Oscar Dewhurst – Bearded Tit

Oscar writes: Other than Bitterns and Marsh Harriers, I also wanted to get some photos of Bearded Tits when I was at Minsmere. Luckily the best spot for them was the best spot for Bitterns! During a period of Bittern inactivity I heard the characteristic pinging calls of Bearded Tits and on turning around I was greeted by the sight of this one perched near the top of the reeds.
Nikon D800, Nikon 600mm f4 AFS-II

A couple of recent reviews

Image: Carry Akroyd

Image: Carry Akroyd

I’m sorry – I just haven’t had time to review a book this week.  It’s been a busy week in which I have given four talks and attended three ‘events’.

But the reviews of A Message from Martha keep arriving.

Here are two that pleased me a lot:

The Independent (Michael McCarthy): ‘This book will be a wildlife classic’ – full review here

The Well Read Naturalist blog (John E. Riutta) :…of all those that have come my way thus far, Mark Avery’s A Message from Martha stands apart from and above the rest in both the quality of writing as well as the information collected within its pagesand ‘If you read only one book on the Passenger Pigeon during 2014 – or anytime after – make it Mark Avery’s A Message from Martha. – full review here


Ralph Underhill Saturday cartoon





Wuthering Moors 47

welcomingWalshaw Moor Estate has had its planning application refused.

The reasons are quite interesting given the history of the site.

I see that the Bronte Society and the RSPB objected – clearly successfully – good for them in my opinion! in fact there were 41 objections and one letter of support. Where were Natural England in this case? I can’t see any comment from them – have I missed it?  Given that the application was refused partly on nature conservation grounds where were NE?

Read the Officer’s report for yourself and you may be struck by this passage: ‘Walshaw Moor Estate (the applicant) has disregarded the recommendations/conditions on a previous application 05/08861/FUL. The Estate has continued to make changes to a very precious and unique margin of the moors. The character of the unique landscapes of this upper valley are being harmed.


Government response to e-petition 65627

Photo: Tim Melling

Photo: Tim Melling

Our e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting passed the 10,000 signature mark on 31 July and received a response after nearly five weeks of brow-wrinkling thought on behalf of Defra on 1 September (maybe they thought I’d be touched by it appearing on the centenary of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon).

The sections in bold are the Defra reply and are followed by my comments.

As this e-petition has received more than 10 000 signatures, the relevant Government department have provided the following response:

It has been estimated that £250 million per year is spent on management activities that provide significant benefits for conservation. Shooting makes an important contribution to the rural economy. An interesting place to start. It has been estimated by people who have an interest in making that figure as large as possible, hasn’t it? Does Defra accept these figures? How much of that figure, which is a UK figure, is spent in England (the area under consideration for this e-petition)? How much of that sum is agri-environment funding that comes from the taxpayer? How much is from NE (or other statutory agencies) and therefore comes from the taxpayer?  And, rather critically to this particular e-petition, how much of that £250m is spent on grouse moors? Who does write these replies? Does a Minister sign them off?

By the way, prostitution and drug-dealing add £10bn (that’s 10,000,000,000 not a paltry £250m (250,000,000)) to the UK economy each year http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/05/30/drugs-prostitution-uk-economy_n_5415554.html . Should we encourage more of those in the uplands? Quite what is the point you are trying to make here?

When carried out in accordance with the law, shooting for sport is a legitimate activity, and our position is that people should be free to undertake lawful activities should they wish to do so.  This is an e-petition to make driven grouse shooting illegal – all you have just told me is that it is currently legal.  I knew that. That’s why this e-petition exists.

Driven grouse shooting depends on people breaking the law.  The large ‘bags’ of Red Grouse attained in the north of England would not be possible if the law were obeyed. That is the lesson of Langholm. If I’m right, then driven grouse shooting is not a legitimate activity at all – that’s one reason we should ban it.

Landowners are free to manage wildlife on their land, provided it is carried out appropriately and legally, in accordance with any the relevant wildlife legislation. And we know that criminal activity is the reason that the English Hen Harrier population is at c1% of its natural potential. So grouse shooting interests, and nobody else, are responsible for the dire conservation status of a fully-protected (and wonderful) bird. So enough landowners aren’t acting legally and that’s why we should either invest massively in policing (not my preferred option and not in your remit) or we should ban this pointless and damaging activity.

Hen Harriers

It is encouraging to learn that there are four hen harrier nests this year which have chicks, given that in 2013 there were no known hen harrier fledglings in England. Some of these fledglings will be tracked with satellite tags we have funded.  You don’t comment on the fact, mentioned in the e-petition and based on science, that there should be 300+ pairs of Hen Harriers in England if it weren’t for illegal killing of this protected bird.  You do remember, don’t you, that you are the department with responsibility for wildlife? How many pairs of Hen Harrier would Defra like to see in England and what is your plan to get them? 

The English Hen Harrier population has fallen under this government. You don’t have a plan, you don’t have an answer and it appears, you don’t have a clue. It is also clear that you really don’t care.

The Uplands Stakeholder Forum Hen Harrier Sub-group was set up in 2012 with senior representatives from organisations best placed to take action to address the decline in Hen Harriers. These include Natural England, the Moorland Association, the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, the National Parks Authority and the RSPB. Defra welcomes the involvement of all parties. The police might be the organisation best placed to enforce a pretty simple law – don’t kill Hen Harriers – but I note they aren’t in the room. I agree that policing of this issue would be very difficult and expensive – that’s why a ban on the activity responsible for the lack of Hen Harriers in England is such a cost-effective and red tape-free solution.

The Sub-group has developed a draft Joint Action Plan containing a suite of complementary actions intended to contribute to the recovery of the hen harrier population in England. We are working with Sub-group members to finalise the Plan. My prediction is that you will never publish this plan because there is no agreement amongst the participants and unless, you, Defra, knock some sense into the shooting community, to give considerable ground, there never will be. There is no joint plan – at the moment you have a ‘non-joint’ ‘non-plan’ and you do not appear to have any ideas for moving things forward.

By the way, the organisations in your group have no mandate to speak on behalf of UK nature conservationists and naturalists.  Any plan you seek to implement that is inconsistent with EU Directives or domestic legislation will be open to legal challenge.

As you will know, there is another e-petition asking you to publish the ‘non-joint’ ‘non-plan’ and that e-petition is being supported by just one side of this debate – the shooters. What could make it more obvious that there is no agreement than that one side wants a draft plan published and the other side does not? When, fairly soon, that e-petition reaches 10,000 signatures you will, I guess, spend around five weeks crafting another response (unless the Countryside Alliance has already drafted one for you – have they?).

What are you going to do then? I’d love to know. I’d love to know so much that I have signed the other e-petition to put you in that position as quickly as possible.

You, Defra, need to produce your own plan to save the English breeding population of Hen Harriers as part of your response to the ills (they are many) of grouse moor management.  I’d love to see the Defra plan – for the conservation of protected wildlife is your responsibility – on the way forward with Hen Harriers.  Publish your plan and then we can take it into account when we vote in May. Let’s see the coalition government’s plan for dealing with criminal killing of protected wildlife as soon as possible – then the people will decide.

Illegal killing of birds of prey

The killing of birds of prey is illegal, all wild birds being protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Anyone who kills or injures a wild bird is committing an offence and could face jail if convicted. When will you publish the data, on satellite-tagged Hen Harriers collected over the last 12 years by NE? Will that show that Hen Harriers don’t live as long as they should? Will it show, as suggested by an interim report on the work under the previous government, that Hen Harriers are being killed at roosts and on grouse moors? These data should be published now and no longer kept secret. I already have a PhD – I promise I won’t dash off another one with the data.

Bird of prey persecution is one of the six UK wildlife crime priorities. The England and Wales Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group leads on action to address these crimes through prevention, intelligence and enforcement activity.  Hen Harrier numbers have fallen during the lifetime of ‘the greenest government ever’ (that’s supposed to be you, in case you have forgotten).  This species is close to extinction in England and is at c1% of its potential breeding population given the availability of suitable habitat. c99% of English Hen Harriers are missing.  You seem very complacent under these circumstances.

The National Wildlife Crime Unit gathers intelligence on illegal activities affecting birds of prey, providing assistance to police forces when required. Earlier this year the Government confirmed that the Home Office and Defra would together provide funding until 2016, demonstrating the Government’s commitment to tackling wildlife crime. We’ll be the judge of whether we feel you are committed to tackling wildlife crime – I have to say I think you are incredibly complacent and have not demonstrated any real commitment to tackling these issues.  You are pretty much hopeless. You should be enforcing the law and bringing criminals to court – you haven’t done that.  You have already ruled out vicarious liability and licensing as options in response to previous e-petitions on this subject.

Alongside this, there have been successful conservation measures which have led to increases in buzzard, peregrine and red kite populations over the last two decades.


In February 2013 we, along with the devolved administrations, made a statement of intent to protect and enhance the natural capital provided by peatlands in the UK. In September 2013 the Pilot Peatland Code was launched with the aim of promoting the restoration of UK peatland through business investment. It is intended that the Code will assure restoration delivers tangible benefits for climate change alongside other benefits such as restoring habitats for protected species and improving water quality. I’m quite interested in this bit of your reply. It must have been written by a different civil servant from the rest of your response as it actually addresses the issue a little bit.  I will take this as tacit recognition that the upland management associated with driven grouse shooting is a considerably wider problem than simply wildlife crime.

But here you are recognising that there are broader issues in play over whether the management of land for driven grouse shooting is good or bad. It’s not just about Hen Harriers – this is a far broader issue.  Thank you for recognising that. If you come up with a Hen Harrier plan (which I cannot see you doing) it won’t be the same as a Peatland, Water Quality or Flood Risk Management Plan.  Banning grouse shooting will address all these issues in one.

How are you getting on with the complaint to the EU by the RSPB over the overburning of blanket bogs by grouse moor managers? What steps are you taking to ensure that your delivery body, NE, tackles this problem with all the powers it has? Why did NE cave in in the Walshaw Moor case?

The last decade has seen increasing numbers of conservation initiatives (such as Nature Improvement Areas and Sites of Special Scientific Interest) many of which are focussed on peatland restoration in the UK. We are working with a wide range of partners on peatland restoration, including land owners and environmental NGOs. You are the government – remember? You have lots of money and lots of power which you can withhold or wield to deliver your policies. You don’t seem to be very energised on this subject though.

Rural Development Programme

We are committed to helping create a more sustainable future for the English uplands, which are endowed with natural assets that are important for delivering a range of valuable “ecosystem services”, including food and fibre, water regulation, carbon storage, biodiversity, and recreational opportunities for health and wellbeing. Let’s see your plan for that then. Where is it? What have you done in the last four and a bit years to move this forward? NE used to have quite a good one but then it was pulled.

We will be investing over £3 billion in agri-environment schemes (Environmental Stewardship and its successor) in the next Rural Development Programme 2015-2020.  That’s my money (not all of it is mine admittedly) you are talking about there. I object to it being spent in the uplands rewarding criminals who are depleting my wildlife.

Addressing loss of biodiversity will be a priority for the new Programme. It was for the last Programme.  Do you think that’s worked well?

In addition funding will look to maximise opportunities to deliver biodiversity, water quality and flooding benefits together. Defra is working with a wide range of interests to finalise scheme details in good time for 2015. I look forward to seeing them.

This e-petition remains open to signatures and will be considered for debate by the Backbench Business Committee should it pass the 100 000 signature threshold.

This is as appalling a response to public concern as you could possibly imagine. This e-petition is the 20th most successful open e-petition across all government departments at this moment.  It has gathered considerable public support in a very short period of time and it addresses legitimate public concerns.  It is also the third e-petition on roughly this subject in the last few years to have received an inadequate government response.  Defra clearly don’t have a clue on this subject and appear not to care.

The response from government is complacent, misses the point and offers no solution except carrying on with the approach that has failed the public, failed the Hen Harrier, and quite simply failed for decades. The status quo only works well for those who profit from driven grouse shooting.

Banning driven grouse shooting is still the best way forward given the intransigence of the grouse shooting industry.

You never know, we might get to 100,000 signatures by the end of March although it looks rather unlikely and then there would probably be a debate in Parliament on this subject once a new government is in place.  This issue will not go away – we won’t let it go away – and the more signatures there are on this e-petition the more a new government will have to address the issue.

Please sign the e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting and the find some mates to sign it too.


Last butterflies?

photo 1

My late-flowering buddleia bush is still attracting a few butterflies – mostly Red Admirals.

We’ve reached the time of year when the Swifts have gone, the butterflies are going and if I wake and it’s still dark I cannot be sure whether it is time to get up or not (rather than in the summer when I face the same quandary when I wake and it is light).

I hope I have at least a couple more weeks of butterflies in the garden. Will the buddleia remain in flower that long? We’ll see.





Let joy be unconfined!

1408 p001 cover_with comp v2.inddTomorrow I will address the pathetically evasive response from Defra to our e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting (that gives you a hint as to what I think about it) but you may have noticed that it mentions that there are four pairs of Hen Harrier in England this year.

The existence of the fourth pair has been known to this blog for over five weeks. It’s in the Peak District and is in the general area of the site of our very rainy Hen Harrier Day protest.

So instead of the English Hen Harrier breeding population being at 0.9% of its biological potential we now know that it is at 1.2% of its biological potential – let joy be unconfined! We’re really on a roll!

No doubt this will be front page news – English National Park sees protected bird of prey survive and breed successfully!

The nest was on National Trust land and was found by their tenant Geoff Eyre. Now Geoff Eyre has been feted by the shooting community and is a recipient of the ‘prestigious’ Purdey Award. Mr Eyre has ‘a passion for all wildlife’ and so we can only imagine his joy at finding a nest of Hen Harriers on his grouse moor. What was the expression on his face as he looked down on the cute little Hen Harriers? Did he want to give them a big cuddle?  We understand that this particular area has not had the benefit of a gamekeeper’s presence this year otherwise, no doubt (no doubt at all), the ‘keeper would have been cuddling the Hen Harriers too.

See this link for an image of Mr Eyre smiling broadly – presumably at the thought of a Hen Harrier nesting on ‘his’ grouse moor. Let joy be unconfined! If My Eyre would like to tell us all exactly how he felt when he found the Hen Harrier nest then he is welcome to a Guest Blog here.

Mr Eyre lives and works in an area of the Peak District National Park that has been regarded as a black spot for raptor persecution for many years. It has been the subject of reports documenting the poor breeding success of birds of prey in this general area (see here and here). In fact, Mr Eyre’s former gamekeeper, Glenn Brown, was convicted of a wildlife offence not that long ago and the judge in the case gave Mr Eyre a bit of a ticking off too.

It is good to hear that the young Hen Harriers fledged from this nest have been fitted with satellite tags so that their travels can be monitored. Let’s hope that their travels can be followed in real time (perhaps with a few days delay) on this website. And let’s hope that they don’t share the fate of so many other tagged Hen Harriers, such as Bowland Betty, and end their days shot.

Considering the fantastic BTO Cuckoo-tracking study allows us to see that ‘our’ Cuckoos are in Mali, or Italy, or wherever they are in real time, it remains unacceptable that the NE Hen Harrier tagging project remains so secretive about the movements of Hen Harriers 12 years after it started -12 years!  The shutters came down completely on this study once the Conservative-Liberal coalition came into ‘power’ – it’s probably a coincidence, and probably nothing to do with NE not wanting to irritate their grouse moor-owning Minister of the time, Richard Benyon (ex GWCT trustee).

In the days of Labour (remember them?), NE published a hard-hitting report on Hen Harriers which alluded to the early results of the Hen Harrier tracking study but that was in 2008. Since then this publicly-funded study has been remarkably unforthcoming about the movements and fate of the tagged birds. Are they still disappearing at autumn roosts as they were in 2008? We should be told.



Nothing controversial here

On Tuesday evening the World Land Trust organised a second evening of Controversial Conservation. This time it involved Chris Packham, Bill Oddie, Andrew Gilruth (from GWCT), John Burton (CEO of the World Land Trust  and Garry Marvin – and me.

Andrew was a bit outnumbered but he did really well – considering the sticky wicket on which he had to face some hostile bowling.

My points were the usual ones:

  •  Hen Harriers are killed illegally and this is wrong
  • They are killed by grouse shooting interests not by anybody else
  • There are some good things and bad things about management for driven grouse shooting but in my view, and you must make up your own mind, the ‘bads’ outweigh the ‘goods’ by a considerable margin
  • We have talked a lot and the time for talking is passed
  • Grouse shooting has failed to clean up its act – it has had its chance, it’s time for it to cease as we don’t need it socially, economically or certainly ecologically
  • Let’s ban it – sign here

I agreed with Andrew on quite a few things but there was one where I didn’t have the chance on the night to say I agreed – neither of us thinks that licensing would work very well (!).

There was a discussion about how many Hen Harriers do we want – I said that grouse moor managers always tell me (as though it is the party line in fact) that they can tolerate (that’s big of them!) a pair of Hen Harriers on their grouse moor but no more. Since there are c140 grouse moors in England, apparently, that means that everyone should be happy with 140 pairs. I certainly would be – I’m not greedy.

In fact, I would be happy with fewer, as a start. Let’s have 40 pairs of Hen Harrier in England and then, once they are in place, let’s talk about other measures such as brood management.  Let’s not talk about reducing Hen Harrier numbers artificially to help the poor old grouse moor manager until we have some!

Apparently, this is very unreasonable. Apparently, the criminals who have deprived us of a marvellous bird have to be rewarded with a way out before they will give an inch – or a few Hen Harriers. We don’t normally let the criminals set the terms for them sticking to the law. But, to use the phrase which I think was invented by Raptor Persecution Scotland, the ‘untouchables’ have to have their way.  I don’t think so.  If the criminal elements within grouse shooting can’t demonstrate enough restraint to produce 40 pairs of Hen Harrier then there is no reason why we should trust them at all.

I keep mentioning criminals because killing Hen Harriers has been illegal for 60 years. Grouse shooting has not cleaned up its act which suggests that the non-criminals are reasonably happy for the criminals to carry on!  This might be because, unusually, in this case, the non-criminals do benefit from the acts of the criminals (see a blog from long ago on this subject).

I feel fairly sure that we do know the identity of some of the criminals and I feel fairly sure that so do the GWCT (and so I imagine, do the Moorland Association, Countryside Alliance, National Gamekeepers Organisation) but I may, as always, be wrong.

Andrew Gilruth says that he doesn’t know who any of them are. This is a bit of a snag really as it means that GWCT can’t argue, negotiate, or talk for the people who we need to influence. It’s not the good guys who have to change their ways (although if we don’t know who are the ‘baddies’ presumably we don’t know who are the ‘goodies’ either (although, ex-Goodie, Bill Oddie was there in person)).  If nobody knows who the ‘baddies’ are, then how do we get them to sign up to any scheme? Is GWCT saying that the Moorland Association knows who the worst criminals are? Or maybe it is the NGO – they might well know. But, if no-one knows, then we may be talking to the wrong people. Let’s have those 40 pairs of Hen Harrier in England as a sign that the baddies, whoever they are, really do want to change their ways.

Nothing controversial here.  Let’s have those 40 pairs, but until then we should keep arguing for a ban on driven grouse shooting. Please sign here.




Shade-grown coffee

photo 2

I’m enjoying the shade-grown, organic, Fairtrade coffee that I bought from the RSPB.

As New World warblers, confusing fall warblers (as the plate in Peterson described them) head south to the forests of Central and South America, I’m glad that my choice of coffee might be helping to protect their wintering habitat. And the bird-friendly coffee tastes fine to me.




Guest Blog – It’s bee-hind you! by Teresa Verney-Brookes


I have spent many years in the conservation field and have worked for various national organisations including The Wildlife Trust and more recently as Education Officer for the RSPB. I now run my own Outdoor Education /Forest School business called Green-Trees.

I feel passionately about the need connect children with the wonders of the wildlife and nature on their doorstep, because as the future custodians of our planet it is vital that we engage children and get them outside as young as possible; particularly given the statistics which show that children in the UK spend less and less time outdoors.

The negative physical, emotional, social and educational impacts resulting from children’s increasing disconnection from nature and the great outdoors have at least been recognised and are beginning to be quantified. Terms such as “Nature Deficit Disorder” are also being commonly used to describe this worrying trend.

Thus, to use the RSPB’s mantra “Children Need Wildlife and Wildlife Needs Children”. With this in mind, I continually strive to find new, fun and innovative ways to engage children with local wildlife and to this end I use a range of fun, practical, hands-on activities, including puppets!


Professor Queen Bee presents: “Its Bee-Hind You”.

When I was made redundant from the RSPB, I decided to use my redundancy money on setting myself up as a Punch and Judy Professor (the term for a P&J performer) – but with a difference! I had been interested in Punch and Judy for some time and I often use puppets in my work with children. With my teaching background, I was already well versed in “performing” and handling “crowds”, but I then had to spend many long hours mastering my puppets and using my swazzle, the instrument which gives Mr Punch his distinctive, and some say haunting, “voice”.

I am now known as “Professor Queen-Bee” as I have just spent the summer touring my new show which weaves in lots themes around conservation and sustainability, but in particular it focuses on the plight of bees and wildflowers in the UK. To this end, Judy (who is based on the Archer’s character Linda Snell) is a bee keeper and the naughty Mr Punch kills one of her bees and makes it into yellow and black stripy sausages – which are then eaten by the crocodile (blooming non-native species). The policeman is livid, and shouts “Does the fool not realise that bees pollinate every third mouthful for food we eat?”

Prince Charles (the puppet version) then appears and explains how bees face many threats already, so the last thing they need is for puppets to go around killing them too! He then tells everyone how they can to do their bit by planting wildflowers and encourages the audience to join him in singing to his flowers in order to help them grow! Mr Punch does eventually get his comeuppance when The Devil takes him away after complaining that without bees “You ‘orrible human beings would be wiped out in 20 years and I would not have any more customers down there!!”

At the end of the show I have lots of information available from Bumblebee Conservation, Buglife, RSPB and Plantlife and given my background, I am often barraged with questions on meadow creation after the show!

As I hope you will agree ……………”That’s the way to do it”. Did I hear you chant “Oh no it isn’t!”? as in reply, all I can say is: “OH YES IT IS!”
For more information contact me at Teresavb@btinternet.com or find me on Facebook at ‘Professor Queen-Bee’.