Birdwatch magazine


In the October issue of Birdwatch magazine (available in all good newsagents, by subscription and in digital format) readers will find a cut-out letter to send to their MPs asking them to ask Defra what measures the government intends to put forward in the Westminster Hall debate on banning driven grouse to deal with the epidemic of wildlife crime that is sweeping our uplands.

I wonder how many people will send off the letter? My guess is ‘not that many’, but Birdwatch couldn’t have made it any easier!  If you are a Birdwatch reader, then you are unlikely to get a better opportunity to influence the fate of protected raptors such as the Hen Harrier, Peregrine Falcon and Golden Eagle, so go on, please, stake a few moments to send off that letter.

After that you can settle down to read how to distinguish Olive-backed Pipit from Tree Pipit and Meadow Pipit (which is also quite handy if you are never expecting to see a OBP but find Tree and Meadow difficult enough..), learn about a booby on a beach in Sussex, and check out a fawn yawn.



Did someone nick a plaque?


This morning I blogged about this plaque on this building in the North York Moors National Park. The building is a shooting hut or lodge and the plaque is one of those that indicates funding from the Lottery – in this case through Sport England.

I’m grateful to the media team in Sport England for clearing up the fact that Sport England has not, repeat not, funded this shooting hut with either exchequer or National Lottery funds (which is why I couldn’t find any trace of it in the records on their website).

Sport England stress that they did not install this plaque on the building.

So that’s all cleared up then. Public funds do not seem to have been spent on this private shooting facility.  Good.

So that just leaves the question of why the plaque is there. If Sport England didn’t put it there then how did it get there?  These things don’t just fall out of the sky and attach themselves to buildings, you know.

I’d love to know where the plaque came from, how it came  and who thought it would be a great idea to stick it on this building. The workings of the human mind interest me a lot.




Petitions update

Online e-petitions are becoming a major way that opposition to government policy is now voiced.  Certainly they are vying with wildlife NGOs, journalism and the opposition political parties as the main voice of public criticism.

It is striking how many of the e-petitions on the Westminster parliament website are about wildlife and wildlife protection. Here’s an update:

The badger petition has been supported by the Wildlife Trusts nationally – but it is fascinating how the signatures are, so far, so concentrated in southwest England (and Derbyshire – I like Derbyshire). Here’s the map:


There is so much information in these maps about how to target environmental campaigns – I hope the wildlife NGOs have a team of analysts working on them – I’m sure it would repay the investment.





Here’s a puzzle for you


That’s a rather smart looking building in the North York Moors isn’t it? I wonder what the blue plaque says?


Aaah! National Lottery. Sport England?  What sort of sport goes on up there I wonder?

Shall we look up the planning permission?

Here it is.

It’s a shooting hut which shall only be used by shoot personnel from early in the morning to the evening (no overnight stays).

Hang on! David Ross? Isn’t he the bloke who founded Carphone Warehouse (I loathe their adverts btw) – he is indeed!

How interesting. Well, I thought it was interesting. A very rich man has a rather new shooting hut with a Sport England logo on it – almost as if Sport England have been sporting enough to pay for some of it!

Could that be right? Sport England – kids’ sports, the Olympics and shooting huts for millionaires? Surely not?

I had a look on the Sport England website and thought I’d found the grant but I was wrong. On this page there are links to two databases of Sport England grants and in the Lottery Grants one you can find (on line 10558) a grant of c£0.25m for enhanced community sports facilities and the grant was made to the David Ross Education Trust. Could that be it? Actually – no!

I’m glad I checked, and the helpful staff at the David Ross Education Trust quickly put me straight (that grant was for football pitches). They knew nothing of a building on a grouse moor they told me – and I believe them.  They also said they’d pass my query on to other parts of the David Ross empire, and I dare say they did, but I haven’t heard back from them.

Sport England haven’t been very forthcoming either. I asked them why their logo was on this building but I couldn’t find any record of a grant in their database for the relevant parliamentary constituency – they sent me an email a few days ago and then recalled it immediately – so I read it, but it didn’t say anything and they haven’t come back to me.

I just wonder why that building, used only for shooting, has a Sport England logo on it? And how, if it did, it received public funding.  The apparent funder is very reticent about why its logo is on the building and the recipient of the grant has not got back to me. There must be a simple explanation but it appears that no-one wants to tell me what it is.

Can anyone out there fill in any gaps, please?







Did you write to your Labour MP? Firm Briefing 18

799px-Houses.of_.parliament.overall.arp_Around 120 of you have told me that you have written to your Labour MPs on the subject of the debate on driven grouse shooting that will happen on a Monday afternoon after the 18 October (date tbc).

So far, some of you have had responses from c22 Labour MPs but another 68 or so have not yet responded.  Now that the Labour Party leadership election has happened, and the party conference is taking place, it is time for you to get back to your Labour MP and get them to be a bit more active on this issue.

The standard Labour response isn’t bad – but it also isn’t very specific about what line Labour will take.  It seems very likely to me that Labour will want to nudge the government towards doing more on this subject but won’t regard it as a very big issue for them. If pushed, Labour might opt for licensing of shooting estates (even though it won’t work).


Here is what I would write – there are two versions depending on whether you have had a response from your MP yet.


1. Dear [MP’s name]

Thank you for your response on driven grouse shooting – the date for the Westminster Hall debate is not yet set but the Petitions Committee is holding an evidence session on 18 October so the debate will be on  a Monday afternoon some time after that.

I was pleased to see the following phrase in your reply to me ‘…at the 2015 general election, I stood on a manifesto which included a commitment to deal with the wildlife crime associated with shooting. I am concerned that birds of prey are intensively persecuted, and that iconic birds such as the hen harrier are in danger of being lost as a breeding species in England. I believe that more must be done to protect these birds and to reduce the suffering of animals on shooting estates.‘.

I’d like to know what the Labour Party actually intends to do on this issue and what it will say in the debate.




2. Dear [MP’s name]

I wrote to you recently on the subject of driven grouse shooting and have not yet had a reply. I have however seen that other Labour MPs are sending out a sensible but slightly vague response on this subject which includes this passage, ‘…at the 2015 general election, I stood on a manifesto which included a commitment to deal with the wildlife crime associated with shooting. I am concerned that birds of prey are intensively persecuted, and that iconic birds such as the hen harrier are in danger of being lost as a breeding species in England. I believe that more must be done to protect these birds and to reduce the suffering of animals on shooting estates.‘.

I’d like to know what the Labour Party actually intends to do on this issue and what it will say in the debate in Westminster Hall.


Protected birds of prey are killed systematically and routinely by grouse shooting interests because they eat Red Grouse that can be shot for money on ‘sporting’ estates. A day’s Red Grouse shooting is likely to cost in the region of several thousand pounds per person and will involve the killing of scores of, often hundreds of, wild Red Grouse. This is big money.

Birds of prey do eat Red Grouse, and have done for thousands of years, but they don’t pay for the privilege. Hen Harriers, Peregrine Falcons, Golden Eagles (in Scotland), Goshawks and other species include Red Grouse in their diet and although they have been protected since 1954 (Protection of Birds Act) they are systematically killed by grouse shooting interests. Birds of prey are trapped, poisoned and shot – all illegal.

The grouse shooting industry argues that a bit of illegality remains but that it is ‘a few bad apples’. This contrasts with the facts which show that birds of prey have greatly reduced populations. For example, there are c650 pairs of breeding Hen Harrier in the UK and there should be, according to statutory sector science, around 2600 pairs.  In England there should be c330 pairs of the same species, but this year there were just 3 (yes, three!).  Similar impacts have been measured by scientists looking at Peregrine Falcons and Golden Eagles (in Scotland).  Whole counties lack any pairs of some protected species that should be relatively common, and this situation is getting worse not better.  Wildlife losses on this scale are not the work of a few bad apples – they are the result of systematic, routine and widespread wildlife crime.

Because this crime occurs in remote upland areas, on shooting estates and is probably largely carried out by employees of those estates, it is very difficult to detect the crimes as they happen and even more difficult to identify the culprits with enough certainty to bring many successful legal cases. However,the science that has been done, the court cases that have been successful and the increasing evidence from satellite-tagged birds indicates that intensively managed grouse moors are where birds of prey, fully protected by law, are likely to die.

So we are dealing with one tightly defined sector of society which is responsible for wildlife crimes which are having major impacts on wildlife populations and which are difficult to detect. Defra recognised the problem a few years ago when setting up a stakeholder group to look at the issue of illegal persecution of Hen Harriers but the plan it came up with was inadequate and the RSPB, which had been an uneasy partner in the plan, withdrew its support this summer because of a lack of sign of goodwill by the grouse shooters.

There are four options on the table, and I would like to know which the Labour Party will support so please forward this letter to the Shadow Sec of State for Defra, at the time of writing Rachael Maskell,  for an answer. the four options are:

  1. Do nothing – this appears to be the government’s position and I would expect the opposition to take Defra apart on this subject. The Conservatives claim to be th party of law and order after all.
  2. Introduce vicarious liability for wildlife crime – this exists in Scotland but was ruled out for England by the former minister Richard Benyon MP who is a grouse moor owner himself.  Vicarious liability for such crimes would increase the deterrent impact of the few cases that come to court because the landowner could be vicariously liable for offences carried out by his or her staff.  Grouse moor owners in the north of England include prominent people such as the Duke of Westminster, Earl Peel,  the co-founder of Carphone Warehouse David Ross and property developer Mark ‘Herbie’ Hancock and whereas I would not suggest that any of these would be involved in illegal activities the prospect of ending up in court and with a conviction because of the activities of a gamekeeper might well sharpen up any management chain.
  3. Licensing of all shooting estates has been suggested by the RSPB although the details are pretty obscure. Licensing could cover all aspects of moorland management and raise standards but it is not likely to improve compliance with the existing law unless much greater resources are given to enforcement and detection. The best thing to be said about licensing is that it would fail and lead the way to…
  4. Banning grouse shooting.  A ban on driven grouse shooting is the most effective way greatly to reduce wildlife crime against birds of prey in England’s National Parks (eg north York Moors, Yorkshire Dales, Peal District, Northumberland National Park) and upland Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (eg Forest of Bowland, North Pennines). There are many other problems with intensive moorland management for grouse shooting (increased flood risk, increased water treatment costs, increase greenhouse gas emissions) which would also be solved by a ban.

So, the question is ‘Which option does Labour prefer in order to meet your manifesto commitment to deal with the wildlife crime associated with shooting?’ and how will Labour MPs take this forward in the Westminster Hall debate on this subject in the next few weeks? I’d also like to hear your own view, as my MP. And I would be interested to see how Labour takes this matter forward in the next election manifesto.

Yours sincerely,


State of the parties and Firm Briefing 17

799px-Houses.of_.parliament.overall.arp_You’ve been very busy with firm briefing over the last few weeks.  Just over 500 of you have written to just over 300 MPs (and let me know – new correspondence arrives every day).

According to what you have told me, for that is all I have to go on, this is the breakdown of responsiveness from the main political parties:

Conservatives: 74 MPs replied so far, 106 not yet replied

Labour: 22 MPs replied so far, 68 not replied

SNP: 14 MPs replied so far, 8 not replied

LibDems: 5 MPs replied so far, 1 not replied

So, Labour MPs are worst at responding to their constituents on this issue, it seems, whereas the SNP and LibDems are good, and to be fair, the Conservatives are reasonably good.

But what did they say?

The Lib Dems are all over the place at the moment – which is charmingly liberal of them, but they are generally against the idea of any ban – some have sent out a version of the Defra briefing with a nod towards BASC in it too! Considering the strength of support for a ban from Liberal and ex-Liberal rural seats then they might just want to think about how this plays politically, and indeed, whether they have given it enough thought.

The SNP were good at responding but their standard response has gone down like a lead balloon with many of you. Some of you have met and talked to your SNP MPs and got a lot further that way than writing. There are rumours that the SNP might change its response from ‘don’t bother me, I’m just paid to be your MP’ to something more sensible but we’ll see.

Labour MPs have been very poor in responding on this issue. That is probably due to a variety of factors such as having urban constituencies, having relatively few of their constituents sign the e-petition on average, having little personal connection with nature and, perhaps most importantly, being a party (of which I am currently a member remember) in disarray at the moment. However, that isn’t a good enough batch of reasons as, as long ago as 24 August, some Labour MPs were sending out the standard response, which is non-committal but quite good, to constituents. If your MP has not bothered to send you the same then I’d ask them what they are doing.  I’ll provide a gingering up letter that you might want to send to your Labour MP on this blog this evening.

The Conservatives are much more interested in grouse shooting but appear to be pretty ignorant about the facts of the matter.  We have already seen the standard Conservative response, and the response that comes from Defra when the standard response is questioned. The Conservatives cannot cope with the fact that wildlife crime is widespread on grouse moors and that the government is standing by and doesn’t have an answer to this criminal activity.  I will come back to that matter at a later date – it might be in quite a while, but I will certainly come back to it and I’ll be asking you to write to your Conservative MPs to ram home that and other messages.




Just a few words

This isn’t much of a blog post to start the week but there are two reasons for that.

Last week I was under the weather for a few days, nothing serious, although being a man I assumed that I was dying, although again, being a man I didn’t do anything dramatic like asking a doctor, but I obviously wasn’t dying, at least not at any rate much faster than I am anyway, because I’m still here. But I am now in the phase of ‘having felt a bit rough I now feel really good, ‘cos I’m not feeling rough anymore’.

Yesterday morning was the fourth Sunday in a row when a quick foray out produced a 2-litre ice-cream container full of blackberries – we are having to eat things from the freezer to make space for the blackberries not consumed as stewed blackberries and apple through the week. What a bucolic life!


Seriously, in rural east Northants it’s a pretty good year for blackberries – there are lots more left on the bushes even though the devil is about to spit or pee on them (depending on which calendar you are keeping).  I went blackberry picking with my parents every year, but I also remember doing so with each of my grandmothers too.  I  rarely see other peo-ple picking blackberrries – is this a tradition which is dying out? Will this generation of children have the same memories?


Our two apple trees have been quite prolific too. Unfortunately, the better one has shed most of its fruit on the ground recently, when I was feeling a bit rough, and so there are lots of bruised and rotting apples on the ground, but there are still a few on the tree which I will collect tomorrow, I hope.  And the second tree, once thought to be dead, has blossomed under my regime of neglect and produced almost its first apples in c15 years – and they taste quite good.

Blackberrying yesterday produced Red Admirals, Commas (one of which landed on my hand in mid-blackberry-pluck) and Speckled Woods, and casting an eye over our apples produced five Red Admirals too.

But the other reason for this being an insubstantial blog is that I am quite busy corresponding with many of you over your letters to and from your MPs, and I am drafting the evidence I will submit to the evidence session of the House of Commons Petitions Committee Inquiry by the 5 October for the 18 October.  More on this subject through the week.


Writing competition – Under 18 winner


Hazel Peters is the winner of the Under-18 category of this blog’s writing competition.

Hazel’s father, Keith, tells me that Hazel began showing her passion for nature, particularly birds, at around 7 years; recording what she saw, researching as much as she could and saving pocket money for binoculars.  If she’s not at school, she’s out in the field.


Hazel’s winning entry:

Fire, dim and dying, burnt behind the horizon. Veins of cloud choked the last light. The white shapes of Herring Gulls smouldered against the grey.  Wrens quivered on the edge of consciousness.  The birds were still, quiet; their unquenchable instincts leading them to the dark hollows of hedgerows. I spied their narrow fleeting shapes, like memories that I could decipher into dreams and reality, as they tremored through the grey. It was only the House Sparrows that would dare wander into the cold gleam of winter. Sharp voices, quickening to the flicker of wings and fear, would follow their nervous flights. The wind was rough, the damp bitter on my lip. The black binoculars around my neck were cold to touch. Mud gleamed like murky water as I walked over it.

I stopped and sat down. Quiet, still.

Gold glimmered against the dull December light. A charm of Goldfinches bounced above me, their shadows eclipsing the dying light. Woodpigeons clamoured in the stillness. Long-Tailed Tits threaded their songs into the wind.

Birds have always fascinated me. They possess the minds we once had. They live in spectrums of instinct; fear and joy comes to them with its fulfillment. They do not worry for the past or future, only the present and what is. There is no time in their rushed lives to admire or regret, only to fear. In the words of J.A Baker, ‘they are old before we have finished growing’.

They are not selfish, or cruel, or kind or giving – they are just being.

The guttural callings of Crows grew from behind the treeline. I watched them as they swept across the damp ploughed field as a clattering of Jackdaws rose high amongst them.


I sat there some more for a while, I’m not sure how long I was there for, as time in nature is not measured in the pressure of ticking and loss. ‘A while’ was measured in wind and fading light.

Shadows bloomed across the land. Grey Wagtails slur the sky. The slim outline of a Grey Heron curved up from the top of the viaduct, the shadows of Herring and Lesser Black-Backed Gulls swooped upon it.

The piercing voices of Blue Tits began to stir. Black-Headed Gulls sank to the rim of the earth in the distance. A small murmuration of starlings moved like a shimmering oil slick over the ploughed field. I looked at the horizon; fire was turning to smoke.

Quiet footsteps took me down a narrow path flanked with bare hedges and blackberry bushes. The burning warning call of a Blackbird rang, and crescendoed into a fleeting black smear erupting from the hedgerow. I darkened his kaleidoscope of instinct. Even though I have learnt to fear with nature, to blend my shape into the land, I will always be the dread in a Blackbirds voice, or the fleeting sprint of a Rabbit’s feet. It was a warning that I was not being as quiet as I could be.

Silence and stillness again.  Fading light, growing darkness.




Vision blurred in those colours. I see a glint of silver first, cold in the December twilight. A scythe of white, the amber dusk of the hunting eye. Mottled wings shaped with violence, a chasing brown tail charred with bands of ash. The voices of House Sparrows and Blackbirds quickened to the pulse of wing beats. I breathed in, as if to exhale the moment. But the colours left and raced low over the hedge, and into the twilight, the dark outline of a Sparrowhawk with them.


Sunday book review – the Ethical Carnivore by Louise Gray


Louise Gray is a former Daily Telegraph environmental journalist. She writes well and this is a book that all should read – but it isn’t simply a duty, it is a gritty pleasure.

Louise set off on a year’s journey only to eat meat that she had killed herself – despite being close to being vegetarian anyway.  So there’s the first tension that runs through the book – the author isn’t that keen on meat, and is rather keen on animals, but she sets herself the task of taking responsibility for the death of many animals in order to get deep into the issue.

How will she cope with the angst? Will she cope? How will she feel at the end of it? What does she make of the people she meets along the way who kill animals for fun, or because it’s their job, and what will she think of the rest of us who eat meat and get someone else to do the dirty work for us and don’t think about it too much?

As the daughter of a farmer, and a country girl, Louise might be expected to show more sympathy for the hunting, shooting and fishing folk that she meets than actually comes through in this book. There are a couple of passages in the few pages on grouse shooting that suggest that Louise has swallowed a rural myth hook, line and sinker in one case and has misunderstood the issues in another. The mistake is the last sentence on p187 ‘Conservationists blame grouse moors for continuing to persecute hen harriers, although no-one has ever been prosecuted for doing so‘.  See Inglorious p40-41 for one conviction of a gamekeeper for killing a Hen Harrier and another of a gamekeeper for ‘going equipped to kill a hen harrier’ (also note Louise’s use of the word ‘blame’ which suggests that this might be rather unfair of them/us).  The misunderstanding comes in Louise’s short description of brood meddling – it’s not surprising that she misunderstands it, it doesn’t make any sense.

But I feel a bit mean pointing out these minor lapses because this is a largely unbiased book and one which should interest a wide range of people. If you eat lots of meat, or none at all, or somewhere in between, then you will be stimulated to think about your decisions and their impacts by moving with Louise on her journey.

Louise visits abattoirs, grouse moors, fishing vessels, good areas for road kill and wields various implements of animal death through the course of this book.

In India about a quarter of the population is vegetarian, in the so-called developed world the figure is usually less than 10% and often around 4%.  I have at least four, but often more, meat-free days a week but the lamb chops I ate last Sunday were delicious – and a treat (and yes, I know where they grew up, I saw them walking around the fields and I know the farmers who produced them (by their first names)).

Reading this book might nudge you to eat less meat and to think about it more.  But even if it doesn’t, and it’s not at all preachy, it is a thought-provoking and enjoyable read.  But now and again, when a life is about to end, you’ll feel the emotion of the author and it will make you look at dinner differently.


The Ethical Carnivore by Louise Gray is published by Bloomsbury.


Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.  Updated paperback edition now out.

Remarkable Birds by Mark Avery is published by Thames and Hudson.


Tim Melling – Black Hairstreak


Tim writes: the Black Hairstreak is undoubtedly Britain’s rarest hairstreak, being restricted to a narrow band of ancient woodlands between Oxford and Peterborough.  They are also frustratingly difficult to predict their appearance as it varies between early and late June.  They also seem to get worn and tatty rather quickly so photographing them soon after they appear is important if you want them in good condition.  The caterpillars feed on Blackthorn but the adults nectar mainly on Bramble, Privet, Dog Rose and aphid honeydew on leaves.  They share with Green and White-letter an annoying hairstreak habit of never resting with wings open.  The row of black dots inside the orange hindwing band is a diagnostic character to distinguish them from the closely-related and similar White-letter Hairstreak.  This was photographed in the woodlands in the Bernwood complex just north of Oxford.


Taken with a Nikon D7000 and a 105mm Nikkor macro lens 1/50 f8 ISO 800


Mark writes: a local speciality for me – I try to see them every year in the Beds, Cambs and Northants WT reserve of Glapthorn Cow Pasture.

In the image below, there are several places where I have seen this little butterfly (including behind me) but the main spot is half way down this path and then turn right and look at the brambly bushes (Dewberry, I am told) up the path.

This butterfly seems very poor at nipping over open ground and establishing itself in new woods. It makes you wonder how it ever managed to spread in the first place.  And it also means that every surviving site is vitally important.


Photo: BCN WT