Hen Harriers in the RSPB magazine


I was beginning to wonder whether my ‘A magazine formerly known as BIRDS‘ had gone astray. My mum had received hers, my daughter had hers, the lady in the Post Office mentioned that she had had hers too.  I know the RSPB was founded by a group of women but I don’t remember the magazine being sent out ‘ladies-first’.

IMG_2605But yesterday mine arrived too. And what a fine cover it has! A ringtail Hen Harrier (and it could have been a squirrel called Bob!).

Inside there are pages and pages on Hen Harriers: there is a long, excellent article by Stuart Winter, a mention of them by Martin Harper, another mention in Mike Clarke’s opening piece and also mention of satellite tagging of Montagu’s Harriers and the excellent Simon Barnes railing at raptor persecution – didn’t he use to do that in The Times (he’s amongst friends here)?

The RSPB gives a few words on page 53 to three options for making things better. One, on the far right of the article, is the Moorland Association’s ‘There, there, it’s alright really. Don’t you worry your pretty little heads about it’ approach (although maybe you’d better read it for yourself), and in the centre is the RSPB’s pitch for licensing of grouse shooting and on the far left is my ‘Ban it!‘ suggestion.

The RSPB and I are in complete agreement about the problem and the cause of the problem, but we have a difference of opinion, a friendly difference of opinion, about the solution.

IMG_2609The RSPB states that self-regulation has failed and that sites are being destroyed and damaged by poor grouse moor management, and that birds of prey are persecuted.  Yes, self regulation has failed, but so has actual regulation in this case. It isn’t legal to damage important wildlife sites or to kill birds of prey – and yet it happens. It happens because it is difficult to catch the miscreants and the grouse moor owners are rich and powerful.  Neither of those reasons is removed by a ‘stronger’ form of regulation. Regulation will fail in future as it has failed in the past because it is very difficult to bring the guilty to court.

That’s why the only workable solution on the table, and on page 53 of Nature’s Home magazine, is to ban driven grouse shooting. I’m grateful to the RSPB for the space they have given to this matter and I’ll be even more grateful to RSPB members who read the articles, think about it and then sign up for a ban to driven grouse shooting.






Shared Planet – some more thoughts

Photo: NASA via wikimedia commons

Photo: NASA via wikimedia commons

I’ve listened to Shared Planet a couple more times and it irritates me each time I hear it – but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad programme or that I wish it hadn’t been aired.  I think it’s a jolly good idea to read or listen to opinions with which we disagree every day. And I make that easier for some people by writing this blog…

Why does it irritate me?

I think for these reasons:

  1. I wanted to interrupt and say ‘No – that’s not right’ or ‘But what about this’ all the time.  That’s just the same feeling that many people get when listening to Any Questions or Question Time. It’s just one of those things. I hope that I have caused the same level of irritation amongst others, often (and I know I have).
  2. There was an anti-science element running through the programme which Prof Bill Sutherland did something to redress.  The juxtaposition of ‘science’ and ‘local ecological knowledge’ is a new one on me. It sounds a bit like ‘rational thinking’ versus ‘self-interested prejudice’ but it certainly wasn’t explained.  Mary Colwell did well to jump on (in the nicest possible way) Simon Lester when he said that he didn’t really believe the science being done on his own patch but this wasn’t followed up at all in the programme. And it was difficult to fathom whether Juliette Young believed on basing resolution on the evidence or whether it was just a question of finding a solution that suited everyone a bit better.
  3. The interview with Simon Lester was very revealing but what it revealed wasn’t made explicit. The Langholm project has been dragging on for years now and is a project aimed specifically to help resolve the Hen Harrier/grouse shooting conflict.  For the Head Gamekeeper at Langholm to be so dismissive of the science being carried out by a range of organisations on his own patch was quite shocking. For him to be allowed to wander off into lethal control of Buzzards (for which, in my understanding there is no scientific support from the research which is being carried out on ‘his’ land) is also both shocking and revealing.
  4. There was a lot said about the need for trust – but nothing said about where trust comes from. The dismissal of science and the plugging of lethal Buzzard control and a brood management system by the Langholm Head ‘keeper, where diversionary feeding has been shown to work at Langholm, will do little to build trust. Nor has the continued reduction by criminal action of the Hen Harrier population by grouse shooting interests – which was touched on by the programme.  I don’t trust the grouse shooting industry any more. I don’t completely trust the organisations involved such as the GWCT, Moorland Association, National Gamekeepers Organisation or BASC as far as their motives are concerned. But I certainly don’t trust them to be able to speak on behalf of the criminal elements who are killing Hen Harriers (etc etc etc).  Who claims to speak for the criminals? And why should we trust them? Give us 40 pairs of Hen Harriers in England with no conditions attached and you can win back our trust (or mine at least).
  5. There is a bit of an industry growing up around academics and conflict resolution too.

But you should listen to the programme (which was nothing if not interesting and stimulating) and see what you think, and then sign this e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting.


The resolution of conflict or what’s right and wrong?

Photo: NASA via wikimedia commons

Photo: NASA via wikimedia commons

Shared Planet is a stimulating programme and many people were stimulated to express their irritation over the latest programme about conflict resolution in nature conservation. The Hen Harrier/grouse shooting conflict was used as an example and was discussed by a variety of people – not a very wide variety of people however.

It’s well worth a listen and Raptor Persecution Scotland’s take on it is worth reading too..

There were a few things that came up that were quite interesting. Dr Juliette Young of CEH seemed to think that gamekeepers are protecting Hen Harriers, which rather devalued how much notice some would take of the rest of what she said.


Photo: Tim Melling

Photo: Tim Melling

Simon Lester regards Hen Harriers as a problem even though diversionary feeding means they don’t take many grouse during the breeding season on ‘his’ grouse moor at Langholm.  He still thinks that a Hen Harrier brood management scheme is essential despite the evidence of the efficacy of diversionary feeding.  It’s a pity that he wasn’t strongly promoting diversionary feeding considering its great success.  Where is the conflict between hen harrier and grouse shooting at Langholm – all gone? He was given a lot of air time with nobody putting the other side nor questioning whether his remarks were true or not.

But Mr Lester was clear that he wasn’t necessarily going to believe the science anyway. ‘There is a scientific arrogance that dismisses anecdotal evidence‘ and ‘A lot of the science that is done here doesn’t always reflect what happens in reality‘. Simon Lester is a gamekeeper.

Monty Don seemed to think that avoiding the moral aspects of conservation conflicts was a good idea. And Dr Young thought that avoiding arguments over values was a good idea too – it seemed to me. Well, that might be true if all you want to do is have a bit of peace and quiet in the world, and compromise, and put up with a bit less bad than you had before. But that is hardly the way that has led to improvements in the world. It should absolutely be the moral values and what type of world we want to live in that should guide our action.

Photo: Kositoes via wikimedia commons

Photo: Kositoes via wikimedia commons

One of the arguments over grouse shooting is one between the grouse shooters who want to carry out their profit-making businesses at the expense of protected wildlife and those who would rather that the law was upheld, the wildlife protected and the money spent in other ways.  That is, I’m really glad to say, an argument about values.

Another aspect of the argument over grouse shooting is between those who find the killing of any semi-wild creature abhorrent and those who feel they ought to be able to shoot grouse for fun. That’s an argument about values too.

To say, as seemed to be said, that you can, or should, set those values aside and resolve the conflict is what is normally called a fudge.

The Hen Harrier/grouse shooting conflict is a real one.  And for decades the law has been on the side of the Hen Harrier.  This isn’t a little tiff between two equally worthy and deserving sides – it’s a conflict between a  money-making business that depends on criminality and protected wildlife.  It’s like a conflict between the very few people in the country who are pickpockets and the rest of us. the pickpockets are criminals who are making money from breaking

Heather burning. Photo: Paul Adams via wikimedia commons.

Heather burning. Photo: Paul Adams via wikimedia commons.

the law. The conflict is that we don’t want them to carry on nicking our money and they want to. Some conflict, eh?  The criminals are suggesting that the resolution is that they carry on nicking our money, because they want to, but they’ll leave us a bit more than they used to leave.  Let’s not bring values into this, say some, let’s just sign up to being less exploited than we were.

That’s not what I say – I say we should ban driven grouse shooting and you can say that too by signing here.



What would you do?

By insecta62 (http://www.flickr.com/photos/insecta62/506001742/) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By insecta62 (http://www.flickr.com/photos/insecta62/506001742/) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The result of the by-election at Rochester and Strood will influence the way that next May’s general election plays out. How much momentum will UKIP have?

The UKIP candidate, the sitting MP Mark Reckless, is unequivocably against the Lodge Hill development that will destroy a very important Nightingale population.  Here is something from Reckless’s website.

It seems that the Green Party is also against the Lodge Hill proposal.

The Conservatives are in favour of wiping out the Nightingales and Labour seems rather reticent, as far as I can see, to say anything against the proposal and voted for it on the Medway Planning Committee.

It puts voters with a strong interest in wildlife in a dilemma. Would you vote UKIP, and support a candidate who wants the UK to leave the EU and the environmental protection that has crossed the Channel from Brussels and  Strasbourg? Or would you vote Green and support a candidate who won’t be elected? Or would you vote for a party that wants to destroy an SSSI and its Nightingales, Duke of Burgundy Fritillaries etc?

Voting is a great responsibility. How would you exercise yours in this case?

It would help Labour voters considerably, for example, if there were many signs that Labour had a very strong commitment to wildlife conservation even if, perhaps, they are on the wrong side on this particular case. But, at the moment, seven months out from the next general election, there is nothing much on offer. Under these circumstances people sometimes look for protest votes.  And in close-run by-elections, protest votes can make a difference.

And what happens at Rochester and Strood will influence next year’s election campaign. The seat is 9th on Labour’s hit-list but since 2010 the emergence of UKIP has changed the electoral arithmetic.  What momentum might UKIP have after this by-election?  And will the Nightingales be singing them on?






Awful gov


Have you tried the www.gov.uk website?  Isn’t it absolutely awful?

Can you find anything? Can you find the things you used to be able to find?

Where, for example, can you find a list of Defra ministers’ speeches? Do they not speak these days? I would have mixed feelings about that.

This is what I can find:


Can it possibly be true that Defra ministers haven’t met anyone, haven’t said anything, haven’t received any hospitality since March last year?  Maybe I’ve missed it – but it isn’t because I haven’t looked…

These are the latest documents uploaded to the Defra site…


Handy eh? Not really, but then this is only page 1 of 94 so maybe what I am looking for is on page 63 – it’s rather difficult to tell isn’t it? (I looked on page 63 and it isn’t there either).

I want to make a serious point here. This one single government website is less informative and less easy to use than its multiple predecessors. If you were the least bit suspicious of this government then you might think it had been done on purpose to obscure government actions and policies from the taxpayers who pay for it and the voters who might well choose another bunch of politicians in future.

This government has done away with watchdogs and independent commissions who had the time and wit to question what government was doing on the environment and now it has obscured its own actions on its own website.

This is highly reprehensible.  I suggest you send FOI and EIR requests to Defra on any subjects that you wish to know about and say that you can’t find the information on the government website. I also suggest that you write to your MP on this matter – I certainly shall.

You’ll be glad to hear that Natural England has just lost its own website and become part of the www.gov.uk website.  Try using it and see if you can find out what NE is doing.

When I put ‘natural england press releases’ into the www.gov.uk search engine I got this:


If you do the same then you will find that the search throws up little about NE and lots about healthcare, higher education and statutory audits – that wasn’t what I was looking for.

Try putting ‘natural england SSSI condition assessment’ into the search engine and then ‘natural england SSSI condition’ – you get some very different results, and not different in a way that makes any sense to me at all. But maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m the only person who ever tries to find things out through government websites  or maybe I am the only person so thick that they cannot figure it out now. Am I?

It’s somewhat Orwellian – its NEwspeak for sure.

I think it’s awful gov (or guv).



Swallow that

Photo: Oscar Dewhurst

Photo: Oscar Dewhurst

On Saturday afternoon I watched a Cormorant with a fish off Dawlish Warren.

The Cormorant had the fish in its beak and was trying to swallow it. It looked as though it had bitten off more than it could chew, or at least caught more than it could swallow.  Have you ever done that?

I’m not sure what the fish was. It was a round fish, not a flat fish, and it about a foot long and seemed about eight inches from belly to back.  It was quite silvery in colour with some noticeable red on its dorsal and ventral edges. I know that’s not a very good description! In my quick romp around the internet then it looked quite like a black sea bream - but with a bit more obvious red on it. But I don’t really ‘do’ fish. I’d be grateful for any informed comments!

It seemed a big fish for the Cormorant to swallow and it had several goes as I watched. Then a young Herring Gull (see – I can do gulls! (some gulls)) landed near the Cormorant and started watching – so I watched the Cormorant, its dead fish and the young Herring Gull (maybe somebody was watching me too – I wouldn’t have known).

I wondered whether the Herring Gull had spotted the cormorant having trouble with the big fish and was banking on getting some of the action.  I thought it might be on to a winner there.

But after a couple of minutes, and two or three more attempts by the Cormorant to swallow its fish, the gull flew off.  I wondered whether it had made the wrong decision as, to my eye, the Cormorant wasn’t making any progress at all with the fish. I was wondering whether it would soon give up.

And then, on what might have been the twentieth attempt that I had seen, the Cormorant swallowed the fish easily and with no delay or any fuss.

Why had it taken so long? Why was it, in the end, so easy? Had the herring Gull seen that the Cormorant had almost perfected its technique.  What sort of fish was it? How many fish do Cormorants eat each day?

All sorts of questions occurred to me – as they always do when I watch nature closely.

Only one of those questions is answered in this rather impressive information source from the EU on Cormorants which I came across by accident, but enjoyed reading. I bet UKIP wouldn’t give us this if we left the EU…



Hope continues to rise


Every picture tells a story – and this one tells a big story.

This graph shows the farmland bird index at the RSPB’s Hope Farm and in England as a whole.

It shows a slow, steady decline in England altogether (blue line)  but a massive overall rise (red line) at Hope Farm. Read more about the Hope Farm experience here. I’m glad the ‘reds’ are on the up and up.

After a couple of years of falling bird numbers (partly weather-related – probably), the breeding population jumped up again this spring – that must have been a bit of a relief to all at Hope Farm.  When I called in at Hope Farm in July 2013 (there is a short account in the last chapter of A Message from Martha – because it relates to Turtle Doves) the folk there were a bit gloomy so I’m very glad that 2014 was a much better year.

Farmland birds, just like farmland crops, and farmland farmers, have good years and bad years – you mustn’t get too cocky in the good years nor too morose in the bad ones.  You can be judged as a farmer or as a conservationist by your record in the long run.

I was pleased to read that Skylarks were back up to 38 pairs as it is etched on my mind that when we (for at the time it was ‘we’) bought Hope Farm there were 10 pairs. I was hoping that we could get the numbers up to at least 20 but at the time I couldn’t have been sure that they wouldn’t fall to five!  Consistently getting over 30 pairs of Skylarks is a great achievement – but one that is open to many farmers across England through the funding available, from you and me, in agri-environment schemes.

We should soon see the UK figures for the index for last year – I wouldn’t be surprised if they went down a bit further (that’s what my eye-balling of the figures tells me) but we’ll have to wait about a whole year before the 2014 figures are available for the UK as a whole, or its constituent countries.


So, just remember, the blue line is the average farm and the red line is the RSPB. Who would you want to be guiding agri-environment spending  – the NFU or the RSPB? Who would you want Defra to listen to if they are to get anywhere near the 2020 target for biodiversity – the NFU or the RSPB? Who would you want to ensure that the billions of pounds of your taxpayers’ money that is paid to farmers is spent well – the NFU or the RSPB?

There is a pretty clear message here for Defra – mind the gap! It’s a chasm not a crack.



An NFU display at the Melton Mowbray Food Festival a couple of weeks ago. Rather unfortunately it portrays a countryside that is green but has hardly any wildlife in it. And what wildlife there is, is pushed to the margins. For once – this seems like a pretty honest appraisal of the situation.





Oscar Dewhurst – Red Deer stag roaring


Oscar writes: This was taken before the sun came up in Richmond Park. I wanted to include both the stag and some females, and getting the male roaring was something I also wanted to show the story of this time of year for the deer.

Nikon D800, Nikon 200-400mm f4 VR




Sunday book review – A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson

9780241955284HThis is not a Field Guide – it’s a novel. It’s a somewhat novel novel being a story of love amongst birders.

On the weekly bird walks of the East African Ornithological Society romance is stirring.  Will Mr Malik get the girl – or will he be given the bird?

This is a light-hearted romantic comedy with a bird on a good many pages, and each chapter is named after a bird too.

If you are heading out to East Africa it would while away the flight very pleasantly – but don’t order it thinking that it will help you sort out the identification of the Sokoke Pipit because it won’t.

The author is a zoologist with a PhD in Australian natural history writing – perhaps the only member of that species?

I enjoyed it. I read much of it on my recent flight to and from Aberdeen and I was just in the mood for an untaxing, but entertaining, tale.

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson is published by Penguin.

A Message from Martha by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury.



Saturday cartoon by Ralph Underhill