Head of Research Delivery
Conservation efforts take flight with analytics
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds uses SAS® to help safeguard wildlife
Commercial fishing lines accidentally snagging albatrosses. Pesticides sprayed near skylark nests. Warming ocean temperatures killing off the food that gannets and kittiwakes depend on. The United Kingdom’s largest nature conservation charity, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), is using analytics to better understand the data it collects in an effort to test and develop conservation solutions that protect endangered birds. This information is also critical when advocating for environmental policies in the UK and abroad.
Conservation informed by evidence is always more likely to succeed than that based on guesswork or anecdote. SAS enables us to produce the firm scientific evidence needed to confidently implement our initiatives.
“Conservation informed by evidence is always more likely to succeed than that based on guesswork or anecdote,” says Will Peach, Head of Research Delivery for RSPB. “SAS enables us to produce the firm scientific evidence needed to confidently implement our initiatives.” The society’s scientific approach is a success: Governments and companies seek its research and advice when planning new infrastructure and energy projects like highways, wind farms and airport runways.
The society’s research underpins the understanding around how intensive farming, climate change and over-fishing in the oceans affects bird habitats and food supplies. Its research on the albatross population discovered that large-scale commercial longline fishing kills tens of thousands of albatrosses each year. Out of the world's 22 albatross species, 17 have been identified as threatened. In the UK, once common species like house sparrows and starlings have suffered large population declines in both rural and urban areas.
RSPB researchers conduct diagnostic studies using tagging and other types of methods that produce enormous amounts of data. They also test different conservation interventions to determine which techniques are most effective for different species. Replicated field experiments are also combined with simulation studies.
“We need to make sense of a variety of large and complex data sets,” Peach says. “For example, tracking the movements of kittiwakes and gannets as they forage at sea produces millions of data points.”
The organization chose SAS more than a decade ago. The research has led conservationists to:
- Understand the impact of farm lands and pesticides on nesting and reproduction among skylarks and yellowhammers. Changes in cropping impact skylark nesting, while pesticide use affects yellowhammers’ breeding success.
- Study albatross foraging habits and use the information to develop fast-sinking fishing hooks, which reduce albatross deaths from long-line fishing.
- Gather data from tags worn by birds and merge that with external data sets on sea-surface temperatures and the location of fishing grounds to understand the impact of global warming on foraging areas.
“Scientific research is extremely fast-moving,” Peach says. “SAS will undoubtedly continue to be integral in our pursuit of evidence-based conservation actions needed to help save our birds and wildlife.”
RSPB wanted to better understand the data it collects to develop conservation solutions that protect endangered birds.
Land managers, governments and businesses consult with the society before building infrastructure and energy projects that could harm endangered birds. The society also uses the data to manage its 200 nature reserves.