Sunday book review – The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham

Ash72This book was written in response to the recorded arrival of Ash dieback disease in the UK in 2012. Apparently it is the first book ever written about what is the one of the UK’s commonest trees.

Oliver Rackham is one of the UK’s experts on the countryside, its history and its woodland and so he is well-placed to write this short guide to what may be a rather unappreciated tree.

I enjoyed this book very much, and for two main reasons. First, it was written in a very clear way that meant that I, an ignoramus when it comes to trees, learned a lot very easily. And I always like that sort of book. Second, Rackham is opinionated (and his opinions are worth listening to) and he is pretty forthright in setting out what he thinks. And I usually like that sort of author.

Here is a short extract to illustrate my point: ‘Get real. Stop letting the anthropology of commerce overrule the practical world. Stop treating plants (and bees) as mere articles of trade, like cars or tins of paint, to be made and bought in industrial quantities from anywhere. Importing a million cars does not imperil the cars that are already here, but trees are different.

Rackham is right. The consequences of global travel where a person can switch countries and/or continents in a day, coupled with a disease, Ebola in this case, which has an incubation period of weeks, is a medical epidemiologist’s nightmare. Importing tree saplings into tree nurseries all over the country (like ‘coals to Newcastle’ as Rackham writes) has proved to be the equivalent for trees. This cat is out of its bag – and it will scratch us badly.

This book, then, is a handy guide to Ash dieback in particular, and tree diseases in general, but it is also a very informative and accessible guide to one of our most familiar trees which deserves its write-up by a leading ecologist and conservationist.

The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham is published by Little Toller Books.

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



Happy Birthday Andy Clements

Clements, AndyI wouldn’t normally use this blog to wish a happy birthday to a friend but Andy Clements’ 60th birthday deserves celebrating.

Andy is a great birder, a great bloke, a great conservationist and a great bloke (no harm in saying that twice).  He has done (is doing!) a great job leading the BTO and is one of the most respected leaders in UK nature conservation and ornithology.

Some of Andy’s friends thought that it would be a nice idea to support an endangered bird species as a birthday present and you can add your donation by clicking here (then press the purple DONATE button, selectan amount and paste ‘Donation for Andy Clements’ 60th birthday gift’ in the message box).

Happy Birthday Andy – and may the birds be rare, easy to find and numerous on Scilly!


Retired hurt?

Stanley Howe [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I was looking forward to seeing a titanic battle between (Sir) Ian Botham and the RSPB on Newsnight tonight. Given that Beefy is an all-rounder, would the RSPB field its Director, Scotland, Stuart Housden, to block the balls in Boycott-fashion or would Martin Harper be sent out to fire down a few bouncers at a padded-up Beefy?

Apparently Beefy can’t be found – #wheresBeefy?

This page Ian

This page Ian


It might be that Beefy is curled up with his copy of Sibley given that there is a Carolina Wren on the website where he has the nerve to suggest that the RSPB is a bit picky about which species of bird it features on its website. Hit own wicket?



Maybe Beefy didn’t have the balls to turn up, or the bat, or the knowledge?  Retired hurt?



Perhaps he should look for his balls in the long grass – he has a history with grass.




I asked the RSPB whether Sir Ian was a member and they said that they weren’t sure but I reckon he had been called that a few times today.


But seriously, I remember years ago (obviously) going to watch ‘Both’ play for my home county of Somerset just down the road from here at Wellingborough School against Northants, and he was amazing.  It was a great afternoon watching him and Viv Richards take Northants apart.

Being good, no, great, at cricket is not necessarily an adequate preparation for being able to argue the rights and wrongs of nature conservation. Sir Ian, I salute your amazing sporting past, you were a brave and inspiring sportsman, but you were wise to hide in the pavilion rather than face the opposition on such a sticky wicket.

By Northmetpit (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Sir Ian? Sir Ian? Are you in there? By Northmetpit (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


A few things

Here are a few things in brief:

  • the farmland bird index declined in 2013 (as predicted here) – and to their lowest level ever. You are living in a country with fewer farmland birds than at any time in your life. Doesn’t it make you feel good? I’ll blog in more detail on this next week. By the way, it isn’t very easy to find this news on the GOVUK website.
  • September was the fourth most ‘successful’ month ever on this blog with 14,968 unique visitors and over 60,000 sessions. The three more successful months were the previous three (with June having over 22,000 unique visitors). This month is already in fifth place with a week to go. Thank you to all readers for making this blog so popular.
  • Remember that tomorrow is the RSPB AGM in Birmingham – you can attend the morning without payment if you are an RSPB member. I’ll be there, trains and buses permitting …
  • …but I have to be in Manchester to give a talk at the Manchester Science Festival on Passenger Pigeons in the afternoon.
  • Birdwatch is running a poll where Chris Packham and Owen Paterson should each get your votes!
  • Here’s an interesting job for someone: with WWF in Brussels
  • FoE are standing up for Devon’s beavers and asking for your support
  • In the November Birdwatch I argue that it’s time for an all out ban on lead, toxic, ammunition
  • UKIP have a strong lead in the Rochester and Strood by-election – see the comment by Natalie Bennett, the leader of the Green Party, on the blog I wrote about it
  • Other interesting comments, because I know that many of you (understandably) won’t keep back-tracking to see what has been written, are the ones by Peter Cosgrove and ‘Jim’ on this blog about the Shared Planet programme
  • I gather I get a mention in the editorial of Country Life magazine – I dare say it isn’t complimentary
  • although the RSPB is first in line for an ill-informed attempted duffing-up by Ian Botham, the Wildlife Trusts – all 47 of them – are next in line it seems. Little doubt then that this is shooting attacking nature conservation. How revealing.
  • Here’s an ‘interesting’ US article about racism in birding – it’s a subject relevant to the UK scene, even if this treatment may not be,  but what do you think?
  • And here is another US article about men and women birding – hold on to your hats if you read this one!
  • talking about incendiary things – National Parks have called for sky lanterns to be banned  – I couldn’t agree more.
  • Owen Paterson said recently that wind power is a failure, a few days later wind power was generating a record 20% of the UK’s electricity needs.
  • in the October issue of British Wildlife it is revealed that Simon Barnes will be writing regularly for them from February next year…
  • …and in the same issue there is a favourable review of A Message from Martha (informed, well researched and thoroughly readable’ by Peter Marren…
  • …and also in the same issue there are several mentions of Hen Harrier Day and the e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting
  • …and it’s getting rather passe now, but British Wildlife has a Hen Harrier on the cover, as does Nature’s Home‘s current issue, but Birdwatch got there back in July.  You wouldn’t have predicted that at the beginning of the year would you?

1408 p001 cover_with comp v2.inddIMG_2638IMG_2604


I was going to ignore this but…

Read this, then this, then forget about it.


But hang on a minute. maybe we shouldn’t just ignore this attack on the RSPB by the shooting community – for that appears to be what it is. And it is timed to appear just before the RSPB AGM.

Sir Ian Botham owns a shoot and until now has been absent from the commentariat on nature conservation – why has he suddenly got all interested in the RSPB?

Martyn Howat was a former Natural England staff member and is a former Chair of BASC Council and is still a Council member.

Sir Jonny Scott (5th Baronet) is steeped in all forms of fieldsport.

It’s hardly a well-disguised attack by shooting on the RSPB is it? Martin Harper writes that the RSPB wonders whether this attack was ‘motivated by the fact that we have hardened our position on grouse shooting’ which is somewhat ironic when the RSPB is being incredibly weak on grouse shooting but I guess he is right.

No doubt this will be the opportunity for those who preach consensus and lack of confrontation to condemn this move by shooters? So let’s hear BASC repudiate the attack by one of their Council and also their centenary Patron on the RSPB.  Shall we hear Ian Coghill or Lazywell (from GWCT) stating how much they abhor this attack? Will Philip Merricks deplore such a move by shooters? I expect the Shooting Times to be leaping to the RSPB’s defence, and The Field. Well, we’re all on the same side really, aren’t we?  Well, we’ll see.


There is some rather shoddy attention to detail in the attack. What is that bird perching above Beefy Botham’s head? It’s very nice, but it isn’t something that I’ve seen in the UK. It looks like a New World wren and I would plump for Carolina Wren but I wouldn’t be perfectly sure. Beefy, can you help me out please? Are you criticising the RSPB’s position on bird conservation in North America?

Beefy seems to think, but Martyn Howat should know better, and does know better (so he ought to be ashamed of being associated with this nonsense), that only nature reserves count as nature conservation. Wildlife legislation, and lobbying for it to be improved, is apparently not nature conservation. Banning DDT wouldn’t have been nature conservation. Opposing neonicotinoid pesticides is not nature conservation.  Banning the slaughter of birds for their plumage to be used by the milinary trade was not nature conservation.  Opposing an airport in the Thames Estuary is not nature conservation. Opposing the destruction of Lodge Hill is not nature conservation. As is so often the case, the shooting community is living in a different century – and not even the twentieth in this case.

And apparently the RSPB Research Department (see here, here and here) doesn’t count as conservation expenditure.  Really?  It says something about the shooting community’s attitude to science, as amplified by Simon Lester’s remarks earlier in the week.

And Birdwatch has been busy correcting the way it was misrepresented in the yftb website on Twitter (@Birdingextra).

But I am shocked that the RSPB admits that 10p in the £1 isn’t spent directly on nature conservation. Which is that 10p? We should be told.


Things may be coming to a head. Shooting is rattled by the attention it is getting. Strangely enough this isn’t primarily from the RSPB but it is from wider society with the RSPB lagging quite a way behind. Despite the fact that I am keen to see an end to driven grouse shooting I still wouldn’t count myself as anti-shooting as a whole.  But if shooting wants to make this a much bigger fight then maybe we should.

The RSPB should ask itself what real evidence is there that the shooting community as a whole is a force for good in nature conservation in the UK. And what signs are there, that in areas where shooting is failing (eg over-burning, raptor persecution, lead shot) what evidence is there of a more enlightened attitude from shooting over the last decade? How long can the RSPB go on treating the shooting community as an errant friend who can be brought back into the fold when that friend shows no sign of genuine friendship?

And shooting should ask itself whether it wants to be associated with constant attacks on an organisation with a growing membership and huge public support?  Will BASC, GWCT and the Moorland Association jump to the defence of their friends in the RSPB? Let’s see which side they are on.  Eventually even the RSPB will decide that enough is enough if shooting continues to attack the RSPB. And if the staff and Council of the RSPB don’t decide that then maybe its membership will.


Media coverage: The Independent, Mail.



Margate and more


Yesterday I went to Margate. I went to other places too, but I went to Margate.

It was a funny day in a way – it had elements of looking backwards as well as living in the moment and a bit of looking forward.

I woke early, I often do, and that made the rest of the day easier.  I drove to Sandy, which I used to do often but now do very rarely, and parked at Sandy station in time to get the 0620 train into Kings Cross.  As we moved south towards London the train filled with people dressed for work whereas I was dressed for play.  I looked around and smiled that I was in jeans and a rather scruffy fleece and they were in their suits. I was reading a book, and everyone else was looking at their phones.  I felt the odd one out, but I didn’t mind that.

At Kings Cross I went to the Cafe Nero booth where I often used to buy coffee and a croissant in a previous life (often as I caught the 0720 back up to Sandy after an overnight in London) and handed over a full loyalty card for the coffee. I’d hoped that a lady who I used to chat to, in as much as one can develop a close, deep and meaningful relationship over ordering cups of coffee, in a previous life would be there but she wasn’t.  I then walked across the road to St Pancras and found the platform for Margate. it would have been slightly easier but much more expensive, if I had caught a train from my nearer station Wellingborough (which arrives in London at St Pancras) instead of having to go to Sandy but, there you go, the world is a slightly crazy place.

The train to Margate had just arrived at the platform, maybe from Margate, and was disgorging more men in suits and women in make up as I sipped my coffee in my jeans and fleece.

The rail journey was quite long but I had a book, and I had my phone too. We whizzed past Rainham Marshes RSPB nature reserve and I thought of the Wasp Spiders of my last visit, and of a Spoonbill of long ago.

We got to Margate where there was a sign saying Margate (rather reassuringly)…


…some Herring Gulls…


…and some eggs and chips from Angela’s cafe on the seafront…


You can’t have days like this if you have a proper job, can you?

And the eggs and chips were just right to fill a space and to fill the time until 10am when the Turner Contemporary opened. For, dear reader, this was work, not a jaunt. I had come to see the Jeremy Deller English Magic exhibition which includes a rather large mural of a Hen Harrier (see above, at head of this post (and there’s Mandy too)).

One good thing about the Turner Contemporary is that there is free admission. Another good thing is that there is an enormous Hen Harrier on the wall.

Now, as I looked at an enormous Hen Harrier I was becoming a little puzzled as it was a mural – how was this mural in Venice last year, I wondered? And the explanation of the mural said it was painted by Sarah Tynan – so who is this Deller guy (who I thought was the painter)?


So I turned to the lady in uniform and asked sheepishly whether photography was allowed (expecting the answer no) and was told it was. Hooray!

So I took some photographs, as you can see, and got talking to Mandy who explained that Jeremy Deller was the moving force behind the exhibition and had brought everything together, and dreamed it all up, but that a variety of folk had done the artwork. Sarah Tynan had led on the Hen Harrier image, especially on the central part of the bird (head etc) but that a variety of people had painted the rest of it including Mandy herself. Wow!

Mandy had painted some of the bird’s right wing (that’s the left one as we look at the painting).

And so this is the third place that this Hen Harrier has landed – being repainted from a projected image each time, I’m told. And when the exhibition is over then it just gets painted over and disappears! Wow again!

But there will always be a Hen Harrier on that wall, under other paint. What a nice thought.

Mandy knew lots about Hen Harriers, including the recent disappearance of the two birds in the Trough of Bowland – I was impressed.

I went downstairs after thanking Mandy, and getting her to pose in the photo above, and was pleased to see that the Deller/Tynan/Mandy et al. Hen Harrier was on sale as a postcard – I bought all that were on display (74 of them).  The lady and gentleman who sold them to me also knew about Hen Harriers – and the missing birds. I was impressed again!

I think there may be a few Turner Contemporary staff signing our e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting.

I left the gallery and headed back to the railway station. On the train I wrote lots of postcards to friends of the Hen Harrier such as the GWCT, Moorland Association and BASC, as well as Defra and NE, and a few rather deeper friends too.

Now, you did notice the date didn’t you? Today is 7 years since whatever happened at Dersingham Bog happened at Dersingham Bog. And that was where I headed, from Sandy station, after my return train journey.

I drove past and around Sandringham and posted my postcards at Dersingham Post Office. Some will arrive today and others next week. It seemed the right place to post them.

I sat a while overlooking Dersingham Bog (see below), from 5pm until 545pm. I didn’t see any Hen Harriers.  The rest of that visit can be told at another time, in another place.  But I hope all the friends of the Hen Harrier enjoy their postcards and enjoy the fitting date on which they were sent and the location from which they were sent.

The English Magic exhibition at Turner Contemporary is open until 11 January (Tuesday-Sunday) and is well worth a visit if you love Hen Harriers. And there is a lot more to look at besides. If you go, do chat to the staff about Hen Harriers and ask them whether they have signed the e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting and therefore protect the Hen Harrier.





Derek Moore, 1943-2014

Birdbrain and birds 6

It is with sadness that I pass on the news that Derek Moore died today.

Readers of this blog may remember the review of Derek’s book that appeared here a couple of years ago – I’ll be dipping into that book again over the next few days.  He also was a regular commenter on this blog.

Derek was a birder, conservationist, raconteur, rock musician, cricketer,  grumpy old man and delightful joker.  He tended to call a spade a spade – sometimes a bloody spade!

He worked almost exclusively for the Wildlife Trusts over the years but was a friend to all true nature conservationists and to all nature.  His trenchant views and deep chuckling laughs will be missed.



Well, well

Yesterday I received an acknowledgement from Defra of my FOI/EIR request of 30 September. Defra will try to send me the information within 20 working days of receipt of the request ie by 28 October. I’ll keep you posted.

This burst of activity may have been due to me asking my MP to write to Defra on this matter – or maybe it wasn’t.

No news on the FOI/EIR request made on 7 April yet.

It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.  Ansel Adams


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.