Dr Dave Leech is a Senior Research Ecologist at BTO, where I oversee the Nest Record Scheme (NRS) and the two standardised ringing projects, the Constant Effort Site (CES) scheme and the Retrapping Adults for Survival (RAS) scheme.
My job involves developing survey methodology, analysing data and communicating the results to volunteers and the general public.
I’m particularly interested in exploring the responses of breeding birds to climate change and finding out how birds in urban environments fare relative to those in the wider countryside.
Of nests and nets: why we still count eggs and ring birds
In a post on this blog on November 13th, Mark made some very nice comments about the BTO Regional Meeting in Nottinghamshire. He also presented a list of things that we, as an organisation, ‘could do better’, which included communicating the benefits of bird ringing and nest recording to an audience beyond our volunteers. As someone involved in the Nest Record and Ringing Schemes as both staff member and participant for over a decade now, I couldn’t agree more. We should be shouting from the rooftops about the achievements of the 3,000 ringers and 600 nest recorders who spend a combined 0.6 million hours each year collecting data that underpins much of the bird conservation work in the UK. So, let’s get the ball rolling………
Surely we know where birds go in winter by now?
When at a twitch (I do partake, occasionally), I like to start talking about ringing and nest recording at the first opportunity, to stimulate discussion and gauge attitudes amongst my fellow birders. The commonest misconception voiced is that the main purpose of ringing is to identify the wintering grounds of migrants. While that may have been the original intention when the Ringing Scheme was set up over a century ago, the chances of ringed birds being located in Africa are slim at best and satellite tracking is fast proving a more reliable method of specifying destinations, as well as routes and flight speeds.
A matter of life and death
So why do the Government (through the Joint Nature Conservation Committee), the BTO and the ringers themselves (who buy all their own rings and equipment) stump up the cash? What bang does their buck provide?
The true value of Ringing and Nest Record Scheme (NRS) data is the role they play in understanding species declines. ‘Population modelling’ may sound complex, but the basic principle is pretty straightforward – bird numbers are determined by the number of fledglings raised, the subsequent survival of those youngsters and that of the adults that produced them. Nest recorders collect data on productivity and ringers collect data on survival, allowing the relative influence of each on population trends, generated by thousands of volunteers like Mark taking part in the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), to be assessed. This is essential information for conservationists attempting to reverse declines (after all, there’s no point providing better nesting habitat if numbers are dropping due to starvation over winter) and the subject of many scientific papers written by my colleagues, the most recent by Rob Robinson et al. (but see also the NRS publications list).
So why don’t we focus efforts on declining species?
In the words of the great Joni Mitchell, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”. It’s not easy to predict what species may decline in future (I, for one, wasn’t expecting a crash in the Greenfinch population given it was one of the main species on which I cut my teeth as a ringing trainee), and you can’t investigate the factors driving the fall in numbers if you don’t have baseline figures – this is why long-term datasets are so valuable to conservationists. The information presented in the BTO’s BirdTrends report summarises the annual NRS results going back to 1966, alongside data collected by a number of ringing projects and population trends generated by BBS. And if you, like me, you can’t wait to find out whether the next point on the graph conforms to your gut feeling of how birds fared in 2014, we have a sneak preview of where it might fall in the preliminary trends, released this week.
The future of ringing
The way in which we use ringing to monitor survival is constantly adapting and improving. A decline in the number of reports of dead birds in the late 20th Century could have been catastrophic (and we still need more folk to report rings found on dead birds [http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/ringing/about/why-report-ringed-bird]) but thankfully statistical developments have allowed us to make more use of data from birds retrapped by ringers – and so the focus shifts from the dead to the living. The problem with relying on retraps is that the chance of recapturing a bird is dependent on a ringers’ effort, so a network of Constant Effort Sites (CES) have been established to standardise this effort across sites and years.
The use of colour rings reduces the need to recapture birds as individuals can be identified remotely, which is less time-consuming and also means that non-ringers can help collect survival data (my own, non-ringing mother does 90% of the fieldwork for my Holt Blackbird Project and her neighbours do most of the rest!). Increasingly, Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags, similar to the chips vets place in cats and dogs, are fitted to rings, allowing a birds’ presence to be detected by automated recording systems.
It’s not just about survival, though. The ratio of juveniles to adult birds caught by CES ringers allows us to measure annual variation in breeding success, with trends again displayed in the BirdTrends report. Dispersal is another key variable, determining the ability of birds to colonise new breeding sites – thanks to ringing, we know that Marsh Tits are not one of nature’s explorers, but Pied Flycatchers fledged in the UK will happily move to foreign climes to rear their first broods. Ringers at bird observatories record the timing of spring and autumn migration each year, which has real implications for the ability of species to adapt to new situations – how early/late can our migrants shift their laying dates in response to climate change, for example? And catching birds regularly opens up a whole range of new data collection possibilities that we’re only just starting to explore, from disease to population genetics.
I hope this post at least gives a taste of the role these demographic surveys play in modern conservation (and if you won’t take my word for it, check out recent editorials penned by John Eyre and Ian Newton in the ever-excellent British Birds). As with all monitoring, there is no definitive ‘end’ product, no leather-bound tome sitting on a shelf in a dusty library – ringing and nest recording are part of an ongoing, proactive commitment to chart the health of our wildlife. And given the ever increasing list of potential threats, from climate change to habitat destruction, the efforts of citizen scientists across the globe are more valuable now than ever before.
Not only are ringing and nest recording worthy pursuits, they’re great fun and guaranteed to change your perspective on the birds around you, as focus shifts from the species to the individual and the interpretation of behaviour becomes key. Visit the NRS and Ringing Scheme webpages to find out how you can contribute.
This infographic has been sent to MPs by the Moorland Association and BASC recently. It allows me to make a few points.
1. They say: ‘Managing heather helps preserve and protect UK’s biggest carbon store‘.
Not so according to The Times (1 October) reporting a recent study by Leeds University : ‘The owners of grouse moors who set fire to heather to promote green shoots for young birds to eat are polluting rivers and contributing to climate change‘ or one of the researchers involved: ‘Altering the hydrology of peatlands so they become drier is known to cause significant losses of carbon from storage in the soil.‘ said Professor Joseph Holden, who continued ‘This is of great concern, as peatlands are the largest natural store for carbon on the land surface of the UK and play a crucial role in climate change. They are the Amazon of the UK.” BASC and the Moorland Association should withdraw their infographic unless they can back up their point on the basis of science.
2. They say: ‘Fresh water sources and reduced flood risk‘
Not so according to that same Leeds University study which suggests high particulate matter in water from catchments dominated by grouse moors (leading to increased water bills for many customers since the costs of water cleaning are borne by the water customer not the polluters), increased acidity ( more treatment costs) and perhaps (not certain) a greater risk of flooding rather than a reduced risk. Here again, a recent, major, scientific study says the opposite of what BASC and the Moorland Association are claiming – that’s how I read the science. BASC and the Moorland Association should withdraw their infographic unless they can back up their point on the basis of science.
3. They say: ‘79% of upland EU Special Protection Areas for Birds are managed as grouse moors‘.
Shouldn’t that be mismanaged? Where are the 330 pairs of Hen Harrier that should live in the English uplands, many of them on SPAs? Indeed, the Hen Harrier populations were one reason for the SPAs being designated in the first place. They have been persecuted almost to extinction as an English breeding species by grouse moor interests.’Special’ ‘Protection Areas’ where the species that caused the areas to be ‘special’ have been wiped out by an industry that then brags about the SPAs? I couldn’t make that up, could you?
4. They say: ‘Heather moorland is found in Britain because of grouse moor management‘.
Really? Driven grouse shooting is 200 years old and heather has been around for a while longer than that. Grouse moor managers are claiming to have invented a species of plant now! Do get out more (moor?)! When Thomas Hardy wrote of Egdon Heath in Dorset were there men in tweed rushing around looking for Red Grouse? I promise you, there weren’t. Grouse moor management is an exploiter of our uplands, not their protector.
5. They say: ‘90% of English grouse moors are within AONBs or National Parks’.
Yes, why is it that our National Parks are killing fields for the rich? Why cannot the people enjoy the sight of a Hen Harrier or a Short-eared Owl flying across open countryside on their weekend walks? Why are large areas temporarily closed to the public for grouse shooting for the few? How exactly does heather burning improve the landscape of our National Parks? When will National Parks outlaw driven grouse shooting within their boundaries?
6. They say: ‘Grouse shooting in England, Wales and Scotland supports the equivalent of 2500 full time jobs’
They seem to be a bit confused here as the Moorland Association said last week that grouse shooting in England and Wales produced 1500 jobs and 42,500 hours of work (c30 hours work per ‘job’). They have just got a bit confused I expect. It will be a different figure next week perhaps.
7. They say: ‘Grouse shooting invests £100m into conservation‘
It is not at all clear how much of that is the taxpayers’ money anyway through farming subsidies and grants that could go to other better-deserving and higher -delivering land managers. Here is a proper economic evaluation of the value of shooting as a whole, of which grouse shooting is a tiny part, which shows that all the composite figures are probably exaggerated four-fold. Grouse shooting is the reason why many protected species are at very low levels. That’s the conservation impact directly associated with grouse shooting.
8. They say ‘Controlled burning reduces the risk of wildfires‘
It probably does. But you don’t have to shoot grouse and kill protected wildlife to do a little bit of burning, now and again, to reduce fire risk. And in National Parks all over the world others are managing natural fires as a part of the natural ecology of their wildlife sites.
9. They say there are ‘…up to 5 times as many waders on managed grouse moors‘
Note the ‘up to’. What does that mean? There are up to a billion times more Hen Harriers, Golden Eagles and Peregrine Falcons on areas not managed for driven grouse shooting than on those that are. Mind you, I only said ‘up to’. Statutory agency figures suggest there should be 500 pairs of Hen Harriers on driven grouse moors across the UK and in 2008 there weren’t 500; there weren’t 50, there were about 5. Golden Eagles, similarly, do badly on grouse moors – often ending up dead on them. Science shows that Peregrine Falcons have appalling nesting success when attempting to breed close to grouse moors in northern England. To be fair, some grouse moors are pretty good for breeding waders because all the Stoats, Foxes and other predators have been wiped out in this industrialised landscape.
10. They say ‘Grouse shooting is an important source of healthy food‘
The science shows that about half of grouse bought in supermarkets and game dealers could not be sold if they were beef, chicken, pork etc because of their high lead levels. The Food Standards Agency says this ‘The Food Standards Agency is advising people that eating lead-shot game on a frequent basis can expose them to potentially harmful levels of lead. The FSA’s advice is that frequent consumers of lead-shot game should eat less of this type of meat.’. How ‘healthy’ is that? M&S weren’t convinced – except to change their mind and NOT to sell grouse meat, as did Selfridges.
11. They say ‘Control of disease and invasive species‘.
I don’t really know what they are on about here but Red Grouse are managed to live at such unnaturally high densities by grouse moor managers that they need treatment, on the hills, for high worm burdens, tick infestations and a new disease, a form of cryptosporidiosis, seems to have been spotted recently.
12. They say: ‘At least 40,000 people take part in grouse shooting annually‘.
Really? Is that all? And that includes beaters etc. Not much of a crowd puller is it?
This is the grouse moor managers’ case and it is terribly weak. The first two of the 12 points I list here are diametrically the opposite of what BASC and the Moorland Association claim.
Over 19,500 of us feel that we’ve had enough of grouse shooting and call upon the next government to ban it completely. Please sign here if you agree.
I hope you are well.
I’ll be coming to parliament a week today on a rally organised by the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts and the League Against Cruel Sports, and supported by some other countryside organisations too. If you are around and could spare a few moments to talk then I’d be very grateful.
But I know you are busy so I thought I’d put some thoughts down here.
What we are calling for is basically that the next government, and I do hope it is a Labour government with you as a minister in it, should do a good job for wildlife in England. We are calling on the next government to:
- bring in a Nature and Wellbeing Act
- stop wildlife crime which affects protected and threatened species like the Hen Harrier
- ensure that the protection given to our wildlife through the EU Nature Directives is neither watered down nor lost completely
The outgoing (I hope) coalition government has been inactive and inept on wildlife conservation and so there is plenty of catching up to be done.
You know you can count on my vote next May but if you have glanced at my blog recently you will have seen that there seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with Labour from wildlife enthusiasts and environmentalists like myself. I can understand that frustration and I share it myself. See these two blogs but also the comments attached to them (here and here).
But Labour has a great opportunity to win back the enthusiasm of some faltering supporters by ensuring that the election manifesto contains measures such as these:
- promise to put in a complete network of marine protected areas – Labour started this off with the Marine Act, the ConDems have completely failed to make progress, and it’s a job that needs to be finished off
- ban lead ammunition following the Quito agreement a couple of weeks ago (supported by the UK as part of the EU delegation) – and this is also unfinished business for Labour as Michael Meacher brought in the initial ban of lead ammunition for wildfowl in England
- ban driven grouse shooting – we now know that grouse moor management puts up the water bills of the many, and increases the insurance bills of the many, and worsens the climate for all, and deprives the many of the chance to see ‘protected’ wildlife and all for the profit of the few. Come on – whose side are you on?
- introduce vicarious liability for wildlife crime – it takes the pressure off the working class gamekeeper and distributes some of that pressure to the rich and powerful so they cannot avoid the consequences of crime on their land and on their behalf
- commit to reducing bovine tb in cattle by all means necessary, even killing badgers if necessary, but with the emphasis on improvements in biosecurity and through vaccination of cattle and badgers
- ensure value for money for the taxes of all when agri-environment funds are spent on rewarding the few – why does Labour always bend to the will of the NFU’s self-interest?
Maybe we’ll get the chance for a quick chat next week but I’d be very grateful if you could promote my general concerns to those most closely concerned with the section on the environment in the Party’s election manifesto. I shall be reviewing all the political parties’ election manifestos on my blog. I hope I will have plenty of good things to say about the Labour manifesto.
It seems like the grouse shooters are in a corner and they are not sure what to do next. So they are falling back on the tactic that has served them well up until now – do nothing, give no ground, wait and see.
Grouse shooting is in a corner – a corner of its own making, of course. That corner consists of:
- an almost total absence of a protected bird as a breeding species in England because of grouse shooting’s illegal persecution – and this is a bird they keep complaining is a pest. Duh! There aren’t any.
- evidence that the management of grouse moors is bad for the wider environment – water quality, flooding, greenhouse gases and aquatic wildlife (and much moorland wildlife too)
- retailers responding to public pressure and withdrawing the sale of grouse because they can’t be confident of their provenance
- an international agreement to ban lead ammunition to which the UK signed up
- increasing public scrutiny of the whole business of grouse shooting
- land reform and vicarious liability in Scotland showing a way that England could go
- getting ‘beefy’ with the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts has only shown the world that ‘we are all on the same side really’ is not a tenable position and has radicalised the nature conservation organisations’ memberships to a surprising extent
- an uncertain electoral outcome in May
- analysis showing that grouse shooting is of little economic value eg here and here
- a wildlife rally next week in Westminster chosen to take place on the penultimate day of the grouse shooting season
- significant support for the banning of driven grouse shooting at a time when politicians are drawing up their election manifestos
So, what do you do, grouse moor managers? Doing nothing is an option. If you do nothing then you’d better hope for another Conservative-dominated government or else doing nothing for the last five years won’t look so good to a new administration. That is certainly looking more possible now than it did a year ago so to that extent, which isn’t a very large extent, things have improved.
Doing nothing will just get people more frustrated and angrier too. You probably don’t realise how angry some people are. There were plenty of people calling for mass trespasses of grouse moors as the focus for Hen Harrier Day 2014 – they will be even keener in 2015.
Doing nothing will not keep everything as it is now.
This time last year, how much of what has happened in the last 12 months did the grouse industry foresee? None of it , I guess. I don’t blame them, neither did I.
How much more scrutiny could you survive on the economics of grouse shooting and the public subsidies that support it? How many people will want to be seen going grouse shooting as its reputation declines through the intransigence of an industry that does not root out the criminals in its number?
What do you think Hen Harrier Day 2015, in glorious sunshine, and with events right across England and Scotland, might look like?
I seem to have reviewed 32 books on this site in 2014. They are all listed below.
Reviewing books is a personal affair. I try not to say that books are good or bad – only that I like them or not. From that, you’ll have to make your own minds up. And I know that what I like may not be what you like.
But these first 10 books are ones that brought me the most pleasure this year. They aren’t the ‘best’ books, or the most ‘important’, they are just the ones I liked most.
1. The Twitch by Kevin Parr is published by Unbound
2. John Muir – the Scotsman who saved America’s wild places, by Mary Colwell, is published by Lion Hudson.
6. A history of birdwatching in 100 objects by David Callahan (edited by Dominic Mitchell) is published by Bloomsbury
9. The Book of 365: all the numbers with none of the maths by Hugh Brazier and Jan McCann is published by Square Peg.
And in no particular order, these are the other books reviewed here during the year.
Dusk Until Dawn by Martin Bradley is published by Ceratopia Books and is fantastic value at £4.99 + £1.60 P&P. All books can be signed by the author and can be bought direct from him by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org
Birds and Climate Change: impacts and conservation responses by James Pearce-Higgins and Rhys Green is published by Cambridge University Press
Forest Vision: transforming the Forestry Commission by Roderick Leslie is published by New Environment Books and is available from the author for £12.99 (+£2.50P&P in the UK) from 8 Somerset Street, Bristol BS2 8NB.
Birds of a Feather: seasonal changes on both sides of the Atlantic by Colin Rees and Derek Thomas is published by Troubador (from whom you can also buy it)
Top Gun of the Sky by Martin Bradley is published by Ceratopia Books and is fantastic value at £4.99 + £1.60 P&P. All books can be signed by the author and can be bought direct from him by contacting email@example.com
The Art of Conservation: 25 years of Birdfair posters, by Robert Gillmor, Martin Davies and Tim Appleton is published by Red Hare Publishing Ltd but seems a bit tricky to track down on the web.
Our Once and Future Planet by Paddy Woodworth
- very nice blog by Findlay Wilde about coming runner up in the Animal Hero awards. I’m quite jealous that Findlay has had his photo taken with Brian May, but then Bohemian Rhapsody was at No 1 when I heard I had a place at Cambridge.
- Well done to Dominik Reynolds who won the award – a very deserving winner.
- Scotland goes for radical land reforms – seems like a good idea – click here and here
- Voting for our national bird (Round 1) ends on Sunday (midnight) – like in all elections, don’t complain about the result if you don’t vote.
- this is a beautifully illustrated blog of Martin Harper’s – can we have more of this please?
- are you coming to the Rally for Nature on 9 December?
- interesting news on Great Bustard reintroduction with 33 birds released this year.
- the RSPB is crowdfunding analysis of Turtle Dove shit – no shit!
- where do you think the BTO Cuckoos are now? Have a look here.
- Taxi! for Defra – click here
- everybody seems to be trying to sell me Christmas cards and/or raffle tickets (from the Labour party to the BTO) – I’ve got my Christmas cards from Findlay!
I have a great affection for Birdwatch magazine. First, they pay me to sound off about whatever is on my mind at the time and that is just completely lovely of them! Second, they put a Hen Harrier on the cover of the August issue with the headline ‘Stop killing our harriers’ and have been great supporters of the e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting. But it’s just generally a very good magazine for the thoughtful birder. Birdwatch has a whole stable of talented birders and talented writers. One person who qualifies on both counts is Mark Cocker and I always read his pieces several times because they are worth it. And his article in the December issue is, as ever, well worth reading and thinking about.
Every issue has great photographs of birds, common birds and rare birds, and I always learn some identification tips which I then promptly forget or, if I remember them, never have the opportunity to use. This issue has just stunning images of Eastern Crowned Warblers and Rough-legged Buzzards.
But I always read my own column, ‘the political birder’, as soon as my copy of Birdwatch arrives – partly to remind myself of what I wrote several weeks earlier and partly to see what images have been inserted alongside the text. This issue has my column talking about the Rally for Nature on 9 December.
After reading my column, I turned the page and found myself in familiar territory – an excellent 4-page article entitled ‘Getting away with murder‘ about grouse moor management written anonymously by a raptor worker. It’s understandable that it is anonymous because this guy clearly has to deal with gamekeepers quite a lot and it is an excellent summary of what is happening up in the hills from an insider’s perspective. Please read it and then come to the same conclusion as the author – please sign the e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting.
It is a fascinating read – but you’ll have to buy it for yourself to find out.
I’ve seen 154 species at my local patch of Stanwick Lakes since I started using Birdtrack in 2004. Here are 149 of them.
Which are the missing five?
Great White Egret
Great Crested Grebe
Little Ringed Plover
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Great Spotted Woodpecker
It’s mostly for fun, but the first correct answer, to be posted as a comment on this blog, will get a signed copy of either Fighting for Birds or A Message from Martha sent to them, or a lucky friend perhaps, in the post (UK addresses only).
Regular habituees of Stanwick Lakes are excluded from this competition (that’s Steve and Bob). One entry per person. Entries close 10pm 4 December.
So, you are looking for five species of birds that I’ve seen at Stanwick Lakes since 2004, they are all very familiar or reasonably familiar species. If you have been a birder over the last decade you will probably have seen all of them.
Answers next Friday morning, 5 December.