Guest Blog – RSPB science by David Gibbons

Dr David Gibbons is the RSPB’s Head of Conservation Science, a post he has been privileged to hold for the last 14 years. The previous incumbent in this post was a well-known environmental blogger, not a million miles from this site.


Mark’s blog last week, comparing the quantity and quality of the scientific output of BTO, WWT, GWCT and the RSPB, has clearly led to some heated discussions. Mark chose to highlight the differences between organisations – how some seemed to have more publications, how others had more frequently cited publications, and how these varied over time. Given that conservation organisations invest in science solely to achieve conservation outcomes, rather than to publish as many papers as possible, this academic beauty contest reveals only a very partial story.

Rather than contrasting individual organisation’s metrics, I was more interested in the total scientific output of this closely aligned group. More than 2,300 scientific papers have been published by these organisations since 1981, and these have been cited more than 50,000 times. By any standard, this is a very impressive body of peer-reviewed work, relevant (mostly) to the conservation of birds and other wildlife, and shows a deep commitment by each of these organisations to science. The scientific staff in GWCT, BTO, RSPB and WWT should be proud of their combined efforts to help ensure that our environment will be as rich in wildlife for future generations as it was for those in the past.

It is possible that this figure of 2,300 may be a slight overestimate, as some published papers will be the results of collaborations between several – in some cases all – of the four organisations. Probably the best example of this is the enormous contribution that GWCT, RSPB and BTO scientists, with help from Natural England, have made to the development of wildlife-friendly farming techniques. Many of these methods are now incorporated into government-funded agri-environment schemes, aiding the recovery of farmland birds. And there are still many active collaborations between these organisations.

Mark’s listings of citations and H-indices may be influential in the academic community, but are much less so in the conservation community. They arise from scientists talking to scientists, rather than scientists influencing the decisions made by conservation policy makers, advocates and practitioners. Only through the latter route will conservation science be able to make a difference on the ground. What we really need is a metric of conservation impact, not scientific impact. Unfortunately this is more intangible to measure – though some people are trying. Each organisation should aim to increase the aggregate conservation impact of their publications, not just the number.

But please don’t think that I am playing down the importance of the scientific peer-review process to conservation. Peer review is a stringent test of the merit of any scientific work, and conservation action is likely to be more successful when supported by peer-reviewed science. The process also provides credibility to organisations that produce science. This credibility is much needed when attempting to influence decision-makers in government, business or international institutions, some of whom will be seeking to dismiss the work of conservation organisations.

Like GWCT, BTO and WWT, no doubt, the RSPB is extremely proud of its science. We see it as vital to help keep us focussed, successful, honest and credible. Consequently, we have invested heavily in research and monitoring over the last few decades, and the impact that this science has had on conservation outcomes is increasingly clear.

As Mark pointed out in response to a comment, there are now more corncrakes, stone curlews, bitterns and cirl buntings in the UK than there were several decades ago. More recently, we have begun to understand how to recover corn bunting populations in NE Scotland. Outside the UK, Gyps vulture populations in Asia may have turned a corner in their catastrophic decline from poisoning by the veterinary drug, diclofenac. In each of these cases, science undertaken by the RSPB and partners has provided the foundations for conservation action that has helped, or will help these species. With economists and scientists at BirdLife and elsewhere, we have even taken these ecological studies a stage further, and estimated the cost of reducing the extinction risk of all globally threatened bird species.

And it most certainly isn’t all about past glories. I believe that our scientific programme is more active, diverse and influential now than it has ever been, and contains a suite of exciting new projects.

With the BTO and BirdLife partners in Africa, we are trying to understand why some of our trans-Saharan migrants are in such a parlous state, linking up our detailed ecological work on their UK breeding grounds with their West African wintering grounds. With innovative tracking technologies, and European funding, we are locating the at-sea feeding grounds of our breeding seabirds to aid the identification of marine protected areas, and to avoid (fingers crossed!) conflict with offshore renewable energy installations; do look at the great videos here to learn more .

We are developing our understanding of ways to quantify and value the services that ecosystems provide to people, particularly in places where we are undertaking conservation interventions, be they on our own estate or elsewhere. We are using camera traps to monitor wildlife in the Gola Forest in Sierra Leone and the Harapan Rainforest in Sumatra. This is helping us understand the benefits of protection and restoration in these two rainforest projects with which the RSPB is closely involved. This research brings some of the most remarkable photographs across my desk; the giant pangolin image featured here was captured on camera only a few weeks ago, and is the first record for Gola Forest.

This is but a small sample of the amazing scientific work that the RSPB does. And while we are quietly pleased with our scientific publication record, we know we can do better and plan to publish more, and to find better ways to measure its conservation impact. Over the next few years, we intend to develop our conservation science programme even further.

If you would like to learn more about our scientific programme, please do take a look at our annual reports on conservation science.


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20 Replies to “Guest Blog – RSPB science by David Gibbons”

  1. I agree a great guest blog showing the broadness and depth of RSPB science. indicates that when the "antis" suggest that RSPB have not done their homework they are very much barking up the wrong tree.

  2. Couldn't agree more with the first two comments, plus it put me on to the 2011/12 review, which I hadn't seen yet - should be trumpeted even more, it's a piece of work to be proud of. It would be great if science got a higher billing on the RSPB website, actually. It's the second to last out of 18 links on the 'Our Work' drop down menu!

  3. There is no science in shooting birds of prey. First get your own house in order before travelling the world. Driven Red Grouse is not viable unless all species that may pray on them are removed. 68% of Red Grouse moors are not viable with the species removed. So using the science why does the RSPB not ask for 'walked up' Red Grouse only. It is not being anti shooting. It is telling the truth. It will protect the landscape. No need for roads to hell and back. There will be ample Red Grouse for the gun as smaller bags needed and it may well bring Black Grouse back from the brink. There will be no loss of income for these moors as Britain is the only place to shoot Red Grouse in the WORLD.

  4. Great blog and as informative as ever from Dr Gibbons I have to say. A respected understandable and great scientist. RSPB has/is a bed of great Scientists inc Bibby, Hirons, Smith, Green et al, even your good self! Mark a better blog then the one from BTO more information rather than a single organisation statement BTO does good work just not a good blog in my humble opinion. 😉

  5. Great guest blog. Nice to see the incumbent Head of Conservation Science highlighting the real issue of collaboration and what impact the science has 'on the ground', rather than devisive rubbish. Have you got a regular blog Dr. Gibbons? I would much rather be reading that.

  6. Excellent blog. A key point made, that should be shouted from the rooftops, is that all the scientific reports, conferences, reviews etc in the world are worth nothing if they have no impact on the actual conservation of our dwindling natural world. Governments, SNH, NE etc take note.

  7. "scientists talking to scientists" - "worth nothing if they have no impact"

    "More work is needed" must be the most-used phrase in published scientific papers. I wonder if there is an M-index to cover that.

    Research is one thing - uptake is another (aka "Technology Transfer" - aka afterthought). At one of the Royal Society's open meetings in 2010 I was appalled at the lack of connection between most of the speakers and the real world. The "breakout" session was even more depressing - revealing the imperative to dream-up new research projects to address the perceived problems. It was as if "old" knowledge previously acquired - at vast public cost - was deemed worthless. Most alarming of all - it was clear that the assembled scientists, with one or two notable exceptions, had little practical experience of the land management they were plotting to influence.

    Which is why projects like Loddington/Allerton, SOWAP, MOPs, Hope Farm, and organisations like LEAF and SA are so important. It doesn't matter who does this work, so long as it gets done.

  8. Interesting guest blog, good choice for this week Mark. I kind of agree 50/50 with what John Miles has said. I do think it's VERY important to reach out across the world to protect habitats and species as a lot of the avian wildlife migrates round the world. I would've liked to heard more about their experiences good and bad in foreign countries, wether people and goverments were easier to work with. Can I ask if the RSPB are going to get behind the petition to stop the killing of Amur Falcons in India?(, just type in "AMUR FALCONS" in the search box and sit down and read the numbers being killed!!!!)
    But John has a point, there is so many problems facing avian wildlife in this country. Not just Raptor persecution, but as a article on Birdguides has shown today Avian Pox, loss of habitats with an ever increasing tarmac-ing of green spaces, for example Sizewell C, the road leading to the plant will cross straight through an SSSI, whats the RSPB stance on this?

  9. Speaking of RSPB Science I found the recently published "State of the UK's birds 2012" ( made interesting reading. Page 20 suggests that the nearly 2.5million pairs of non-native breeding birds in the UK have a biomass of ~6Million kg compared to ~19.5Million kg for our native birds, or equal to more than a quarter of the biomass of all our remaining native birds (which it says have declined in number by 20% since the 1960s). What struck me about this is that it ignored the 35 million pheasants that are released into the countryside every year. If you take a pheasant to weigh ~1kg this means that were all these birds to reach adulthood (and presumably most do before they are released from pens) their combined biomass (35Million kg) must be nearly DOUBLE that of ALL our native avian fauna combined (including seabirds!). The ecological impacts of this must be significant (for example on our native invertebrates) but there seems very little research has been done/is being done on this incredible situation.

    1. Hugh - I can only relate what I see here on a South Wilts estate. Very small birds released last Friday - by the hundred - followed by shoot on Saturday. Those which survived are outside now fattening themselves on wheat from bin feeders. I doubt that many survive long enough to do much else, or reach adulthood.

      1. Hello Filbert - that is interesting. I am not an expert in pheasant shooting but I find what you describe slightly surprising. Were they shooting sub-adult birds? Furthermore I had imagined that shoots released a large number of birds at the start of their season and that survivors from each Saturday (or whenever) hung around (to be shot at again the following week and so on). Are you suggesting there are new releases every week? If not then clearly many survive for at least the length of the season, although obviously not many ultimately survive to breed (hence the difference between the 35million released and the standing population of perhaps 1.5 million). It certainly seems to me that the woods and fields are crawling with pheasants, while the tarmac is smeared with their remains. I take your point that the majority of their nutrition is undoubtedly provided by those bin feeders, but worry that these just serve to sustain their articially high numbers so that while any one bird may eat 95% grain and 5% e.g. caterpillars, when you have so many birds that small proportion of each individual bird's diet adds up to a significant effect on the ecosystem.

        1. As I said, I can only relate what I have seen - other shoots may be managed differently. The one around me operates like a put-and-take trout fishery

          "Were they shooting sub-adult birds?"
          There would have been a mix of all ages the next day, all to be driven by the beaters. I have no idea whether there is some kind of etiquette that you don't shoot an obviously juvenile bird - but how fast could the brain-cell of a shoot get passed around?

          "I had imagined that shoots released a large number of birds at the start of their season"
          That is so - but only a few days before D-Day

          "... survivors from each Saturday"
          1-3 shoots a week. The drives rotate around the estate and don't cover the same ground that often.

          "Are you suggesting there are new releases every week?"
          Not every week, but several during the season. Because of the frequency of shoots, recent releases often will be shot.

          "If not then clearly many survive for at least the length of the season"
          I think a proportion of surviving hens are trapped in spring and sent away to breed. Cocks appear to be more numerous by the summer - but perhaps that's just because they are strutting up and down and fighting. It's a most entertaining time of year, when they keep popping up in flapping pairs from the barley, wildly swinging their handbags. Hen fights, on the other hand, are really serious.

          1. Thanks Filbert - informative and entertaining! I maintain there needs to be more assessment of the potential impacts these pheasants (and indeed red-legged partridges) are having, but accept your point that once released many birds do not live that long.

    2. I can see where you are coming from Hugh, but I suspect the ecological impact of pheasants pale into insignificance compared to the 5 billion kg of beef and 1.8 billion kg of lamb running around the UK (based on 10m cattle @ 500kg each and 36m sheep @ 50kg). I hope my maths is right!


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