Guest blog – NT’s Simon Pryor responds to events in the Peak District

A response to Mark Avery’s blog  An everyday tale of country folk.

Thanks Mark (!) for throwing down another gauntlet, for one of us in ‘Dame Fiona’s team” to pick up.  I’m a relative newcomer to the Trust, but let me pick up this one, and tell you how I’ve found things on this highly charged subject.
Firstly, the Trust has been, and will remain, unequivocal and public in its condemnation of any persecution of birds of prey; by anyone and anywhere, but particularly on its land.  Compliance with the law, and with codes of good practice, is built into the heart of our standard shooting tenancies.   And I can assure you this view is universally held and forcefully expressed right across the Trust.

Even more passionately expressed is my colleagues’ desire to see wildlife flourish on every bit of our land.  And just like the rest of us my new colleagues tend to get even more passionate when it comes to iconic species such as raptors.   As one of the Peak team said to me this week: “Birds of prey are an essential part of a healthy ecosystem and we want to see them on our land in the Peak District just as much as on all the other places we own”.

Some posts here imply the Trust has been oblivious to the issue of persecution, or even turning a blind eye.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I know my colleagues in the Peak District have been very concerned (and vocal) about the low numbers and poor breeding success of birds of prey for some time.  Whilst I don’t think we can match Rod’s alarming tales of physical threats to the FC rangers, I can reassure you that tenants and game keepers have been made abundantly aware of our position on compliance with the law, and our goal of seeing healthy populations of birds of prey.

We would all have preferred to achieve this goal without the need for a court case.   But we will be putting the recent legal outcome to positive use, using it to reinforce our messages to all our shooting tenants and via them to their employees – and thereby try to avoid it ever happening again.

It’s been great to hear how we’ve worked in close partnership with RSPB, Severn Trent, Raptor Groups, the Forestry Commission and the National Park over a number of years to try to reverse this downward trend in raptors.  I gather when a pair of hen harriers recently nested in the Goyt valley we moved very quickly with the RSPB to support 24 hour-a-day surveillance.

Looking wider than the Peak, the Trust have put their name and given their support to the national campaigns on this issue, for example as partners with the RSPB for that excellent publication “Birds of Prey in the UK”.   So we haven’t exactly been quiet and retiring on this issue.

I must admit it soon became obvious on joining the Trust that fieldsports in general are still a sensitive issue for the organisation.    Our formal position no doubt took many hours of debate in the crucible of Council and Committees, but I find it a sound and solid basis for decision making.  So for those of you who aren’t sure where we stand, here it is:
The National Trust is very much aware of the importance of countryside traditions. We allow field sports to take place on our property where traditionally practised, providing they are within the law and are compatible with the Trust’s purposes, which include public access and the protection of rare animals and birds and fragile habitats.”.

One thing I really like about the Trust is how frequently we refer back to our “core purposes”.  I can assure you that the searching question “What will best help us to look after special places, for everyone and for ever” is at the heart of decisions made on contentious subjects.  And to answer your question Mark, I know this principle will be applied to the renewal of leases in the Dark Peak.

Our decisions aren’t always popular, and there are quite a few irate column inches emerging elsewhere this week as a consequence of a decision we’ve recently taken that effectively curtails a lowland pheasant shoot.  It was clear to us that in this case the potential for public access was not compatible with the shoot, and things had to change to enable us to achieve our primary aims.

As Mike Price pointed out, we are (as we speak) taking a fundamental look at the future of the Dark Peak, with a live and wide ranging consultation on a Master Plan for our moorland landholding.  I can assure you that conservation of rare species (including birds of prey) will be a key objective.  As part of this exercise we will be working with our current sporting tenants to see whether the Trust’s objectives for conservation and access are compatible with their shooting objectives.  Again, my local colleagues are unequivocal: “A change in the fortunes of birds of prey on Trust land in the Peak District will be an expectation in any shooting tenancy”.

So, picking up your final challenges Mark, I’m glad you are watching and waiting to see what we are going to do in the Peak; and we’d be even more pleased if you and others joined in directly via this consultation.

I’m relatively new to blogging, but that’s two challenges to the NT in less than a month.  Are they like buses, and we can expect a third before too long?  I’ve always valued your unequivocal challenges Mark, but I have to say some of us here are beginning to feel a bit persecuted ourselves!

Simon Pryor, Natural Environment Director, National Trust

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28 Comments

  1. Mark

    Simon - thank you for responding to my blog and the comments it accrued. The NT deserves credit for responding so openly to the concerns of the public and some of its members. I'll be interested to see what comments your blog stimulates.

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  2. John Miles

    From this article I feel we can see the 4 million members of the Trust being asked to sign the e petition. Something the RSPB has failed to do!!

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    • Mark

      John - I would be as impressed as I would be surprised if the NT asked its members to sign the epetition on vicarious laibility http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/23089

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  3. Jonathan Wallace

    I wrote to the National Trust following your blog, Mark and received a response along similar lines, albeit less detailed, to Simon's blog. It is encouraging to hear that they will be working with their sporting tenants to ensure that shooting activities are compatible with the Trust's objectives for conservation including the protection of birds of prey. I don't know what sanctions are possible with respect to the tenant on Howden Moor in the light of the hawk trap case you highlighted but it is to be hoped that the Trust is successful in making him "abundantly clear" that any repeat of such activities will not be tolerated. My understanding is that such an offence would constitute a breach of the tenancy agreement and I hope and trust that the Trust will respond vigorously in the event of any further offence.
    Time will tell.
    I believe the Trust is sincere in its position with respect to raptor conservation and it clearly is directly involved in activities and initiatives such as Peak Nestwatch in the Peak District and elsewhere to protect birds of prey from persecution. Undoubtedly there are difficulties with respect to what others do on their land - especially when tenants can say that any offences were committed not by them but by an employee. For this reason, in addition to the measures outlined by Simon, it would be good if the National Trust could throw its weight behind the campaign for a vicarious liability law in relation to bird persecution offences. With their four million members, their support would certainly add significantly to the pressure for such a change in the law.

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  4. Ruth Tingay

    Thanks Mark, for facilitating the dialogue, and thanks Simon, for sharing your thoughts. Personally I would have liked to have heard these comments eight months ago when the Howden Moor gamekeeper was convicted, but later is better than never.

    These comments probably go some way in damage limitation to the (now badly) tarnished reputation of the NT. Simon tells us that the NT has not been oblivious, or turning a blind eye to the issue of persecution - but if that was true, raptor populations on Howden Moor and elsewhere in the Dark Peak would be flourishing. They are clearly not!

    I sincerely hope Simon's fine words are followed up with equally fine actions. The big question still, for me, is will the NT terminate its lease contract with the Howden Moor tenant? If so, when? If not, why not? Simon alludes to a termination, but is carefully non-explicit. For cynics like me, this is unconvincing.

    A message to Simon - you and your colleagues shouldn't feel persecuted; you are just being asked to be accountable, that's all.

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  5. Roderick Leslie

    Well done, Simon - the open and honest response I'd expect from you and hope will become an exemplar for everyone in the Trust ! It's good to have a dialogue with an organisation that frequently presents as megalithic & impenetrable. I fully accept that the Trust's intentions are admirable - but the seeds of some of your problems are contained in what you've written. First, as I noted before, a lot of good work goes on at the middle level but I always get a feeling of pulled punches at the top - your comments on field sports imply this. As my story illustrated it is possible to go in hard without being totally against something. The other is sensitivity to criticism - NT gets away with stacks FC never would because NT are the 'goodies' and FC aren't - perhaps its easier in FC because you are always being sniped at by all sides so all you have to do is weigh up what is right and do it. I suppose the test for you inside the Trust is the reactions you get if you say 'we just can't have this' - which clearly a lot of Trust staff feel very strongly - is there universal acceptance or is there muttering about income from shooting and influential people being upset ? If there is, that's the battle line ! I hope the Trust can work back from some big outcomes on this one - like successful breeding of Gos, Hen harrier etc - I wonder what happened to the Goyt HH ? That's a particularly difficult one because even landholdings as large as NT or FC are too small to contain HH and despite the landowners best efforts they can lose out if they stray onto neighbouring ownerships - but wouldn't it be great if NT could score successful HH next spring ?

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  6. The only comment I would like to make here, apart from thanking Simon Prior for his candour, is that as far as I was given to understand the issue concerning the protection of the Goyt hen harriers last year was different to what Simon has stated. There was no effort to install a 24 hour watch over the site. Such an important initiative was suggested by a number of concerned individuals, but sadly was never introduced. Had a 24 hour watch taken place the outcome perhaps would have been far better for all concerned, including the nesting harriers.

    Terry Pickford, North West Raptor Protection Group

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  7. Mike Price

    I would like to correct a mistake in the article, there wasn't a 24 hour watch on the Hen Harriers in the Goyt in 2011, I believe there was one when they were successful in 1997.

    I find it interesting that Simon or the NT should feel under pressure shall we say? over articles published and comments made on your blog Mark, I feel that this type dialogue vital if there is to be any progress made with respect to the persecution in this area and that the National Trust would benefit greatly from taking part in these discussions.

    Maybe the National Trust could offer some financial support to the local raptor groups to help fund some of the newer technologies available to track and monitor raptors in the area.

    Things like PiT tags on Merlin could help to prove how well they are doing in the area and we could see if these are new birds coming into the area or indeed returning birds from previous years.

    Satellite tagging Goshawk might be a useful deterant and would offer a real insight into how much time these birds actually spend in the woods/on the moorlands etc.

    I am sure that the groups would welcome any support or interaction with regards to monitoring and protecting raptors in the area.

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    • keith mills

      i believe tagging ringing and fitting anything else such as wing tags, satelite trackers etc etc etc is an unessessary burdon to birds and for the limited information gathered frankly just not worth it?

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      • Mark

        Keith - welcome to this blog. I think that the concerns you raise are ones that are, generally, taken seriously by those that ring etc. They are very important considerations.

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  8. Many thanks for the reply Simon, and thank you Mark for stimulating it. Could this be the first chink of light through what has hitherto been a firmly closed door? I agree with Rod Leslie and John Miles - it would be very easy indeed for the NT to show it is truly sincere and does give FULL support (i.e. including its higher echelons - the individual Council members) by requesting its members (in print), to sign the petition in favour of vicarious liability, and by doing so itself as well as requesting the so-called (self-styled) 'greenest government ever' to listen to its voters. At the moment the 'Dark Peak' firmly lives up to its name! And for 'Dark Peak' simply substitute the Yorkshire Moors and much of Bowland and the true picture emerges. If things improve in these 'black holes for raptors' we might truly be getting somewhere.

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    • Mark

      Tony - welcome and thank you for your comment.

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  9. Dennis Ames

    Oh come on Simon,two comments from Mark make you feel persecuted,well nowhere near as persecuted as raptors on land owned by N T and if no crimes were committed then you would not have even had a comment from Mark.
    Sadly your record so far is not good and if these people do not respect your needs on raptors you need to make the rules stronger or lease to people who will obey your rules.You really cannot expect us to believe you are innocent of knowing what is happening on the land you are responsible for and the money contributed from members deserve you to be more responsible.

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    • Jonathan Wallace

      Dennis, to be fair to Simon he does explicitly say that the Trust is not oblivious to the problem and that with respect to the Peak District they have been "very concerned (and vocal) about the low numbers and poor breeding success of birds of prey for some time" so I don't think he is pretending to be innocent of knowing what is going on. Have they been doing enough about it, though? Well obviously not in the sense that raptor populations are severely depressed in the area but in that sense nobody has been doing enough. For reasons that have been well rehearsed on this blog and elsewhere it is not easy to stop raptor persecution because the perpetrators do it in secret and most of the time the crime itself is undetected and only becomes apparent as a bird fails to return to its nest or when the population declines. The National Trust cannot throw tenants off their land on the basis that bird of prey numbers are too low any more than the RSPB can bring a prosecution without actual evidence of a crime being committed.
      Once a prosecution has taken place then the Trust is, of course, in a unique position to do something and it will be interesting to see what happens with respect to Howden Moor now that the appeal has been rejected. Simon indicates that renewal of leases in the Dark Peak will definitely reflect the upholding of the Trusts core principles and that “A change in the fortunes of birds of prey on Trust land in the Peak District will be an expectation in any shooting tenancy”. I think these should be taken as welcome public commitments and it will be interesting to see if the Trust can and will stand by them. I hope so. If they do not, of course, they can expect many more critical blogs from the conservation community.

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  10. Robin Edwards

    Thank you Simon for qualifying NT stance on raptor persecution - let's hope that these intentions can be borne out for the 2012 breeding season.

    I have to say that I am still struggling with the conflicting views though when I see what the NT chairman has to say about raptors. A follow-up article where Simon changes his mind I cannot find.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/may/09/wildlife.conservation

    Let me remind you of some words from the NT Chairman that caused me any many others I know to cancel their NT membership :-

    "Only in jail-mad Britain is bird-egg collecting an imprisonable offence."

    "I accept that the sight of kites and buzzards wheeling in the sky over the Welsh mountains is thrilling. But the arrival in British towns of these cannibals, however majestic, is a heavy price to pay for the loss of songbirds."

    "The sight of a bird is a delight, but its song is the very music of heaven. So keep the raptors in their place."

    Robin

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    • Redwoods

      Simon Jenkins is a journalist, and wrote that article in May 2008.
      His article was controversial and was aimed at the RSPB I think.
      He became NT Chairman in Nov 2008.
      He is still a journalist.

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  11. Stella

    I agree with Ruth - actions speak louder than words.

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  12. Paul Risley

    I also agree with Ruth's comments, words are all to easy, now is the time for action from the National Trust, They have allowed these people the privilege to shoot on its land in a national park, for these people this privilege wasn’t enough. ****************************************

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    • Mark

      Paul - thank you, I have edited your comment by removing the last sentence to avoid, perhaps, causing offence and controversy.

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  13. paul Irving

    I must say thank you to Simon for his honesty but sorry you are feeling persecuted. However it is time to stand and be counted, if the NT do not resecind the tenancy of Brown's employerI can assure you the water will get hotter. Raptor persecution on grouse moors is hardly unknown nor is the appalling state of raptor populations in the Dark Peak a well kept secret, far from it, it has been well publicised in the past. The time for talking about what is expected of tenants and what NT will or will not do is well past. If NT is to retain any credibility on this issue it is action we need, and a public statement of intent.

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  14. Roderick Leslie

    I've just read Simon Jenkins again. Eek ! Noone could better illustrate the increasingly terrifying danger (principally from the impacts of climate change) we face from the ecological illiteracy of a large chunk of the ruling/chattering classes - this is one failure of education which really does threaten every one of us.

    A task for Simon, perhaps, who if anyone can might be able to explain the basic science to his Chairman !

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  15. Dennis Ames

    What a funny article in the Guardian,completely irrelevant as the number of raptors in the town and countryside may be relevant to song birds at a stretch but certainly nothing to do with the scarcity of raptors on Grouse moors.Think the article gives us a insight into the thoughts of N T on raptors.Quite disgraceful for major landowning group calling itself a charity.

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  16. Joe W

    Having just read Simon Jenkins article for the first time, I am nearly lost for words. Rod Leslies description of "ecological illiteracy" sums it up perfectly. I note that the article was written in May 2008, a good few months before he was appointed NT chairman and this is perhap what astounds me the most. What were the NT council thinking?
    The decision regarding whether or not to renew the family NT membership has been made easier, I'll give the money to my local Wildlife Trust instead.

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  17. Raptor persecution is important, but is just one facet of nature conservation.

    Simon states that "Even more passionately expressed is my colleagues’ desire to see wildlife flourish on every bit of our land." Yet the NT has 1) no national database setting out what wildlife occurs on what bit of land, 2) no monitoring program to determine what is flourishing or otherwise on any site or across the NT's landholding and 3) no list of species and habitats with targets for what it is aiming to conserve or restore on its landholding.

    I do hope that Simon continues to regularly ask the question “What will best help us to look after special places, for everyone and for ever”, because one of the obvious answers is to invest in the centralised expertise and resources to enable NT staff to fulfill their stated passion, and to catalog the resource so that its conservation status can be ascertained.

    Best wishes

    Matt

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    • Mark

      Matt - many thanks for this

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  18. Jim Clarke

    Simon it may well be 'that tenants and game keepers have been made abundantly aware of our position on compliance with the law, and our goal of seeing healthy populations of birds of prey' (though i doubt all your staff are making these points). But your tenants have, and will continue to ignore you. If you wish to the see the NT's image in the Peaks raised above the soiled one it currently has then it's time for action. Is it beyond the NT to demand that any infringement of the law by tenants or their staff will result in immediate termination of lease?

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