Vote Hen Harrier as national bird

Hen-Harrier-Day-300pxToday, the voting for Britain’s national bird starts in earnest.  The 10 shortlisted species, on the basis of 70,000 votes cast last autumn are (in alphabetical order):

  • Barn Owl
  • Blackbird
  • Blue Tit
  • Hen Harrier
  • Kingfisher
  • Mute Swan
  • Puffin
  • Red Kite
  • Robin
  • Wren

You can vote now and right up until after the polls close in the general election of 7 May.

Apart from any uncertainty over whether this is a bird for England, Britain or the UK it’s all pretty straight forward really, don’t you think? First, the Wren – the only European representative of a New World bunch of birds. I love Wrens to bits but we had better not vote for a Yank as our national bird.

Mute Swan – serene, peaceful, wet and loving – hardly appropriate for our national bird?

Puffin –  lovely bird, but spends most of its life at sea – perhaps a politician’s bird, but surely not one to represent us for ever.

Kingfisher – beautiful bird.  Bit of a screechy voice. Too gaudy, surely. Surely? And too political a choice in the run up to 7 May – all that blue!

Red Kite – save your votes for ‘reds’ for the Labour party on 7 May.

Barn Owl –  a gorgeous bird which eats rodents at night.  Pity it is found on every continent except Antarctica as far as a national bird is concerned.

Blue Tit – too twee for me – and too political a choice in the run up to a general election.  Again, all that blue!

Blackbird and Robin – excellent choices as familiar to all as garden birds with lovely songs.  I’d be very happy with either of these.  How did the Song Thrush not get onto this list? I guess that’s democracy for you.

Hen Harrier! Let’s show our British tolerance and acceptance for a bird that occupies these latitudes around the globe but is hated by a small proportion of British people – the grouse shooters. If there is a any bird that we should take to our hearts and vote for it to have a better future then it must be the Hen Harrier which is the most striking victim of wildlife crime amongst British birds. A species which should be common but is laid low because of the intolerance and criminal acts of a small number of our fellow Brits. It deserves the support of us all. The Hen Harrier needs the support of every reasonable, tolerant, caring British voter.  If we cannot vote for a more tolerant law-abiding and fairer society, then what are votes for? Vote for a better future. Vote for the Hen Harrier. And add your name to this e-petition whilst you are at it please.




Oscar Dewhurst – Red Deer

Richmond Park 06-10-13_0068-Red-Deer

Oscar writes: I only live 15 minute’s drive from Richmond Park, so find myself there fairly regularly each Autumn for the Red Deer rut. It’s not uncommon to come across over 100 photographers on a weekend, but on the morning this was taken it was considerably quieter. I found this stag strutting his stuff in an area of short grass just as the sun was coming up.
Nikon D800, Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR lens

Sunday book review – Britain’s Habitats by Lake et al.

k10340Everybody loves a habitat don’t they?  Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.

This book is subtitled ‘A Guide to the Wildlife Habitats of Britain and Ireland‘ and that’s very much what it is. There is a lot of good stuff in here but somehow it’s not a book that I can imagine being on anyone’s list of ‘most-loved’.

The authors write with authority about ten groupings of habitats: woodland, scrub, heathland, grassland, mountain, rocky, wetlands, freshwater, coastal and other. And, for example, the subdivisions of woodland are; lowland mixed oak and ash, lowland dry oak and birch, beech, yew, wet woodland, wood pasture, Atlantic oak wood, upland mixed ash, Caledonian forest, Atlantic hazel, upland birch and coniferous plantation. I will probably use this book a lot as a reference, but every time I pick it up I put it down quite quickly.

This book, according to the blurb on the rear cover, is lavishly illustrated  and has evocative colour photographs. Some of these work very well but the problem with 680 photographs in a 276-page book is that, by necessity, the images tend to be quite small. Lavish they really aren’t.  Too many of them are rather small, and too many of them are of a cute bird or mammal that is the interesting species found in the habitat. The views of landscapes are too small on the page to make me go ‘Wow!’ which is a shame.  The maps are often too small to be much use too.

There isn’t always that much really useful information here either. Read the sections on upland dry heath and wet heath and I don’t think you will find them packed with information of which you were unaware.

Maybe it’s just me! I’m more a species person that a habitat person – and that could be so variously misinterpreted that I had better explain it. I’m not saying that species are more important than habitats, I’m not saying that species conservation is more important than habitat conservation, I’m really not saying either of those things. But, tricky though they can be to identify, when I come home from holiday or a walk I never enthuse about habitats, I often enthuse about species I have seen.  It strikes me that habitats are so artificial a human categorisation that they verge on the ‘vaguely useful’ and often cross the line into the ‘not that useful at all’. Let’s be honest, habitats are the way that botanists try to make us all feel that they are ‘in charge’!

Habitats seem to me to be a bit like colours. If someone tells me they saw a white and gold dress (or maybe blue and black?) then that gives me a pretty useful idea of what they’ve seen but it’s just a useful starting point. Being told that you’ve been walking in a northern hay meadow does tell me something useful – it tells me that I want to know what plants, insects and birds you saw in it.

You will, I suspect, by now have decided that I’m just a bit grumpy about habitats, and you may well be right, but, and you have to trust me on this, I was hoping to find a way out of my grumpiness in this book. There were some occasional highlights of facts, or images, but on the whole I remained wedded to my grumpiness. Obviously it’s all my fault.

It looks to me as though the authors have done a good job in marshalling the information for this book. but it also seems to me that it’s quite a tricky task. And the book falls somewhat between two stools – a useful reference book and an attractive read.  You should have a look at it and it may tickle your fancy much more than it tickled mine. As I say, it’s probably my fault not theirs.

A Guide to the Wildlife Habitats of Britain and Ireland by Sophie Lake, Durwyn Liley, Robert Still and Andy Swash is published by Wildguides/Princeton University Press.

Mark Avery’s Fighting For Birds is published by Pelagic (as will be Behind the Binoculars (with Keith Betton) in June) and A Message from Martha is published by Bloomsbury (as will be Inglorious in July).





Things that caught my eye:

  • a Chiffchaff caught my eye at Stanwick Lakes this morning. It also caught my ear – but with a call not a song (despite everything else being in song) so I am putting it down as a late winter visitor rather than an early spring arrival – though, who knows?!
  • garbled Mail story – but still good news for Barn Owls – who had a good breeding season last year according to the BTO.  Good vole years are good Barn Owl years.
  • e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting passes 21,250 with a bit of a spurt
  • someone who did a small, blue, act of kindness
  • still checking Green Woodpeckers for Weasels myself
  • this radio programme is about the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon




It’s World Sleep Day.

Swifts sleep on the wing, half their brain at a time, it is thought. I’m going to dream of doing that…



My friends the birds

Tuesday provided my first Brimstones of the year but was otherwise the opposite of profitable. Wednesday was a day of a singing Blackcap, a Raven and a decent profit.

On the way to the races the conversation turned somewhat surreal. ‘If you could befriend a bird which would then help you through life, which would you choose?

Ideas ranged from ‘Wigeon – to keep the grass short’ to ‘A Puffin because they are fun and would crack open walnuts for me’.

Perhaps Eider for their suggestive calls and for their down, or a hummingbird to lull one to sleep with its whirring wings or to be a personal fan in hot weather.

What are your ideas?


Guest blog – The case against the EU by Richard Wayre

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 09.58.07After twenty-some years pursuing a career in marketing and management consultancy I jumped ship and returned to academia, initially to study Countryside Management and then moving on to read for a degree in Ecology. The marriage of my old world and new is not a comfortable one. From the dual perspectives of environment and economy, the forthcoming election promises to be an interesting one; perhaps not for producing an earth-shattering result domestically, but with potential ramifications on a wider front.

What does the United Kingdom’s membership of the EU mean to you? Ease of travel for a summer holiday? Freedom to work anywhere within its bounds? The longest period of political stability in history? Or monetary instability, uncontrolled immigration and bureaucratic wastage? To many reading Mark’s blog on a regular basis it might mean something else; environmental protection. Much of the UK’s environmental legislation (actually, I must be cautious with unqualified statements – the constituent nations of the UK can adopt different solutions to legislation, so from here I’ll refer specifically to the situation for England) stems from EU treaties. In particular, the Birds and Habitats Directives commit nations to implement protective measures, but it remains the responsibility of each individual nation to enact those commitments, which inevitably means there is variation in interpretation of the requirement. Ostensibly though, we defer to Europe in respect of the protection afforded our habitats and species.

So let’s jump forward to late 2017. The Conservatives, having been returned to power, honoured the promise of a referendum on continued membership of the EU and Britain voted to leave. Should the badgers (a bad example, I agree!) and foxes pack their bags and emigrate whilst they still have time? Is every ancient woodland in the land about to be grubbed to make way for houses or high speed rail? Is our environment doomed by the impending loss of its EU protection? I think not.

I am not ashamed to admit I’m a firm Eurosceptic. But, until recently, I’ve predominantly viewed Europe with my ‘economics-graduate’ hat on. Are BMW going to stop selling cars to us post-‘BRexit’? No! Is London still going to be a financial hub in the global economy? Yes! Will we still be able to head off on a beano to Paris or Rome or Madrid whenever we feel like it? Of course we will! But, now, an ecology-(under)graduate hat hangs on the peg alongside the economics, and I confess to a niggle and a waver as to whether we risk too much natural capital by leaving the EU. But, after much deliberation, I’m coming to the conclusion that we can do without Europe ecologically as well as economically.

First, and this is largely a matter of opinion rather than hard fact, so you might choose to disregard this point, the EU is, first and foremost, a political environment administered by political animals. Economic prosperity will be the primary driver of decision-making and environmental policy will likely be ever more compromised where and when it suits politicians. This is already appearing to manifest itself in the current administration and a quick Google search on the terms “Junckers”, “EU” and “Environment” will result in a plethora of documents, some of more robust provenance than others, opining that the new EU President is less than sympathetic to the natural world (for example, his appointment to the role of Commissioner for Climate Action has links to the oil industry, and the UK press reported his willingness to soften environmental instruments to win support from David Cameron, his chief opposor to election. EU political will to protect may not be as strong as we would like to believe it to be.

Secondly, legislation. As I mentioned a moment ago, the acts that convey protection are implemented not by Europe, but by the English legislature. The directives merely impose a requirement on member nations to achieve a particular objective. It is often contended that the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the convolution of legislation supplementing it actually impose far greater protection than the EU Directives ultimately require; ‘gold plating’ for want of a familiar expression. Furthermore, as signatories to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the UK is committed at (arguably) an even higher level of governance to meet certain objectives, namely a reversal of biodiversity loss by 2020, so substantial erosion of protective measures is not, necessarily, a simple step for government to take. Of course, we should be under no illusions that politicians of most persuasions would happily dilute the existing laws if it helps them promote short-term well-being of their voters (unfortunately our cost-benefit approach to conservation discounts future generations far too aggressively for politicians to consider what true sustainability means). However, the fact is, today, our local legal protection is pretty good and I’m not convinced EU rules add anything to planning or court room decisions on whether to conserve or destroy.

Finally, there is the bugger’s-muddle of operational reality in the EU. George Monbiot (@GeorgeMonbiot) has written several interesting pieces for his column in The Guardian over the past year or two (for example, this, and this). Whilst I enjoy reading Mr. Monbiot’s column I don’t suggest that we should blindly take his every word as gospel, but the general point he makes is an interesting one: that whilst the EU might fund much in the way of restorative projects, it’s EU policy and EU money that often stimulates activity that creates or exacerbates the problems in the first place. And, of course, when I say EU money, I mean OUR money…£9.4bn net in 2015/16 to be precise. Is that really how we want our countryside managed – with such flagrant inefficiency and contradiction?

So, on balance, my Eurosceptic-heart prevails. I see some risk in abandoning Europe; the Government could espy an opportunity to overhaul (and weaken) our existing legislation and set the developers loose. But, withdrawal will mean the politicians have their hands full sorting out all manner of other issues so my hunch is they’ll not worry too much about Wildlife and Countryside Act et al. Anyhow, Junckers is just as likely to strip protections and I’d see a greater chance of the public and the NGO’s swaying the UK government to our position than the behemoth that is the EU. And the upside of ‘BRexit’ in terms of reduced bureaucracy, improved land management resulting from abandonment of some damaging practices and subsidies, and less pressure from a rapidly growing UK population COULD actually be of long-term benefit the natural world.

As a final word, by way of illustration, permit me to cite three examples of European law singularly failing to protect the environment; one local to me, one national, and the third European.

(1) Expansion of Lydd airport, to enable B737-size aircraft to fly in and out, directly adjacent to SAC designated land bordering RSPB Dungeness was approved on appeal by Rt. Hon. Mr. E. Pickles MP last year despite vociferous objection from RSPB, Kent Wildlife Trust and the local community. Particularly galling about this failure to protect was the subsequent decision, within days, to close Manston Airport, just twenty miles away in north Kent.
(2) HS2, the route of which will crash headlong through numerous important habitats. Ultimately, the government, with support from Labour, was able to ignore all environmental objections on the basis of a perceived economic benefit.
(3) Brought to public attention by Chris Packham (@ChrisGPackham) so effectively last year, the annual slaughter of migratory birds, specifically banned under the Birds Directive, transiting Malta (yes, an EU member state).
(And if you haven’t had enough of George… see here)


Martha – the play!

I didn’t expect to get an email like this one – how wonderful!
Dear Mark,
MarthanewcoverFirst off I hope you don’t mind a stranger contacting you out of the blue. I’d like to tell you how much I enjoyed my now well-worn copy of A Message From Martha. It was not only an astonishingly well researched work of naturalist writing, but a singular and beautiful read too. It gave me the privilege of telling several people interested in the cover that it was about an extinct species of American pigeon, with invariably interesting results.
I’m a playwright based in Leeds and I have just finished a play about Martha that was initially going to be pitched as part of a WWI season in London. I was asked to come up with a story about WWI that wasn’t men in the trenches or Colonel Melchett. In researching alternative WWI stories I came across the story of the last passenger pigeon dying in Cincinatti Zoo whilst miles away the Great War was just getting started – and the parallels between mass extinction and huge losses of life in the coming war struck me deeply. The story led me to lots of sources of information which aided me writing the play, the most helpful being your book.
Passenger Pigeon by John James Audubon

Passenger Pigeon by John James Audubon

It’s been a long road with the play since then: it’s gone from being a three actor piece to a cast of twenty, and from being grimly bleak to slightly absurd. Finally, it is going to be performed, from the 25th to the 28th of November this year at the Ilkley Playhouse by a cast of young actors. 

It’s a play that is set everywhere from Cincinatti Zoo to Marnes, it features characters called Audubon, Schorger and Avery (though I should say while ‘Avery’ is interested in birds, he is not at all intended as a representation of yourself – I just can’t be the first person to be entertained by the punning aptness of your surname!) and human and animal viewpoints alike.
I would be thrilled if you would be able to come and see it, and will secure tickets for you if so, but more importantly I wanted to extend my sincere gratitude for your wonderful book, which was always there when I needed to check the dimensions or speed of a flock of passenger pigeons, or when the name ‘Buttons’ escaped me, or when I wanted to re-read certain phrases like ‘the human froth’, ‘a personal extinction’ and Leopold’s ‘On A Monument to the Pigeon’, all of which were a constant spark, and thanks to you, within hands reach.
Yours gratefully,
Ash Caton

Barry, Eilidh and Natalie

At yesterday evening’s Environmental Question Time, as well as Kate Parminter, William Cash and Rupert de Mauley, there was also Barry Gardiner, Eilidh Whiteford and Natalie Bennett.

Natalie Bennett, performed well:

  • supports a nature and Well-being Bill
  • would reform the CAP
  • would repeal bad bits of NPPF
  • is against fracking
  • realises we need to tackle the system of agriculture fundamentally
  • would not allow release of GM crops
  • wants more marine protected areas
  • says that only the Greens ‘understand that everything is dependent on the natural world’

Barry Gardiner was calm and knowledgeable as ever:

  • ‘for peace we need justice and for justice we need sustainability’
  • energy efficiency is a national infrastructure priority
  • supports Lawton report on ‘more, bigger, better more joined up’
  • thinks government got it wrong on bovine tb measures
  • end the persecution of birds of prey
  • publish lead ammunition review and act on it

Eilidh Whiteford was a breath of fresh, Scottish air. She answered the questions in a direct and succinct manner.  She knew about oil but treated the environment as all about climate change and energy. And, it was good for we English to be told about Scotland by a Westminster MP. I do wonder what the impact will be of a larger number of SNP Westminster MPs. To what extent will they help me in my needs as members of my parliament when many of the day to day decisions about their own part of the UK are made in a different place.  I’m a bit worried about the Scottish tail wagging this English (and part-Welsh) dog.  Still, it may be the turn of the Scots to do to us what we have been doing to then for years?  Scottish independence is not a settled question, it is a parked question with only one ultimate answer, I feel.



Smooth, very smooth

At yesterday evening’s Environmental Question time, the unelected Etonian, Rupert de Mauley was smooth, very smooth.

Quite how he emerged relatively unscathed on this government’s dreadful environmental record is hard to figure.  It was a mixture of partial admission of failure, partial avoidance of the question, partially making the most of a few potential successes and partially just appearing slightly out of one’s depth and therefore too soft a target to aim at (IMHO).

Lord de Mauley said some good things:

  • if he could tackle three things they would be climate change, biodiversity loss and water quality issues (top marks!)
  • he is against wildlife crime – but he mostly meant that done abroad to somebody else’s wildlife, it seemed
  • he was sensible on bovine tb, to the extent that he said that a mixture of vaccination, better biosecurity and badger culling might be needed but abject in saying that the government had followed a ‘comprehensive strategy’ which took account of the science
  • he said that GM crops could be safe, without elucidating how we might know
  • he could name some species that had done well (Red Kite, Otter and Large Blue butterfly) and large groups of species that are in trouble (farmland birds, woodland birds and pollinators) – but the thing is, he had three of each!
  • he mentioned carbon capture and storage

I could vote for what he said, but not when it is based on the current government’s record. His was a performance rich in charm, full of promise but based on failure. Nature Improvement Areas seemed to be the government’s major achievement – QED.

The most remarkable thing he said, and I am sure I heard this correctly, was that Natural England had told him that it was confident that they could halt biodiversity loss by 2020.