The revelation towards the end of Friday afternoon that nesting Lesser Black-backed Gulls were being killed, perhaps under licence from Natural England, in the Forest of Bowland AONB has attracted a lot of comment on social media over the weekend.
Natural England responded very quickly to say that they were investigating matters.
The Forest of Bowland (803 km²) is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty whose logo is a Hen Harrier but where Hen Harriers have not nested for a couple of years. In 2015 male Hen Harriers ‘disappeared’ from four active nests: they were almost certainly bumped off (as so many Hen Harriers are). There is a Hen Harrier Day event in the Forest of Bowland on 6 August, with a great line-up of speakers.
A relatively small part of this area (160 km²) is also an SPA – a Special Protection Area designated by the UK government as part of our obligations to the EU Birds Directive (no, not designated by faceless Brussells bureaucrats, but designated by our very own bureaucrats). The Bowland Fells SPA was designated because it held over 2% of the GB population of Hen Harriers – 13 pairs at the time – but also because, you could say rather more importantly, it held nearly 14,000 pairs of Lesser Black-backed Gulls which represented around 11% of the western European population. The LBBG population has been culled before, on the grounds that they represented a human health threat to water supplies, and the colony is, I understand, greatly reduced in numbers. These are the birds that are the subject of the recent news.
Gulls are wildlife too! And the fact that the wildlife importance of this site, designated by the UK according to criteria which apply right across the EU, is haemorrhaging is shameful. It’s not the job of the AONB to sort this out, it is the job of the utterly hopeless Natural England and yet NE is a bigger part of the problem and very little of the solution.
Two comments on my earlier blog on this subject by former NE staff member, Ian Carter (who occasionally reviews books on this blog as well as commenting on it), are worth reproducing here:
‘This is perhaps the final straw that led to me leave Natural England last year. I don’t know the full details but I know that an agreement to consent a cull of LBBs in Bowland was being negotiated, supposedly because of their adverse impacts on vegetation! This in an SPA designated for its LBB gull colony. It was billed by the local team as a flagship deal – part of what was referred to as the ‘Outcomes Approach’, and, believe it or not, held up by senior managers as an exemplar of how ‘we’ should be working in future. I think the logic was that if you are flexible and give landowners what they want then this will open doors to better relationships and, ultimately, better outcomes for conservation. It beggars belief, it really does.’
‘Peter, I take the point about Buzzards and don’t want to open up that debate again here, but this is far, far worse in terms of what it means for nature conservation. It’s a deliberate attempt to reduce the breeding population of a species for which we have international responsibility, on an SPA designated for that very species. Killing a few Buzzards to protect non-native gamebirds is thoroughly unpalatable, though no more so in my view than killing corvids, stoats, weasels, foxes etc. The LBB cull is on a different scale and probably unprecedented in terms of what has been permitted on an SPA in England in recent years – at least I can’t recall anything quite as shocking!‘.
The NE Board does have a few nature conservationists on it, but not many. As a group they must realise that they are failing to keep the senior managers of NE’s attention on the nature conservation task. They should all consider what more they can do to improve things otherwise they will be accused of presiding over the dismantling of state nature conservation efforts in England and with them the bleeding away of the wildlife that they are there to protect. A mass resignation of Board members would be an appropriate and noticeable response to the failing state of the organisation of which these events in Bowland are just one symptom. There comes a time when giving any credibility to a failing senior management is doing nature a disservice.