She is also a radio presenter and feature writer for The Tablet. She has produced natural history series such as Saving Species on Radio 4 and was the lead producer for the Radio 4 series Shared Planet which has just come to an end.
Her excellent biography of John Muir was reviewed on this blog.
The only programme on the BBC purely dedicated to wildlife conservation, Shared Planet, came to an end in January. It was a long haul – 60 episodes over 2 years – signalling a major commitment from Radio4 to place this topic on the national agenda. The presenter, Monty Don, was joined each week by science journalist Kelvin Boot. Each week Shared Planet got 1.4 million listens, about a million for the origination at 11.00 on Tuesday mornings and another 400,000 for the repeat on the following Monday evening at 9.00. That is a lot of people tuning in to hear about the major issues affecting the natural world around the globe.
What we hoped to achieve was a fresh look, drawing on ideas from different disciplines and giving the audience an in-depth look at whatever was the chosen topic of the programme. Monty provided a thoughtful, intelligent anchor, Kelvin the science, facts and figures. The first one, broadcast in June 2013, featured Robert May and many prestigious thinkers, scientists and activists followed, either in the studio or down lines; young Mark Avery was one of them of course. We were honoured to interview a whole host of fascinating, inspiring people; some well known names included George Monbiot, Jonathan Porritt, Tony Juniper, Bill Sutherland, David Macdonald, Iain Douglas Hamilton, Tim Birkhead, Sylvia Earle – and a host of others from all over the world and in all areas of natural history. Not everyone was “well known” but all were at the top of their game and contributing high quality science and analysis. We also interviewed Patrick Barkham in our programme on literature and Bishop James Jones in a programme on religion. We branched out into psychology, sociology, political science and anthropology in other episodes.
The first programme grabbed the bull by the horns and looked at how population growth is severely affecting many species. The field-based interview with Prof Margaret Rubega from the Uni of Connecticut on why bother to save the chimney swift is still, I think, the best interview of the series. Here is a short clip.
She herself describes these once common birds as “drab flying cigars, unmelodic, they won’t go to bird feeders or sit still for a photo and they glue their nests together with spit.” So why, asked interviewer Howard Stableford, are they worth saving? Rubega’s answer is a joy and sums up what we hope was the raison-d’etre of the Shared Planet series. Not only are chimney swifts worth saving because they are simply amazing creatures in their own right, but also because we are collectively playing a game of Jenga with nature. Jenga is a children’s game where a tower is built of blocks and the players take it in turns to pull them out – until the whole thing collapses. Rubega said we are all taking it in turns to pull the blocks out of the tower of species that share this planet with us. It seems like there is no effect as the tower still seems to stand, even though species go extinct, but eventually we pull out one block too many and suddenly the tower collapses. A fun children’s game, a deadly and distressing consequence for humanity’s ability to live on planet earth. The “Jenga effect,” as it has stuck in my mind, is a simple and powerful analogy for our assault on the natural world.
I particularly like this interview because Margaret Rubega is fun and upbeat yet her message is serious. She encapsulates the situation we face with easy to grasp images. Further on in the interview she says the current situation is like living in a street and each day you go out and see your neighbours going about their business. But then slowly, year after year, you notice that they are thinning out. There are fewer people around to say hello to and houses are empty. One day, you realise you are the only one left in the street. A lonely, stark image, resonating with E O Wilson’s prediction of humanity entering the Age of Loneliness.
Looking back through the website (you can listen to all the programmes on there) I think we had a good go at covering the ground. Subjects ranged from how to live with carnivores, to the health of soils, to coral reefs and climate change, to the future of national parks, to marine protection, to the benefit of long term studies and so on. Have a look at the list, I hope there is something there for everyone. And as in any long running series some programmes worked better than others. None though were, in my opinion, bad programmes and all were an honest attempt to present complex issues to a wide audience.
Judging by the emails, tweets or letters we received from all over the world all the subjects got people thinking. Programmes like plastics and seabirds, the health of soils, how to manage the growing number of deer, the monetisation of nature and the role of religion got people writing reams – as did our look at wildlife conflict.
Many people reading this blog I know were unhappy about that episode (see here and here, and read the comments), and expressed it in no uncertain terms. We got complaints from all sides! Suffice to say it was not a programme on the hen harrier situation as such, rather a look at how to deal with entrenched conflict in a new way by learning lessons from political science. I’d like to thank everyone who did contact us, with good or bad comments, everything was read and caused a lot of internal discussion. The response showed just how important it is we find a way through the increasing problems caused as people and wildlife come head to head (or more commonly, people and people coming into conflict over wildlife).
Shared Planet is being replaced with a new series called the History of Natural History which will look at specific objects in the Natural History Museum in London and trace their contribution to our culture and heritage – as well as look to the future. It is not specifically a conservations series but it will certainly come into it. We hope it will deepen our understanding of the role that nature plays in society, in the past present and the future, and that can only be a positive contribution to the growing national conversation on the importance of protecting the natural world.
If you enjoyed Shared Planet I hope you like History of Natural History. If you wrote in thank you and please keep listening, Radio 4 is a national treasure and an important place for complex, challenging issues to be discussed.
The case of the convicted, and now imprisoned, gamekeeper, George Mutch has got many people wondering who was his boss, as Scotland, in their greater wisdom than England, has vicarious liability for wildlife crimes.
Following the first successful case leading to a landowner being fined for his role in his gamekeeper’s misdemeanours (the Ninian Robert Hathorn Johnston Stewart case) one wonders who was George Mutch’s boss.
Read Andy Wightman’s brilliant blog to see how difficult it might be to find out who to target in a vicarious liability case, and how the ‘untouchables’ might try to retain their untouchable status when vicarious liability is introduced in England (as surely it will be eventually).
Makes you think that the best way to sort this out for the very worst example of the shooting industry would simply be to ban it altogether doesn’t it? If so, sign here.
The e-petition to give Mountain Hares legal protection in Scotland is galloping across the landscape. It is heading quickly towards 5000 signatures.
I’m very pleased (and slightly jealous – it took nearly a month for our own e-petition to get to 5000 signatures).
Please have a look at the Mountain Hare e-petition on the 38 Degrees site, and sign it if it appeals to you.
‘Monro’ posted over 100 comments on this blog between 11 October and 14 December on the subject of Hen Harriers and grouse shooting’. On 14 December, because I was getting a bit fed up with his repetitive comments, I offered him a Guest Blog to get it all off his chest in one go. I didn’t hear anything from him until last weekend when Monro revealed himself to be Tim Bidie (which I rather suspected from his email address).
Tim writes: I am a 60 year old retired British and Sultan of Oman’s Army Officer living overseas, in Oman, running a small business advisory consultancy in Muscat, helping small to medium sized British and European Companies achieve business there.
‘THE GOOD INTENTIONS PAVING COMPANY’ (Saul Bellow)
‘Every seed is awakened and so is all animal life. It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being and we therefore yield to our animal neighbours the same right as ourselves, to inhabit this land.’
Sitting Bull, the victor of Little Bighorn, was a hunter gatherer who valued wildlife. There is no contradiction there. Animal life was exploited, yet cherished.
Most countrymen in England today hold to that same belief.
Eradication of apex predators in Britain by man has allowed other, smaller, predators to flourish, at the expense of various prey species, particularly ground nesting birds. That creates a responsibility for wildlife management.
The introduction of reared gamebirds into the countryside is no different to the introduction of beef cattle. Both end up on the table. The gamebird, arguably, has a better life and death.
Poultry, lambs, gamebirds, all require protection.
This point of view is a minority one in the country at large. But Beatrice Hall’s comment “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” should still hold good in 21st Century Britain.
Anything less would be a tyranny of the majority:
‘Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant — society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it — its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism.’
On Liberty, English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
A good recent example of the tyranny of the majority was the hunting act of 2004, lacking, as it did, any foundation in peer reviewed and published evidence.
A former cabinet minister referred to the forcing of that act through parliament as ‘the most illiberal act of the last century’
The Prime Minister of the time later wrote:
‘On hunting, I think yes on balance it was (a mistake) in the end. It’s not that I particularly like hunting or have ever engaged in it or would. I didn’t quite understand, and I reproach myself for this, that for a group of people in our society in the countryside this was a fundamental part of their way of life. Anyway, we came to a compromise in the end that, as I think I say in the book, was not one of my finest policy moments’
And the ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’ kicked in:
As a direct consequence of the two dog follow up limit imposed by the hunting act, admitted by animal rights activists to be useless for flushing foxes from cover, thousands of shot and wounded foxes in England, unrecovered, now die a hideous lingering death underground.
It has kicked in elsewhere in the countryside as well.
As a direct consequence of opposition to a nationwide grey squirrel cull, thousands of red squirrels die a dreadful death from squirrel pox, carried by grey squirrels, every year.
As a direct consequence of the failure of predator control in national parks, populations of ground nesting birds, including hen harriers, are wiped out, never to return.
Rspb researchers themselves are in no doubt as to the major threat to ground nesting birds:
‘Curlew nesting success tended to be higher, and population changes more positive, on sites with higher gamekeeper density (as a surrogate for predator control intensity). Nesting success tended to be lower, and population changes more negative, on sites with a greater area of conifer plantations surrounding the open moorland where the curlew bred. Fox abundance indices were higher on sites with a greater area of surrounding woodland…….changes in upland land use are associated with curlew declines, with predation a likely mechanism.’
Upland land use is associated with curlew declines, with predation a likely mechanism, and this may apply to other breeding waders. The removal of isolated woodland plantations from otherwise unafforested landscapes may help reduce predation pressure across a range of systems including moorland. However, direct predator control may also be important to conserve ground-nesting birds in these landscapes…..
In conclusion, even the best habitat management options for lapwings are not, in general, in the uplands as they are today, compensating for poor levels of breeding outputs across large areas of north England, Wales and Northern Ireland. While the suitability of the breeding habitat is clearly important, increasing evidence from other studies suggests that predation will also be an important factor…….
So, will the ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’ rumble into action once more by the passage of another expensive and illiberal bill through parliament, banning grouse shooting in England, based on zero peer reviewed and published evidence from England?
For the rspb ‘birdcrime’ report cannot be relied upon to support new legislation to licence grouse shooting England, let alone banning it altogether
It is not, in fact, even an rspb document, a joint effort between the rspb and paw, from which, curiously, both organisations disassociate themselves: ‘The views expressed in birdcrime are not necessarily those of the rspb or paw’
The actual evidenced, attributable, birdcrime detailed consists of 32 prosecutions, only 5 of which have any connection with game shooting, 21,000 Pounds Sterling in fines and two custodial sentences.
All other incidents are ‘reports’ listed according to the rspb’s own recording format, which vary from other published reports.
The report makes claims an order of magnitude greater than any attributable evidence within it.
‘The failure of any hen harriers to breed successfully in England in 2013 is primarily the result of years of illegal persecution on intensively managed grouse moors, which also affects populations in southern and eastern Scotland.’
‘Hen harriers are one of the most intensively persecuted birds of prey on UK grouse moors’
With the benefit of hindsight, since the report was written, we can now see that, at least on Langholm, breeding pairs are up from 2 in 2013 to 12 pairs in 2014, as a consequence of nothing other than a mild winter.
This improvement, for the same reason, is also noted in England, three successful breeding pairs.
The only recent evidence of the killing of hen harriers is three young hen harriers killed in England 2014 by predators, and a peer reviewed and published report showing over 50 hen harriers killed on Skye alone 2009-12 by foxes, confirmed by CCTV as causing hen harrier ‘disappearances’ leaving no trace of evidence:
‘….most fox intrusions occur when broods are at the later stage of development and that is supported by results from the Skye study’
‘……studies of two areas of Mid-Argyll and north Kintyre, where breeding birds have disappeared and this has been attributed to a large proportion of failures due to predation, possibly by foxes (ap Rheinallt et al 2007). J. Halliday (pers. comm. 2013) has updated these data showing that four territories in Kintyre occupied in 1997–2008, were abandoned and this he attributed to a high incidence of failure due to predation, with foxes the most likely predator.’
‘In 50% of the camera activations in this study, there was no other evidence to suggest that there had been a fox intrusion at the nest, in other words there had been a ‘clean lift’ by foxes at the nest. There is a risk that failures could be attributed to other causes.’
Even JNCC 441, the 2011 government report most often cited as evidencing ‘persecution’ of hen harriers does nothing of the sort. It simply uses, references, the rspb’s own ‘birdcrime’ data, with a massive caveat ‘for the probable cases of persecution, it is possible that some of the nests may in fact have failed for natural reasons’
The rspb is not a small organisation. It has not far short of 100 million pounds available to spend every year.
It calls for new legislation to licence grouse moors. Why, then, is it unwilling to fund the research necessary to provide a peer reviewed and published evidenced report in support such a potentially expensive (to the taxpayer) and illiberal scheme?
By the way, hands up who thinks a licensing scheme for grouse moors will never, ever, spread to all estates where gameshooting, even walked up only, just for the pot, takes place?
Alongside this controversial stand sits another one.
The rspb stands out against the Defra hen harrier joint recovery plan, citing difficulties with the idea of brood management. Yet, all the while, hen harriers that could have benefited from brood management in England are being killed by predators, three birds killed out of three breeding pairs in 2014.
Brood management is a widely used and successful conservation technique:
‘Reproductive success has been further increased through the careful manipulation of nesting birds. For example, infertile eggs are exchanged with fertile ones and excess chicks are removed from large broods and given to foster parents.’
…..direct manipulation is currently illegal under the Birds Directive, but in theory…… they could be translocated; there could be a brood management scheme. In this last case, there would be no limit on hen harrier settling densities, but should numbers of nests containing chicks on a given area exceed a certain threshold level, then young from additional nests would be removed, reared locally in aviaries and then released back into the wild (as proposed by Potts,1998). Within the law, a similar technique is currently employed in France and Spain, where hen harriers have been successfully reared to protect them from being killed by agricultural harvesting (Amar et al .,2000)…….. translocations motivated by the desire to remove hen harriers from areas where they are already persecuted would be illegal and would contravene the IUCN guidelines for species reintroductions.’
The rspb’s idea that brood management for hen harriers would be illegal seems to rest on the idea that they are being persecuted in England, a point of view for which no peer reviewed and published evidence exists.
The rspb knows from its own reports, the value of gamekeeping to ground nesting birds.
It knows the threat to these birds from predators.
It knows that poorly sited non native forestry plantations allow predators to flourish close to sensitive upland bird populations.
It even knows, recommends, funds, the benefits of brood management for threatened species other than the hen harrier:
But the rspb still holds out against the Defra hen harrier joint recovery plan and contends that expensive new legislation is required to licence grouse moors.
If grouse moors are to foot the bill, many will simply remove keepers.
So the ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’ is all set to strike again, yet further reducing the number and variety of upland birds, particularly ground nesting, including the hen harrier, in England.
In the words of 4 Non Blondes:
In today’s Guardian there is a long piece, ‘a long read’ piece, by the admirable Patrick Barkham on the subject of grouse shooting and Hen Harrier shooting too. In it, I am described as ‘intense and fiercely intelligent’ which I just point out to show how wide of the mark journalists sometimes can be.
It’s a good read.
This might seem a little off-subject for this blog, although I do try to maintain the appearance of having a thin veneer of culture.
However, one of the poems is right on-subject for this blog as it is ‘Bowland Beth‘ – the everyday story of the death of a satellite-tagged Hen Harrier on a shooting estate but told in a very different way.
You can hear the author read Bowland Beth here (after 14minutes and 40 seconds) – don’t you find it moving? David Harsent makes the point before his reading of his poem, that birds of prey are fully protected by law but are illegally killed by gamekeepers because they take game. He says ‘none more so than the Hen Harrier because Hen Harriers take grouse and grouse shooting is a high end business‘.
The more mundane story of this satellite-tagged young Hen Harrier, reared in the the Lancashire Trough of Bowland and killed in Yorkshire can be found here and here. The science shows us that the fate of Bowland Beth is common in the north of England where the swathes of estates given over to the industry of driven grouse shooting should be regarded as an enormous crime scene.
If moved by this poem, then please sign this e-petition calling on the government to end this time of slaughter by banning driven grouse shooting in England.
Scottish gamekeeper, George Mutch, was yesterday sentenced to four months in prison for trapping a Goshawk and beating it to death. Mutch is the first gamekeeper to be jailed for killing raptors. Click here to see some of the video evidence that led to the conviction in December.
It’s never a good thing for anyone to go to prison. I wouldn’t fancy it myself. But our society has decided that removing someone’s liberty is one of the ways to punish and potentially to chasten offenders against the law. Such a sentence will presumably act as a far greater deterrent than a fine, however large, because the prison sentence cannot be paid by another as can a fine.
This type of sentence has been available in other cases and I don’t know the details of this case, and particularly of Mr Mutch, but eventually society’s patience is bound to run out with the shooting industry’s blatant, repeated and widespread breaking of the laws protecting wildlife. If a few custodial sentences are needed to change the ways of shooting estates then so be it.
One wonders just how many gamekeepers would have to go to prison for the message to get through. And one wonders how many gamekeepers are slept a little less easily last night because they are expected to break the law and know that they are in jeopardy themselves.
And in Scotland, there is vicarious liability too.
Duncan Orr-Ewing, Head of Species and Land Management at RSPB Scotland, said: ‘We welcome the conviction of George Mutch on the four charges, including illegal killing of a goshawk.
This long-running case, informed by evidence from RSPB Scotland staff, has finally delivered some justice. To witness the destruction of a specially protected bird of prey in this callous manner was truly shocking. Crimes against protected birds of prey are an affront to the people of Scotland and damage the reputation of the sport shooting industry.
We commend those estates that operate within the law, but expect a better performance from this sector in future. We also thank the Crown Office, Police and Scottish SPCA for their help in bringing this case to a successful conclusion.
RSPB Scotland has voiced concerns to the Scottish Government about the abuse of crow cage traps in Scotland for many years. Crow cage trap use is authorised annually by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) under the Open General Licence (OGL) and only certain types of birds, may be taken for specific purposes.
The use of such traps is therefore a privilege, and not a right, and cases of abuse of this type put the whole OGL system at risk.
We welcome the recent announcement by Scottish Government to tighten up procedures, which will allow SNH to remove the use of the OGL from land where there is good evidence of crimes against protected birds of prey occurring.‘
Is there anybody out there who would be prepared to write a Guest Blog for this site which made the case that pulling out of the EU would be good for wildlife, the countryside and the environment (or any one of them)?
I’d like to hear from you. But perhaps you simply don’t exist…
Defra, do you have a solution to the problems in the uplands documented by the Leeds University EMBER report?
Remember? The report that established that the management of the uplands for driven grouse shooting leads to polluted water courses, probably increased flood risk downstream, loss of aquatic biodiversity and increased greenhouse gas emissions?
This was the report that strengthened the case, with further evidence, that managing the uplands for private profit (grouse shooting) imposed costs on the rest of society. Those costs are in the form of higher insurance costs (to pay for the impacts of flooding), higher water bills (because water has to be treated before it reaches the consumer), lower fish stocks (because of the impacts on river life) and higher impacts through a changing climate.
One solution to these ecological disservices delivered by driven grouse shooting would be to ban the practice entirely and there is, luckily enough, a very popular e-petition which has allowed over 20,000 of the public to express their support for just that.
Defra – you’ve just about run out of time to make any sort of positive impact on the environment before the official opening of the ‘open season’ on politicians, otherwise known as the general election campaign. Your record is dire – dire, egregious, failing, risible and adrift (as I wrote three years ago and you haven’t rescued the situation in the time that has followed).