That challenge might simply seem too big. But the good news is that we know much of what needs to change. And, there are cost-efficient solutions that work with nature, not against it. Nature-based solutions – the full and effective conservation, restoration, and management of the planet’s forests, wetlands, grasslands, and agricultural lands – can increase carbon storage and limit greenhouse gas emissions. Alongside aggressive fossil fuel emission reductions and changes in consumption patterns, nature-based solutions alone could deliver 37% of the climate change mitigation needed to avoid dangerous levels of global heating (Griscom et al. 2017).

The key to unlocking systemic change requires decision-makers to give greater priority to the natural environment. Nature conservation and environmental organisations cannot achieve this alone. National governments are not well placed to lead such changes and international cooperation is necessary, regionally and globally. But the catalyst for change needs to come from below – from changes in public attitudes and behaviour, and from the individual members and supporters of conservation organisations like the RSPB. In politics, the weight attached to the views of organisations, even those with over a million members, can be readily discounted unless politicians believe we, as individuals, mean it – and that means that we, as individuals, need to take action in our own lives.

Declarations of a climate and ecological emergency, school strikes, and the voices of the next generation cause many, including me, to reflect deeply on lifestyle choices. System-level change also needs individuals to give greater priority to the environment in the daily decisions on how they lead their lives. Here in the UK, domestic consumption of the seven major agricultural commodities (beef and leather, cocoa, palm oil, pulp and paper, rubber, soy, and timber) driving the destruction of tropical rainforests requires an overseas land area of 13.6 million ha, more than half the size of the UK, each year (WWF & RSPB 2017). With perhaps over a fifth of the world’s bird species at risk from climate change, aviation is potentially set to consume more than half the UK’s carbon budget by 2050. Increasingly, habitat restoration to capture carbon will be needed to reduce the total amount of greenhouse gases, not to offset emissions. In a previous BB eye, Javier Caletrío explored the issue of low-carbon birding (Caletrío 2018). If we are to be ambitious, and make the case for conserving the world’s birds and other wildlife, this debate and what constitutes sustainable ecotourism will need to become a mainstream agenda.

As an individual, it is easy to feel that one can’t make any difference, and I am acutely aware of how slow change can be in both government policy and business behaviour. Superficially, it can seem that only incremental change is possible. But, in the time I have been the RSPB’s Chief Executive, I have become increasingly aware of the power of social attitudes as the catalyst for the change we need. And the thing that can change fastest is our mindset.

Together, we have more power and agency than we often assume. Just in the same way as there can be a ‘shifting baseline’ in what we regard as ‘normal’ for nature compared with the wildlife we could see in the past, so there can be collective amnesia in the folk memory of social change. Along with the Turtle Doves Streptopelia turtur, Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers Dryobates minor and Willow Tits Poecile montanus that were common birds 50 years ago, we forget the scale of industrial pollution and agricultural practices that are now banned, and the sense of being overwhelmed by the ever-present global threat of a ‘nuclear winter’. History helps us to understand how much change has occurred and how it came about, and it reminds us that we can play a role in change if we act. Dreams that seem an unimaginable reality can become ordinary if people have hope and are prepared to act (Solnit 2016).

The decades of the 1960s and 1970s show us that when caring, committed people act together, they really can change the world. With the active support and participation from members, the conservation movement in the UK has shown time and again over the last century that such action is possible. I know that I can do three things that will make a difference, and that if I work with others, we can have collective impact. I can make more low-carbon choices and reduce my consumption; I can raise awareness about these issues with others; and I can get involved and support organisations that can help mobilise people.  In future, our nature conservation organisations will be needed more than ever. But the truth is that my actions as an individual citizen will also matter more than ever, and perhaps most. Without hope there is only inaction. We can choose to hope, and we can choose to act.


Bar-On, Y. M., Phillips, R., & Milo, R., et al. 2018. The biomass distribution on Earth. PNAS 115: 6506–6511.

BirdLife International. 2013. Europe-wide monitoring schemes highlight declines in widespread farmland birds.

Caletrío, J. 2018. Are we addicted to high-carbon ornithology? Brit. Birds 111: 182–185.

Griscom, B. W., et al. 2017. Natural climate solutions. PNAS 114: 11645–11650.

Hayhow, D. B., et al. 2019. The State of Nature 2019. The State of Nature partnership.

IPBES. 2019. Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services. IPBES secretariat, Bonn, Germany.

IPCC. 2018. Global Warming of 1.5ºC. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva.

Lovejoy, T. E. 2019. Eden no more. Science Advances 5. doi:10.1126/eaax7494

Pacifici, M., et al. 2017. Species’ traits influenced their response to recent climate change. Nature Climate Change 7: 205–208.

Payne, R. J., et al. 2013. Impact of nitrogen deposition at species level. PNAS 110: 984–987.

Rosenberg, K. V., et al. 2019. Decline of the North American avifauna. Science. doi:10.1126/science.aaw1313

Solnit, R. 2016. Hope in the Dark. 3rd edn. Canongate, Edinburgh.

WWF & RSPB. 2017. Risky Business: understanding the UK’s overseas footprint for deforestation-risk commodities.

Mike Clarke was RSPB’s CEO from 2010 to 2019, and is a Global Council member of BirdLife International.