News Round-Up

2020: an amazing year for wildlife on RSPB reserves

Despite Covid-19 restrictions affecting access and conservation work in the first half of the year, 2020 proved to be an amazing year for wildlife on RSPB reserves with many threatened species having a record breeding season and many other species doing well. 

The new Wildlife on RSPB nature reserves 2020 report brings together all the information about the wildlife on the RSPB’s nature reserves and it reports on the ups and downs of the bird breeding season, together with other wildlife highlights. The RSPB currently manages 224 nature reserves across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The area of these reserves covers 160,358 hectares, an area 4 times the size of the Isle of Wight. 

The reserves, perhaps best known for the birds found there, are also crucially important for many other kinds of plants and animal. In 2020, the number of species recorded on RSPB reserves exceeded 18,500 species with more than 3000 of these being of conservation concern. 

The RSPB’s Director of Conservation, Martin Harper said “Last year was exceptionally difficult for everyone. Like every part of society, nature conservation was affected by the coronavirus and the restrictions that dealing with it required. Vital conservation work had to be paused and much of the monitoring work that we would normally carry out was not possible, however, many of the species that call our reserves home managed to have a successful year.” 

2020 Highlights 

  • Spoonbill: the undoubted highlight of 2020 was the successful breeding of spoonbills at RSPB Havergate Island. Three pairs nested at this reserve and was the first successful nesting by spoonbills in Suffolk for at least 300 years. Meanwhile at RSPB Fairburn Ings where spoonbills first bred in 2017 there were six or seven nesting attempts, which are thought to have fledged a total of five young. 
  • Great white egret: three pairs nested at RSPB Burton Mere wetlands in the Dee estuary and fledged and impressive 11 young. At least three great white Egret in breeding plumage displayed and built nests on another RSPB nature reserve where they have not previously bred. 
  • Cattle egret: these birds bred for the first time at RSPB Pagham Harbour with five pairs fledging five young. Adult cattle egrets were also seen flying to and from the heronry at RSPB in Northward Hill where they bred for the first time in 2019. 
  • Stone-curlew: 2020 was a record-breaking year for breeding stone curlews on RSPB nature reserve with the highest number ever recorded. 29 compared with 23 on the same sites in the previous year. 
  • Roseate tern: numbers of breeding birds on RSPB Coquet Island increased for a fifth year in a row reaching 130 pairs, the highest number since the 1970s. 
  • Heath fritillary: RSPB Blean Woods nature reserve was found to be the most important site for this rare butterfly in the UK. 
  • Fen raft spider: this strikingly marked spider is the largest UK spider with a span of up to 7 cm. In 2012, they were reintroduced to RSPB Cantley Marshes reserve where they have thrived and last year, they were found to have colonised the nearby reserve at RSPB Strumpshaw Fen. 
  • Crane: over a third of the UK breeding population is now found on RSPB nature reserves. In 2020, there were 23 pairs found across nine sites including a pair that nested on a RSPB nature reserve on the Suffolk coast. This is the first time cranes have ever been recorded nesting in coastal Suffolk. 
  • Bearded Stonewort: This Critically Endangered plant was recorded at new ponds at RSPB Saltholme in 2020. It was previously only known from sites near Peterborough and the Western Isles. 

However, despite the continued success for most species there were also some disappointments for a small number of others.  

  • Hen harrier: At RSPB Geltsdale, there was initial optimism when at least six birds were present in March 2020. Subsequently they were two nests with clutches of five and seven eggs both of which were provisioned by the same male. However, the male disappeared in May resulting in both nests failing. A second adult male which has been present also disappeared around the same time.  
  • Black-winged stilt: No pairs nested on RSPB reserves in 2020 for the second year running, despite nesting in every year from 2014-2018. 

RSPB nature reserves contribute significantly to nature conservation across the landscapes and areas they are part of, and despite covering only about 0.6% of the UK’s land surface, support more than 10% of the breeding population of 35 species of bird. However, nature reserves alone will not be able to stop the UK’s wildlife from vanishing.  

Martin Harper said “Through our amazing network of nature reserves the RSPB provides important places for nature and helps visitors to see and connect with nature. However, according to the last State of Nature report, 41% of UK species are in decline and 133 species have been lost from our shores completely since 1950.  While nature reserves (managed by the RSPB or other conservation organisations) are magical places, on their own they will never be enough to reverse these declines.  In order to stem the loss of nature and help revive our world, governments across the UK need to ensure 30% of land is protected and managed for nature while action is taken to remove the direct threats facing threatened species such as illegal killing or the introduction of invasive non-native species.”

Although the UK claims to be protecting large areas of land (28%) and sea (24%), closer inspection reveals that this includes National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty that are not well managed for nature, and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) that are in poor health and not adequately monitored. With recent reports of a lack of inspections or assessments, along with species loss at these locations, the amount of land protected and well-managed for nature could be as low as 5% of the UK. At sea, although new protected areas have been announced, only 10% of these are being actively managed.   

To find out more about RSPB reserves and how to visit go to 

Header image: common crane. Credit: Nick Upton (