New Defra ministers announced

"At a meeting of trade unions" (1996).""At a meeting of trade unions" (1996). (5932399293)" by Ion Chibzii from Chisinau. , Moldova. - "At a meeting of trade unions" (1996).. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“At a meeting of trade unions” (1996).””At a meeting of trade unions” (1996). (5932399293)” by Ion Chibzii from Chisinau. , Moldova. – “At a meeting of trade unions” (1996).. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Truss, Eustice and de Mauley are backRory Stewart is regarded as a bit of a waste in Defra by the Spectator!

Labour is expected to keep the Defra shadow ministerial team intact.



Robin Page – a nation giggles at him

Robin Page’s outburst against – well, against so many things – has been derided in the Guardian ahead of Saturday’s Tooth and Claw debate in Norwich.

The most telling quote is:


When asked by the Guardian why he had not cited any science to back up his assertion that raptors were suppressing native birds, Page replied: “I don’t want to, why should I?” A lifetime observing the countryside was enough for him to know what was going on, he said.

Robin Page is described sometimes as a political activist – he is never described as a scientist.

The Countryside Alliance is quoted in quite a sensible way in the Guardian piece but the CA’s Tim Bonner (@CA_TimB) says on Twitter ‘Can’t agree with Robin Page on raptor management but he’s far less wrong than @ChrisGPackham & @MarkAvery ‘.



Nature alert

Flag_of_Europe.svgNow is the time to show that you are a European.

For some strange reason, and the reason is fairly shrouded in mystery, the EU has decided to review the Birds Directive and the Habitats and Species Directive.  The Dutch government was, it seems, one of the prime movers behind this and by chance will hold the presidency of the EU when the results of this consultation become public and are considered. [And I note in passing that the UK government will hold the rotating preidency in the second half of 2017 – what a good time to have a referendum on our EU membership!].

When governments call for review of directives their aim is rarely to strengthen them – the fear is that they will be weakened. Do you remember that Gideon Osborne called for a national review of those same directives early in the life of the coalition government (see here) – a review that gave the directives not only a clean bill of health but noted their appropriateness.

My local patch, Stanwick Lakes, where my regular walks put me in step with the changing seasons, are designated under the Birds Directive as part of the Upper Nene Valley Special Protection Area for Birds.  This designation has not blighted the area – in fact it has protected it and made the enjoyment of the local environment more secure for we residents of the area, and visitors to it, including thousands of Golden Plover and waterfowl in winter. It’s a good bet that some of your favourite haunts for seeing birds, flowers or butterflies are protected by these directives too (SPA list, SAC list). And when you travel abroad you will find that the places you seek out for their wildlife are also protected by other national governments under the same directives.

You would sometimes get the impression from commentators from industry that the UK is implementing these joint directives with more vigour than other EU countries – nothing could be further from the truth. Have a look at the Natura barometer in the latest Natura 2000 newsletter (which also describes this review process) and see that the UK is far closer to the bottom of the list than the top in terms of percentage of land designated.

And remember that the State of Nature report showed that UK wildlife was in decline – so it would seem bizarre to start weakening the directives that aim to protect it.

Four EU-wide networks of nature organisations, FoE, EEB, Birdlife International (of which the RSPB is the UK partner) and WWF, have got together and produced a one-stop shop for busy ordinary nature-loving EU residents to respond to the consultation. Here in the UK, over 100 organisations, brought together by Wildlife Links in different parts of the UK, are promoting and supporting this public consultation.  What they have done is to provide you (and me) with a very easy way to respond to the consultation – click here. The hope is that hundreds of thousands of nature-loving Europeans will fill in this response and show support for nature and for the best bits of the EU legislation that protects nature.  So please take the very short bit of time to send a response. If you prefer to do so in Spanish, Lithuanian, French or Romanian then those options are also available.

Chair of the Joint Links’ Habitats and Birds group Kate Jennings, (RSPB), said: “The Habitats and Birds Directives are the foundation of nature conservation across Europe and are scientifically proven to be effective where properly implemented. The Directives deliver demonstrable benefits for nature, as well as significant social and economic benefits.

For over 30 years they have protected some of our best loved and most iconic landscapes from the Scottish Flow County to the sand dunes and marshes of the north Norfolk coast. They are essential to the protection of species large and small, from the Basking Shark and the Harbour Porpoise, to the Dartford Warbler and the Hazel Dormouse.

The strength of support from 100 voluntary organisations across the UK shows how significant the Directives are in safeguarding Europe’s biodiversity. Uncertainty over the future of the Directives resulting from the ‘Fitness Check’ review could be bad for nature, bad for people and bad for business.

So, please take a few moments to add your name to the response – it may be the best thing you have ever done for nature.







Henry in the Dales

Tues 12 May  Copy

Henry looks sad near the place where Bowland Betty, a young satellite-tagged Hen Harrier, was found dead in 2012.  ‘So, these are the Yorkshire Dales’ said Henry.

See here for more of the story.



Looking forward to …

Can anyone spot anything wrong with the following sentence?

‘I’m looking forward to a rational discussion with Robin Page at the ‘Tooth and Claw’ debate on Saturday in Norwich based on his well-argued and wholly accurate piece in the Daily Mail.’


Ex spinis uvas

By don cload ( [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By don cload ( [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The school motto of Bristol Grammar School is a Victorian, Latin, pun.  Ex spinis uvas, ‘from thorns to grapes’, is presumably supposed to describe the educational impact of years spent at the Grammar School but it also refers to the brothers Thorne, Robert and Nicholas, who were its founders in 1532. Geddit?

I spent a very pleasant weekend at a school reunion with a difference: in fact with two differences. First, although this was a group of people with whom I had learned Latin and Maths, and rugby and cricket, and something about growing up, the main thing we had in common was not academic or sporting but ornithological. The dozen or so of us were all members of the Bristol Grammar School Field Club (see Fighting for Birds pages 3-4); we had learned to identify birds together.

Second, although we did get together and enjoyed each others’ company (very much as far as I was concerned) the main purpose of our gathering was to thank, and to honour, one of the masters who had provided us with the opportunity to learn about birds at local sites such as Chew Valley Lake, Steart, the Somerset Levels and Slimbridge all those years ago. Two masters, Derek Lucas and Tony Warren, had been our main guides and mentors, and had driven a bunch of spotty teenage boys around in a minibus on alternate Sundays in term time.

A few years ago, Derek Lucas died and many of us, myself included, felt guilty that we hadn’t done much if anything to keep in touch since leaving school, and hadn’t made the effort to thank Derek (‘Mr Lucas’ still seems more appropriate) for the great start he had given us in our hobby of birding. So last weekend we gathered, a bunch of 50- and 60-year old grapes (or sultanas or raisins now) to say ‘thank you’ to Tony (‘Mr Warren’).

Appropriately enough we started at Chew Valley Lake on Saturday lunch time. There were a few people who I had never seen before, a few with whom I had kept in touch over the years but a majority whom I had not seen for between 40 and 35 years, since school or university. The plumage, in terms of hair length, coverage and/or colour may have changed but those subtle diagnostic features, the movement of the head or the extravagant waving of both hands, or the calls, were still very much the same. Identification was pretty easy. And it was striking that we had all aged, but none had changed very much.  The critical components of jizz were very much intact.

We slipped back into the same roles as 40 years ago and the conversations were adult (fairly adult) versions of those of our youth. As we walked around Chew Valley Lake we chatted and we birded. We talked about birds seen here decades ago, and on other Field Club outings.  How amazing it would have been to see a Little Egret or Hobby, or hear a Cetti’s Warbler, here in our youths, and how many more farmland birds there would have been.  And different people recalled different moments, but as they did, the memories came back.

Tony, Mr Warren, left us young ones (ha ha!) to have a boozy meal together in Jamie’s at the top of Park Street, which we mostly remembered from ‘our days’ as George’s bookshop, and then we reassembled for more birding on the Levels the next morning (about which, more later), and then we had lunch in a pub before heading off on our separate ways.

Over lunch, Tony talked to us all about his memories of those days, and of Derek, and of trips that some of us remembered.

It was fun. I’m glad we did it. It was good to see each other again, although the fact that we had managed without each other for decades was clearly true, but it felt important that we had done something to show our individual and collective appreciation for the opportunity that we had all been given to get to know birds all that time ago.

My years at BGS were incredibly important to me. I had an eduction that propelled me to Cambridge and onwards into a career in science and then nature conservation. For that I will always be grateful. In some ways my school days turned me from a grape into a thorn, I think, or at least equipped me with an intellect and character to be a bit prickly at times.

But those BGS days also fostered a love of both birds, and the camaraderie of birders.  I would not be able to tell the difference between a Garden Warbler and a Blackcap in song, were it not for those days. And I wouldn’t care to do so, if it weren’t for those days.  Some of my school friends have remained as keen birders and some have lapsed; I think I could easily have guessed which would be which, and I don’t think any the less of those whose interests have headed off into other directions. But I am immensely glad that the sparks of interest that were present when I entered the Grammar School gates as a nervous 11-year old were fanned into flame in those days, and that they still burn brightly now.

Are today’s spotty teenagers having the same experience, I wonder? If they aren’t then I’m not sure they themselves will be any the less happy, but I do feel that society will be a bit poorer for the loss of that perspective. So, in case you are reading this Tony, Mr Warren, thank you again for all that you did for us, and for many others too.

Tony Warren on the right - various grapes, sultana and raisins on the left. Photo: Hugh Brazier

Tony Warren on the right – various grapes, sultana and raisins on the left. Photo: Hugh Brazier




Henry in a hotspot

Monday 11 May  Copy

Were you driving past when Henry was standing by the side of the road the other day!

Henry kept saying that this looked perfect for ringtails but I told him he ought to stay in the car because it’s a bit dangerous for the likes of him in these parts.




Wildlife Power List


In May’s edition of BBC Wildlife magazine they publish a list of the 50 people most likely to make a difference to the natural world in the next decade. It’s a list of those considered to have the most potential influence for good. As such, it’s rather nice to find myself at #14.

You’d expect to find David Attenborough and Chris Packham near or at the top of the list, wouldn’t you?  And they are.

How many politicians would you expect to find? The answer is two. Which two?

Which wildlife NGOs are represented here? And which of their staff?  I am pleased to be nestling in the list between two of my NGO friends and only a few places behind another.  But some NGO big-wigs are missing from the list – that will get the tongues of their staff wagging.

How many women? The answer is fourteen – is that too few?  Well, have a look and then see who you would have added.

The list contains scientists, farmers, writers, royalty and ‘personalities’ – and some young people (really young people).

Such lists are fun, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Having said that, they also stimulate debate about the state of wildlife conservation and what, and who, really makes a difference. Have a look at the list (available in all good newsagents very soon, and coming through your letterbox anytime now if you are a subscriber) and see what you think. I’ll probably do the same and come back to it next week.



Please let me know…

Several people have told me (thank you all!) that when they look at the top of this page then one of the options is for Viagra in the USA!!

The thing is, I don’t see that on my PC or phone – how about you?
A new meaning for ‘Standing up for nature’?


Sunday book review – Undiscovered Owls by Magnus Robb and The Sound Approach.

undiscovered-owls-400x291What a hoot!

This is a book about owls and owl sounds – it’s a Sound Approach Guide after all.

It’s a very smart-looking and well-written book. And I found myself surprised by how much it gripped my interest.

The description of the discovery of the new species, the Omani Owl, is a very good read – and a testament to the industry and skill of the authors. There are tantalising suggestions that there are other undiscovered owls out there – maybe lots of them.

But for many of us, including me, most owls are rather mysterious creatures. I don’t know owl calls very well – every year I tell myself that I ought to get out at night more and listen for owls. The fact that it is ‘every year’ shows that I’m not very good at doing it!  But this book brings the calls and songs of relatively familiar and totally unfamiliar owls into our mind through our eyes (there are numerous sonograms in the book) and our ears (four CDs accompany the book).  The CDs are excellent.

There’s a lot in here about owl sounds, owl behaviour and the behaviour of those who track down owls to record their calls and try to watch their behaviour. Much of it is really fascinating.

I have one small complaint. Although the Introduction is engaging and charming, it doesn’t, and nothing else does either, actually tell you what this book is and what’s in it. But the time you get to the end then you know the answer, but  personally I’d have liked a bit more of it sign-posted upfront.

This book is different and good, and not just for those who like owls.


Undiscovered Owls by Magnus Robb and The Sound Approach is published by The Sound Approach.

Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery will be published by Bloomsbury at the end of July.