I was quite shocked by Owen Paterson’s performance on the Today programme on Tuesday in response to the Nature Check report (click here to listen, at 01:34 and 17 seconds). That is, shocked in the sense of outraged rather than surprised.
The gist of Paterson’s comments was that the views of the 41 organisations signing up to the report, who are supported by millions of people, do not matter to him, to Defra nor to the coalition government – they are just a bunch of badger-lovers. Defra said that the criticisms were ‘unjustified and based on opinions, not facts’. Oh well, we get our say at the ballot box on 7 May 2015 but since we are just expressing our opinions that probably won’t matter either.
The government’s own opinion of its progress doesn’t look too rosy actually according to their own assessment of the England Biodiversity Strategy although, even if you know it exists, you will find it difficult to track down this information as it receives no prominence on the government nor Natural England websites.
It was an insensitive performance. If only the Today Programme would have him on every morning more voters could get his measure.
Not to be outdone in affronting anyone with an environmental bone in their body, the Prime Minister appears to have told Ministers to ‘get rid of all this green c**p’ although one has to trust the Daily Mail on that point (which rather goes against the grain).
It’s a long time since anyone held out any remaining hope for the Prime Minister and his party to be champions of a green agenda.
It is the switch from ‘greenest government ever’ a few days after winning the General Election to ‘all this green c**p’ that destroys many people’s ability to take politics and politicians seriously.
On Tuesday’s launch of Nature Check the relatively new Defra Minister Lord de Mauley was on the platform to respond on behalf of Defra. He, in the relative private of a House of Commons meeting room, did what his boss should have done in the relative public of the Today Programme, and responded with urbane charm, a self-deprecating smile and a firm restatement of Defra’s wish to work with the members of Wildlife and Countryside Link in the future.
The Minister described himself as a ‘country boy’ and stated what Owen Paterson had also, earlier, said, that improving the environment and growing the economy were not incompatible – George Osborne please take note. Although he had a few crumbs of comfort for the survivors in Natural England, their role is ‘more important than ever’, NE will soon have to consider the impacts of its work on economic growth.
Maybe the government’s pollinator strategy will emerge before the end of the year and, on Tuesday, the government was about to announce its next round of Marine Conservation Zones.
As a new-ish Minister Lord de Mauley can get away with spreading the charm for a while but time is running out for this government to achieve on environmental issues.
The host of the Nature Check event was another Tory MP, and the third old Etonian in this list (not that the Tory party is stuffed full of old Etonians, of course, perish the thought) – Zac Goldsmith.
I had a quick chat with Zac and thanked him for all the good work he does on the Environmental Audit Committee (where he is a star). In his introduction Zac sounded quite like a polite wildlife NGO Chief Exec – he pointed out that the government had done quite a good job on some things, singling out Richard Benyon’s role in CFP negotiations (as did the Nature Check report) and then went on to say that government could do much better.
Examples of areas where he specifically said that government could do better were Marine Conservation Zones around the English coasts and Marine Protected Areas in the seas around UK Overseas Territories. Hear hear! on both counts.
Zac Goldsmith is, probably, never going to become a Defra Minister because he would probably find it difficult to toe the line. His independent presence on the back benches enriches the House of Commons and the more people listen to him then the greater the chance that wildlife will be enriched too.
The official launch of the Bird Atlas 2007-2011 was yesterday evening at the Royal Society. The room was packed with past and current BTO staff, partners from Birdwatch Ireland and the SOC, former Atlas organisers including Tim Sharrock, Peter Lack and David Gibbons, sponsors, BTO Regional Representatives (including the excellent Northants BTO RR), the editor of Birdwatch (what an excellent magazine that is!), representatives from the statutory sector, wildlife NGOs and industry, several journos and the odd birder or two. It was a very merry throng.
Andy Clements made a good speech and got a bit choked with emotion towards its end (we all liked that), Barbara Young (the BTO’s outgoing President) made a few points to the Minister Lord de Mauley and Dawn Balmer told us how easy it had been to coordinate 40,000 observers and collate and analyse 19 million records.
The Minister made a little speech. He told us that he went to lots of events but that ‘None is more exciting than this’ (really? crikey!) and that he is ‘delighted’ to see Red Kites above his home in Oxfordshire. I was really relieved to notice that he didn’t say that this is Big Society at work (even though it is) – clearly the Government has dropped that old bit of rhetoric. Maybe the political climate has changed?
Talking of climate change (!), I spent a couple of hours flicking through A Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds and compared lots of maps in there (which indicate what might happen if species can adapt to a changing climate through shifting their ranges) with the Atlas maps. It’s eye-balling rather than analysis, but it convinced me that it’s difficult to say anything definitive!
The authors of the Atlas are pretty cautious, almost ambivalent, about whether the changes in distribution revealed over the last 40 years reveal evidence of climate change shaping what we see in the countryside and I can see why. There are quite a few southern species, particularly white herons, that have spread a lot in the last 40 years but these aren’t always species that the Climatic Atlas predicts will be heading our way. You’d think that ‘southern herons arrive in UK in big numbers in times of warming climate’ would be good evidence for a climate change effect but apparently it isn’t.
Where I thought that there might be some new evidence is in shrinking distributions of northern species but where they have happened (eg Dotterel, Capercaillie) there are competing explanations, where they haven’t happened (eg Whimbrel, Greenshank) it makes you wonder why not.
Give it another 40 years of careless greenhouse gas emissions and we may be pretty sure that climate is a big factor determining bird distributions but then it might be a little late to do much about it.
The Atlas maps are like a series of images placed one on top of the other so that it is difficult to make out the true shape of things. Our birds are responding to climate change (probably) and also to intensive farming (certainly) and conservation interventions (certainly, some of them) as well as human persecution (certainly) and more occasional events such as cold winters and wet summers.
This Atlas is superb in many ways; as a social enterprise of tens of thousands of coordinated individuals; as an exercise in data storage and dissemination; as a beautiful book. It gives us, I think, many answers to ‘What?’ questions but rather few to ‘Why?’ questions (although the data on which it is based may hold some of those answers). Those most concerned with other taxa would love to know more about ‘What?’ whereas the bird-world has already answered quite a lot of ‘Why?’ questions too. The evidence for impacts of changes in farming practices on bird numbers don’t come from this Atlas but their impacts are in here although mixed up with lots of other effects. Documenting change is an important activity and that is what this Atlas does best.
Climate change gives us a lot more ‘Why?’ questions to answer. It will be quite a challenge to work out how big a climate signal there is in these data and that is an enterprise worth pursuing. Moving away from the ‘it might be climate change, you know’ to ‘we are pretty certain that it is climate change, you know’ (or not) is a scientific quest worth making. And to do it people will have to use these Atlas data and probably similar data collected over the next 20 years too through BBS , WeBS and Birdtrack. Although a few people yesterday evening didn’t think that this would be the last Atlas I think it will be, and I think it should be.
Ornithologists, because birds are amazing and (in some ways) easy to study, have led the way in understanding the impacts of land use change on wildlife and in developing the methods and approaches to make those studies. We, for I am a little bit an ornithologist myself, can lead the study of climate impacts on wildlife too. But I’d like us to plan those studies so that they don’t depend on an Atlas being produced in 20 years time. We need more rapid progress. The BTO will need to get out of its comfort zone, as it increasingly is in many ways, if it is to play a significant part in exploring the role of climate change on British wildlife – but that is the place to be if you aspire to be the leading bunch of ornithologists in the UK. So, they’d best get on with it.
I spend a lot of my time these days trying to persuade those who love nature to become more politically active. I’m often told that all politicians are the same: they are not. They never were, and they never will be.
My last blog on the Atlas will appear this evening – maybe at 6pm but maybe a little later as I now have an unexpected assignation in the House of Commons in my diary.
Have a look at these two advertisements – they are very different in what they say about nature.
Toys ‘R’ Us advertisment.
Which did you like best?
You may have noticed that adverts have appeared in the right hand sidebar of this webpage. I’ve not been terribly keen on the idea of having them but given the time invested in producing this blog, which recently passed the 1000 posts mark, then it seemed too idealistic not to enter the world of Mammon (or rather, let him have a toehold on my sidebar!). Do not fear, I do not expect to be packing up this blog and retiring to a life of luxury on the proceeds.
If you want an example of landscape-scale nature conservation then look at the maps for Red Kite – or in many cases, just look out of the window and see a Red Kite! From the first breeding Atlas to this one the Red Kite has ceased to be a solely Welsh bird in Britain and Ireland, and is now found, thanks to reintroduction projects, in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland too. And the maps, particularly the abundance maps (both winter and summer) allow one to pick out the reintroduction areas which have led to this resurgence. If there were another Atlas, in 20 years time, the map should be full and it would be difficult to remember that Red Kites were once given shelter in Wales because the rest of Britain and Ireland wasn’t quite ready for them. This is a bird of the wider countryside once more.
We shouldn’t forget, either, the spread of the Avocet over the years, which still continues. From being restricted to East Anglia it has spread to Kent, the south coast, Wales and the northwest as an established breeding bird. Its spread has depended on the provision of safe and productive nesting grounds through nature reserves and wildlife designations.
The fact that the Stone Curlew has as many occupied squares as it does is down to collaborative efforts between nature conservationists and dedicated farmers. We are never going to see Stone Curlews living everywhere, but to have maintained their range, given all the threats they face from changes in farming practice, provides a beacon of hope for other farmland birds.
How about the corncrake? Lost from much of Ireland and Wales but now spreading, thanks to agri-environment schemes and nature reserves in northwest Scotland. And there are those four dots in Cambridgeshire thanks to a reintroduction project there.
The Great Bustard is on the map! The reintroduction project on Salisbury Plain is still in its early days but the signs are fairly encouraging. It’s fascinating to see how widely the birds range in winter and let’s hope that means that they have plenty of options for a small protected breeding population to grow over time.
Sparrowhawks have completed their recovery from the impacts of agricultural pesticides. As the birds continued to increase in East Anglia, the Atlas reveals that there were drops in abundance in many other parts of the country. We are probably not going to be overrun by Sparrowhawks.
The spread of Ravens and Buzzards from west to east is spectacular. Once Larsen traps provided a legal alternative to illegal poisoning then these species were allowed to spread into lowland areas. Changing attitudes of gamekeepers and maintaining the pressure on the unacceptability of illegal poisoning will also have played a part in this recovery.
The Atlas tells the story of conservation successes as well as species declines. In some cases, it is an achievement merely to have maintained the populations of threatened species – keeping the same number of dots on the map sometimes required an awful lot of effort! In others, with Red Kites as a prime example, the distributions of threatened species have been transformed in a spectacular way.
All of the tools in the conservation toolkit have been deployed for different species – site protection, reserve management, protective legislation, political advocacy to effect land use change, fighting wildlife crime, working with receptive farmers, foresters and developers etc etc. All are important and all have changed the numbers and distribution of dots in this Atlas. But when you are looking at maps then one of the tools stands out very clearly – reintroductions can make a huge difference, quickly, to a species range. Many of the successful examples concern raptors – White-tailed Eagle, Red Kite, Golden Eagle (in Ireland) and Osprey (at Rutland Water) but there is a growing number of other examples such as Great Bustard, Corncrakes, Cranes and Cirl Buntings which have put dots on the map which otherwise would not have been there. Let’s hope these projects, and others, lay the foundations for future maps to show similar resurgences of populations.
Let me end by telling you a story. I was coming home after midnight one night last week after giving a talk. As I neared my home in east Northamptonshire a mammal ran across the road. It might have been a ferret but it looked like a Polecat to me. I’ve seen one squashed on the road in the area before but never a live one – and this one was certainly alive. Unlike the Red Kites, Buzzards and Ravens which I now see in the Northamptonshire skies very regularly, the Otters and Polecats which have also returned are almost invisible – I see them, or traces of them, rarely. but they are back too.
Mammals are rather good at being sneaky whereas birds are a bit more brazen about being present (except, perhaps for species such as Goshawk and Honey Buzzard). I’m glad that the mammals are sneaking back as well as the raptors. Publicity on wildlife crime, raptor reintroductions and tagging of vulnerable raptor species have made it easier for mammals that are unpopular with gamekeepers to return too. A focus on reducing illegal persecution and the use of poisons helps many species.
I’d love to see the map of Polecat distribution in the same detail as the map of Raven. How similar do they look? Did Polecats, rather sneakily, outrun Ravens?
As one flicks through the pages of this Atlas one keeps seeing farmland species with shrinking distributions. But the key to truly appreciating the scale of what is happening to these familiar birds is to look at the maps of change of relative abundance. Time after time we see maps showing contracting ranges and declining abundance right across the current range. Farmland birds are draining from our landscapes, as have farmland plants and farmland insects before them and with them.
These maps of change of abundance are only possible because of decisions made by the team of the previous breeding Atlas over how to collect the data – because of their decisions we now have a much fuller picture than would otherwise be the case.
If I were at the RSPB I would be considering getting postcards made of the maps of change in abundance of Corn Bunting, Grey Partridge, Lapwing, Yellowhammer, Yellow Wagtail, Starling, Turtle Dove and a few other species and then make sure that every MP, every civil servant in Defra, every senior member of the National Farmers’ Union, every staff member of the Country Land and Business Association, every senior manager in every pesticide company and a few other people got one of those postcards every week. I’d be surprised if all those folk are settling down to look at their brand new copies of this Atlas so maybe we ought to help them out.
The farmland bird story is well-established and well understood – some people have, perhaps, even got a bit bored by it. But it’s shocking! We, taxpayers, invest £3.3bn per annum in British farming through subsidies and environmental payments and yet the birds are bleeding from our countryside (following the plants and the insects). Yes there are many wonderful farmers out there, and wonderful politicians, and wonderful policy makers but they aren’t producing a wonderful countryside for wildlife.
If these maps sit in a big book for birdwatchers then they will simply document a decline in wildlife and a failure in our collective ability to stem the losses of natural beauty from the fields around us. These maps, and the rest of the data which underpin the farmland bird decline need to be used to provoke more and better government action. If all the thousands of people who collected the data for this Atlas would write to their MPs (and Welsh AMs, Scottish MSPs and Northern Irish ALMs, not to mention the TDs in the Republic of Ireland and EU MEPs ) about what it shows, and expressing their dismay, then it would send a little ripple through the collective conscience of the House of Commons. That wouldn’t be enough – but it would be something.
I’ll write to my MP next week and I’ll post my letter to him on this blog. Please join me and do the same. If you, like me, helped collect the data for the Atlas then help make those data make a difference.
I attended the fifth New Networks for Nature meeting in Stamford on Friday and Saturday. It’s a different type of meeting – refreshingly different. Where else would you get organic food for lunch, haikus, a panel debate with leading thinkers on environmental matters, the President of the SWLA, three talks about non-native/introduced/alien species, some young people, an ex Environment Minister, some NGO Chief Executives, journalists, loads of poets, a sprinkling of scientists, a youth or two, publishers and some fairly normal people as well.
It made me think – and I like being made to think.
One of the things it made me think about was ‘to whom are we talking?’. I think that one way of looking at it, just one way, is that we are talking to three groups of people; the convinced, the partially convinced and the unconvinced.
At this meeting, in Stamford, we were mostly talking to ourselves – the convinced. We were all nature lovers. We were telling each other that we are right-thinking people and doing a bit of moaning about why doesn’t everybody think like us. That’s what usually happens when the like-minded gather together.
Chris Baines told us that we should talk to those who would listen – the partially convinced – and clearly he is right. Examples of the partially convinced are many industries who would do a little more for the environment if they were wooed – Chris is a good wooer.
I guess that I have spent a lot of my time talking to people who are not convinced – politicians, some members of the shooting community, some members of the most uncaring end of the farming industry etc.
I think we need to talk to everybody – but we need different language to talk to different people. I wonder whether some NGOs think that every time they open their mouths they are talking to government and forget that they are talking to us too. And sometimes it feels as though NGOs think that everyone is partly convinced – whereas many are wholly unconvinced.
It was good to hear the NFU getting a couple of gratuitous verbal swipes – and not from me. It was good to hear the 40 million pheasants released into the countryside being given a verbal broadside – and not from me. It was good to hear the madness that is badger killing being castigated widely – and not from me.
Less good was a bit of moaning and back-biting about NGOs – not that wildlife NGOs should be immune from criticism, of course.
Did I really hear it suggested that we needed to fix the CAP – well, there’s a novelty! I hope the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and others found that a helpful and novel suggestion. And is it fair to say that the Wildlife Trusts have under-performed on the badger issue – quite harsh I would say?
The solutions to many of the problems faced by wildlife require either lots of people to change their ways or governments to change theirs. To achieve either, or both, we need the right language, but we also need our voices to be raised, to be speaking in unison and to keep on speaking up for nature.
Most resident passerine species have very similar distributions in the winter to those in the summer. That may sound obvious, but it needn’t necessarily be so, need it? Our Jackdaws and Chaffinches could all move to different areas of the country seasonally but it appears that, generally speaking, they do not.
Pied Wagtails are quite interesting; their relative abundance looks quite different in winter and summer (at least in Britain – less so in Ireland). Basically, there are fewer Pied Wagtails, relatively speaking, found in cold places in winter – hardly surprising but very obvious now that, for the first time, we have relative abundance mapped for the same species in both seasons. Pied Wagtails are less keen on living in the north and the uplands in winter and become relatively abundant in some lowland areas that they do not greatly favour in summer. Grey Wagtails do something similar too.
Snow Bunting is a breeding species, but I think of it as a wintering one. And I think of it as a coastal species because when I see them they tend to be on shingle beaches in Norfolk. Come to think of it, I’ve rarely seen Snow Buntings anywhere else. And that shows what a sheltered life I have led – they are all over the place inland in north Scotland in winter. I must get out more.
The difference in relative abundance of Fieldfares and Redwings is interesting. Where I live, and in all the places I’ve lived, they seem to come along pretty much together and they are treated almost as a single species; ‘Fieldfaresandredwings’. The Atlas shows that Fieldfares have a much more easterly centre of gravity of their distribution, with fewer getting to Wales, the southwest and Ireland in comparison with Redwings. You’ll see them both, in the same field, in Ireland and Norfolk, but their relative numbers are likely to be different. I hadn’t really appreciated that – and now it interests me. That made me look more closely at Blackbird and Song Thrush; to my eye the Blackbird resembles the Fieldfare and the Song Thrush resembles the Redwing in terms of winter relative abundance.
It’s not just Ireland that Bewick’s Swans eschew these days. Their range has contracted by around a half in Britain and Ireland since the first winter Atlas. We still hold about a third of the world population of this species but they seem to be more and more concentrated into the Fens – especially around the Ouse and Nene Washes. It’s a good job that both areas are SPAs and under sympathetic management but what if the fens are filled with wind turbines? Or if the land use changes to grow elephant grass on a large scale? ‘All your eggs in one basket’ is rarely a good strategy for any bird.
No, the winter maps are not as interesting as the breeding maps – partly because a lot of the interesting wintering species are coastal (ducks and waders), but that’s not to say that they are uninteresting. Maps of bird distributions, but particularly these maps of relative abundance, are interesting enough for anyone.
By the way – this is the 1000th post on this blog.