Dear Mr Pursglove
May I please wish you a happy new year?
As you may remember, you and I differ on our views on Brexit – I am still in a slightly depressed mood because of the result of the referendum. However, I have spotted a silver lining and I thought I would write to you on that account.
Like most environmentalists, I was rather keen on the EU but we all have to accept that Brexit means Brexit. I hope that Brexit means a much better and fairer system of agricultural support to landowners from taxpayers like myself. The wasteful state of Common Agricultural Policy spending was partly the fault of the EU but very largely the fault of successive UK governments and devolved administrations. Now that we are heading for Brexit we can design our own system of agricultural support that delivers support where it is needed to the farming industry, fairness to consumers and taxpayers, and intervenes to correct the fact that markets are poor at delivering environmental public goods.
Last week the Minister of State at Defra, George Eustice MP was reported as telling the Oxford Farming Conference that this government would move away from the current system of untargetted income support which rewards ‘slipper farmers’ who receive money for running grouse shoots and other activities without actually farming (The Times, 5 January 2017, page 9).
Such a move, where upland land owners would be rewarded for flood alleviation measures, carbon storage and supplying clean water, as part of wider policy changes, would be very sensible and a great achievement for this government if it were pursued.
I’m well aware that ministers do occasionally fly kites to see how and whether they fly, so please forward this letter to Mr Eustice to show that there is at least one voter in a marginal constituency who would be rather impressed if he were to progress in this direction? Thank you.
I’d also be interested to hear your own views on whether a move from untargetted handouts to farmers and towards rewards for environmental services, would get your support? Here in the Nene Valley paying farmers for measures which reduce flood risk might find a place in future agricultural support, don’t you think?
Sometimes something is so awful that you just hope it will go away – and that’s how I feel about the Defra Hen Harrier InAction Plan which fails to address the real problem for the Hen Harrier – that it is illegally killed by grouse shooting interests because it eats Red Grouse that they would like to kill themselves with shotguns.
But after a Christmas break, and thanks to a series of excellent blogs by those workaholic FoI experts, aka Raptor Persecution UK (see here, here and here), I guess we’d better think about the awful mess that Defra and Natural England are going to get into this year as they attempt to roll out their ‘plan’.
Re-introduction project into southern England
This has always seemed to me to be a waste of time. If Hen Harriers wanted to breed in southern England again then they would. There are occasional pairs which nest, often successfully, but nothing ever comes of it. This is a pretty big hint that it’s a long shot. That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, but it isn’t going to be a simple thing like, in some ways, Red Kite reintroduction.
And we know that Hen Harriers go whizzing about all over the place through radio-tracking studies – even though NE has been exceptionally poor at publishing their very long term and costly study. We now know that Hen Harriers released or bred in southern England might well visit dangerous places like grouse moors and that Hen Harriers from the north of Britain can easily visit southern England and could stay to breed if they fancied it. These facts seem to have been glossed over in the feasibility study.
I see from the timeline of the study, though I guess that this is now out of date (and I bet it has gone backwards rather than forwards) that the plan is to submit a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for funding in March. I wonder whether that will happen, and I wonder what level of consultation NE and Defra envisage carrying out before submitting a bid that will compete with other conservation projects. The make-up of the project group hardly looks like a list of independent experts. I think we should all ask to see the project details and let HLF know what we think of the proposal if this project team (including three NE staff and an NE Board member) does submit an application. After all, shooters were keen to give HLF their views on the far less contentious Skydancer project back in 2011 (see Inglorious p147-48). Is this a Defra project? I don’t think Defra can apply for HLF funding. Is this an NE project? If so, why hasn’t NE invited some independent experts onto the project board to ensure rigour? Is it a project led by somebody else? If so, who? And if so, why is NE putting so much effort into getting it funded by you and me (you may love it, but I think it is a rank waste of my taxes)? How many of the project team are set to gain financially if HLF are persuaded to fund the project? Or if anyone else funds it? It all seems very cosy for such a contentious, and I would expect very expensive, project.
But a rather pointless and costly reintroduction project is nothing compared with brood meddling. We are told that the plan is to go ahead with trial brood meddling this year – despite the slight drawback that there might not be any Hen Harriers nesting in England if recent years are anything to go by.
We know that the RSPB is set against brood meddling and so there will be the faint sound of a foot inside a soft shoe being stamped in Sandy if brood meddling goes ahead but what forms of peaceful legal protest might actually have some impact? We ought to think about it.
A judicial review of the decision to do a risky trial, with little scientific support, on a novel technique when a threatened species is miles away from favourable conservation status might be a good place to start.
I speculated yesterday that avian flu cases involving White-fronted Goose and other species in Gloucestershire might well have been at the WWT nature reserve at Slimbridge and I’m grateful to WWT for confirming that this is the case. If I had lived locally to Slimbridge I might actually have seen them talking about the case on regional TV too a couple of days ago.
The Slimbridge WWT webpage doesn’t appear to mention avian flu but it can be found here though rather deep in the news story. This case was confirmed in the last week of December and I wrote about it and others on 3 January.
So hats off to WWT for being open too and their website makes the good point that their centres, as with other nature reserves, serve as valuable monitoring areas for avian flu.
We seem to be in the situation where avian flu has a wide geographic spread in wild birds across England, Wales and Scotland. That doesn’t mean that every wild bird you meet will have avian flu of course but it would be wrong to assume that the only areas of concern are on the east coast or in specific areas. The places where avian flu has been detected are mostly nature reserves where observant staff are keeping an eye on things, are alert to the issue, and are public-spiritedly sending in carcasses to be tested. But they won’t be the only places where avian flu is present in wild birds – they are just the places where it is much the most likely to be noticed. There will almost inevitably be a bit of a bias towards wildfowl if cases are generated in this way.
One wonders what would happen if wildfowlers were asked to contribute shot birds for testing from every county in the UK – that might tell us rather more about where avian flu is. And if Pheasants were included in the monitoring it might tell us a bit more about the species affected.
And I guess that this is the place to point out that avian flu of the H5N8 variety is not known to affect humans – in fact it is thought NOT to affect humans. It also doesn’t seem to have much impact on wild bird populations. Where it could have an impact is on commercial poultry farms and we have to be pleased that there has only been one commercially important outbreak in the UK this winter – although that will have been economically damaging for the enterprise concerned of course. There are many more cases across most European countries – our geographic ‘standoffishness’ serves us well at these times.
Large poultry enterprises seem to be the most vulnerable to avian flu each time it flares up, presumably because there are lots of birds in close contact with each other and because disease resistance may not be in the genes of these domestic birds after generations of selection for commercially valuable traits. Defra’s reaction to bird flu seems to have worked well – fingers crossed that this continues.
But every time that avian flu, and yes maybe we should call it poultry flu, becomes an issue I am struck by how little we appear to understand about how it is transmitted from wild birds to farmed birds, and presumably and potentially in the other direction too. And the role of transportation of live poultry or poultry meat always seems to be played down. Here again is that quote from French farmers which I highlighted yesterday:
“One needs to stop turning a blind eye on this ultra-segmented industry where gigantic structures use transportation to excess, over hundreds and even thousands of kilometers,” the union said in a statement. “This is the industrialized production that causes and amplifies sanitary crises.”
Well, are they right? I believe they were in the Bernard Matthews avian flu case of 2007.
But I’m perfectly sure that wild birds, moving across the European continent, are a source of avian flu that could seriously affect commercial poultry farms. So shouldn’t we now know rather more about how avian flu spreads, through which species, under what conditions, and which types of commercial farms are most at risk? If we knew more then we might be able to predict better when outbreaks will occur and what measures to take. We certainly should move away from talking about ‘wild birds’ as though they were an act of God which has been visited on us for our sins because the bird migration phenomenon is open to study and rational understanding.
Maybe it’s a subject for international cooperation and study; maybe through the EU? Because as with many other phenomena, Brexit won’t mean that we are separate from the rest of Europe, merely that we are marginalised from it.
Ocelots are elusive and highly sought-after forest cats from Central and South America. I photographed this one in the Pantanal in Brazil after dark. I took it without flash, but by torchlight at a very high ISO (51,200). It was occasionally coming for small fish that had been left out though it was not guaranteed. It was also skittish and kept retreating into the forest, but would reappear a few minutes later. A little bigger than I was expecting. More the size of a Lynx than a domestic cat. This was our second attempt after drawing a blank on the first night. I think it was worth waiting for.
Taken with Nikon D500 Nikkor 300mm f4 lens at f4 1/200 ISO 51,200 No flash