Red kites

I see red kites quite often over my garden in east Northants now – practically every day if the weather is OK and I spend enough time looking.  I saw one as I was on my way to the Post Office on Tuesday, and on both Tuesday and Wednesday, on trips to London, I saw red kites just south of Luton Airport Parkway railway station.  Each sighting brightens my day.

And red kites are generally doing well – thanks to the work of conservationists in reintroducing them to areas from which they were removed over a century ago.

But taking a long look at the RSPB 2010 Bird Crime report, I notice that the following incidents featured red kites on the receiving end of persecution:


Poison – carbofuran, Dumfries and Galloway


Poison – alphachloralose, North Yorkshire (2 birds)

Poison – fenthion, Ceredigion

Poison – mevinphos, Lincolnshire


Poison – alphachloralose, North Yorkshire

Poison – bendiocarb, Northants (2 incidents)


Trapped – Highland

Poison – carbofuran, Ceredigion

Poison – alphachloralose, North Yorkshire

Poison – carbofuran, Co Durham


Poison – aldicarb, Highland (2 incidents)

Poison – carbofuran, Highland

Poison – carbofuran, Angus


Poison – carbofuran, North Yorkshire (2 birds)

Poison – carbofuran, Northumberland

Spring trap – Highland


Poison – mevinphos, Stirling

Poison – carbofuran, Perth and Kinross


Shot – Cumbria


Poison – alphachloralose, Perth and Kinross


These cases are spread around the country, some quite a long way from where red kites are normally found (the young birds wander quite widely), and involve a wide variety of poisons.

These cases contribute to the 227 cases of shooting and destruction of birds of prey and 128 cases of poisoning recorded in 2010.  Each of these cases (which were fewer than in 2009) represent a dead bird which was protected by the law in theory but not in practice.

Have a look at some information about the posons used: mevinphos (here, here), alphachloralose (here), aldicarb (here), carbofuran (here, here), fenthion (here) and bendiocarb (here).  What a lot of nasty insecticides being used imaginatively to kill birds of prey.

On 26 May this year a former gamekeeper from the Moy Estate was convicted of possessing a dead red kite and fined £1500.  The body of the kite was found duriing the execution of a search warrant and the remains of two more red kites, six illegal baited spring traps, a trapped hen harrier and a poison bait laced with carbofuran were also recovered over a period of time.

A study of red kites published this year compared the success of the two original red kite release sites of the Black Isle in north Scotland and the Chilterns in southern England. It says that taking into account the numbers of birds released that illegal persecution has limited the north Scottish population to 41 pairs whereas the Chilterns’ population makes up over 300 pairs of the UK total of 1500+ pairs.  The Scottish birds had low survival in their first two years and 64 red kites have been found poisoned in Scotland between 1989 and 2009.

It’s a shocking litany of illegality and wildlife destruction.  Poisoning in particular is a cruel and cowardly way to mete out death.

In Scotland landowners are vulnerable to legal action if their staff break wildlife laws through the introduction of vicarious liability in recent years.  Please support this epetition to introduce vicarious liability in England too.  It’s not a magic bullet – but it is a brick in the wall to protect birds of prey.


You are directly affected, but Defra has forgotten you

Defra has started a consultation on reform of the Common Agricultural Policy – don’t panic, you have until 5 March to respond.  But Defra only wants views from those who may be affected by these proposals.  And that appears to mean English farmers, environmental groups, rural communities, non-governmental organisations and other interested parties.  But there is no mention (except in ‘other interested parties’) of you, the taxpayer, despite the fact that you are paying for it.

The NFU is encouraging farmers to respond to this consultation on its website which is fair enough.

So Defra is seeking, and no doubt will receive, a lot of views from the recipients of public money but appears completely uninterested in getting views from those who provide that money.  Isn’t that a bit odd?  It’s certainly not very Big Society is it?  And are we all in it together?

Of course the ‘other interested parties’ which do not have a voice are skylarks, harvest mice, pheasant eyes and the rest of our wildlife dependent on how farmland is farmed, and how your taxes go to encourage wildlife-friendly farming, so you may wish to respond on their behalves.  We’ll come back to this subject – after all, we have until 5 March to come up with some views.


Just like Cleopatra’s nose?

It was a dreary morning and I felt a bit grumpy as I made my way past Birmingham on the M42 heading south.

It was rainy and drizzly and the traffic was difficult.  I was surprised to see snow on the Malverns to my right and not at all surprised that I could hardly make out Cleeve Hill and its habitat for Dukes of Burgundy to my left.

I arrived at Slimbridge and had a quick look for the female lesser scaup – I saw a funny looking tufted duck but relied on my rule that ‘if you know your birds then if you see a new bird you know it’s a new bird’ to dismiss the possibility of a UK tick.

And then on to the main event, via a kiss from Kate Humble (not to be overlooked), which was to celebrate the 13 spoon-billed sandpipers that we were shown by CCTV from their aviary somewhere nearby.

These 13 birds were eggs in the very northeast of Russia, near Anadyr, in mid-June this year – isn’t that amazing?  Conservationists from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust went out there, found some nests, collected some eggs, incubated them, raised the chicks and brought them back to Slimbridge.  Simple as that!

Except that sitting there in the cinema at Slimbridge we heard, through the gentle questioning of Kate Humble, the inside story from three of the people most involved in doing that ‘simple’ task: Nigel Jarrett, Martin McGill and Roland Digby are the somewhat unlikely heroes of this story.

Russia’s not the easiest place to work, the Arctic is not the easiest area of Russia, spoon-billed sandpipers are not the easiest birds and nobody had done anything quite like this before – maybe it wasn’t so easy.

We heard of the moments of despair when a malfunctioning weighing machine made it seem as though the eggs had lost far too much weight all of a sudden, of the sadness as an adult sandpiper was found dead by its predated nest, as well as the team stripping to their underpants to attract mosquitoes to serve as food for baby sandpipers, and the feelings of joy when the eggs hatched.

There were lots of problems and challenges but they did it, and 13 birds are now at Slimbridge and may in future form a breeding stock for releases into the wild or, if the worst comes to the worst, they may be the last remaining spoon-billed sandpipers on Earth.   How sad would that be?

Just as the course of history might have been changed if Cleopatra’s nose had been an inch longer the course of history for the spoon-billed sandpiper might not hold any hope at all if it weren’t the cutest wader ever with the cutest chicks with the cutest spatula bills.  Who wouldn’t donate to a programme of work to save this bird from habitat loss and hunting on its 8000km migration from Russia to Myanmar?

The Today programme, as I ticked off the miles to Slimbridge to see these birds, mentioned the birds I was travelling to see but majored on the news of the death of some bloke who was in charge of North Korea.  Spoon-billed sandpipers have been flying over North Korea for thousands of years but it is only recently that our species has loosened the spoonies’ hold on Earth – there are now maybe only about 200 birds left in the wild.  And now there are 13 in a cage in Gloucestershire.

After everyone left the cinema I stayed and watched the birds on the CCTV for a while.  I could see the variation in size between the birds, and one (White-left) was in full winter plumage whereas the others were still moulting.  I watched the birds sticking their cute bills into the gravel in their cage.  And occasionally one would whirr its wings or stretch.  And sometimes the flock would crouch for a moment before resuming feeding.

As I headed off to lunch I realised that for a few moments I might have been the only person on Earth knowingly watching spoon-billed sandpipers, and that in maybe a decade they might not exist in the wild.

Over lunch I had the lesser scaup pointed out to me and it was indeed the ‘funny looking tufted duck’ that I had seen earlier.

It was a dreary evening but I felt greatly uplifted as I made my way past Birmingham on the M42 heading north.


Costs and benefits in Wonderland

I am still waiting for a copy of the letters that my MP, Louise Mensch, should by now have sent to the Treasury and Defra asking for the evidence from HMT that the Habitats Regulations are a brake on the UK economy (and Defra’s response to the fact that I intend to make a complaint to the EU about non-compliance of the Birds Directive).  They are probably stuck in the Christmas post.

But when the Treasury reply they will, presumably be able to provide details on why they are imposing the work on Defra and others to review the Habitats Regulations and why there is a prima facie case for imposing this extra work.

No doubt the reply from the Treasury will build significantly on this existing Defra report, under the imprimatur of Minister James Paice (he seems to be cropping up in this blog a lot at the moment).

You will have to read the report several times to begin to get your head around what it means – well, I can certainly say that I did, but maybe you will get it much quicker than I.

Table 1 is a good place to start to get a picture of the overall results except – big caveat – it is clear that many costs and even more benefits of Defra’s regulations are not yet included in Table 1.  And, some of us would have a problem with whether this approach, which attempts to ascribe monetary values to everything (what is the cost/benefit ratio of love? or fairness? or beauty?) can ever do more than inaccurately describe the inaccurate cost of some things and the value of nothing.

However, it’s not as though there is a lot of evidence in this table that the nature regulations are the place to start with any analysis of removing regulatory costs.  But review can often be valuable, even if it is a luxury which may be an unnacceptable burden in times of reduced resources and the need for more government focus, and there are some potential lessons from Table 1.

I was struck by the evidence for flood management. There is an enormous cost to business of flood management regulations – it amounts to £271m pa.  Surely it would be worth removing this brake on the UK economy?  But wait!  the benefit of those flood management measures to business are an even greater £1029m pa! So business benefits by c£700m pa from the flood management regulations. And the rest of society benefits to the tune of another £2bn pa from these regulations.

Let’s take a look at the animal health and welfare figures.  They impose a net cost of £300+m pa on the economy – but is that too much or too little for animal welfare? How do you put a price on animal (or human) suffering? Should we be spending twice as much or half as much? The table cannot tell you .  It is your values and beliefs that will tell you whether we should be spending more, doing more, doing better or not caring at all – so it is with nature.

I look forward to the Treasury’s response.


PS what does monetise mean? It seems to be used these days to mean ‘put a monetary value on something that has no market value’ but I can find no dictionary definition that even hints at that  (here, here, here, here) .  So maybe it means whatever you want it to mean.

This has to remind us of this passage from Alice in Wonderland – it could have been written to describe attempts to value the environment:

Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. `I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.–I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

`Exactly so,’ said Alice.

`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, `that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, `that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’


Sunday bits and pieces

I think I delivered some quite thoughtful blogs to you this week, even if I say it myself (which I just have), and all of them attracted great comments from you readers – for which many thanks.  I get a lot from your comments and I am certain that it is the mixture of blog and subsequent comments that is attracting a larger and larger audience here.

Monday was butterflies – see lots of good comments but perhaps especially that of Butterfly Conservation’s Martin Warren near the end of the comment chain.

Tuesday was wood burning – where your comments helped me

Wednesday was backing out of stewardship agreements – where Roderick Leslie’s suggestion is still playing in my head

Thursday was egg collecting and Chancelloring – where making the punishment fit the crime was an interesting one to chew over

and Friday was the slow Paice of badger baiting where comments from farmers and about domestic pets were just some of the interesting ones..


I notice that I have another article in The Field – the January issue which seems a bit premature considering we weren’t half-way through December when I read it.  My article is (fantastic and a must-read!) about naturalists and sportsmen and discusses those field sports of pheasant shooting, twitching, fishing, fox hunting, bird ringing, egg collecting and wildfowling.

Also in The Field is a letter from a Charles Grisedale (this one?) who praises my earlier hen harrier article with faint damns and says I got the Langholm facts right (and proceeds to get them wrong himself) and with one of those rhetorical flourishes spins out a question about hen harriers at the RSPB’s nature reserve at Lake Vyrnwy (where he is also slightly misinformed according to my RSPB former colleagues).  In asking for some information to see what Mr Grisedale was on about I was pleased to learn that last year there were four hen harrier nests on the RSPB nature reserve and another two nearby, and that their nesting success wasn’t bad a tall. Not a grouse shoot very close though is there?

The National Trust has launched the Octavia Hill awards to commemorate the centenary of the death of one of their founders.  You have until 16 January to nominate someone for one of the 6 categories.

This week I got a letter from Peter Kendall in reply to my Open Letter to him which appeared in late November.  I am grateful to Peter, who I do quite like on a personal level despite all the rumours to the contrary, for his letter which was  a bit short on vision although he did say that his vision for the countryside is one that is ‘both more productive and richer in wildlife’.  Peter says that he has ‘At no time ever stated or implied that greater productivity should be achieved at the expense of biodiversity’ so we must all have misunderstood his statement here where in the first sentence of the report of his speech on his own NFU website he says ‘Government should switch its focus from bio-diversity and concentrate on farm productivity’.  Blatant Peter, blatant.  Or has your own website misreported you?

Peter also claims in his letter that agricultural productivity is ‘static’ and biodiversity is ‘improving’. Well Peter, thanks for the invitation to your farm, I will certainly take you up on that with pleasure, but the gulf between us in understanding is huge.

I was in London on Thursday and I tend to walk everywhere now because I have more time, it does me good and it’s cheaper. And on my rather wiggly way between Pall Mall and King’s Cross I was walking along the side of Bloomsbury Square and saw a sizeable flock of birds at roof-top height flying in and out of the plane trees.  I wondered for a moment if I had come across the largest flock of house sparrows I had seen in central London for years, but they turned out to be goldfinches.   Walking is also conducive to thinking and I had a good idea soon afterwards which solved a writing problem with which I had been wrestling.

Yesterday’s Guardian had a letter opposing the badger cull pilot.

Sign of the times.  I was looking at the Natural England website for some information (which I found) and thought I’d glance at the vacancies page.  There are no jobs available,  just the possibility of volunteering.  I know quite a few young people who would like to work for NE or similar organisations and they must get very dispirited if they keep drawing blanks like this.  And remember that NE is not static, it has lost hundreds of jobs this year.

I now see a red kite over my house just about every day if I spend enough time looking out the window.  I cannot glance at a red kite with equanimity – it always makes me ahppy.

This blog won’t be taking Christmas off but I am thinking now of some blogs that I can write in advance so that I can have a real break – you’ll all be too busy eating , drinking and arguing with relatives to want to read my scribblings anyway.