Guest Blog – You can be a member of the RSPB & a gamekeeper by Rob Yorke

me1Rob Yorke is a countryman with two hats: one as a chartered surveyor paying his mortgage,  the other as a rural commentator passionate about an informed countryside debate. He has lived in west Scotland, north England, London and now permanently in south Wales. He stalks The Times’ letter pages but it’s cheaper to follow him at twitter.com/blackgull.

I should declare my interest. I like birds; watching them, feeding them, listening to them, hunting them and eating them. A member of Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), British Association of Shooting & Conservation (BASC) and RSPB who is frustrated by polarised debates over conservation that alienate balanced discussion with potentially detrimental impacts on wildlife.

In this dangerously collaborative opinion piece, I expect few plaudits from any polarised camp members.

The countryside, 75% of it agricultural, is home to two inextricably linked requirements; food and biodiversity. Nature reserves and gardens may appeal as areas for domesticated conservation policies close to a majority urban population, but it is vast swathes of farmland from salt marsh to uplands, that hold the bulk of large scale ecosystems necessary for biodiversity and food production.

The politics that flavour everyday life but often mean little to the long term health of the environment, cannot be ignored. Politics dictate policy and policy demands data.

The Farmland Bird Index (FBI) is one such tool. Some believe it’s an index of how chickens fare on farmland, others wield it as a stick on how farming has somehow buggered up birds. The FBI, made up of 19 generalist and specialist birds all dependent on lowland agriculture, is used as a barometer of the countryside’s health. The State of the UK’s Birds 2012 report influences policy and much of the data is provided by, amongst others, volunteers spending just two mornings a year counting birds in a 1km square. 

 Both these data tools indicate overall long term declines in what are perceived as priority bird species; from grey partridges and skylarks, to wood warblers and tree sparrows; except that no one actually knows how well skylarks are doing in the neglected uplands.

 And this is where it all gets a bit warped. The very mention of some conservation organisations, let alone allowing them onto their land to count birds, sets teeth grating and puts hackles up. The responses from farmers for my debate paper, New demands; old countryside’ on being asked ‘Were they members of the RSPB?’ ranged from the quizzical to the rude.

 Agri-enviro schemes, publically funded and supported by the RSPB, are lauded for their take up but alas, have done little to boost farmland birds.Alan Buckwell, previous policy director at the Country Land & Business Association (CLA), told me; ‘If farmers set their minds to getting the FBI to go up by feeding them, providing habitat and ensuring they can breed, then the whole discourse might be different.’ Sir John Lawton (of Making Space for Nature) has said that where predator control works, we should get on with it.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) must take its teeth out of the RSPB and the RSPB must stop pandering to their members’ subjective feelings which can result in unscientific policy on the ground. Is it terrified of offending and losing members who own bird-chomping cats or facing the music when they shoot tern-eating foxes? Has ‘dry’ science been eschewed by all to enable antagonistic ‘juicier’ fund raising campaigns as a better way for organisations to raise funds from members?

In an e-petition, campaign-led culture, uncomfortable conservation conversations are bypassed as we rely on others to undertake conservation work on our behalf. Perhaps it’s time to highlight our own wasteful consumer choice’s impact on wildlife living alongside us, while stretching out, over the informed minority, to reach the uniformed majority? 

When some set out to save ‘cute’ looking birds, rather than tackle non-native invasive species, and others believe they should be producing food at any cost, rather than husbanding soils, both pay scant regard to trade-offs that might interfere with their respective campaign. Tim Benton, UK Food Security Champion, demonstrates that crop yields (organic or conventional), and not farming practices per se, have significant impacts on some biodiversity and RSPB’s Mike Clarke talks about conservationists needing to confront trade-offs implicit within multiple land uses; these types of input should help us break up the ‘spinning’, tussling lobbyists to seek to build on synergies gained from positive examples of successful outcomes.

Cash is tight and the countryside needs funds for improving farming efficiency and improving agri-enviro schemes. Money flows easier down politically acceptable slopes and the government wobbles between listening to a million membership group and thousands strong trade association groups; both of which have valid issues to raise – even if the former has countless research papers (not all in the public domain), more press officers than Defra and receives, excluding grants, millions from the public purse.

Steve Redpath, conservation scientist, says; “engagement via dialogue is likely to be far more productive in these debates than relying on enforcement”. Now is the time to initiate dialogue between landowners, farmers and conservationists to work towards robust solutions for competing land uses. Avoid enforcement by weeding out poor practice, dispel disapproval of game shooting or farming methods, and engage in models similar to BASC’s Green Shoots. This programme, endorsed by government nature conservation agencies, builds on common ground to link shooters and non-shooting conservation organisations for the benefit of wildlife and all parties.

There are plenty of examples of progressive agri-business farmers boosting biodiversity and shooting interests working with the RSPB to help birds alongside sustain vital economic viability that underpins a vibrant, healthy countryside.

It is too easy to talk around problems rather than work towards solutions: let’s bring in GWCT’s science, blend it withCLA’s strong interrelationship between food & environmental security, combine Royal Agricultural Society of England’s ‘Sustainable intensification & farmland birds’ with the NFU’s Farming Delivers and top up with the RSPB’s Volunteer & Farmer Alliance to move us all in a positive, non partisan direction.

Farming, countryside and conservation organisations have to accept there are shared challenges that come with joint responsibilities of producing food and enhancing biodiversity. From a need to assess more accurate bird numbers, to sponsoring objective science, we must all aim to find long term solutions (even if unpalatable at times) that benefit both our health and that of the environment.

57 Comments

  1. John Miles says:

    One of the best known gamekeepers in this area was a ‘twitcher’! He has retired now but worked for a land owner who allowed him to produce the goods and still have birds of prey. It was the neighbouring game keepers that were the problem complaining about what he was leaving like Goshawk and Buzzard. Greed is still the greatest threat to the countryside.

    • Connormead says:

      John I’m not sure it’s greed. I’m pushed to think of a shoot in my locality that has made a decent ‘profit’ over the past five years. The price of fuel, wheat, the unpredictability of the weather and of course the financial climate the UK is in has all played a part in the health of all but the very largest shoots. Although some might choose to ignore the fact, all but a very small percentage of game shoots in this country are either DIY syndicate shoots or small commercial ventures shooting less than twenty days a season.

      In my humble opinion, the lot of the game keeper is marred by ignorance and blinded by a polarisation of ‘Old country views and practices’. As the blog says in summation, unless both sides of the equation are prepared to see, digest and understand each others views then it’s the countryside and our wildlife that ultimately suffers.

    • Trimbush says:

      Greed ?

      That’ll be the opposite of ENVY then !

  2. A lot of good common sense. However, while the shooting fraternity continue to insist on releasing hundreds of thousands of pheasants into the countryside, I find it difficult to accept common ground. Were hunting based on a natural surplus, as it could be with deer, I would have no objections. But releasing predators like pheasants (if you were a slow worm or lizard you would consider a pheasant as a predator) surely needs control. Furthermore, when re-introductions by conservationists are contemplated screening for disease prevention is a major consideration but not, apparently, when pheasants and other game are released.

    • Rob Yorke says:

      John.
      Have a look at RSPB’s Report 40 (link above under ‘not all in the public domain’) http://www.scribd.com/doc/121450218/Impacts-of-non-native-gamebird-release-in-the-UK-a-review-RSPB-Research-Report-40-2010.
      Where good practice, i.e. low density releasing of pheasants, it benefits biodiversity but high densities have a understandably poor impact. Agree that shooting fraternity needs to grasp this and GWCT is trying to lead on this via their Campaign4Game. http://www.gwct.org.uk/support_us/campaign4game/default.asp

      • Andrew Kelly says:

        Don’t quite see how shooting benefits biodiversity. For example if you shoot all the grey squirrels you have reduced biodiversity. I think shooting overstates its case for conservation – the reality is that historically people hunted on land with high biodiversity and that has been maintained – the high biodiversity isn’t there because of shooting – its a classic case of reverse causation in my opinion. Its a pity too that shooting supporters say that habitat would be lost if there was no shooting. Why? Don’t shooters want to conserve biodiversity unless they get to shoot some of it – seems a rather selfish attitude to me. Anyway – all for the debate.

        • Tom Jewers says:

          It’s not that shooters don’t want diodiversity, but you have to realise that feed cover crops cost money to grow and maintain. No shoot means that the landowner either pays for it out of his own pocket or plants a crop to earn him money. Everyone has to earn a living.

    • Giles Bradshaw says:

      technically pretty much everything is a predator even animals that predate plants

  3. Andrew Kelly says:

    Interesting blog for sure, but I don’t consider myself to be polarised. I just find shooting animals for fun to be unacceptable and that is not going to change.

    • Mark says:

      I have to agree with Andrew here.
      That is my starting point; where we go after that is up for debate – financial, moral, and acceptable or not!

      • Rob Yorke says:

        Mark
        Perhaps having ‘gamekeeper’ in my heading has muddied the waters! My blog is about more than just shooting – you’re entitled to dislike shooting (whether rough shooting for the pot or commercial pheasant shooting) but if that pits you against anyone with a gun, even if they are enhancing biodiversity, planting woods etc, we are on a slippery slope.
        I’m aware that it is very hard for many of us to understand hunting/shooting – for today’s meat eater, someone else in an abattoir does the ‘killing’ on our behalf – but we must see beyond our own prejudices to acknowledge other views & threats; that was the thrust of my blog and that Mark Avery echoed in his own Janus moment back in May 2011:

        “Rarely does someone shoot a skylark or stamp on its nest but our over-consumption drives species declines much more certainly than could a man with a gun.”

        • Mark says:

          That’s why I said that after shooting animals for fun, the debate may begin.
          Just so you know where I start from……. I worked as a shepherd on an estate in southern England many years ago. Workers were ‘expected’ to beat for the boss.
          I managed to absent myself, but eventually did see a drive of the released pheasants being shot. From my angle most crash landed from an overload of lead, not from being killed.
          An abattoir is a different argument as far as I am concerned; but killing is, or never should be ‘fun’!
          As to the debate heading into habitat destruction, cats, human over population, etc., please don’t get me started.

          • Lazywell says:

            Oh, go on Mark; please get started on cats. Do you agree with Rob that the RSPB should stop being so “terrified of offending and losing members who own bird-chomping cats”? Or do you still support the RSPB’s stance that we shouldn’t really worry that cats kill over 55 million birds a year because they would have died anyway? http://www.rspb.org.uk/advice/gardening/unwantedvisitors/cats/birddeclines.aspx

          • Mark says:

            Lazywell – 55 million birds die. I’m pretty sure that Benjamin Franklin wrote “The only things certain in life are death and taxes.” rather than “cats and taxes”. You’ll be telling me that the cats ate the hen harriers next…

            When I worked for the RSPB I was never terrified of any of the RSPB’s 1.1 million members – some of whom own cats. It is, as far as I know, one of those urban myths, put about by people like, well, like you actually, that the RSPB membership own lots of cats and the RSPB staff are scared stiff of offending them. It’s an amusing image but I don’t recognise it fitting with reality. But maybe the last two years have allowed me to forget being under the thumb of the cat-owners…

          • Mark W says:

            I’m sorry, I think I am causing confusion as my name is Mark. But I’m not Mark Avery.
            I have made 2 entries above here, one starts ‘I have to agree with Andrew here….’ & the other says ‘That’s why I said that after shooting animals for fun…………’
            Mark W.

            PS…..Cats: In Australia I saw a car sticker that said “The only good cat is a flat cat”.
            I agree!

          • Giles Bradshaw says:

            I used to keep cattle and still do keep a few sheep. At the end of the day I have to acknowledge that as it’s not a commercial enterprise I did/do this for ‘fun’. That doesn’t make it any better or worse in my view. I enjoyed taking them to the abbatoir and I enjoyed picking up the proceeds. I’ve helped kill sheep, pigs and chickens and I can’t say the experience has ruined my day. It’s easy to denigrate ‘fun’ as if it was something meaningless but actually it is central to who we are as human beings.

        • Andrew Kelly says:

          Rob,
          I also don’t think I its useful to say that those of us that think shooting for fun need to set aside our prejudices. I am not prejudiced in any way – I simply do not think animals should be shot for fun. I see and understand shooters views but will always be against shooting for fun. The difference is that my stance does no harm to animals – yours potentially does.

          • Rob Yorke says:

            Andrew
            Yes, probably the wrong use of the word predujice. Apologies for that. What I meant is that those that don’t like shooting should not dismiss everyone who does goes shooting as a fun-to-harm-animal person when unfunny modern consumption (I know I go on re consumption) harms more animals out of sight & sound. I’m not talking factory chickens but the displacement of habitat here or abroad, to provide the chicken feed at the cost that enables supermarkets to fill their shelves at a price we judge as affordable which excludes the cost to the environment.

            That is unless you are a vegetarian or vegan!

      • Giles Bradshaw says:

        Why would shooting for fun be your starting point? Surely it’s the effect that an activity has – (negative, positive or both) that is the important thing not whether it is fun or not? To give two examples say for the sake of the argument some killing for fun activity was benefiting animal welfare or maybe conservation. Would this benefit outweigh the ‘shooting for fun aspect’? I suspect for you it would Mark

  4. Roderick Leslie says:

    Are we even arguing about the right things ?

    I agree with a lot of what Rob says – and have practised his ideas with some success (if public support for the Forestry Commission is anything to go by) on the third major land use after farming and urban – woodlands & forestry.

    However, there is a fundamental flaw in his & most other arguments, including the main conservation bodies, in accepting the agricultural dominance of the countryside. When Europe was close to starvation in 1947 the absolute priority given to agriculture in UK land use policy was right. I perosnally would hate to go back to the depressed countryside we had between the late 1800s and 1939. However times, and the climate (real not political !), have changed. Food is not the only resource and our extension of technology way beyond the wildest dreams of the 1947 policy makers is doing more and more collateral damage. We urgently need to re-balance to take account of physical issues like water – both flood and supply quantity and quality – and human, the sort of environment a largely urban society with and urban based economy wants to live in. Tommorrows funeral should be a moment to pause and remember that there is more to life, health and happiness than money alone. I think we should be paying land managers up front for all the services land is providing – and we can afford it. The 2007 floods cost the country more than the whole of that year’s agricultural subsidies. We need to get our heads round the idea of paying farmers to farm water, foresters to rpivide beautiful places for people to relax – and to re-balance an agriculture where technology and the ‘if we can do it that means we should do it’ rationale always wins to have a more ethical dimension – that respects both the environment and the people who steward our landscapes.

    • Rob Yorke says:

      Roderick
      You say ‘we can afford it’ – I assume you mean us, the consumer, can afford to pay more not just for food but for other public benefits (aka ecosystem services) from farmers. That’s where we are heading, though the mindsets of consumers, and our consumption, will have to change as much as farmers will have to adapt to farming more than just food.
      The 30% we spend on food 40 years ago is now 12% of our disposable income but many will resist (and government be terrified of – thinking Arab Spring) this % increasing.
      Import more food? Lower animal welfare, ransomed to a global market when harvests fail & China wants the grain, pressure on biodiversity elsewhere…
      We must link our own consumption with our wildlife – no point connecting to nature until we connect to food – they come from the same place.

  5. Diapensia says:

    If only things were simple. Is it possible to have a written methodology to cover every event. I doubt it. It seems to me, after many years of looking at wildlife and habitats, that each situation needs to be looked at in its own right. There are pros and cons regarding shooting, whether for “sport” or “control.” In some instances the “need” for control by shooting is no more than the hunter instinct in humans. It does exist. Put a loaded gun in someones hands and when a pheasant flies up in front the first thought is to shoot. Only when this instinct is lost will we see true Conservation. Shooters will say that their feed bins for pheasants also provide winter food for other birds, which would otherwise struggle to find enough to live on. This is also true, as over-wintering stubble is now all but removed. We have created problems ourselves by allowing recent foreign deer introductions, wild boar running rampant etc. etc. I do not think there is a simple answer, except part of the cure is to remove all recent introductions, well meaning or not. Whether to take a stance to protect our land and wildlife should not be in question. When asked for his opinion regarding what sort of “trade off” should be accepted in exchange for environmental destruction, William Bunting said, SAY NO AND MEAN NO!

    • Mark says:

      Rob – the comment by ‘Mark’ was by a different Mark from the ‘owner’ of this blog – just to be clear.

    • Rob Yorke says:

      Diapensia
      William Bunting was around when population & concerns over food security weren’t top of the agenda: now there are 62 million of us in the UK, most living in cities. Some trade-offs are inevitable (see my link above re RSPB’s Clarke) and it’s how we manage or ‘pay’ for them – biodiversity offsetting so we can have affordable food? – that we must act on.

  6. Jonathan Wallace says:

    I agree that Rob’s article contains some good common sense and it is fair to say that progress in balancing the conservation of wildlife with other land uses must eventually involve some cooperation and dialogue between the various interested parties. However, there is a very long history of nature losing out wherever human economic interests confront wildlife needs and there has been a steady impoverishment of the fauna and flora of much of the countryside as a result. It is important therefore that those who seek to protect the interests of nature should maintain a high degree of intransigence in the face of the various threats it faces and dialogue and cooperation should not be confounded with retreat and surrender.

    • Rob Yorke says:

      Jonathan

      You state, accurately, that: “It is important therefore that those who seek to protect the interests of nature should maintain a high degree of intransigence in the face of the various threats it faces..”

      When Bill Sutherland http://www.conservationevidence.com/ said that 77% of conservation management actions are based solely on anecdotal evidence rather than scientific data, is allied with the threat of rising food prices (‘a human economic interest’), we should start to look closely at solutions and not just ‘hold fast our positions’.

      Sustainable intensification (terrible words but right outcome of more from less) of food production must be examined alongside ‘intensification’ of scientific led conservation. Winter feeding of farmland birds is just one example – and see the RASE link in my penultimate para.

      The RSPB is not anti-GM if it takes the pressure off biodiversity & doesn’t damage wildlife but is waiting for others to take the lead in how to feed the world.

      Messrs Packham, Attenborough & Porritt are all patrons of http://www.populationmatters.org/ for as well as ‘protecting the interests of nature’, they are acutely aware to us being the nub of it all!

  7. Gert Corfield says:

    Rob, I too am a Chartered Surveyor and as such recognise your skills are in negotiation, compromise, coordination and enforcement! So good on you for posting this blog! I have a passion for the countryside, my best friends are farmers, but I don’t shoot and I don’t consider myself a country person (what is that anyway?).

    Is your solution to place the conservation of farmland wildlife (as its not just about birds of course) in the hands of those organisations you list in the penultimate paragraph of your blog, with a nod to the RSPB to provide the survey work? Personally I can’t see this providing any additional benefits given that interests are driven by the sport of shooting first (and profit) and conservation second (or incidental to it).

    It’s a shame that your blog is largely dismissive of the the work done by the RSPB. On the farms I’ve been involved with through V&FA, Agri Environmental schemes have had tremendously positive effects particularly HLS of course. The current uncertainties around these continuing is causing much concern for those coming towards the end of their agreements with nothing to replace them – other than of to grow wheat to maintain an income. Who is lobbying government and Europe on this? I only ever seem to hear the RSPB.

    • Rob Yorke says:

      Gert

      Prior to my blog, I pressed the RSPB on further info on their Volunteer & Farmer Alliance scheme and their website (see my link in the penulltimate para) gives an update of unknown future funding for this.
      Agri-environment schemes are great but the easy, existing options are taken up with only targeted HLS schemes providing the outcomes. This Dutch study makes for an uncomfortable read:

      http://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar_url?hl=en&q=http://www.stat.ucla.edu/~dinov/courses_students.dir/STAT10_Fall01/STAT10_Fall01/NaturePaperSamplingProtocol.pdf&sa=X&scisig=AAGBfm1g0JH1zQKviA-hFZW7-Fh36e5p9Q&oi=scholarr&ei=UV9tUc6xJIrF0QXxkIGACA&ved=0CCwQgAMoATAA

      The price of wheat is related to market demand and cost of inputs plus present World Trade Organisation criteria constrains agri-environment schemes to payments being based on additional costs and income foregone. Thus with pressure to farm for food at a time of food security issues (you wouldn’t guess it with the stuffed supermarket shelves!), environment has to compete with this consumer lead demand.

      Farmers are in a tough place – imagine the jeering you might receive from neighbours if you turned your vegetable allotment over to grass and ‘weeds’ at a time of increasing food prices? Sounds outlandish, but conservationists must get this idea as much as farmers must think of other public goods (soil, water, habitat) they should try and husband at the same time.

      • Gert Corfield says:

        Agree entirely. ELS has too many ‘easy’ options which have little environmental benefits, but this has more to do with the final options being watered down at inception due , I suspect , as a result of vested interest lobbying.

        And yes the V&FA is no longer running as originally set up. It is now more about on going monitoring of targeted areas rather than free surveys. I have been made redundant for my survey area!

        Amusingly, our farming friends do indeed receive a lot of stick from their neighbouring farmers for their weedy fallow fields left for Lapwings. I get this entireley!

  8. Hugh Webster says:

    Rob, I can appreciate you wanting to find a middle way. There was a time I felt very similarly, but time and the continuing unabated declines in wildlife have worn away at my patience. You say “now is the time to initiate dialogue between landowners, farmers and conservationists to work towards robust solutions for competing land uses” but we have tried this and too often it has achieved nothing. For an example where seven years of dialogue have failed to achieve anything, see this link:

    http://raptorpolitics.org.uk/2013/03/12/the-hawk-owl-trust-third-organisation-to-leave-hen-harrier-dialogue-process/

    It seems to me that dialogue with certain people is a waste of time. I worry that Steve Redpath’s entreaties for dialogue risk making him the Neville Chamberlain of conservation.

    Nobody suggests dialogue with tiger or rhino poachers. Why do we have to talk to people who destroy our native wildlife? Why not just have a licensing system for proper moorland management (http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/46473)?

    I used to work in southern Africa where farmers complained (quite fairly!) about lions and leopards killing their livestock. But we all want to live in a world with lions and leopards in it. Incidentally I never heard complaints about the many raptors there. In Scotland we long ago wiped out the large predators, but today some crofters and gamekeepers agitate against the sea eagle and golden eagle as a supposed threat to their livestock (sheep or red grouse). In southern England people complain about sparrowhawks or too many pigeons.

    The reality is that some people will never be happy until the environment contains nothing except monocultures and cars. Landowners are usually subsidised by tax payers. Therefore if we want to live in a biodiverse world the majority need to just set out clearly how they want the land managed and those that fail to adhere to those standards lose out.

    • Rob Yorke says:

      You’ve got it Hugh – it’s us the consumer, stupid, that will pay for it! (Excuse play on words taken from this http://www.africanglobe.net/business/consumer-stupid-lead-downturn/)

      Either we pay more for food (less on desirable luxuries not around previously?!) or we pay for how the land is managed in other ways. If you can bear any more reading, have a look at commnents under one of Times letters on this matter: http://www.scribd.com/doc/114905383/Comments-on-my-Times-letter-on-food-production-wildlife-from-Prof-Allan-Buckwell-et-al

      • Tom Jewers says:

        I think that people are missing one of the biggest factors in my opinion. Ok, farm intensification has played a part in reducing bird numbers, but I am only 34 and I can remember at least 2000 acres of arable land near my small local town which is now houses. All those fields were cross crossed with ditches and hedges, and now all people and houses (with more cats:-)). At the risk of sounding a bit ‘BNP’ we are overcrowding our small island and ruining our green and pleasant land. I’m not suggesting a solution, and I know we do not have enough houses for everyone, but I feel a lot of pressure on us farmers to reduce our business profits in order to further support bird populations, when the total amount of farmland and therefore habitat is slowly being concreted over.

    • Giles Bradshaw says:

      “The reality is that some people will never be happy until the environment contains nothing except monocultures and cars.” To be fair I suspect many of the crofters don’t.

  9. Atropos says:

    So what are we are actually trying to achieve in our countryside? Is there a shared vision for us to work towards? Are we looking for an agricultural landscape feeding the nation and with farmland bird populations back to their pre-1970 levels (when the Farmland Bird Index starts from)? Or are we just trying to achieve ‘sustainability’, healthy farmland producing food and stable wildlife populations?

    Why have we used 1970 as an arbitrary starting point for bird populations on a range of ‘habitats’ which have evolved over centuries. We are not going to return to populations of farmland birds as they were several decades ago, and in some cases (eg Turtle Dove) species will be gone in the next 20 years or (eg Lapwing) gone from lowland farmland in the next 50 years.

    The Farmland Bird Index is a useful tool in a policy advocacy context, demonstrating that there is a conservation need to have mechanisms (A-E schemes) to support landowners in managing habitats for wildlife. But it can be a poor tool for having conversations with farming audiences. Using a negative message (e.g. declines in wildlife) is not the best way to get someone to do something. For me the message ‘if you do x, y & z, you will get financial support from A-E, and you will get more of species x’ is better than ‘species x is declining therefore you must enter an A-E scheme and do x, y & z’.

    I also think that having farmland birds dominating the debate on farmland wildlife populations is not especially helpful. Sure, data is better for birds than other species, but we have seen recent reports on the state of butterflies and moths in the countryside (clue, their not doing very well). I think we need to look at the ‘non-birds’. It is all too easy to see controlling magpies and sparrowhawks (or cats!) as the answer to reversing farmland bird declines, rather than debate the real solutions. But it is much more difficult to do this when talking about butterflies and moths (unless we want to start culling caterpillar-munching blue tits).

    Don’t we also ignore the uplands too readily? Upland birds are poorly representing on the FBI (eg curlew, meadow pipit), yet this is the landscape which delivers a large amount of ecosystem services and is home to a huge amount of wildlife found nowhere else in the country.

    Are A-E schemes are too heavily bird focussed? The wetland options are a great example of where someone can be creating wet grasslands for lots of priority species and maybe protect peat soils, but because there are no waders on it, this is deemed a failure. The future A-E needs to look more widely at a range of taxa, take the uplands more seriously, consider ecosystem services and look beyond the individual farm level.

    And is it really up to just those organisations listed towards the end of the blog? I think we need to look beyond the usual suspects, the debate has not moved on much in the last few years and farmland wildlife is still declining.

    • Rob Yorke says:

      Atropos

      Agree re uplands and your final para is most telling – “look beyond the usual suspects” – you mean go beyond the informed minority and open it for a ‘national conversation with the uninformed majority?

      A rural expert once said to me –
      ‘My fear is that this sort of material produced within farmings/conservation organisations only circulates within those organisations and is not noticed by the ‘public’ you are trying to communicate with’

      He went on – ‘By signing up people for things on which their livelihood does not depend, the members join in a vague way for fighting the cause. This then frees up the staff in those organisation to make up their own policies’

      Which polices do we take heed of? Anything that affects our pocket – my needle grinds blunter – connect our consumption with wildlife and be prepared to pay more for public goods (aka ecosystem services – water catchment areas, carbon store etc) beyond food.

      • Atropos says:

        Certainly not. I am not saying give a voice to people who don’t know what their talking about. Just that the countryside is about more than shooting and birdwatching.

        • Rob Yorke says:

          Atropos
          Why not? We are the ones paying for it: farm yard, picture postcard, water catchment, bird reserve, leisure park et al.
          It just needs more nuanced packaging than the odd episode of Countryfile for us, the majority, to discuss.

  10. Roderick Leslie says:

    No Rob, I think you’ve missed my point (you are in good company !). We currently spend C £800m on flood defence, another £800 m cleaning diffuse pollution out of our water. At the moment progress in the countryside, whether conservation, water quantity or quality or new woodlands, is stymied by having first to buy off the £200/ha paid as a right to virtually every ha of farmland, 70% of our countryside. Imagine a world where farmers were contracted to use that money to provide what we most need from their particular land. The reality is with us already – EA have made it quite clear they are not going to invest millions preventing the farmland flooding in the Somerset Levels this year. Wouldn’t it be far better for everyone, especially farmers facing ruin if the climate continues as it seems to be going, to use the existing CAP payment + a top up from the flood budget massively smaller than trying to hold back the tide to effectively swing with the natural forces to everyones advantage ?

    • Rob Yorke says:

      Roderick
      For sure, we are heading that way. Payment for public goods (ecosystem services I’ve mentioned; jargon, I know!) will, one day, see land ‘farmed’ for its best product or use that benefits us. Welsh hill farmers, close to my heart, will have to adapt to provide these non-agric goods and perhaps less agric i.e. pure sheep.

      Then there’s biodiversity offsetting but I bore you!

  11. Doug Mack D says:

    Rob.
    I think I agree with a lot of what you write. Almost all of it I think.
    Thanks for a great blog post – the best for some time.

    However, your:
    “Is it [the RSPB] terrified of offending and losing members who own bird-chomping cats”… can be answered pretty succinctly.

    No. (Don’t be daft).

    Or as our host (better) put it:
    “It is, as far as I know, one of those urban myths, put about by people like, well, like you actually, that the RSPB membership own lots of cats and the RSPB staff are scared stiff of offending them. It’s an amusing image but I don’t recognise it fitting with reality.”

    I’d go a bit further perhaps (although I get the feeling I “like” cats more than our host).
    Songbird survival have joined this anti-cat bandwagon n all, quite recently, citing domestic cats (as well as hawks) as the destroyer of our “songbirds”.

    I’m more of a BTO man mesel (than the RSPB), but the RSPB have got it quite right when they say (as they do on their website):
    “Despite the large numbers of birds killed, there is no scientific evidence that predation by cats in gardens is having any impact on bird populations UK-wide. This may be surprising…..”

    Of course, they (cats) may be having an impact, (pretty-well everything has some sort of impact on everything else, let’s face it), but a rigorous scientific study on this has yet to be carried out and there has been no link shown as yet – its very difficult to do after all.

    You can look at the huge numbers (based on guesstimations and huge extrapolations, especially in the USA) and come to your own conclusions, of course.
    But then, you have got to think that the RSPB are engaged in some kind of giant conspiracy to keep old Mrs.Miggins and her annual subs, rather than protect our birds, as they are supposed to do (and (do) do, I have little doubt).

    In fact, if one looks at the most oft-caught spp of birds by cats in the UK (rather than say…. America or Australasia…. very different kettles of fish), most of these are garden bird spp and most are doing pretty-well considering all those moggies.
    Sure, there are birds like dunnocks, starlings and thrushes that are having troubles it seems, but most of the other UK birds that cats might take regularly are pretty fine – some are really increasing in number in fact. (Check the BTO state of our birds report). Now that’s strange huh?

    Almost invariably when one considers population declines, one generally doesn’t have to look too much further than food and/or habitat loss.
    Not domestic cats (or for that matter wild hawks).

    And in general, these declining bird spp. are specialists, especially farmland specialists – cats are pretty unlikely to have much of an effect on these spp, no matter what the anti-cat brigade profess (with a fair amount of bile, often).

    Cats may be having local effects on population recovery perhaps, but a national or long term decline? Hard to see that really.

    Nah.
    The RSPB have shown that they are not afraid of offending some of their members in recent times.
    Take the ruddy duck programme as just one example.
    Plenty of RSPB members didn’t like these words from the organisation:
    “The RSPB welcomes the European Commission’s support for efforts to eradicate ruddy ducks from the UK.”
    But it happened anyway….

    Yep…. almost all of what you write I agree with Rob.
    But the RSPB/cat thing?
    Red herring.

    • Rob Yorke says:

      Doug
      Cats? Agree, forget ’em. Agree. Taking 50mill blue tits means nothing.
      Worry about the previous animal in the alphabet; when badger threatens to chow down on the last nesting stone curlew…

  12. Pip Howard says:

    A refreshing read which highlights what does appear to be a problem predominantly in Anglophone countries, although I can only guess that Anglo Saxons do seem to prefer having walls in place. I agree wholeheartedly with Rob in the comments with regards paying land owners and possibly practitioners also and I believe the silly sums of wasted money from offsetting markets is more than enough to pay for this, with tangible returns. I’ve said it before, but I really feel the UK in particular has missed out historically with having no equivalent of ‘Terroir’ – which would empower local producers in local landscapes as well as protecting biodiversity as an essential element to whatever taste is created. The money in good terroir produce is extraordinary compared to what the average UK farmer is used to.

    Thanks again for a good dose of common sense – anything that comes from the middle ground, on top of the fence and looking into both plots, is so valuable at a time when everything seems to drift towards debate no matter how solid the science is.

  13. Diapensia says:

    Hello Rob, you don,t look old enough to have known WB.

  14. Ian Coghill says:

    I think Rob’s blog contribution has been the most interesting for a long time. My own take on it is that the real conservation problem is more than 60 million people wanting cheap food and energy in a country which has not fed itself for over 100 years and which has no wish to make any of the sacrifices needed to deal with the situation. Instead of addressing the real issues, which are too big and painful, we fight over whose morality is best and who to blame for the latest problem.
    While we revel in our cleverness and rightousness, the things we care about go to hell in a handcart.
    Yesterday everyone was ‘disappointed’ that the Chinese economy only grew by 7.7%, that’s equivalent to manufacturing an entirely new country the size of Belgium and some. This country ‘needs’ to build houses equivalent to three Birminghams in the next decade or so. It is possible that in my life time you will be able to drive from the Channel to Cumbria without leaving a built up area or seeing anything that approximates to wild.
    Faced with challenges of that magnitude it is entirely understandable that some people prefer to focus on supposedly greedy farmers and evil gamekeepers.
    I have grown old extending the hand of friendship to people who would rather see what we both claim to love disappear than take common cause with someone who does things they neither understand nor approve of but I will keep at it while I’m here. Welcome aboard Rob. Keep trying but prepare for disappointment.

  15. Stella says:

    Sorry Rob Yorke but I think you have rather confused all the issues in your attempt to link everything and everybody. Agree that all parties should work together but to do that there has to be some concensus on desired outcome. Can’t really see that this is achievable for the organisations you mention. Talking is all very well but has it and will it actually achieve anything. Probably not.

    Indeed I’d suggest that all this continual talking is muddying the waters. Fact is that most of the decisions affecting the countryside, wildlife etc are political and politicians like nothing better than talking – it makes it look as though they are doing something when in fact they are masters at doing very little. Few of them appear to understand the issues – all of them are intent on being re-elected. You are right on one thing Rob, the majority do not seem to engage in the fundamental issues. Until they do politicians will not engage either.

    Simon Barnes summed it up nicely on Saturday “We are sitting on a branch merrily sawing it off at the trunkward side, still arguing about whether or not branches need trunks.”

    • Rob Yorke says:

      Stella
      Confused? Muddied waters? Think how the average punter views this. They don’t. Just pay a charming conservation NGO and get on with life.
      SB, mmmm, great journalist. Brilliant at tugging emotional heartstrings, less at setting out whole picture (indeed, why should he when he’s selling a newspaper?) & pointing out how we as individuals have own responsibility to stay connected to ‘the trunk’.

  16. Interesting discussion. I’m a conservationist but I’m not altogether against shooting, although I don’t shoot myself. I think its a good skill to have and that, in the current state of the Scottish countryside, someone, sometimes has to do it. Especially roe deer and red deer. Roe deer meat is the best meat I have ever eaten and I see it as one of the important natural products of native woodlands – which can help to justify their existence to people who need financial justification for natural habitat.
    Incidentally the surplus of red deer is not altogether natural. 2 things contribute to it. 1 is stalking estates feeding deer in the winter, and another is deer stalking skewing the sex ratio by killing more males than females, and thus creating more productive herds.

  17. Diapensia says:

    I do not think that any native wildlife needs to “justify their existence” to the lowest form of wildlife in this country, namely ourselves. However, going back to food and wildlife, could part (or all) of the problem be that as long as more buildings are put on areas that were used for growing food, then the problem of where food is to be grown will continue to be a “growing problem?” This also means that to achieve the same amount of food grown, puts extra pressure on the methods of food production from a reduced area, i.e. genetic food. We seem to be chasing round in circles, instead of stopping and reviewing how we should be using the land for food production, recreation, wildlife and just as importantly, habitats in their own right. Will it take a Government inquiry before we realize what we have done to our Environment, and are still intent on doing. Would a government inquiry produce what we need? There would probably be too many people pulling in different directions (i.e. industry, building lobby) to achieve what we need. Building on agricultural land should cease, except in the case of small scale farm buildings. The problem is, there are too many people and not enough home grown food. We criticize other countries for destroying their habitats for food production, rain forests etc. but who are they growing food for, US! Wake up Britain, we are destroying the very thing we need for our survival.

    • Rob Yorke says:

      Diapensia
      The rub. Too many of us & not enough home grown food….

      Perhaps another guest blog one day (if Mark A ever asks again!). It’s been real & thanks for your and others’ comments.

  18. Mark W says:

    April 2013. A study by British scientists has documented for the first time significant new impacts to birds from outdoor cats, reporting that even brief appearances of cats near avian nest sites leads to at least a doubling in lethal nest predation of eggs and young birds by third-party animals, as well as behavioural changes in parent birds that lead to an approximately 33 percent reduction in the amount of food brought to nestlings following a predation threat.
    FROM: http://www.wildlifeextra.com/go/news/birds-killed-by-cats.html

    Now, I know some people see the whole “cats” thing as a red herring; but I see it a bit like the bees problem. One problem may not be the end of it all, but one problem, plus another, plus another……. It’s the cumalative effect of all problems put together.

    Habitat destruction, chemicals in the environment, concrete, roads etc., & yes even grey squirrels and cats…… it all adds up a little bit at a time!

    • Doug Mack D says:

      You are (of course) entitled to your own opinion Mark W.
      As am I.
      As is Karl Evans, with his tiny number of green-listed sp. nests and his stuffed cat.

      My (and the RSPB’s) stance remains pretty firm.
      No evidence. As yet.

  19. Jeffrey Olstead says:

    Perhaps Doug Mack D should take note of the extensive work done by the Amwerican Bird Conservancy on predation by cats – or even look closer to home at a new study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology (January 30, 2013) which documents the very seriouis impact of cats, reporting that “even brief appearances of cats near avian nest sites leads to at least a doubling in lethal nest predation of eggs and young birds by third-party animals, as well as behavioral changes in parent birds that lead to an approximately 33 percent reduction in the amount of food brought to nestlings following a predation threat.”
    If I were stupid enough to go out and kill 55 songbirds – one millionth of the cats’ toll – and were rightly prosecuted for the offence would the RSPB spring to my defence clainming that “they were going to die anyway”? Come to think of it, most things tend to die, so by the RSPB’s logic it really isn’t worth protecting anything.

  20. Mark W says:

    You can’t take cats by themselves, although they do take millions of birds, and mammals. It is the cumulative effect. The latest thing I saw was to blame windows.
    All I am saying is that cats are a part of the problem, as are windows, habitat loss, introduced species (especially grey squirrels), etc.
    As mentioned earlier by others too, concrete all over the countryside can’t help, over population on a small island………..
    We need to tackle it all a bit at a time, so how about starting with cats – or population anyone?

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