Nonsense (2)

Yesterday’s blog was about the media coverage of the GWCT’s farmland bird survey.

I was struck by the quotes, in The Times, of Jim Egan saying that the survey had been set up ‘partly to counter claims by green groups that farmers were doing little to protect birds‘.

Ben Webster’s piece also said that Jim Egan ‘…added that some wildlife groups had over-emphasised the decline in farmland birds.’ and quoted him uttering these words “A lot of environmental NGOs fund-raise on bad news. They say, ‘Look what farmers have done, isn’t it bad?’ That puts people off.”

NGOs rarely criticise each other in public so I was surprised to see this.  And I was guessing that it was aimed at the RSPB – but that’s just a guess.  I thought there was just a chance that there had been some misreporting so I asked GWCT about it on Twitter.

I asked: Was Jim Egan misquoted by @ or do you stand by your remarks?

GWCT replied: Think Jim was trying to highlight benefit of being positive rather than negative when discussing issues

You’ll note that doesn’t answer the question.

So I also asked:

Which NGOs does @ think have exaggerated farmland bird declines then please?

…but that got no answer at all.


Jim Egan tweeted me as follows: How often have comments from you been misconstrued? Hear Farming Today for our view

Well, the answer to that is ‘hardly ever’ because journalists are quite careful about this type of thing.

So I asked: Was your direct quote in @ inaccurate then? Or not?

…but that got no answer either.


So GWCT, through Jim Egan, apparently feels comfortable about being quoted making derogatory remarks about unidentified green groups but doesn’t believe they have to back up these claims.   Is that acceptable behaviour?


There are three things that GWCT could do and retain, in my opinion, their dignity:

1.  Stand by the views that were quoted: If GWCT really does think that wildlife groups have over-emphasised farmland bird declines then surely they should say so. Perhaps they should name those groups? Maybe they should point us to where that over-emphasis occurred so that we can all be shocked by it (because it has passed me by).

2. Deny having said it:  GWCT could claim that they were misquoted, which appears to be what they are doing in private.  See the comment by Richard Winspear on yesterday’s blog (Richard works for the RSPB) where it seems that Jim Egan told Richard Winspear that he hadn’t said the words quoted by The Times.  Funny then that he won’t repeat that denial in public.

3. Apologise for having said it and say it was a mistake.

…but GWCT has chosen a fourth option. They haven’t said they said it, and they haven’t said they didn’t say it; they haven’t said they believe it and they haven’t said they don’t believe it; they haven’t backed it up and they haven’t repudiated it.

They probably hope that it will all just go away – it might not.

















The ‘lawn’ has been cut for the first time since the autumn.

You can see that this end of the garden is a bit rough and ready.  I think I might have preferred it uncut!

I’ve left a strip of unmown grass on one side to participate in the Plantlife ‘Say No to Mow‘ ‘campaign’.  It’ll be interesting, or depressing (we’ll see), to see what plants come up in this unmown patch between now and August.

My mower seems to be a bit of a wimp – it kept overheating and needing a rest.  Still, this meant that I could have a sit in the garden and look for wildlife.  Overhead, Red Kite, Buzzard and Sparrowhawk passed by.  Nearer to hand, Holly Blues, Brimstones and Orange Tips flew past.  Four House Martins flew past, my first of 2014, and I expected them to come back now and again during the afternoon but they didn’t.

The best thing though, was a brief sighting of a ‘Flying Nose’ a bombyliid fly, or Bee Fly.  Aren’t they amazing?

By Richard Bartz, Munich aka Makro Freak (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Richard Bartz, Munich aka Makro Freak (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons



I did, kind of, tell you so…

In The Times, once a dull but reliable newspaper, a few days ago there was a headline thus ‘Farmers praised as Skylarks soar again’ (click here but you need a subscription).

The piece by Ben Webster was a write-up of the GWCT ‘survey’ of farmland birds by farmers in February.  Some farmers (37%) saw some Skylarks apparently.

Quite how a one-off survey by a self-selecting bunch of farmers shows that Skylarks are soaring is a complete mystery to me.  But let’s not blame either the GWCT or Ben Webster for that as it is customary to blame the sub-editors for loopy and misleading headlines.

The GWCT are more measured in what they say about the survey on their own website.

However, Jim Egan is quoted by the Times as saying ‘…that some wildlife groups had over-emphasised the decline in farmland birds. “A lot of environmental NGOs fund-raise on bad news. They say, ‘Look what farmers have done, isn’t it bad?’ That puts people off.” ‘

I’d love to see the reference for that!



Striptease at Stanwick


Early mist

Early mist

I’ve never been to a striptease show (doesn’t really appeal) but there were two at Stanwick Lakes this morning.

When I got into my car at 0730 the windscreen was frozen up – an unusual experience over the last several months.  As I drove the few miles to the lakes I could see that the valley was filled with mist and, as I parked, it was clear that visibility was not clear.

The conditions weren’t ideal for birding – I could hear Song Thrushes, Dunnocks, Black-headed Gulls and Wrens but not see any of them.  I decided on a quite radical course of action – I would change my normal route.  Now I wouldn’t want you to think that I, a self-proclaimed radical, would be a bit set in my ways but I do tend to follow the same route (OK – let’s be honest – exactly the same route) on every visit to Stanwick Lakes.  This is partly because I persuade myself that it maximises the comparability of my bird sightings but is also because I am the type of person who is quite happy to keep eating the same thing off the menu once I have found my favourite.

Only a thick mist could budge me from my routine, and my thinking was that the mist would have cleared when I got to the ‘best’ part of the walk which is usually near the beginning but today would be near the end.

As I walked, I was shrouded in mist and almost all of the first 30 species I recorded were heard rather than seen, but the mist was clearing and I felt as though I had made the right decision.  I sat and waited looking over an island where gulls and terns nest and the waited for the mist to clear.  It was then that I started thinking about stripteases and the veils being lifted from Stanwick Lakes to reveal…well… Stanwick Lakes!

The slow reveal didn’t really add to the excitement of the morning but it did turn into a glorious, sunny spring day.  The Sedge Warblers are now around in some numbers to add their staccato songs to the viscous maple syrup tones of the Willow Warblers, the melodies of the Blackcaps and the once exhilarating but now, a few weeks later, a bit irritating, Chiffchaff songs.  There were the cries of Common Terns, Black-headed gulls and Oystercatchers too.

I was hoping for a Whitethroat or a House Martin or an Orange Tip butterfly to mark the onward passage of Spring, but encountered none of them.  But next time I return to Stanwick maybe she, for she is surely a ‘she’, will reveal all?

And the other striptease? The weatherman had predicted that it would be a day when one would want many layers first thing and to remove them as the day went on. He was right. I was bundled up in fleece and jacket, and didn’t feel over-warm, at the beginning of my walk but was carrying the jacket and was eager to shed the fleece by the time I returned.  I wouldn’t go any further than that though.  I am a creature of habit.

PS – my garden produced a House Martin (in fact a group of four) on my return and a male Orange Tip butterfly too.  The world keeps turning and Spring advances.

Clear and sunny

Clear and sunny




Time to be in favour of something…


Swansea Bay panorama Photo: The Fourth Dimension via wikimedia commons

You can go through life being against things. There are plenty of things that I am against, eg cruelty, unfairness, putting sultanas in apple pies, racism and illegal raptor persecution.  You could spend a whole lifetime objecting to things but sometimes you have to be in favour of something.

When it comes to climate change, most people seem to be against it if it is going to cause us and other Earthly lifeforms lots of problems.  It’s when it comes down to being in favour of any of the solutions that we have the most problems. Windfarms – great idea, but not here thank you!  Nuclear power – too dangerous.  Not flying or driving anything like as much – that’s rather inconvenient and what about the Chinese anyway?

For the record, I am in favour of windfarms but it does matter where they go – which doesn’t mean that they have to go far from where I live.  One of my regular walks is through a relatively new windfarm site – I saw a Wheatear there yesterday, actually.  And I am in favour of nuclear energy – see page 184 of Fighting for Birds.   And I do fly and drive far less than I used to do – and less than many people do.

A Severn Barrage has been a case where many environmental NGOs have objected to a renewable energy scheme on the grounds that it will be too damaging, too expensive and that there are better alternatives (also mentioned in Fighting for Birds – page 99).  One of the potential alternatives has always been tidal lagoon power.  instead of building a wall with turbines in it right across the Severn Estuary the idea would be to create smaller, easier to build ( and cheaper and quicker), walled areas to do the same job.

Now, a consortium, Tidal Lagoon Power, is planning a tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay.  They are seeking planning permission and funding for a tidal lagoon that would have a roughly circular wall of 9km and would fill up with water (driving turbines) soon after high tide and empty of water (driving turbines again) towards low tide.  Location is everything and, in this case, Tidal Lagoon Power seem to have found a place that it would be difficult to criticise on wildlife grounds.  Nowhere is perfect, no development has absolutely no impact, and so it is a case of deciding whether the benefit is worth the damage – here, on what I know at the moment (but I’d be interested in the expert opinion of icthyologists), I think it is a scheme worth supporting.

And if I were still working in a wildlife NGO then I would certainly be keen to support it if I were convinced that there really would be little wildlife harm. We need renewable energy, the Severn Estuary is a good place to get it and a barrage is the wrong way to get it.  So if you are against a barrage it’s good to find something a bit similar but so much more wildlife-friendly.

And we probably need such a project to go ahead as a ‘proof of concept’ project – to show decision-makers, investors and the public that this type of approach can work.  Maybe it can’t – we should find out.

So I hope we see the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts, National Trust, WWT and others supporting this scheme, or pointing out what I have missed if they don’t support it.

I gather that there may be less cut and dried projects in the pipeline.  I can’t say that I would be at all keen on a tidal lagoon in Bridgwater Bay SPA, SSSI, Ramsar site and SAC – but that is a fight worth having a little further down the line – and a subject for a future blog.


Peaceful protest against Hen Harrier persecution in August

Photo: Kositoes via wikimedia commons

Photo: Kositoes via wikimedia commons

If you read my column, the Political Birder, in Birdwatch (and if not – why not?) then in the current issue you will see that there will be a peaceful protest in the north of England against Hen Harrier persecution on or around the 12 August this year.

That article has prompted a steady trickle of people emailing me to say they would like to be kept in touch with this event as they are interested in taking part.  It is a trickle not a flood, but it is steady!

Get in touch with me at if you would like to be put on the list of potential participants.  Make a stand, raise your voice!


Guest blog – A very RSPB protest by Danny Heptinstall


Photo:Stuart Benn

Photo: Stuart Benn

Danny Heptinstall is a 24 year old birder, naturalist and aspiring conservationist currently researching Red Kites at the University of Aberdeen (and recent Guest Blogger here). He attended the public protest in Inverness on Saturday afternoon about the recent poisoning incident in Ross-shire.

You will already have read here (and here and here) about the appalling poisoning of 14 Red Kites and 5 Buzzards near Inverness.

Unsurprisingly there’s been a lot of public anger about the incident, both in the Highlands and in the rest of the UK. Surprisingly though, on Saturday, the RSPB took to the streets to vent its anger and let others do the same.

I say surprisingly, as I don’t really consider the RSPB as a street protest kind of organisation. It does well at signing petitions, lobbying policymakers and organising photo-shoots. But when it comes to gathering the masses on the street, I’m not sure that’s usually the RSPB’s style (please let me know if I’m wrong!). Which I guess shows just how outraged the RSPB are that poisoning continues up and down the country.

Photo: Stuart Benn

Photo: Stuart Benn

The words protest or demonstration can sometimes be controversial, but this wasn’t the sort of protest with offensive chanting, crude placards and a general “angry mobbish” feel to it. It was very much what you might expect an RSPB protest to be – dignified, calm and very hard-hitting.

Before the protest began, 19 life-sized wooden cut-outs of red kites and buzzards were paraded around the streets of Inverness before converging on the site of the protest. These were painted white, to represent the ghosts of the dead birds, and were used to encourage the public to attend the protest. The protest itself was short, beginning with a piper’s lament followed by three short speeches and ending with the marking of 19 chalk raptor outlines.

Despite conservation being a movement (i.e. a group of people working together to advance their shared political, social or artistic ideas) it’s very rare for conservation supporters to come together as a group and make their voice publicly known. Consequently this was my first time attending a conservation protest.

And I found the event incredibly empowering, as it is not every day you feel like you are actively making a difference on an issue, especially when compared to the somewhat passive nature of writing to a politician or signing a petition. Given the number of home-made placards people brought along, I have a feeling I wasn’t the only one to feel this way!

I was also proud to be able to meet with a group of like-minded people and together share our thoughts with the public. It was fantastic to feel part of a conservation community, and seeing so many different people share my views was not only reassuring but also incredibly motivating; it felt like we could bring about change. It was also great to be able to chat to the public about a conservation issue.

So did the protest have an impact? Well politicians now know many people are so disgusted by illegal poisoning their prepared to march on the streets, the media were in attendance so the protest made the TV, web and print news. Also several hundred shoppers on the Inverness high street will certainly have had their interest raised! So yes I think it sent a clear message that the local community will not tolerate any more poisoning. I would also say bringing together so many like-minded people in one place can only strengthen the resolve of those involved in the cause.

That said, I think more could have been done to communicate to the passing public what was happening, why poisoning must be stopped and what they can do to help. It would also have been good to have one slightly more rousing speaker or MC. But with such little time to prepare, and this being RSPB North Scotland’s first protest, I think these can be forgiven!

I don’t think coming out on the streets is the sole answer to anything and, as a political tactic, I’m not sure public protest is necessary for every conservation campaign. But I feel allowing those conservationists who care about a particular issue to come together and let the public know their views is a very positive act that I’d like to be a part of again.

I think public protest can have real value in highlighting an issue to the public, showing our strength to politicians, and bringing people together. And I for one hope UK conservation will turn to it more frequently.

I’d be interested to know, if you think the same?

And Mark writes: come back at 6pm for news of another planned public protest.

Photo@ Stuart Benn

Photo: Stuart Benn




Oscar Dewhurst – Ptarmigan


Oscar writes: while I was in Iceland on holiday in October I was very keen to see and photograph Ptarmigan, having never seen them before, and had been told you could find them all the way down to sea level. I hadn’t had any luck until one day when I spotted one flying from my hotel room. I grabbed my camera and headed out to find it; before long I saw it sheltering from the win on the ground floor balcony of one of the hotel’s private villas! I kept getting closer and closer, and as it showed no interest in me at all, put my wide angle on. This was taken no more than two metres from it! After, I retreated slowly, leaving it still standing there.

Nikon D300s, Nikon 18-55mm lens




Sunday book review – Tweet of the Day by Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss

isbn9781848549777-detailFor early risers, the few moments at around 6am on BBC Radio 4 for several months has been a date with nature.  More specifically, a 90 second date with the song or call of a species of British bird.  The birds were the stars, they always are, but a range of well-known birders and naturalists, broadcasters and conservationists, told us a little about the bird of the day or what the species meant to them.
This is the book of the series, the text of the commentaries, but it also includes information on how the series was put together, how the two authors got into birding and a bit about the history of birdwatching too.  It may seem a little odd to produce a book about a series of radio broadcasts of bird songs, but this book works very well and is a pleasure to read.  The different, short, accounts of over 200 species are varied in tone and approach but combine to make a lovely book.

This is a book into which you can dip at any time for a quick moment of bringing birds and their songs into your life.  But when you dip you will find yourself reading the next account, and then the next.  You may find that opening this book is like opening a packet of chocolate digestive biscuits – you’ll be surprised how far through the packet you’ll get on one sitting (but it’s not fattening – unless you really do eat a biscuit with each species and then it will be!).

A glance through the index may get you thinking ‘why is he in this book?’ – Francois Mitterand (a typical tale of the French love of birds). Ken Livingstone (an unfortunately typical tale of the English intolerance of birds), Gioacchino Rossini (how cultured are you?), Edward Thomas (you must know that poem, surely – it’s perfect) and the occasional woman too (but not many).

DSC_1552Whereas the book can’t fully deliver the joy of the sounds birds make, it compensates by being lavishly illustrated with scores of Carry Akroyd’s black-and-white illustrations and dozens of colour, full-page Akroyds too.

Tweet of the Day by Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss is published by Saltyard Books and is available from Amazon (as is Mark Avery’s Fighting for Birds and as will be Mark Avery’s A Message from Martha which can be pre-ordered now (and has a cover by the aforementioned Carry Akroyd)).



The week in birding by Jonnie Fisk @jonniefisk


Mark writes: I’ve been lucky enough to see a few spring migrants this week, whilst hearing almost every day that the death toll on Red Kites and Buzzards keeps rising in Ross-shire.

This week I added Sedge Warbler, Ring Ousel (in a rabbit-grazed field in east Northamptonshire) and Garganey (in nearby Cambs) to my list of migrants.  There seemed to be Willow Warblers everywhere at Stanwick Lakes and they left the foliage dripping with their songs.  Little Ringed Plovers are displaying at Stanwick and at nearby Summer Leys.  I’ve only seen three Swallows so far, they seem a bit late, but Sand Martins are at their regular nesting sites near me.  I heard a Yellow Wagtail fly over but couldn’t see it so I am still awaiting that gorgeous and striking assault of yellow on my senses.