A podcast

On Thursday, I headed down to Wiltshire (before heading up to the Peak District).

I met up with Charlie Moores of Birders Against Wildlife Crime and recorded this podcast.

Register for Hen Harrier day in the Peak District.

Sign the e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting.

Visit the Birders Against Wildlife Crime website.


Sunday book review – A history of birdwatching in 100 objects by David Callahan

9781408186183This is a book worth reading.  Before you do read it, play the game yourself. What would be your 100 objects that capture the history of birdwatching?

That’s what I did, and I found it difficult to come up with a list and so I am grateful to the effort that David Callahan went to, to provide his list.  No such list can be definitive – but this one is a good attempt. I reckon my list overlapped with David’s to the tune of about 30 objects.  How much overlap will you find?

I thought that this list was a bit heavy on technology that provides better views of birds, and a bit light on knowledge – what profits the birder if he (or she) has a clearer view of a bird when he (or she) doesn’t have a clue what to look for?

There were some delightful choices on this list – the policeman’s notebook (number 23), the public telephone box (number 46) and the Rainham RSPB visitor centre (number 95).

The objects are arranged in historical order with the first 13 before 1800, the next 28 before 1900, another 47 in the 1900s and 12 more recently.  Is that distribution right?  Who cares – it’s fun!

Nine of the 100 are from 1885 to 1891 – they make fascinating reading.  What other objects do you think might nestle alongside the bird ring, the telephoto lens and the RSPB membership card?  I think you’ll be surprised.

I’d suggest that the ‘nature reserve’ might be a contender for this list – how much of your birdwatching depends on those sites protected by NGOs or others?  But when was the first nature reserve?   The first National Park was Yellowstone in 1872 but just as ‘nature reserve’ is a broad category, so is National Park.  Our English National Parks seem particularly poor in many aspects of their expected wildlife – Hen Harriers for example.

This book is nicely produced and attractive to hold and read.  I think you’ll find it stimulating – I did.

A history of birdwatching in 100 objects by David Callahan (edited by Dominic Mitchell) is published by Bloomsbury and can be purchased from them – as can A Message from Martha by Mark Avery.




A grouse with M&S

imagesDear Marc Bolland

Last year you came under some pressure because  of the stance of M&S on selling Red Grouse meat in your London stores.  We are approaching the Inglorious Twelfth again, how time flies!, and I am writing to ask you to be more open and informative to your customers this year. I would ask you not to sell Red Grouse as it comes from an industry that reeks of criminality.

With a couple of accidental lapses, I have boycotted your stores for the last year. This is more of a pain for me than it is for you as I am just one customer but I am just the type of person who likes M&S, who wants to spend their money with M&S and who would choose M&S in preference to other stores where I now shop.

However, I think others may join me this year as Ethical Consumer magazine’s very recent report on the problems with grouse shooting suggests a boycott of companies associated with grouse shooting.  Because of your high profile stance on this issue last year you are in the firing line.

I should let you know that as well as the Ethical Consumer report this year there will be events across the north of England where people protest against the criminal killing of protected wildlife by too many of those associated with grouse shooting. These are organised for 10 August. Why don’t you come to the event on 10 August in the Peak District and talk to some of your customers and to Chris Packham who is supporting the event?

Also, feelings are so high that recently an e-petition was launched on the government website calling for grouse shooting to be banned in England. It is already in the top 2% of such e-petitions and has only been up and running a matter of five weeks.

Selling grouse meat is a trivial part of your business.  You will need scores of people to buy grouse from you to replace just the lost profits from my purchases with you through the year.  If you persist with selling grouse meat, it sends a clear signal that you actively want to support this industry and are siding with an industry that causes environmental damage and is intimately associated with wildlife crime (see here).

Please let me know what you intend to do on this matter.

Here are the links to last year’s events to remind you of where we got to here, here, here and here.




Cartoon by Ralph Underhill



Ralph writes: “Consumer choice is too often only an option for those that can afford it (often a small proportion of sales, while buying better products is undoubtedly a good thing to do far too much emphasis is placed on the consumers role as a vehicle of change. Real environmental improvements will only come from regulating the activities of companies to ensure a fairere and more sustainable supply chain”


It’s the salty one

NATURALENGLAND2James Cross is the new Chief Exec of Natural England – he is the salty one.

This represents a victory of the politicians and Andrew Sells, the NE Chair, over the Defra civil servants. Quite right too.

But rumour has it that NE might have chosen a proper nature conservationist or two for their Board – surely some mistake there?

And now it’s more than a rumour


The Shooting Times – don’t you just love ‘em?

I did break the habit of a lifetime and bought The ST yesterday because I had been told it was full of jokes – and it was!

As I flicked through it I couldn’t help but notice that there were about ( I stress ‘about’ – my eyes did begin to glaze over) 150 blokes in it, 170 guns, 50 or so dogs and about 20 women. Gals are about as numerous as deer, dead birds and a little commoner than rabbits in the lives of shooting men, it seems. What a wonderful world to inhabit – don’t you think?

Although I believe that the rag is supposed to be about the great fun of shooting, since there aren’t any gals around, one could be forgiven for thinking that the main game species is the RSPB. The RSPB appears on the first five pages of the magazine, sometimes in big letters. Obviously, the RSPB is praised to the hilt throughout – read it yourself and see.

The tone is strident and the arguments are unconvincing.  It looks like the competition between shooting mags has caused a race to the bottom, and the ST is scraping it hard.  What would ‘BB’ have said about it?

There is nothing as strident, and nothing as adversarial to all other moderate influences in the countryside. I bet Philip Merricks is livid about ST.

Clearly either no-one has thought what impression this approach would have on the normal man (or dog) in the street, and they certainly won’t have considered the normal woman on the street, or the ST really doesn’t care what impression it makes.

What is the ornithological equivalent of the ST? I’m not sure there is one.

I wonder what the man, dog and woman count is in Birdwatch, Birdwatching etc?

The ST discusses the RSPB’s call for licensing of grouse moors and quotes the NGO, BASC and GWCT as not being terribly keen on it. Well, they would say that wouldn’t they?

I think that the call for licensing is simply too little, too feeble and too late.  The RSPB looks rather off the pace now to advance this as their new solution when they did precious little to support John Armitage’s e-petition on this very subject which only closed at the end of February.  This time last year would have been the time for the RSPB to throw their weight behind this measure and harness public support for it.  By the way, that’s what I did through this blog even though I think that licensing is a partial and probably ineffective solution to the wide range of problems now associated with grouse moors – it’s not just about Hen Harriers is it?

But if the RSPB had supported the e-petition on this subject then we would all have bitten our lips and said nothing.  But things have moved on.

You have to realise that the shooting community would be quite happy for licensing to come in – it relies on monitoring and a system of penalties and the policing will be difficult and the penalties can be argued over for years.  Years of dialogue could be spent on defining the grounds for withdrawing a licence for damaging peat too much, reducing water quality too much etc etc.

That doesn’t sound to scary to the grouse shooters. So the pages of outrage in ST are there to make licensing seems extreme (when it is actually weak and ineffective in this instance) and to make the RSPB feel that it has been really tough.

The grouse shooters are worried about the possibility, only vague and only distant, of a total ban on their activities because increasingly realisation is dawning on a range of people that the way to deal with the systematic ills of driven grouse shooting is to ban it.  And they hate the idea of people expressing their abhorrence of the criminal killing of Hen Harriers on Hen Harrier Day. This might involve grannies, girls and grown women – what a thought!

Apparently the RSPB is too influenced by ‘bloggers’ – whatever they may be. I must meet some of these people and have a word with them – they sound interesting.

The thing that these bloggers might ask for is a ban to driven grouse shooting as the simplest, quickest, most effective and least bureaucratic solution to the many ills of intensive grouse moor management. I wonder whether the RSPB has noticed? Maybe this will be RSPB policy a few months after this e-petition closes.

6400 signatures as we enter Week 6 – that’s over 1000 signatures a week on average. Wouldn’t it be great to get to 10,000 in the next five weeks – by 12 August.  That’s about 100 new signatures a day for the next 39 or so days – sounds quite tough to me.  I wonder whether that is possible?  Let’s give it a go.



This blog has Klout

June was quite a busy month for this blog what with all that stuff about Hen Harriers and grouse moors and the ever-growing number of signatures on this e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting in England. However, it was the two blogs about Simon Barnes’s imminent departure from The Times that caused the biggest stir – probably because this blog was where many people heard the bad news first and also because it had a quote from Simon himself.

Readership of this blog was over 22,000 in June compared with what is a more regular monthly  total of 10-12,000 – although I suspect that there would have been a significant uplift even without the Barnes effect.

Some try to measure the influence of social media outlets and the measure called Klout is one way to do it. In this ranking of environmental commentators and organisations by their up-to-date Klout scores this blog (essentially) is ranked fourth in, well, in the world actually.  It’s quite fun, and it won’t last.

But this blog does, it seems, have clout.  Some read it because it inspires them; some because although it irritates them to bits, they just can’t keep away. In that regard, I was touched, and amused, by @Shooting Times telling me:

‘@MarkAvery I really do try not to read your writing. But it’s like crack cocaine… Extremely bad for you, but quite addictive.’



Two weeks until publication

Martha endsJust a brief reminder that A Message from Martha is published two weeks today.


To order in advance of publication, and get this book as soon as possible, then click here.


Purrrrring with pleasure

I’m pleased to tell you that I have seen Turtle Dove in Northamptonshire this year. It was only just in Northants but it was a Turtle Dove.

When I did a bird survey for my favourite local farmer, many years ago, I was delighted to find that there was a Turtle Dove purrrrrring on his farm.  It was a bit of a surprise – but a very nice one.  Duncan Farrington’s farm has lots of other good birds too – Yellow Wagtails, Lapwing (in some years), Yellowhammers, lots of Skylarks, and even a few Linnets. There are lots more birds on Duncan’s LEAF farm than there are on the BBS plot I survey regularly only a matter of a mile or so away (as the Carrion Crow flies).

Last summer I paid a few visits to Duncan’s farm to listen and look for Turtle Doves after I returned from the USA and was writing Martha.  The last chapter of Martha will tell you something of those visits and my conversations with Duncan, and how delicious his Mellow Yellow Garlic Mayonnaise is, but I’ll tell you now that I didn’t see a (or hear) a Turtle Dove on his farm (although I saw plenty on a visit to the RSPB team studying them in Essex which is also described in Martha‘s last chapter).

This year I have visited again a few times but with no luck but I got an email from Duncan saying that he was pretty sure that he had seen Turtle Doves a couple of times recently in the vicinity of a pile of processed rape seed.  I’ve often seen small flocks of Stock Doves on this patch, and the odd Woodpigeon too, but I was fairly sure that Duncan wouldn’t claim a Turtle Dove unless he was pretty sure he’d seen one.  I had another look but with no success and Duncan and I hatched a plan that the next time he dumped some more rapeseed waste on this patch he would let me know and I’d stake it out from the car to have a really good look.

On Sunday morning I parked the car c50 yards away (having driven past the spot and disturbed c12 Stock Doves from it) and settled in to watch.  I got really good views of Stock Doves – I like Stock Doves a  lot and I’m glad that the readers of this blog do too.

There were a few Skylarks, Yellowhammers, Chaffinches and Whitethroats singing, but no Turtle Doves.  Several Magpies were feeding on the pile of processed rapeseed.  And then I was lucky enough to see, for it would have been easy to miss, a dove fly into the largest Ash tree in sight – as it spread its tail to land the characteristic white tail tips were obvious – this was a Turtle Dove. Hooray!

It sat in the same tree for c10 minutes but I couldn’t see it very well as there were branches in the way, which occasionally were blown aside in the breeze, but even then it was at an awkward angle through the car windscreen.  The tail pattern was diagnostic, and the poor views of the perched bird were clearly of a rather fuzzy looking Turtle Dove.  When it flew off, it flew straight out of sight. But it was a Turtle Dove!  So now Duncan has seen Turtle Doves three times, including on one occasion two together, and I have seen them once.

I had another look, without success, on Monday morning and Duncan and I met in passing in the farmyard and both expressed our pleasure that the Turtle Doves are hanging on locally.  They seem quite elusive, and I’m a little surprised I haven’t heard them at all, but they are clinging on as part of the rural Northamptonshire scene.  I’m so pleased! I really am. I’m pleased I saw one, but more than that I am pleased that Duncan saw them first and that they are still using his farm. It’s a badge of respect from the bird world to Duncan’s management of his land that there are still some of this fast-declining farmland bird on his farm.



Let’s be reasonable.

I don’t know how often readers of this blog go back a few days and read the comments that continue to accrue on earlier posts.  And I don’t know whether I would recommend it either – sometimes a late post is the best of the lot, but not always.

So, I have little idea how many of you are aware of an exchange of comments between myself and Philip Merricks on this blog concerning Simon Barnes’s imminent departure from The Times which has ranged from whether or not I am too adversarial to whether or not David Cameron is too adversarial, and from breeding wader numbers at Elmley to Hen Harriers in the hills.  Philip’s comments are well worth reading but I thought I would address one of them, the first, in a separate blog.

Philip thinks I am too adversarial and I should take a much more emollient position on the things that concern me (those aren’t his words exactly – but you can check them out yourself).

Philip prays in aid one of the undoubted heroes of nature conservation, Dr Norman Moore. Philip writes;

The situation is eerily similar to the wide gulf that existed in those disturbed times of the 1970s and early ‘80s when farmers and conservationists were at war with each other. And yet through thoughtful nurturing by some great men led by Dr Norman Moore, then chief Scientist of NCC (Natural England’s predecessor body) the two sides came together and out of that togetherness developed the concept of agri-environment management which has grown to be a unifying force between today’s farmers and conservationists. A development which is universally supported.


What a difference to Dr Norman Moore (former Chief Scientist at Nature Conservancy Council) who, in his book, ‘The Bird of Time – the Science and Politics of Nature Conservation’ wrote (p 104) “No group of people can do more for conservation than farmers, the people who manage most of the countryside. Conservationists and farmers have been kept apart when they should have been working together.” So perhaps you can see that I believe that the Norman Moore approach will deliver more for wildlife in the long term.’.

Well Philip – shall we see?

First, the very initiation of FWAG, about which I do know something, was partly caused by lots of people jumping up and down and saying that things had to be better than they were – and if only we could go back to those days now we would count ourselves lucky.  As always, it is dissatisfaction that brings about social change and at the time when change is proposed there are always voices saying ‘I’m sure we can sort this out with a friendly chat’.  It’s rarely true, because there is always a reason why the status quo is as it is, and always a group of people whom it suits very well to keep it like that. This was true when women’s suffrage was proposed, when the abolition of slavery was proposed and when workers’ rights were proposed.  Experience shows that the vested interests are pretty good at keeping things just as they always have been until people come together and agitate for change.

It’s always worth checking when people use the words ‘reasonable’ and  ‘balanced’ as terms of approbation, and  ‘divisive’, ‘adversarial’ and ‘unhelpful’ as criticisms whether they really mean ‘agree with me and keep quiet’.

Second, the suggestion that we should settle things with a good British compromise and a quiet chat is very attractive to all of us, including me. But it does take two to compromise and, as I have written here, grouse moor managers and the NFU (at least under its former leadership) have not been mindful to compromise at all. Eventually one has to realise that being reasonable is just wasting time and the alternative is not to be unreasonable but to go over the heads of grouse moor managers or the NFU straight to government to get what you want (and what they don’t want to give you). That involves campaigning for change and involves stirring things up.

Third, it’s worth pointing out that Norman Moore’s book was published in 1987 – more than a quarter of a century ago.  When Philip writes of the ‘long run’ he fails to acknowledge that we are now living in the ‘long run’.  Since 1987 farmland birds have continued to decline despite the inception, demise and partial resurrection of FWAG, despite an awful lot of talking and despite increasing knowledge of what needs to be done and how it can be done. When the Game Conservancy developed conservation headlands did the NFU adopt them with alacrity? No. When the RSPB developed skylark patches and persuaded Defra to fund them through agri-environment schemes did the NFU adopt them with grateful eagerness? No! When the NFU were allowed to adopt a voluntary approach to delivering a replacement for set-aside through the Campaign for the Farmed Environment did it succeed? No!!

There is a difference between farming and illegal killing of Hen Harriers (in fact, quite a few!). One difference, is that there are, quite clearly, and identifiably, many many wonderful farmers. You can visit their farms and see the good work they have done (like you have at Elmley, Philip!) and see the results on the ground. You can praise them as individuals (as I did in Fighting for Birds but Philip didn’t quote those passages) and the approaches they have adopted.

This was the RSPB’s approach to farming for the whole time I was Conservation Director (and before, and after).  That’s why the RSPB invented the Volunteer Farmer Alliance project and spent millions of pounds on working with farmers over the years.  I’m rather pleased about that.  How does one adopt the same approach with upland grouse moors when there are practically no breeding Hen Harriers in England and no group of upland managers who can be identified as the ‘good guys’?

Farming is a legal activity, on the whole practised according to the law, with good guys and bad guys. And the good guys don’t say many good words about the NFU but they are too nervous to criticise the powerful NFU hierarchy in public.  With farming, nature conservationists can work with individual good guys even when the elected representatives of farming are (or at least have been), in my opinion, an anti-environmental bunch.

Killing Hen Harriers is not legal and it hasn’t been legal for 60 years. There are now fewer Hen Harriers breeding in England than when they were protected by the Churchill government back then.  The good guys in grouse shooting are invisible – they are silent, they are passive and they have been incapable of influencing the bad guys.  And the bad guys are criminals.  They aren’t pursuing their business interests legally but unsympathetically, as regards the environment and wildlife, they are killing protected species, destroying protected habitats and doing more of both now than they were in the past. These are the circumstances when an adversarial approach is perfectly reasonable.

And for an example of somewhat pointless talking see the exchange of letters between the RSPB and the Moorland Association.  Those same letters could have been written a decade ago.  Talking to the intransigent does nothing to change the world – you should try it but not persist once it is shown to be futile.

Please sign this e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting which recently passed 6000 signatures, and has just entered  only its 6th week.