The spoon-billed sandpiper is one of the most gorgeous birds on the planet – and also one of the most threatened.  With probably only a few hundred pairs surviving and their numbers thought to be decreasing each year it is a bird destined for extinction in the wild – perhaps.

‘Perhaps’ because the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Birdlife International, Birds Russia and the RSPB don’t want it to go extinct – and neither do I, and I suspect, neither do you.  I wonder whether there is anyone on the planet that we share with the spoon-billed sandpiper who actually wants this bird to go extinct.  But it is our species, without wanting to, which is driving this species to oblivion.

Loss of wetland habitat on its migration staging posts,  such as the Saemangeum estuary in South Korea, and hunting on the wintering grounds, such as in Myanmar, are thought to be the most important factors at this stage of what we hope will not be a terminal decline.

Who knows, with even more research we may find that there are other factors too.  It might be that predator increases, perhaps driven by human land use changes, have an effect locally.  When you get down to such a low population then a new rubbish dump somewhere which attracts more foxes or skua could easily be a factor in a local decline where a local decline can become a major part of a global decline.  Once a species gets to such a low ebb then every little thing matters. And big things, like climate change, matter too and the Arctic will change more dramatically than lower latitudes due to global warming over the next few decades.

Nature conservationists are pulling together to try to tackle these incompletely known and not necessarily tractable problems across an annual range of thousands of miles which takes in many different countries in a last ditch attempt to save the spoon-billed sandpiper.  And I wish them every success.

But time is short and success is not guaranteed by any means. It would have been a good idea to start 20 years ago one might say, and it probably would have been a good idea but other species were being saved and far less was known about the spoon-billed sandpiper then.  So, better late than never, and let’s hope that all goes well.

But if it doesn’t go well then Friday saw an important step in a brave attempt to keep all options open.  Thirteen ‘spoonies’ were brought to the WWT site at Slimbridge where it is envisaged that they will form a captive breeding programme,  and perhaps, if all goes well, and in future, supply birds for a release programme into the wild.

I commend the team who have managed to get this far with this brave project.  Just think, the 13 birds which arrived at Slimbridge last week were eggs sitting in real spoony nests in northern Asia this summer.  They were found (easier said than done), transported to Moscow Zoo (easier said than done), hatched and reared (easier said than done), kept alive in captivity (all captive birds act as though they have a death wish so, again, easier said than done) and were transported last week from Moscow to the UK and to Slimbridge (a longer migration than their natural one and a stressful journey for the birds (who don’t know they are being kindly helped) and for their transporters who will have done everything they can to make the long journey safe and stress-free but you can never tell what might happen).  The worry won’t end there but it is worth marking the successful completion of these legs of an amazing conservation journey.

And meanwhile a few hundred spoonies are travelling south to their wintering grounds in large flocks of commoner species of wading birds.  Birdwatchers will look out for them on their journeys and hope to see them at sites like Mai Po in Hong Kong, and those spoonies will face the dangers faced by their commoner wading relatives on the long migration route.  Will there be a few fewer spoonies returning to the breeding ground next spring?  That is the expectation for next spring and the next spring until in not many more springs there really may be none.

Let us hope that keeping the spoony in captivity is a great success and that numbers increase at zoos and collections across the world.  But let us also hope that they do not become the only examples of their kind in the world.  Let us hope that the conservation work across the east Asian flyway proves effective and that the wild population picks up and begins to increase through concerted action by governments, agencies, NGOs and indviduals, because hoping is not enough, someone has to do something too.  And ‘doing’ costs money, so since you cannot ‘do’, perhaps you can give so that others can ‘do’.


Only a wasp

I went racing at Cheltenham on Friday, on what is called ‘Countryside  Day’.  My drive across the Cotswolds, often very beautiful at this time of year, was so misty that the autumn colours weren’t showing well at all.

As I passed over the railway at Adlestrop I remembered Edward Thomas’s poem but this was no day for blackbird song.

Apart from one small speculative losing bet I kept my money in my pocket until the last race where I thought that Cue Card had a very good chance but he jumped badly, and unseated early on, so I knew my fate and could head to the car park for an early get away as Grands Crus stormed impressively up the hill to the winning post.

There is a lot of Countryside Alliance activity at Cheltenham on Countryside Day, and it is mildly irritating to someone like me, who is not their greatest supporter.  I had a look at the assembled huntsmen and admired the hounds but the public address system seems to assume that everyone at the races to use their wits in the betting ring is fully committed to fox-hunting, and I am not.  Although, to be fair, I’ve never lifted a finger to oppose fox hunting either – privately or professionally.

As I made my getaway from the races I was wondering whether, on another day, Cue Card would be a good bet but as I drove up Cleeve Hill a small scene that occurred as I was viewing horses in the Parade Ring kept replaying in my mind.

I was standing next to a rather grim-looking man who was also looking at the circling horses.  A wasp flew past us and landed on the bark mulch in a flower bed next to us.  I looked at the wasp and, remembering the date, wondered whether that would be my last wasp of the year when the man next to me lashed out with his racecard and smacked the wasp before turning back to carry on looking at the runners for the next race.

I was quite impressed by his aim and his speed, but quite shocked, and a little troubled, at the instinctive nature of his action – see wasp, kill wasp.  This insect was not bothering us or anyone else, and would be dead soon in the natural scheme of things.  It wasn’t buzzing around his face or near a small child, it was a little behind us and would probably have headed off further if it had been left alone.  I was closer to this wasp than the man in question and there were many others nearby, although none was as interested as I in either the wasp or its attacker, and the man had to step across me to get at his intended victim.  This man, out to enjoy himself on Countryside Day, saw himself not as an interested and sympathetic observer of nature but rather, put himself in a position of self-appointed executioner.  I wanted to ask him why he felt entitled to behave in the way he had.

Would he have talked about ‘vermin’, ‘restoring natural balance’, the need for ‘management of natural populations’ or would he have told me that he just hated wasps,  that he just loved killing things or maybe that it was ‘only’ a wasp?  Obviously I do not know,  but his action seemed terribly callous to me.

This all happened on 11 November and there were poppies proudly worn everywhere.  Somewhere, we all have to draw a line on cruelty and death.  After all a wasp is ‘only’ a wasp, a blackbird is ‘only’ a blackbird, a fox is ‘only’ a fox, a racehorse is ‘only’ a racehorse, a soldier is ‘only’ a soldier, and a baby is ‘only’ a baby.



A valued colleague and friend at the RSPB, Gwyn Williams,  is raising money by looking foolish.

Please give him some dosh for charity.

It’s so good to see Gwyn looking fit and well after his treatment for prostate cancer last year.


Who is all at sea?

The Marine and Coastal Access Act of 2009 was one of the major environmental achievements of the last Labour government but, to be fair, the Shadow Defra team, including Richard Benyon who is now a junior Defra minister, were very supportive of the thrust of the legislation too.  At times, the progress of the Act became as much of a team effort as you are ever likely to get in an adversarial political system.

But now the Wildlife Trusts are warning that the promised coherent network of Marine Conservation Zones promised by the coalition (although there is no Liberal Democrat in Defra) government is under threat.  They fear that fewer than 30 (maybe low 20s) of the 127 marine sites around the coast of England which have been identified by regional stakeholder groups will actually go forward to Defra.

Is this because the criteria for choosing sites were changed very late in the process by the JNCC?  If so, did Defra nudge any changes that happened?  Is it not a monumental waste of people’s time to ask them to contribute according to one set of rules, in a Big Society kind of way, and then make their deliberations academic by changing criteria?

This sounds very odd and extremely worrying.

More should become evident early next week when this blog will, no doubt, return to this subject.  If anyone has a good idea of what is happening then I’d be interested to hear from them.


Peregrines – moor is fewer.

I see peregrines quite often these days, but it’s usually in the middle of London (like this image is of one in the middle of Manchester) rather than in the uplands where I would only have expected to see them in my youth.  This is good – I’m glad they have become commoner and more widespread during my lifetime.

But the shocking level of persecution on birds of prey associated with grouse moors is again revealed in a paper published today by the RSPB and the Northern England Raptor Forum.

Using data on peregrine nesting success collected over almost the last three decades, and satellite images from Google earth to identify where the moorland had been burned for grouse shooting, the researchers showed that breeding success of peregrines attempting to nest on grouse moors was only half that of those nesting on other habitats.

Golden eagles do badly on grouse moors, hen harriers do badly on grouse moors and peregrines do badly on grouse moors.  Is it not time that wildlife laws were fully enforced on grouse moors?

Nicholas Le Quesne Herbert MP is the Minister of State for Police and Criminal Justice and was a former public relations director of the British Field Sports Society.  The British Field Sports Society formed the main stock of the Countryside Alliance.

Dr Arjun Amar, of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute for Ornithology – formerly an RSPB scientist and also formerly a scientist at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust – is the paper’s lead author. He said: “I was shocked at just how low the bird’s breeding output was on grouse moors; they were significantly less likely to lay eggs or fledge young.” He added: “The few birds that did lay eggs or fledge young on grouse moors did just as well as those breeding off grouse moors, which suggests that a shortage of food supplies can be ruled out of the equation. The only logical explanation for these differences is that persecution is rife on many driven grouse moors.”.

Paul Irving, chair of the Northern England Raptor Forum, said: “To people who visit and live in the uplands of northern England, the peregrine should be a familiar bird in an iconic landscape. However, the guilty few deny the pleasure of many.” He added: “Now it’s up to the Government and the Police to turn fine words into action. So far, there has been little real progress in tackling bird of prey crime and this needs to change urgently to help species like the peregrine.”.

Birdwatch magazine is asking its readers to tell it what they think about the conflict between grouse shooting and hen harriers, this news on peregrines is just grist to the mill.

Membership of the Northern England Raptor Forum is Calderdale Raptor Group, Cumbria Raptor Study Group, Durham Upland Bird Study Group, Manchester Raptor Group, Northumbria Ringing Group, North York Moors Upland Bird (Merlin) Study Group, Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group, South Peak Raptor Study Group, South Ryedale and East Yorkshire Raptor Group and Yorkshire Dales Upland Bird Study Group.