Buzzard bashers

Pheasant - pestilential alien invader? Photo: David Croad (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Pheasant – pestilential alien invader? Photo: David Croad (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

On Friday we heard that High Court judge, Justice Oueseley, upheld a judicial review against Natural England over its refusal to issue licences to kill Buzzards that were allegedly causing damage to a Pheasant shoot by eating too many Pheasants. Reports by Raptorpersecutionscotland and National Gamekeepers’ Organisation.

There has been an outcry by raptor lovers over this decision but I am not going to join it here. It’s not the best thing that could have happened, but it’s not the worst thing that is happening either.  I have hardly mentioned this case (in fact I can’t find any record that I have (but I might have)) on this blog so I can’t say ‘I told you so’ but had I written about it then I would have been able to say that.

Without knowing the details of this case then the principal that licences should be given to cull protected species under particular and strict conditions is part of the law and almost certainly should be. It is not new. And, moreover, it is not unreasonable that in return for making widespread killing of species illegal, there should be the possibility of bumping off a few individuals under carefully defined and special circumstances (which is what the licensing system is supposed to be).  It would be surprising if special circumstances did not sometimes occur and the law should recognise that possibility. It’s a pity that this applies to Pheasant rearing – but it does.

It would be remarkable if a gamekeeper, supported by the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, had chosen a poor example with which to go to judicial review, so I assume that they had chosen a pretty good example – and it seems that they have. Natural England don’t seem to have played this very well either.  But, there you go.

Yes, the Pheasant is a non-native species which is released in huge numbers into our countryside for the sole reason that people want to shoot it, and that seems a pretty odd thing to me, but once Pheasant shooting is part of the legal warp and weft of rural life then the law on protected species will apply to it too. You may not like that fact that a licence can be sought for Buzzard control because of impacts on an economic interest based on a non-native species but that doesn’t mean that the current law allows NE to reject a licence on anything like those grounds. If you don’t like it, then campaign against Pheasant shooting – good luck on that one! – or campaign for a change in the law. Or ask NE to be better at their job.

The judicial review, as I understand it, does not look at the merits of the case from the gamekeeper, it looks at the merits of the process carried out by Natural England to reach their decision. This is a bit frustrating – the decision might be ‘right’ even if the process was ‘wrong’, or vice versa.

This, of course, is an analogous argument to the discussion between George Monbiot and Tony Juniper, and supports Monbiot’s approach. Monbiot might well say, if you use legal arguments (or economic ones) to defend nature then you are leaving the moral high ground and you will often lose – because the people who wrote the laws (and developed the ways that economic arguments are used in our society) won’t let you win.

I would rather that no Buzzards were culled to protect Pheasant shooting, but I can see that an occasional Buzzard death is an almost inevitable part of the system, so we either have to change the system or live with it.  And in this case, I can live with it, not happily, in a rather grumpy way, but I can live with it as the benefits of massive legal protection for wildlife far outweigh a few ‘difficult to achieve’ licensed deaths of protected wildlife.  And the possibility of licences being granted under particular circumstances should make the penalties for not going through the legal process more demanding too.

So my advice to fellow raptor enthusiasts and nature conservationists would be not to feel downcast and not to go over the top about this. It may be the thin edge of a wedge that never gets any thicker.

My advice to the shooting community would be that if you see this as a thin edge of a massive wedge then you will energise even more opposition to all shooting. Your choice. After misplaying lead ammunition for years, misplaying grouse shooting, you can go ahead and get the public wound up about Pheasant shooting in a way that only you can – go ahead if you want to bring the roof down on your own heads.

My advice to Natural England is that they should up their game. They do not seem to have played this one very well at all. If there is a flood of licence applications for Buzzard control then NE must scrutinise each and every one extremely carefully and reject any that fall in any way short of sufficient evidence, which it is likely that most would.

Of course, the best way to make sure that no licenses are given to protect grouse shooting from Hen Harriers is to campaign to end driven grouse shooting.

Photo: Tim Melling

Photo: Tim Melling


An event

I spent Thursday evening and Friday and Saturday at the New Networks for Nature meeting – it was great in an inspiring, relaxing, challenging and humorous mixture.

George Monbiot Guardian Staff Byline

George Monbiot Guardian

But the best bit, the very best bit, the very very best bit, was on Friday morning when George Monbiot and Tony Juniper debated, in a very friendly, comradely and polite way, whether we should go down the ‘valuing nature and using those monetary values to influence people’ route. It’s a question touched on in this blog now and again, and one that I wrestle with. It’s something of a relief that these two intellectual leaders of the environment movement did not come to a convincing conclusion either.

Monbiot took the line that to get engaged in the valuing nature business is to move onto the territory of the people who are causing the problems (the politicians, the corporations etc) where we will never win the argument (and he used a fantastic example about a trade-off of lives and minutes of rich people’s time in the discussions about a third runway at Heathrow) and risks framing future decisions in terms of monetary value when we all know that is too much of a simplification.

Juniper said that there are good people who work in the world of money who will be influenced by the monetary value of nature, but only if we stick it under their noses and work with them.

Monbiot said we need to stick to our beliefs and principles, because we are right (!), and mobilise, mobilise, mobilise to win the day.

I believe that the debate is likely to be available to view in future and I recommend it – I will certainly watch it again. It was a privilege to be there and both men were at the top of their game.

You might want to know who won? I think neither really did. It looked a bit as though Tony Juniper did, but he pinched a bit of George’s argument right at the end when struggling to convince us that there could be a monetary value to bird song. So he had to say something along the lines of ‘Well, they should take beauty and wonder into account even if we can’t value it well’.


Tony Juniper

George looked a bit as though he had lost because it sounded as though we might have to overthrow the whole of capitalism for his route to win – appealing in some ways but quite a big job for the nature conservation and environment movement.

But the audience was a crowd of winners because the two men, aided by a bit of nudging by the chair Jeremy Mynott, took us deep into the issues being discussed. No-one could emerge from it thinking it was easy. Some might believe that perhaps there are horses for courses, or perhaps more accurately, we can sometimes ride both horses at once (although Monbiot would caution against that approach).

I can give you an example of that from the debate on driven grouse shooting.  We have argued, for a long time, that driven grouse shooting gives rise to so much illegal behaviour (deliberately and necessarily, not accidentally or incidentally) that it should not be allowed to persist. It’s not a question of money (although the grouse shooters sometimes take the argument there), it’s a question of right and wrong, and some other stuff too. This might be characterised as the Monbiot approach just for the purposes of this example. It’s to do with the beauty of nature and how we shouldn’t harm it, not a cost-benefit analysis of monetary value.

But the Juniper approach might be that here is an example where the economic value of grouse shooting, once calculated properly, is so tiny, that when you do the sums properly, and include the costs of increased water bills, increased home insurance, lower fish stocks (probably) and increased greenhouse gas emissions, then grouse shooting will look like an utter waste of the public money we pour into it, and although it delivers economic benefits to a few, it delivers , in aggregate, much larger economic costs spread across the many.  Therefore, it doesn’t add up and we should stop it.

Both of these positions are set out in Inglorious, and there I tend towards the Juniper position as the one most likely eventually to influence decision-makers strongly. But I also suggest that a string of high-profile raptor deaths, pinned to high-profile grouse moors through satellite-tagging, is another route that might work through public disgust and fury at the scale of illegal killing of protected wildlife.

I don’t mind which ‘wins’ the race to end driven grouse shooting and perhaps that will happen soonest if the two arguments cross the line together. We’ll see.




Saturday cartoon by Ralph Underhill



Not many Waxwings


Photo: Oscar Dewhurst

It doesn’t appear that this winter will be a Waxwing winter. If it is going to be one of those years when Tesco car parks are flooded with Rowan-eating visitors from Scandinavia then large numbers have usually been seen on the east coast and Fair Isle by now. But you can keep track of sightings by following @WaxwingsUK.

Last winter (2014/15) wasn’t a Waxwing winter, and nor was 2013/14.

So that’s three years in a row, it seems, when Waxwings have been thin on the ground, and few in Tesco car parks.

The winter of 2012/13 was quite a good year, but 2011/12 was pretty quiet.

But 2010/11 was an excellent year. I even saw a flock of 14 at Cheltenham racecourse on 1 January 2011, after seeing over a 100 in Northampton the day before.

That’s what Waxwings are like. Some winters they are rare, but every now and again they are numerous. The trigger for a large influx appears to be food conditions in Scandinavia where they breed: no food in Norway means a trip to Tesco (other supermarket car parks with Rowans are available – but Tesco is a good bet).

Waxwings are a ‘here today and gone tomorrow’ type of bird. They are also a ‘here this winter and then not around for several winters’ type of bird. Sitting here, in east Northants, I can’t tell you when the Waxwings will come back – but they will, sometime, in a while. And it will be good when they do, because they are gorgeous birds – welcome visitors, probably made all the more welcome by their unpredictability.

Waxwings are rather extreme, but they illustrate one of the things that I believe attracts so many of us to nature – it’s unbiddable nature.  We are not in charge. When I go out for  a walk I cannot control what I see. I can look hard and hope that I see lots of nice things, but that’s as far as it goes. I cannot, however rich or powerful I am, command a Waxwing to appear. I can just go out and look for them.

And that makes it fun. We are often surprised by nature – we see the unexpected or the wonderful. Waxwings have unbiddableness built into their ecology, but it’s there in all species.  On any day you could be surprised by the commonest species if you see more of them, or fewer than usual, or see them very close, or see them do something they’ve never shown you before, or perhaps make a sound that you’ve never heard before. Unbiddableness.

MarthanewcoverThe most predictable of species nowadays is the Passenger Pigeon – it’s extinct. I know I won’t see one wherever I travel. Although, I did see a Passenger Pigeon egg in Northampton last week.

But when they were still numerous, say 150 years ago, Passenger Pigeons came and went like super-Waxwings. because, like Waxwings, they depended on tree seeds for their food, and these are unpredictable, Passenger Pigeons roamed the deciduous forests of the USA searching for the forests where their food was abundant – and those places moved around each year on a large scale depending on weather.

I was reminded of this a couple of times recently after giving talks about Passenger Pigeons. And this quote, which heads up Chapter 5 in A Message from Martha came to mind:

Ohio State Senate, select committee, 1857: The Passenger Pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.

that was written less than 50 years before the passenger Pigeon was extinct in the wild – they got that a bit wrong didn’t they?

If the Waxwings stopped coming, it would take us a while to realise – certainly here in east Northants where they rarely penetrate anyway.  I’d be thinking that it was while since I last saw them, but would assume that they were somewhere else.

The Waxwings will be back. The Passenger Pigeon won’t be back.




A tale of two birds

Phto: Tim Melling

Photo: Tim Melling

In the latest volume of Bird Study there are papers reporting on two UK national surveys of waders: Woodcock and Dotterel. You could hardly pick two more different species, with Woodcock being largely nocturnal and living in wooded areas, and Dotterels living on the peaks of the highest mountains in Scotland (mostly). But the messages are both of falling populations – that didn’t surprise you did it?

I didn’t take part in the 2013 Woodcock survey because I was travelling in the USA at the critical time, doing research for A Message from Martha and chatting up waitresses in diners, so I missed out on visiting local woods at dusk to listen and look for ‘roding’ Woodcock.  The message from this national survey is that there has been a decline of over 30% in numbers in a decade. I used, sometimes, to detect roding Woodcock at Glapthorn whilst waiting for Nightingales to burst into song, but haven’t recorded one there for ages. Also, sometimes in my early years working for the RSPB, leaving the office at Sandy in the evening I would stop to watch a roding Woodcock fly overhead, but those days seem to be long gone.

In Scotland and the north of England the Woodcock is faring better – it’s clearly hard for Woodcock in the soft south. There are lots of reasons why this decline might be taking place but we can’t really be sure yet. It’s unlikely to be anything much to do with shooting Woodcock in winter though.

I didn’t take part in the 2011 Dotterel survey because I live a long way from the high mountains where they breed in the UK – and by chance, that was another year when I was travelling in the USA at the relevant time. Dotterel breeding numbers have declined by about a half in the last 20+ years. Again we aren’t completely sure why, but a range of factors are possible and may all be having some impact: habitat degradation through overgrazing and/or nitrogen deposition, climate change, Raven predation and disturbance by people in bright, coloured cagoules.

This issue of Bird Study has other interesting papers – some fascinating. Corncrakes are increasing in numbers still, thanks to effective science-led conservation action, but the rate of increase has slowed or stopped. Kingfishers, at least in the Czech Republic, eat a few things that aren’t fish. Bluethroats go to India in the winter (Wow!) and Ring Ousels go to Morocco via France – studies using geolocators are opening up our understanding of bird movements in double-quick time. And there is much more that I haven’t read in detail. Subscribe to Bird Study here.



By Francesco Veronesi from Italy (Eurasian Dotterel - Pallas - Finland_88Image21) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Francesco Veronesi from Italy (Eurasian Dotterel – Pallas – Finland_88Image21) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


NEWS: Labour shadow minister comes out in favour of a lead ban

800px-7.5_CartridgesIn a significant move  on the political scene the Labour shadow minister for the natural environment, Alex Cunningham, has come out in favour of a ban of lead ammunition in this blog in the Huffington Post.

the time has come to embrace the growing body of evidence and for all lead shot and bullets to be replaced with non-toxic alternatives

This blog agrees completely, and anyone else who does should sign Rob Sheldon’s e-petition.

And as a Labour member, I am very pleased to see this statement which is making the running while Defra ministers drag their feet.


Too little, too late

"Bybyhandschuhe 2011 PD 05" by Bin im Garten - Own work (own picture). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Bybyhandschuhe 2011 PD 05” by Bin im Garten – Own work (own picture). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

The RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts have just woken up to the fact that this government isn’t doing much for the environment – and doesn’t intend to – and that it is the job of NGOs to put pressure on decision makers to do the right thing.  The best time to put on the pressure is before the decisions are taken because afterwards is too late.

After Defra apparently stepped forward (who knows what is the real story?) to accept cuts of 30% in the latest spending review, this was criticised by the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts as follows:

Dr Mike Clarke, the RSPB’s chief executive, said: ‘The Westminster Government is keen to talk about “difficult choices” but it seems increasingly clear that abandoning its obligation to ensure the UK is habitable is not very difficult for them at all.  Five years ago DEFRA was at the front of the queue and took the joint largest cuts while other departments were still negotiating.  When once again DEFRA is heavily cut ahead of other departments, talk of “difficult choices” is hard to take seriously. This seems to us to be a truly perverse decision. A lack of resource is already damaging the UK Government’s ability to meet basic statutory obligations. These obligations aren’t ‘nice to haves’ – a healthy natural environment underpins our prosperity. Investing in environmental protection is an essential part of any plan for a better future.‘.

Stephen Trotter, The Wildlife Trusts’ Director, England, said:  ‘Even before yesterday’s announcement, the Government was only investing a tiny proportion of our national income in environmental stewardship and the restoration of wildlife habitats – its already far below the levels that we need.  It will now be reduced to such low levels that there are real question marks over whether the Government can continue to deliver its most basic functions and responsibilities for the natural environment.  When everything we depend on comes from the natural world this makes no sense for the economy and it makes no sense for the health and wellbeing of our society. 

The UK has been running up a massive environmental deficit over recent decades and which future generations will have to pay off.  These cuts are a false economy and will undermine and jeopardise the future growth and development of the economy.  I fear this is a missed opportunity for Government to start paying off the environmental debt that we’re leaving to our children and grand children.  We are now faced with the extremely worrying prospect that Government no longer has the ecological literacy or functionality that society needs if we are to build a genuinely sustainable future.‘.

I think the NGOs could have played a much better game over the last few years.  They needed to use their large memberships, and in the case of the RSPB a now-growing membership, to exert pressure on decision-makers. Only by creating a fear of the consequences of doing the wrong thing, consequences like losing votes, can most governments be nudged towards doing the right thing. There has been too little nudging.

It’s not an easy position for the NGOs to be in.  The climate for environmental progress has been poor for the last five years. No-one said it would be easy – in fact, it was blindingly obvious that it was going to be difficult. But the NGOs have treated Defra, and a succession of hopeless ministers, as though they are their friends, rather than either antipathetic to nature (Paterson) or simply hopeless (Truss).

The fluffy gauntlet thrown down by the wildlife NGOs a very few weeks ago is now lying on the ground ignored.

What price now, Rory Stewart’s and Liz Truss’s promises of ‘the best environment in the world’?

So where now?

The NGOs should start to shun Defra processes. Why spend huge amounts of staff time on talking to a department that cannot do much, and does even less, doesn’t listen and is quite likely not to exist in a few years time? Every working group should have, at most, one wildlife representative on it, ideally from Wildlife and Countryside Link, who reports back to all the NGOs.  There should be a public statement that the wildlife conservation community have no confidence in this government’s ability or even intention to do a good job for the environment.  No government minister should be offered a platform at an NGO event (although a place in the stocks should always be available).

The NGOs should take all opportunities to work with all opposition parties to forge environmental policies for the next general election that are well thought through and can be supported.  The opposition parties should see that the environment is an area which the Conservatives have abandoned and where there are votes to be won.

The NGOs need to turn back to us, their supporters, and engage us in putting pressure on decision makers.  This has really fallen into disrepair over the last few years.  The power, such as it is, of the wildlife NGOs comes from three things: the quality of their staff, the resources that they largely get from us the public, and the klout that they get with decision-makers through the size of their memberships.

The wildlife NGOs have acted over the last few years as though the crisis in their world was where their money might come from, rather than one of the disappearing biodiversity. It is time to mobilise us so that we can make a difference for wildlife. That is the NGO role when governments don’t listen.






Wildlife NGO doping scandal

"Syringe reusable1" by Goga312 - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Syringe reusable1” by Goga312 – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

WADA has been called in to investigate claims that the UK’s wildlife NGOs have been nobbled by dopers.

Sir Vague Ready, President of WADA, said ‘The rumours have been out there for ages and it’s time to investigate. Clearly there are no performance enhancing drugs involved – not a single personal best has been set by the UK’s wildlife NGOs in the last few years. They’ve just been plodding around the track. Something very fishy is going on. We are investigating claims that government officials have been seen tampering with the water supplies in Sandy, Newark, Swindon and elsewhere.

Claims that Defra and devolved administrations have been hypnotising wildlife NGOs with promises of ‘the world’s best environment’ are being investigated.

Defra minister, Lisa Trustless said ‘No we aren’t going to take any notice of the science. And we aren’t listening to NGOs with millions of members. And we aren’t going to regulate for a better environment. So, yes, I decided not to spend any money on the environment either (because really I want a job in the Treasury). And I am completely confident that this government, the greenest government ever, will deliver the world’s best environment by tea time tomorrow.’.

When Ms Trustless was asked about the doping allegations, she said ‘Not us. No need. They’re harmless‘.





Thunderclap #justiceforannie close to 5,000,000 social reach


There are still nearly three weeks until the end of November – and at the end of November a message will go out to almost five million people on social media (Twitter, Facebook and tumblr) asking them to support the e-petition to get a debate in parliament over driven grouse shooting.

If you have a social media account then please consider adding your voice to this ‘thunderclap’ and then it may go out to even more people. If you are Stephen Fry (11.6 million Twitter followers) or Ricky Gervais (10.1 million Twitter followers) then please consider supporting this thunderclap. But every new supporter is really valuable and all are welcome.

I really don’t know how successful this might be – perhaps very successful, but perhaps not very successful.

However, I do know that a lot of effort and thought has gone into it (and not from me!). The Moving Mountains Nature Network really is a grassroots approach to gathering support for wildlife. I think it is very impressive and I’m glad to give them a hand now and again with support from my social media accounts.

Let’s get a debate on the future of driven grouse shooting.




The Corner Laughers were on top form last night in the Portland Arms in Cambridge. A very good crowd filled the venue and a good time was had by all.

Thank you to the Cambridge Conservation Forum for organising everything. And to half of the Cambridge Corncrakes for performing too!

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