Bobbing about


I like boat trips – I never have to drive.

Sunday was a lovely day, and there’s the rub – lovely weather often means not many seabirds!

What we needed on the Yorkshire Belle was a strong wind and heaving seas – but there’s a rub there too – if the weather’s too bad then the boat stays in Bridlington harbour.

But the sea was calm which meant that it was easier to spot any mammals breaking the water surface. We saw quite a few Harbour Porpoises – like black cartwheels.  Further up the coast at Whitby, there was talk of Humpback and Minke Whales the day before.

The birds weren’t bad but not very numerous: a single Sooty Shearwater, a single Manx Shearwater, a few Fulmars, an Arctic Skua, a few Red-throated Divers, an immature Mediterranean Gull and a few Puffins were the highlights.

But it’s always fun going to sea, and the 120 or so of us made a friendly boat full.


You get a new perspective on life from the sea.  The land looks rather small, and the people on it seem constrained in a way that we mariners weren’t!

The cliffs of Flamborough and Bempton looked quite small from the sea – but  it looks like a hell of a drop from the clifftop.

Many thanks to the East Yorkshire RSPB Local Group for organising these cruises – I think it’s the second or third I’ve been on. Why not try the last of the season on 4 October – a good time for Pom Skuas I’d have thought.

When we returned to Bridlington it was midday and a boat-load of birders dispersed to find fish and chips which we all felt that we deserved for all our hard work of bird watching for three hours or so.







Satellite tags

Photo: Jude Lane, RSPB

Photo: Jude Lane, RSPB

Defra doesn’t have a plan for Hen Harrier conservation – if it did then the deployment of satellite tags on a large scale by private individuals and wildlife NGOs would have to be part of it.

Of course, we taxpayers have paid for satellite (and radio) tags to be deployed on a moderate scale for the last 14 years – but we can’t tell what came out of our investment because it’s almost all secret. I can’t think of another publicly-funded study (of a hot topic too!) which has lasted for 14 years for which there have been so few outputs.

But in 2008 there was an output from Natural England, here are a few quotes:

  • The English Hen Harrier population remains perilously small, with no more than 23
    nesting attempts in any one year in the period 2002-2008.
  • Productivity from successful nests is high, but very few nesting attempts are successful
    on grouse moors.
  • There is compelling evidence that persecution continues, both during and following the breeding season.
  • Persecution continues to limit Hen Harrier recovery in England.

What has changed since then?  Nothing except that the situation has worsened and we have twice elected a government that has done absolutely nothing about this widespread wildlife crime.

If Defra had a Hen Harrier conservation plan then widespread satellite tagging of Hen Harriers would form a major part of it because:

  • we would learn much about movements, habitat use etc (provided the data were anlysed and published)
  • the existence of satellite tags would be a deterrent to wildlife crime which Defra acknowledges (at least I think they do) as being the main problem
  • the existence of satellite tags would aid enforcement of the law in a way that no other approach can do – it will show where crimes occur and when they occur allowing speedier and more effective investigation

bathSo, it really is a no-brainer. And all those who care desperately, about Hen Harrier conservation will no doubt match Defra funding for this element of the Defra non-plan. The RSPB is already doing its bit. LUSH are selling bath bombs to raise more money for tags. ecotricity has promised to fund a tag or two.

No doubt the GWCT will pass the hat around their grouse shooting members, all of whom have a terrible crush on Hen Harriers, to raise a few hundred thousand pounds. The Hawk and Owl Trust will chip in thanks to their hugely enlarged membership. Tim Bonner will make a moving video – apologising to Chris Packham – and promising that the Countryside Alliance will fund several tags, the first three of which will be called Barney, White and Spunner.

Provided tagging is done under licence by qualified individuals then it carries little danger of harm to harriers (large numbers of smaller Montagu’s Harriers are whizzing around the world with similar tags right now) but it is important that standards are maintained in that respect.

The war against this wildlife crime will be won not in the corridors of Whitehall but on the moors of upland Britain when the ability to detect and investigate wildlife crime is greatly enhanced by the deployment of a non-secret weapon of mass detection.




I almost forgot

9781472906274The paperback edition of A Message from Martha is published today.

At less than a tenner (£10) it’s ridiculously cheap!


This absorbing book is an engaging and wistful, yet measured, chronicle about the tragic loss of one very special, iconic, species‘ – Guardian

An entertaining book … told with humour and disarming self deprecation‘ – Country Life

‘Riveting … a dark but fascinating chronicle of how human greed can have incalculable consequences in the natural world‘ – Independent

This hear-wrenching saga of extinctions old and new is as much about us as of disappearing doves‘ – Chris Packham

‘In his often jaw-dropping book he sets out to tell the story of this remarkable animal, and discover the reasons for its seemingly inexplicable demise. Piecing together the evidence, extrapolating from hazy first-hand accounts and taking his cue from other birds that are still with us, his book reads at times like the most arresting of mystery stories.’ – Sunday Times

An unusual combination of history, travelogue, horror story of wanton slaughter, analysis of ecological disaster and intense passion — for Avery leaves us in no doubt what Martha’s moral message to the modern world must be.’ – Daily Mail

A compelling read … written by one of the most passionate conservationists of his generation‘ – BTO News

The annihalation of the passenger pigeon should be seen as one of the greatest crimes committed by mankind on nature‘ – Sunday Express




Our e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting passed 19,000 signatures inside 2 months (late July, Aug, some of Sept).

Last year, it took over 5 months to reach the same level (late May, June, July, August, September, October, early November).

Thank you to all who have signed already and promoted it- keep going please! We’re on a roll!

Please sign here to make the Westminster government listen – ban driven grouse shooting.


Our Hen Harrier Study

Yesterday I received this reply from NE to a request for information about our Hen Harrier study.


Dear Dr Avery,

Access to Information Request – Request Number RFI 3112

Thank you for your request for information relating the Hen Harrier study which we received on 01 September 2015.

Your request has been considered under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.
Please find our response below

1. Is the study of Hen Harrier tagging completed?
No, our studies involving tagged Hen Harriers are ongoing. This year we worked closely with the RSPB-led EU Life project, landowners and other partners involved in Hen Harrier conservation. A further six nestlings were fitted with satellite tags by Natural England.

2. Has a PhD been submitted?
A PhD has not yet been submitted. As a result, we have no relevant responses in relation to your questions 3, 4 and 5.
3. If so, has the PhD thesis been examined?
4. If so, has the thesis been approved?
5. If so, in which library is the PhD lodged and where can members of the public gain access to it

6. What plans does NE have to publish the data and to publicise the results of the study?
As you may be aware, data from Hen Harriers satellite-tagged in the period 2007-2014 has already been published in summary form.

We have also published a summary report A future for the Hen Harrier in England? based on monitoring and radio-tracking data collected up to 2008. We intend to publish further reports based on a more comprehensive analysis of monitoring and tracking data collected during the course of the Hen Harrier Recovery Programme (HHRP). We have no plans to publish the raw data itself as this would compromise the locations of sensitive sites utilised by Hen Harriers including breeding sites and communal winter roosts.

7. What would be the process of obtaining copies of the data for personal scientific analysis? It has, unfortunately, taken longer than originally envisaged for data collected through the HHRP over recent years to be analysed and the results published. It remains our intention to carry out this work. However, we would be open to proposals from bona fide researchers to further utilise the large amounts of data that have been collected through the programme. Because of concerns over the sensitivity of the data (referred to above) any proposal would be considered on a case by case basis and we would require the appropriate assurances over data security. We would need to reach agreement on the nature and timing of subsequent publications to ensure that these did not compromise the data analysis that is already underway.

8. Were the locations of all Hen Harriers which ‘disappeared’ or whose satellite tags ‘failed’ given to the appropriate police authorities as information which would be relevant to possible crimes? Please supply details. Whenever data from tags fitted to Hen Harriers yielded information suggesting that a bird may have died at a particular location in the UK, this information was passed to the local Police or to staff at the National Wildlife Crime Unit and Natural England assisted with any follow-up searches on the ground. This applied to a relatively small number of birds, including two that were confirmed, through recovery and subsequent post mortem, to have been shot. The majority of the satellite-tagged birds ceased to provide data in circumstances that did not indicate a likely final resting location for the bird. This stems from the fact that the tags are solar-powered and require an average of around 48 hours to charge up between each series of locations transmitted. During this period we receive no information on the location of the bird which may travel a considerable distance from its last known location. This information has been shared with partners and has been published in summary form, but it was not always passed directly to the Police.

9. Does the £10k published cost of the study include the salary of the NE staff member most intimately involved with the work? No, this figure includes only the registration costs and university fees and does not include the costs of Natural England staff time or equipment and tags required for the study. The practical work to collect data for a PhD, including time spent locating nests, fitting tags and subsequent tracking, was undertaken as part of work on Natural England’s Hen Harrier Recovery Programme (HHRP). The opportunity was taken to use some of this data for a PhD study, with the majority of the additional time required for this contributed voluntarily by the staff member.

10. Does the £10k published cost of the study include the accommodation and subsistence costs of the NE staff member most intimately involved with the work? No, as stated above, the £10k includes only the costs of registration and university fees.

11. What are the true costs of this study to the tax-payer once NE staff time, supervision, travel, accommodation and subsistence are included?
As stated above, fieldwork and data collection has been undertaken as part of Natural England’s HHRP. The data analysis for the PhD has been undertaken outside of work by the staff member working on it and so has not involved additional costs for Natural England.



Buying some samples


Iceland 8 - Copy


Iceland made a lot of fuss about selling frozen Red Grouse in their stores some time back (see Red grouse get to Iceland, 10 July and Iceland fail to demonstrate their grasp of the subject, 13 July)  thanks to publicity in the Daily Mail (editor Paul Dacre – grouse shooter).

On a recent visit around their stores I found that the grouse meat was being sold off cheap at less than half price. A quick conversation with the staff in a couple of stores confirmed what was blindingly obvious right from the get-go that ‘grice’ might not be the preferred purchase for Iceland’s normal clientele. Their best sellers in the meat department are 4 quarter pounders for £2.

Just as Malcolm Walker did not reply to enquiries from the Raptor Persecution Scotland blog (and what an excellent bunch of bloggers those boys are) he did not reply to me either.

But Iceland did get a mention in the minutes of the Lead Ammunition Group meeting of 13 August suggesting that the information on game on Iceland’s website was not in line with Food Standards Agency guidelines.

Now that the findings of the Lead Ammunition Group are in the public domain (Findings of the Leade Ammunition Group, 8 Sept), we can all see that Iceland have probably been selling Red Grouse meat to the public which include high lead levels.

The Red Grouse was so cheap in Iceland it looked a bargain. Shall we call these purchases ‘samples’ from now on? Watch this space.




Bye bye Game Fair


I regret the passing of the Game Fair as I’ve had quite a lot of fun there over the years. But it was very obvious this year that there weren’t many folk around on the Friday at least.

But Henry enjoyed his first, and apparently only, visit, very much (Henry’s Game Fair, 2 August).

I hope he didn’t scare them all away…



Defra – a shameful department (2)

George Monbiot’s article in today’s Guardian reinforces the view that Defra has sunk to about as low as it can get. He points out that Defra announced the impacts of NOx pollution on human mortality and a consultation on how to fix it on the Saturday just before the media were swamped with the news of Jeremy Corbyn’s lection to the Labour leadership. Talk about hiding bad news!

Here is the link to the consultation and I suggest that we respond to it – though I might have to phone a friend to discover the best and cleverest things to say.

It is so easy to list Defra’s failures as an environment department – so let’s do it (although some will escape me, I’m sure):

  • siding with prejudice and the NFU rather than with science over badger culls
  • siding with agri-business rather than science over neonicotinoids
  • siding with the indolence rather than science and activity over marine protected areas
  • siding with its mates rather than the law over raptor persecution
  • siding with indolence rather than the public good over air pollution
  • siding with indolence rather than public and wildlife health over lead ammunition
  • siding with its mates rather than environmental protection and climate change over burning of blanket bogs
  • siding with developers rather than environmental protection over notifications and planning

You’ll be able to think of many more.

But what would you say is Defra’s greatest environmental achievement since May 2010?


Defra – a shameful government department

Photo: Gordon Yates

Photo: Gordon Yates

One of the more reasonable aspects of the dreadful government response to our e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting is that it regards the fact that there were a few more Hen Harriers this year (although many of the males disappeared of course) as encouraging. It is a little bit encouraging – but not very.

We know, and Defra knows, that the current science (as I keep mentioning, there’s supposed to be some more coming along in a while which may revise the figures downwards) on the basis of currently available habitat, suggests there would be around 330 pairs of Hen Harrier nesting in the English uplands if they were not illegally killed.

I notice that on Twitter both the Countryside Alliance’s Chief Executive, Tim Bonner (@CA_TimB), and the TGCW’s Director of Everything, Andrew Gilruth (@AndrewGilruth), are trying to give the RSPB a hard time about this. In particular, they seem to have a problem with the RSPB mentioning that the science suggests that there ought to be an awful lot more Hen Harriers in England.

Their line of attack seems to be that the RSPB doesn’t keep mentioning how many of other species there might be. Well, apart from the fact that is nonsense anyway, the reason to highlight the 330 pairs of Hen Harrier that could be nesting in England is to make a proper contrast with the 2, 4 and 12 pairs that attempted to nest in the last three years.  And the main reason for doing this is that we know, and the WTGC accepts, that the gap between the handful or couple of hands full of pairs usually on offer and the several hundred that ought to grace our hills is due to wildlife crime. And that’s what makes the grouse moor situation so unacceptable. A ‘sport’, a sport of trivial economic importance, is wiping out a protected species over the whole of the uplands of England. Nearby in Wales, where there is no driven grouse shooting, Hen Harriers thrive.

This aspect of the issue is covered in Chapter 1 of Inglorious (still the Amazon UK #1 best seller in target shooting (what a laugh!)). The Welsh situation is summarised on page 31 (57 pairs of Hen Harrier in 2010 in the last national survey – potential 250 pairs in Wales – but at least the population is in long term increase).

Andrew Gilruth also should remind himself of what it says on page 34 of Inglorious: As an example, the GWCT’s director of fundraising, Andrew Gilruth, when interviewed by Charlie Moores of Birders Against Wildlife Crime in July 2014, referred to Dick Potts’s paper as an early example of how his organisation had long accepted the critical role of illegal persecution in the fate of the UK Hen Harrier populations, and said about illegal persecution, ‘I don’t think that anyone is under any illusion that it needs to stop. I mean, the scientific literature is full of information about what the issue is. The challenge is about what to actually do about it.’

Ah, but that was last year when the CWTG were, laughably, putting themselves forward as the best friend of the Hen Harrier and the best friend of the RSPB.  Things have changed now.

I don’t remember GWCT or the Countryside Alliance promising us any particular number of Hen Harriers in the future – or did I miss that bit?  How many will they allow us to have?

Defra needs to get its act together. Its response to our e-petition made it look as though it was the mouthpiece of the shooting industry in general and grouse shooting in particular. Defra is not providing any leadership on this issue.  What is the Defra plan for Hen Harriers? How many of the 330 pairs of Hen Harrier that should be living in the English uplands will Defra deliver? And how quickly? What is its novel response to the current dire situation?  How is it going to tackle this wildlife crime? When is it going to recognise its nature conservation responsibilities and stop appearing to side with the criminal elements of the ‘sport’ of grouse shooting.

Defra against badgers (despite the science on bTB transmission), against bees (despite the science on neonicotinoids) and against birds of prey (despite the science on Hen Harriers and the law that protects them). What a shameful government department it has become!

Please sign this e-petition to Ban driven grouse shooting.



Just wondering…(2)

IMG_4554I’m grateful to various clever people for contacting me about yesterday’s blog about the extreme unlikelihood of so many male Hen Harriers disappearing from active nests with RSPB involvement.  My brain was aching a bit so I am grateful for others’ input.

The probability of 5 or more male Hen Harriers disappearing through ‘normal’ levels of mortality over a breeding period from 9 nests is 0.0033% (and the probability of 5 exactly disappearing is 0.0032%).

Here are the probabilities of other numbers of disappearances:

1 or more is 37% (so still more likely to lose none)
2 or more is 7.1%
3 or more is 0.84%
4 or more is .064%
5 or more is .0033%
As far as I know, but I don’t know much, the males survived at the three other nests in England this year.
So there must be something pretty odd happening.
I think some people may have missed the point of yesterday’s blog – yes, we all know that Hen Harriers are persecuted in various ways (Inglorious Chapters 1 and 6 are good places to read about this type of thing) but my suggestion is that nests with some sort of RSPB involvment were targetted specifically this year to make the RSPB look ‘bad’. If this happened, then whoever was doing it went a bit over the top didn’t they?
The press headlines from the grouse shooting side are all about how many chicks were produced and how many nests failed. They indeed don’t look great for RSPB because quite a few chicks fledged from non-RSPB-involvement nests. This makes a good headline for the grouse shooting side of the argument, but things look very different when looked at in the way of yesterday’s and this blog post.
Of the 9 Hen Harrier nests with RSPB involvement 3 succeeded (2 on FC land and 1 in Bowland) and 6 failed. Of the 6 that failed, including the one at the RSPB nature reserve at Geltsdale, 5 lost their males.  The chance of 5 nests losing their males over this period is around 0.0033% ie it is vanishingly minute.
So, something very odd is going on. It’s either that the RSPB are really really rubbish at guarding nests and cause male (but not female abandonment of nests) or that some other factor is involved.  My money would be on the other factor. My money is that it would be wildlife crime, and perhaps coordinated and targetted wildlife crime.
Please sign this e-petition to Ban driven grouse shooting.