Birdfair Column – Beccy Speight, Chief Executive RSPB

Birdfair Column – Beccy Speight, Chief Executive RSPB

I was so looking forward to attending this year’s Birdfair, meeting some of you for the first time and talking about the RSPB’s recent successes and upcoming projects.  I never thought that a devastating global pandemic would mean that I wouldn’t be stood in mud at Rutland Water, but instead writing to you as part of the first virtual Birdfair.

This year has been unlike anything the majority of us has ever seen, and I truly hope that you and your loved ones are well, and have been able to begin venturing back into nature, and perhaps into our wonderful reserves to spend time doing what we all love: birdwatching.

Lockdown brought with it very few positives, but people’s reconnection with the nature on their doorsteps was certainly one of them. I hope that wherever you spent your lockdown, you were able to watch, listen to and appreciate the natural world. I know that when I was unwell, my garden offered great comfort. I listened to the crescendo of the dawn chorus every morning and saw blackbird chicks fledge from their nests in the street tree outside my window. Just being at home more instead of travelling for my role has meant I have been far more aware of what is visiting and living in my garden.

I would have loved to talk about recent conservation successes with you in person, such as last year being the best year for our booming bitterns, with over 100 across RSPB reserves. We also saw two roseate tern chicks hatch in Larne Lough in Northern Ireland, a massive decrease of the illegal trapping and killing of songbirds in Cyprus and corn buntings on the road to recovery in parts of Scotland, having been on the brink of extinction.

I’m delighted to share that one bird which in fact did go extinct in the UK, the common crane, reached its highest numbers in more than 400 years with a total population of over 200 birds. We are proud to be part of the Great Crane Project to have helped these elegant birds bounce back, with nature reserves playing a vital role in their resurgence. Perhaps you’ve spotted them at Lakenheath Fen or Nene Washes?

Unfortunately, our ground-breaking project to restore the UK Overseas Territory of Gough Island in the middle of the South Atlantic and protect threatened species including the magnificent Tristan albatross had to be postponed due to the pandemic – you may have seen the media coverage of the ‘interesting’ journey home for the team involved. This isolated island is a haven for over eight million breeding birds so we plan to try again next year.

We continue to protect and raise awareness of our spring and summer migrants such as swifts. We remain dedicated to working with a range of partners along the flyway, to build a better and fuller understanding of the conservation needs of the most threatened migratory birds, such as cuckoos, and where we can we collaborate to provide more help.

Our new Swift Mapper App was released in May, easily allowing users to let us know where nesting swifts have been seen and helping us protect nest sites. The numbers of these birds have halved since 1995, so it has been reassuring to see the public desire to protect them, as we received thousands of reports within the first two weeks of the app’s release. If you haven’t already done so, please do download the app ready for when they scream back next year.

You may be aware of our gamebird shooting review, announced at our AGM last year. This was driven by both member and public concern and increasing evidence about the ecological impacts of driven grouse moor management and large-scale gamebird releases. These include illegal persecution of birds of prey such as hen harriers, use of lead ammunition and the impact of burning peatlands amongst others. Thanks to all those who took part in the consultation and an update on our position will be given at our AGM in October.

Without a doubt the world is not the same as it was when I began at the RSPB in August last year. But the sudden change in lifestyle for all of us shows that when it’s necessary, big changes can be made, fast – and that includes the recent highlighting of issues relating to inclusion in the world of  birding. If things seem slightly different on our reserves for a time, whilst we emerge from lockdown, then please be patient with our staff, volunteers and with other visitors.  As an organisation, we are working to put the natural world at the centre of a green economic recovery, with healthy communities and thriving wildlife for us all to live alongside and enjoy whilst we tackle the global threat of the twin climate and ecological crisis. It’s great to feel the current wave of support for this kind of outcome.  Nature is there for all of us, so let’s all help everyone to connect with it so we can all be there for nature.

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Beccy Speight joined RSPB in August 2020 from the Woodland Trust, where she has been Chief Executive since 2014. 

At the Woodland Trust, Beccy successfully led a period of significant re-focus and expansion, growing income by over 35 per cent. Beccy oversaw the development and implementation of a ten-year strategy which has raised the profile of the Woodland Trust, built many new partnerships and developed a great leadership team, supported by more effective structures and a new culture.  

Prior to this Beccy worked for the National Trust for 14 years, most recently as Director for the Midlands region. 

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