Nicholas Milton has worked for the BBC Natural History Unit, the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, Greenpeace and the Ramblers. He is a freelance journalist and writes about the environment, politics and the Second World War. He is also a marketing and communications consultant and is currently working with the international development charity Practical Action.
Nicholas Milton website.
Last month I wrote a comment piece for the Guardian on whether we can save the adder from extinction in middle England. My argument was that the decline of the adder was due to many reasons including habitat destruction, persecution, inbreeding and the killing of young adders by pheasants but what was pushing the species over the edge was the spread of the buzzard. The article caused quite a storm.
It was not an easy article to write as I am a big fan of both species. My first job in conservation was working with Mark in the RSPB research department back in the early 1990s. Back then the buzzard was quite rare in middle England and its spread after decades of persecution is a great conservation success story. I still get a kick from seeing a buzzard while driving along in my home county of Warwickshire and my wife is forever telling me off for craning my neck to see one when I should be concentrating on the road.
Ironically it was also at the RSPB research department that I learnt about adders. As a young researcher working on the decline of farmland birds I had pinned up an adder skin above my desk. One day out of the blue I was asked to report to the RSPBs Director General, Ian Prestt. Not as bright as Mark and without a published paper to my name I was convinced I was going to be sacked. Instead to my surprise Ian asked me where I had got the adder skin. It turned out that Ian’s PhD had been on the adder and he asked if I would like to go and see a colony with him. Over the next year we went to see adders on many occasions, including memorably with the late Derek Ratcliffe.
Ian’s boundless enthusiasm and knowledge triggered in me the start of a lifelong love affair with Britain’s only poisonous snake. Since then I have continued to monitor adders at two colonies, one in Greater London where I used to live and one at a nature reserve in Oxfordshire (sadly one of the nearest sites to my home in Warwickshire where they went extinct many years ago). Both have always supported small populations of no more than 10-20 snakes. However, this year there has been a catastrophic decline and there are now no more than 3-4 snakes present at each.
In the case of the Greater London site I put the decline down to the very wet winter and disturbance, it being a small water meadow near a public path. However, in the case of the reserve in Oxfordshire the decline is harder to explain as the site was unaffected by the floods and the warden has gone to great effort to create the right habitat for the species.
One evening after a visit when I had failed to find any snakes, I got into a long conversation with him about why the adder had disappeared from the reserve over the last few years. The site is located in the centre of red kite country in the Cotswolds and is patrolled almost constantly by both kites and buzzards. On a previous visit I had seen a buzzard with a snake in its claws and although I couldn’t tell the species, I strongly suspected it was an adder.
The warden told me that despite the presence of the kites, he also thought that it was the buzzard that had killed most of the adders. Apparently although mainly a scavenger, the buzzard is an intelligent bird and if it finds a snake will go back time and again looking for more. Given how vulnerable adders are when first emerging from hibernation and how common the buzzard has now become, we both concluded that it was the most likely cause for the disappearance of the adder from the reserve.
Of course implicating the buzzard in the decline of a species like the adder is manna from heaven for those gamekeepers and landowners would like to see buzzards taken off the protected list and culled. In the past few years under this government the buzzard has become the cause celebre when it comes to trying to reintroduce the control of birds of prey. That was why I was very careful in the article to state that for high profile shooting journalists like Patrick Laurie they have become a convenient excuse rather than a conservation cause. I also stated that as well as the buzzard we urgently needed research into the impact of pheasants killing young adders.
When I published the article I predictably got roundly attacked by conservationists but less predictably found myself in the deeply uncomfortable position of being supported by the shooting lobby. Many of the most vitriolic comments posted on the Guardian and sent to me via Twitter were understandably from people who wanted to protect the buzzard. In contrast Lucy King, the news editor of Shooting Times, stated on Twitter “such a pleasure to read such a calm and reasonably put piece” (although I’m still not sure if she was being sarcastic) while Patrick Laurie penned a memorable blog about me entitled The Evil Gamekeeper. In this he railed against the fact I had described him as a gamekeeper, not a journalist but somewhat gave the game away when he stated “my response to seeing adders killed by buzzards…..is to ask if the life of every single buzzard in Britain is individually more important than the survival of an entire species”.
Given the extent to which we have destroyed the natural world, perhaps we should not be surprised that these conservation conflicts are likely to be used politically by those with a different agenda. I often think what the late Ian Prestt would have made of the controversy. Sadly what I didn’t know at the time of our visits was that he was dying and he passed away not long after I left the RSPB (I attended his memorial service at St Pauls Cathedral and took along an adder skin as a mark of respect). I strongly believe that despite his deep love of birds and his position as the Director General of the RSPB he would have supported a rationale debate about the role of buzzards in the decline of adder.
I blogged about the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon project last week and suggested that wildlife NGOs should probably get behind it – unless they have spotted something that I have not. It looks like it should produce a decent amount of renewable energy and not do much harm top wildlife. It seems that the NGOs agree with me:
WWT’s Conservation Director, Dr Debbie Pain, says:
WWT has long considered that the opportunities presented by the nation’s tidal resources should be explored as one of a suite of other options for low carbon energy production. We also think that priority should be given to projects that can be delivered without significantly and irreversibly damaging the natural environment. This is why we were against a Severn Barrage, and also why several weeks ago we wrote a broadly supportive letter about the Swansea Bay lagoon planning application. If this lagoon goes ahead, it will tell us a great deal not only about how this technology can be used to produce low carbon energy, but also about how to manage and reduce the environmental impacts of tidal lagoons.
While no two schemes will have the same impacts, it will be essential to learn as much as possible from what would be the first tidal lagoon to help improve the design of any future projects. Of course, our support for this proof of concept scheme does not necessarily imply support for lagoons at other locations – each will need to be judged on its merits.‘
and the RSPB’s Sean Christian said:
“The Severn Estuary is an inviting source of renewable energy. We believe well planned and monitored projects are the best and most sustainable way of harnessing this potential. Encouragingly, the proposed Swansea Bay tidal lagoon could fit this model.
We welcome the constructive pre-application dialogue on wildlife matters and will continue to work with the applicant to resolve any outstanding issues throughout the pre-examination stage.
Given the novelty of this type of project, the continuing uncertainties over environmental impacts, and the appetite for roll-out of similar projects in the future, it is essential that a comprehensive and robust monitoring package is put in place to inform future development proposals and impact assessment.”
That sounds quite positive to me.
If you are a large company seeking to spend lots of money on a large development which will earn you millions of pounds then here is some advice – treat European wildlife designations seriously.
That’s all there is to it really, but history shows that companies tend not to behave as though ‘a few birds’, ‘a few fish’ or ‘a few plants’ could possibly be strongly protected enough to scupper their plans. They can – and they have in the past.
Sites designated under the EU Birds Directive (SPAs) or EU Habitats Directive (SACs) cannot be ‘developed’ unless their wildlife interest is unaffected or, if affected, there is overriding public interest for going ahead and the damage can be compensated in some way. If you want to build a port on a mudflat you would be best advised not to claim that this will cause no damage, so instead you should be thinking of how you will convince the world that your project is not just going to make you money but is of high public importance and you’d better start looking for ways to replenish wildlife that has will be damaged by your development elsewhere.
That’s a simple guide to how the system works – but it’s good enough to save you millions of pounds if you take notice of it.
In which case, you might ask, why have developers proposed to build wind farms ion protected peatlands, ports on protected mudflats and saltmarshes and barrages in protected estuaries? I don’t really know the answer but each of these things has happened in the past and none has gone ahead – costing the developers large sums of money.
It’s not as though the locations of these sites are kept secret – you can simply look them up easily enough – so that can’t be the reason!
Industry seems to rate wildlife designations alongside issues such as local opposition in terms of its ability to affect their plans. That’s a mistake. EU wildlife designations are pretty tough things – they are designed to protect the very best wildlife sites in Europe from being destroyed for short term interests.
I think there is another reason why industry can tend to act ignorantly as though wildlife designations are unimportant, and that is that industry listens too much to uninformed politicians and civil servants in government departments such as The Treasury and Business, Innovation and Skills. There are few people in these departments who understand or care about environmental designations – in the silo-based world of Westminster it isn’t their job to do so. sitting in The treasury you may well be told that your project is completely in line with government policy and what the Treasury would like to see but that doesn’t mean that The Treasury can give you a get-out-of-gaol free card from EU designations.
I am fairly sure that misinformation or, at the very least, inaccurate signals, from some government departments have cost developers millions over the years. Instead of relying on government information alone I would advise industry to liaise with the larger and most informed NGOs on their plans for development – and over the years this has happened increasingly often (to everybody’s benefit).
Well, that’s my advice – for what it’s worth! And I would claim that it’s worth millions of pounds if heeded by the right people.
Malta is a member of the EU but seems to think that it can break and bend the rules of the club by allowing spring hunting of migrant birds that pass across this Mediterranean island on their way north.
Birds of all sorts are killed at this time of year. The other evening a party of migrating harriers, mostly Montagus, were attacked at night, at their roost, by Maltese ‘hunters’.
Each evening, from tonight until Saturday, Chris Packham will be posting a video on YouTube at 9pm UK time to publicise this slaughter.
There will be a peaceful protest against Hen Harrier persecution somewhere in the north of England on or around (probably before) the ‘Glorious’ 12th August this year.
Let me know if you would be interested in taking part and wish to be kept informed by emailing email@example.com
The number of people expressing an interest is now well into three figures and emails keep coming in.
It’s time for those who are disgusted by the scale of illegal persecution of this bird to raise their voices. Remember there should be around 300 pairs of Hen Harrier in the north of England and last year there were two. That is something to be angry about – or ashamed – depending on who you are.
Hen Harriers are reported to be holding territory on National trust land in Derbyshire in a general area where they have attempted nesting before. We urge the National Trust to do everything it can to protect these birds from persecution.
Oscar writes: This was taken one afternoon during late October 2012. I love the light on its fur, and its expression. I spent most of the winter photographing the foxes here. Oscar’s website – and follow him on Twitter @oscardewhurst.
This is a beautifully illustrated book. It is illustrated and written by Martin Bradley who works at the Exxon Mobil Fawley Refinery in Hampshire (where Peregrines nest).
The illustrations are bold and just a little bit different – have a look and you will see what I mean (and see above).
The book is aimed at children, of, I would guess, late primary school age. But I loved it.
It’s a lovely book with strikingly attractive drawings and an engaging story.
Some of the profits go to the Hawk Conservancy Trust.
Facebook page (click here).
Top Gun of the Sky by Martin Bradley is published by Ceratopia Books and is fantastic value at £4.99 + £1.60 P&P. All books can be signed by the author and can be bought direct from him by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark writes: I’ve never seen a wild boar in the UK – my sightings have all been in France and Spain.
I was once told, in France, and in French but I think i got the right end of the stick, that the modern equivalent of pig-sticking (hunting boars with lances on horseback) involved riding next to fleeing boars and shooting them in the top of the head with a pistol. Does anyone know whether that happens? I was also told you can tell the less adept boar hunters by their limps – they have shot themselves in the foot.
Here is a source of information on UK Wild Boar.