Dr Rob Sheldon – RSPB

Hi I’m Rob Sheldon and I’ve been been working for the RSPB since 2002, and specifically on Sociable Lapwings since 2005.

I joined the RSPB after studying for a PhD on the effectiveness of an agri-environment prescription on the breeding success of Northern Lapwings.

I combine my work on Sociable Lapwings with a role as Head of Reserves Ecology in Scotland, managing a team of ecologists that set and maintain ecological standards on the RSPB’s reserve network.

After working on Northern Lapwing and Sociable Lapwing the next challenge I would like to take on would be to locate a Javan Lapwing – but maybe this is one Lapwing too far… [For why, see below]
sociable lapwing
Dr Rob Sheldon is the RSPB Sociable Lapwing Project Leader and Head of RSPB Species Recovery, and probably better placed than virtually anyone to talk about the Sociable Lapwing. This interview was originally posted on 10,000 Birds in June 2009 as part of their commitment to the Sociable Lapwing and BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions Programme.

Charlie: Rob, many thanks indeed for talking to me. The RSPB has been involved in the conservation of the Sociable Lapwing since 2005. What prompted a UK conservation organisation to get involved with a species that breeds in Kazakhstan and winters in eastern Africa, or is the question a misunderstanding of what the RSPB actually does these days?

Rob Sheldon: The RSPB undertakes conservation not only in the UK but also has an International Programme working through the Birdlife partnership. We work closely with both full, and potential, Birdlife partner organisations in a number of countries including Kazakhstan. Given the rapid decline of Sociable Lapwing in the 1990s and the subsequent up-listing of the species to Critically Endangered under the IUCN re-listing system, RSPB developed a partnership with ACBK in Kazakhstan to identify the causes behind the decline and implement conservation measures for the benefit of the species.

Charlie: The Sociable Lapwing underwent a major population crash in the latter half of the twentieth century – estimates put it at a staggering 95% with numbers thought to have plummeted to just 200 pairs in 2003. Back in 2004 when the RSPB and BirdLife began to really focus on the species the reasons for this huge decline were poorly understood. Finding out what happened in the past when data doesn’t exist is never going to be simple, but has research given us clearer answers yet?

Rob Sheldon: After 5 years of intensive research in central Kazakhstan we are now getting a much clearer understanding of the lifecycle of the species. We have now gathered good quality data on nest and chick survival that shows that breeding success is reasonably good. Following an intensive programme of colour-ringing both chicks and adults we have found that relatively few birds subsequently return in following years. This suggests that there maybe a problem away from the breeding grounds and the decline maybe linked to problems on the migration routes and/or wintering areas.
We are now researching the migration routes and wintering areas to try and get a better understanding of what is happening to Sociable Lapwings away from the breeding grounds of Central Asia.

Charlie: I remember hearing the incredible news in October 2007 that 3000+ Sociable Lapwings had been discovered staging in Turkey. Was it one of those “Where were you when you heard…” moments for you – and, thinking about it, where were you when you heard?

Rob Sheldon: It was indeed an extraordinary discovery. I received the news via a text message from our Turkish Birdlife partners, Doga Dernegi, which at first I thought there was a typing error in the message! I was walking along on a beach in Bournemouth (UK) at the time. Needless to say I had a celebratory drink in the evening!

Charlie: Did the discovery cause you any concerns as well? I only ask because reports immediately began questioning whether the species should be downgraded from Critically Endangered to a lesser threat level – which might mean less funding going to the species – or even suggesting (as an article on Science Daily did) that “the long-term hope is that other migrating flocks will be found and that researchers can relax their efforts to help the bird”. Even talk of ‘relaxing the efforts’ seems very premature…

Rob Sheldon: We’re certainly not relaxing our efforts. If anything we are stepping up both the amount and scope of our work.
Although the discovery of such good numbers of birds means that things might not be quite as perilous as thought a few years ago, Sociable Lapwings are still in relatively small numbers and we need to build on the good work we have undertaken so far and secure the population and reverse the conservation status.

Charlie: In terms of the future survival of those large staging and wintering flocks are we getting closer to understanding just what the Sociable Lapwing needs, and will we be able to provide it in time?

Rob Sheldon: It looks like the problems are away from the breeding grounds, but this doesn’t mean we should not dismiss conservation measures for the species in both Kazakhstan and Russia. However, recent worrying reports suggest that hunting of Sociable Lapwings is being undertaken in some Middle Eastern countries. This has given a new focus for our work over the coming years, and we are already working closely with partner organisations in Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
In addition we need to understand the habitat requirements of the species on the wintering grounds of Sudan and India as there maybe issues in these countries we need to address.

Taking biometrics.
Charlie: Some of the (as of May 2009) 192 species on the Critically Endangered list have tiny ranges and have probably always been ‘rare’. With the best will in the world their conservation – in reality – involves halting their decline rather than increasing their numbers. The original breeding range of the Sociable Lapwing was enormous. There has been large-scale conversion of the grasslands they breed in, but can they be ‘put back’ into at least some part of that range?

Rob Sheldon: The historical range did spread across Central Asia and into countries such as Ukraine – it indeed would be very ambitious to talk about re-colonising these areas. However, the current breeding range in Kazakhstan is still vast, and there is no doubt that at the moment there is more suitable breeding habitat than is required by the current number of birds. We are confident that if we can halt the population decline, we will see an increase in both breeding numbers and range within Kazakhstan.

Charlie: Has there been any discussion on how many individuals or breeding pairs there would need to be before you’d consider them ‘safe’?

Rob Sheldon: It’s difficult at this stage to give an actual number of birds that we think would be ‘enough’ – but if we were to get the population near 10,000 breeding pairs in the next 5-10 years this would be a fabulous achievement.

Charlie: Developing eco-tourism is often put forward as a way to provide local communities with financial alternatives to hunting or developing land. Could eco-tourism ever help the Sociable Lapwing given that it occurs in such remote and vast areas?

Rob Sheldon: Eco-tourism could definitely play a part in the conservation of Sociable Lapwing and indeed a whole range of steppe birds in Kazakhstan.
We already see a number of bird watching groups coming to our core study area near Lake Tengiz in central Kazakhstan. There is no reason why more birdwatchers couldn’t be accommodated and they could have a positive impact on the local economy if they used local facilities and guides.
This is definitely a potential growth area in many parts of Kazakhstan.

Charlie: The RSPB is BirdLife International’s UK partner and the Species Champion for the Sociable Lapwing. I’m assuming there must be a high level of information flow between the two organisations?

Rob Sheldon: RSPB works closely with the Birdlife partnership and all the partner organisations in the range states of the Sociable Lapwing. Through both our current Darwin Initiative project and the Preventing Extinctions Programme, we work closely with Birdlife partners in Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Sudan and India.

Charlie: History (and my own experience) suggests that different NGOs can find it difficult to work together. Is the level of co-operation between the many NGOs working to protect the Sociable Lapwing good?

Rob Sheldon: We recently held a Species Action Plan workshop in Kazakhstan where representatives of the NGOs and Government Agencies gathered to revise the current Action Plan. The desire for all the country organisations to work together for the benefit of Sociable Lapwings was amazing – it was probably one of the most inspiring few days in my conservation career so far.

Charlie: Swarovski Optik are co-Species Champions with the RSPB for the Sociable Lapwing. Has Swarovski’s involvement made a difference to the campaign, and do you spend much time discussing practical things like research and strategy with them?

Rob Sheldon: All of the Species Champions can make a big difference through their involvement, both through the much needed financial support and also through helping to raise the profile of their chosen species and the conservation action required. Swarovski have been a valuable partner and through their financial support we have been able to increase the amount of work we do in a number of countries.
At the start of Swarovski’s involvement we agreed what aspects of the Sociable Lapwing work needed extra support, and Swarovski were one of the three main funders of the recent Sociable Lapwing International Species Action Plan workshop in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The workshop was a huge success bringing together a group of experts from across the species’s range.

Charlie: You’ve been involved in the conservation of Sociable Lapwings from the outset and I think I’m right in saying that you were one of the team that fitted the satellite transmitter that led to the discovery of the birds in Turkey. You must know as much about them as anyone else on the planet. Is their survival a personal matter to you as well as a professional one, or would taking things personally be too stressful?

Rob Sheldon: There is nothing stressful about working on Sociable Lapwings – it is an absolute pleasure!! I’m only one of a big team of people who have been involved in Sociable Lapwings over the last 5 years, and like most of them we have become very passionate about Sociable Lapwing conservation. We’d all like to ensure the survival of the species so that in the future other people are able to encounter Sociable Lapwings breeding on the steppes of Kazakhstan.

Charlie: And I’d like to be one of those people! Rob, how would you answer someone who looks at the development of the steppes for agriculture, and says, “The Sociable Lapwing just doesn’t fit into the 21st Century. It’s a shame if it’s lost but that’s the way the world is…”?

Rob Sheldon: There is no reason why the bird shouldn’t survive for centuries to come. I don’t agree “that’s the way the world is”. We consider the Sociable Lapwing as a flagship species for the Central Asian steppes, and if they don’t survive then that suggests that the ecosystem is in trouble – that can only be at the detriment of the people who live there and ultimately all of us.

Charlie: On a lighter note, speaking as a birder who’s only ever seen three Sociable Lapwings – and those from some distance – there’s one question I really have to ask: just how gorgeous are Sociable Lapwings when you get really close to them?

Rob Sheldon: We’re lucky than we are undertaking our fieldwork we are able to get quite close to birds and in the right light they can be absolutely stunning – particularly the males during the breeding season.
Also behaviourly they can be very interesting, with a number of birds that we have colour-ringed and observed over a number of years exhibiting very specific traits which make them identifiable. One bird, which we nick-named ‘limper’ back in 2005, has the habit of mobbing us even from distances as much as 400m – she is the only bird that does that, and she does it every year we locate her.

Charlie: Turning to a slightly different subject, the Sociable Lapwing is closely related to the Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus, a once common species that is declining rapidly across Europe. The RSPB website states that: “…in southern England and Wales, where the farming changes have been greatest and farmland is the only suitable habitat for the [Northern] lapwing, numbers dropped by 49% in England and Wales [between 1987 and 1998]. Since 1960 the numbers dropped by 80%…” (RSPB: Northern Lapwing – decline and conservation). You work on conservation of Northern Lapwings too. Is it possible to draw conservation parallels between the two species, does working with one help your work with the other, or are their situations too different for that?

Rob Sheldon: There are a number of similarities, and there is no doubt that work I’ve done in the past on Northern Lapwings has been beneficial in the research on Sociable Lapwings. Both species occur in our main study area in Kazakhstan and the clear difference is the association with water during the breeding season. Northern Lapwings are nearly always very close to water bodies such as rivers and lakes, whereas Sociable Lapwing are less dependent.
Although we know very little about the habitat requirements of Sociable Lapwings in the winter and on migration, as a rule of thumb we advise surveyors looking for them that if the habitat looks suitable for Northern – it’s good enough for Sociable.

Charlie: Obviously the RSPB are fighting to stop it happening, but could there come a time when the Northern Lapwing population is as desperately low as the Sociable Lapwings’ is now?

Rob Sheldon: I can’t see this happening due to measures such as nature reserves that are specifically managed for Lapwings and other breeding waders, but also agri-environment schemes and the existence of such an active conservation movement across Europe.

Charlie: Some people – and I’m not one of them I should stress – might say that the money the RSPB is spending on the Sociable Lapwing should be put towards saving the Northern Lapwing?

Rob Sheldon: Sociable Lapwing research and conservation is primarily funded through the UK Government’s Darwin Initiative programme and by Swarovski Optik through Birdlife’s Preventing Extinctions Programme. Both of these funding streams are not applicable to species such as Northern Lapwing.
Given that the work we do on Sociable Lapwing has started to raise awareness of broader conservation issues in a number of countries such as Kazakahstan, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Sudan – the relatively modest amounts of money that is spent in these countries will have a long lasting legacy on habitat and species conservation across a wide geographical areas.
Additionally, we also need to prioritise the limited resources that are available for conservation and by targeting small sums of money at those species most in need – such as the Critically Endangered Sociable Lapwing, we can make big gains in preventing the extinction of many special bird species.

Charlie: It goes without saying that everyone in the UK should join the RSPB immediately if they’re not already a member, but worldwide there’s a large and growing community of ‘bird bloggers’. Wherever bloggers live I’m sure many of us would like to support organisations like the RSPB more. Do you think conservation organisations generally would welcome that support, and if so what – in practical terms – can we actually do?

Rob Sheldon: YES!! Support for conservation work is vital as it gives us a mandate to operate. Support can come in a number of ways. Financial support such as membership fees and donations to organisations such as RSPB and Birdlife International can make a huge contribution to our ability to get things done on the ground. For example, for our Sociable Lapwing project we now work directly with 7 countries and we’d like to work with more.
But it’s not just money, whenever folk are out birding and they see Sociable Lapwings then tell us – we have a database of historical sightings and we are after more information to help us target countries for survey effort. If people want to help – get in touch!

Charlie: Finally, Rob, if Bill Gates came up to you tomorrow and said that he would fund you to go anywhere and spend any amount of money you wanted to protect a species or a habitat what would you choose to spend his money on?

Rob Sheldon: Sociable Lapwing of course, or maybe Javan Lapwing [V. macropterus, a Critically Endangered species that has not been reliably seen since 1940] – I’m sure they’re out there somewhere.

Charlie: Rob, many thanks indeed for your insights and for spending time with us.