It uses data, mostly collected by volunteers, to track the fortunes of around 100 of the UK’s rarest breeding species, including Golden Eagle, Crane and Turtle Dove.
The Panel’s work informs a wide range of conservation and monitoring work, including the reintroduction of Red Kite and White-tailed Eagle, and assessments of Sites of Special Scientific Interest and Special Protection Areas.
RBBP was founded to counter an understandable but unhelpful tendency for rare breeding birds to be kept secret, even from the organisations tasked with protecting them. When the people who recorded these species died, their extraordinary knowledge often died with them. The creation of RBBP ensured that the expertise, skill and time required to find rare breeding birds could be harnessed for science and conservation. Fears that sharing information with RBBP could risk the very real threats of persecution and disturbance proved to be unfounded: at no point during the Panel’s five decades have any data been released inappropriately.
Since 1973, species have been added to or removed from the list of those monitored by RBBP for a variety of reasons. Long-eared Owl was first included in 2011, after improved knowledge suggested it was rarer than had previously been thought, while Turtle Dove, which first appeared on the list in 2018, is an example of a species that has undergone severe declines (there were about 125,000 pairs when the Panel was formed). Reflecting the success of widespread reintroduction programmes, Red Kite was removed from the list in 2012, as was Cetti’s Warbler – a recent colonist that has benefitted from increasingly mild UK winters – in 2016.
Cetti’s Warbler, copyright Glyn Sellors, from the surfbirds galleries
Several species once monitored by the RBBP have ceased to breed in the UK. These include Black Tern, Snowy Owl and Golden Oriole, which last bred in 1975, 1976 and 2009 respectively. Although the UK lies at the edge of these birds’ regular breeding ranges, this is not the case for Wryneck, a once common and widespread bird that finally vanished in 2002. The Panel’s most recent annual report was the first since 1975 to include no breeding records of Montagu’s Harrier – could this be the next species to disappear altogether?
RBBP data are used for the regular multi-agency Birds of Conservation Concern reports, as well as for assessments of Sites of Special Scientific Interest and internationally important Special Protection Areas. They have informed targeting of habitat restoration work for species such as Bittern, and fed into reintroduction projects for Crane, White-tailed Eagle, Red Kite and others. The Panel is funded by JNCC, RSPB and BTO.
Dr Mark Eaton, RBBP Secretary, said: “The RBBP has only been able to report on the often fragile populations of the UK’s rarest breeding birds thanks to the efforts of many thousands of birdwatchers over five decades – about 90% of our data come from expert volunteers. Furthermore, the county bird recorders who collate birdwatchers’ records to submit to the RBBP are volunteers – our work is a classic example of citizen science. This is efficient, low-cost monitoring to support a wide range of conservation action for some of our most exciting birds, from Avocets to Golden Eagles.”
Dr Helen Baker, RBBP member and JNCC Marine Species Lead, said: “The contribution that those collecting and submitting data to RBBP have made to bird conservation is both hugely impressive and important. It has allowed national conservation bodies to develop priorities for action – supporting projects to help understand threats to birds and to recover or enhance populations – and has strongly influenced wildlife law and policy, here in the UK and internationally.”
Dr Andrew Stanbury, RBBP member and RSPB Conservation Scientist, said: “We’re delighted to celebrate this milestone anniversary. Over the last 50 years, the Rare Breeding Birds Panel, with the vital support of others, have played a critical role in documenting the changing fortunes of the UK’s breeding bird populations during the nature and climate emergency.”
Dawn Balmer, RBBP Chair and BTO Head of Surveys, said: “The RBBP plays an important role in the suite of bird monitoring in the UK by collating information on the rarest breeding birds. Huge thanks go to all the volunteer birdwatchers, county bird recorders and others who provide data to RBBP.”