Paul Sterry has an academic background in freshwater biology and is a passionate conservationist. He has been writing about natural history and photographing wildlife for the last 40 years, with an emphasis on the British scene.
Toad Rage, and the curious case of Natural England.
The nights have drawn out and the clocks will soon spring forward, so the plan had been to start winding down the organised Toad Patrol season on Cufaude Lane. The hardcore have been out every night for the last month so perhaps the time had come to focus just on particularly wet and mild nights. The hope was that from now on any remaining migrating animals would be on the move long after the traffic had died down. So the animal welfare side of things could relax and the emphasis could switch more to conservation lobbying. That was the plan anyway.
We’ll come to that in a minute but first here are the figures for the season so far for Cufaude Lane’s familiar amphibians: Common Toads 736 saved, 184 squashed; Common Frogs 56 saved, 18 squashed; Smooth Newts 166 saved, 66 squashed. It is interesting to compare this with counts for the previous two years. Bear in mind that this season there have been between 4 and 11 volunteers on patrol each night. In 2017 and 2018 there were usually only three volunteers, there were nights when patrols did not take place, and on particularly challenging evenings all we could do was rescue animals, not count them. At that time we thought of it more as an animal welfare issue than a counting exercise. So numbers from those years are serious underestimates and only comprise some of the saved animals. 2017: Common Toads1,018; Common Frogs 357; Smooth Newts 203. 2018: Common Toads 976; Common Frogs 258; Smooth Newts 165.
So, the results are in, the votes have been counted, and the losers are…the amphibians, of course. Whatever way you look at it the trend in numbers is a downward one, with the decline in Common Frogs being particularly stark. But don’t worry councillors and developers-in-waiting: if enough time goes by then the problem will simply go away and Cufaude Lane’s amphibians will be driven to extinction, literally and figuratively. As for the poor toads, frogs and newts, things couldn’t get any worse. Or could they? Thanks to the wonders of aerial imagery, it now looks like a couple of ponds on private land that were important for spawning historically were drained a year or so ago. A cynic might see this as a pre-emptive move with future development in mind. But whatever the motive, five years down the line the adult toads that were faithful to those natal ponds will be dead through natural or traffic-related causes, having produced no offspring as a legacy. After that nobody will have to worry about amphibians again, or those pitiable toad-huggers.
Throughout this saga, developers, councillors and environmental consultants alike have been keen to change the subject when the topic of Great Crested Newts (GCN) is raised. If they engage at all it is usually on the subject of Common Toads. I must stop calling them common, because the name is hardly appropriate these days. Anyway, perhaps this amphibian bias might have something to do with the fact that toads have no real legal protection whereas GCNs do, of sorts. Now we come to the interesting bit. One particular event last Thursday was poignantly depressing for the toad-patrollers but by rights should be a conscience-pricking awakening for GCN-sceptics. Denial is no longer possible because one of the patrollers picked up a Great Crested squashed on Cufaude Lane by a passing car; it was a small male and by the looks of it one of last year’s youngsters. So, as naturalists with a long memory could have told them, GCNs do have established populations all along Cufaude Lane. At the time the corpse drew a small crowd of horrified onlookers. Later, when I examined the body more closely its tail began to twitch. Involuntary movement of course – the animal was flattened and its entrails were extruding after all. But there was a sort of last-gasp symbolism about the wretched creature’s writhing.
Thursday night’s illustrious casualty: Great Crested Newts may have nominal protection in law, but that’s no safeguard against the wheels of a car. Photo: Paul Sterry
I have an all-round interest in natural history but amphibians seem to have taken over my life recently. Must be something to do with all those squashed toads I have picked up. Now the toad migration season is winding down my thoughts were already beginning to turn to what else I could do to help these beleaguered animals. And even before last Thursday’s tragedy Great Crested Newts were on my radar. 60 years of natural history experience and local knowledge mean I know where most of my local GCN ponds are, and I know that some of them are not recorded on county and national databases. I can recognise a newt in the field without interfering with it and can spot GCN’s distinctive eggs at a dozen paces. That’s where I can make a difference I thought: with development looming in the area I could help by filling in gaps in the records, and identifying new sites. At least there might a chance of obliging developers to undertake GCN surveys. Not that I have any faith in the implementation or outcomes of GCN legislation but it had to be better than doing nothing. Or so I thought.
As a first port of call I contacted Natural England for advice. You would, wouldn’t you? But phone their Licensing Department and you enter a strange, Kafkaesque world where nothing quite makes sense, at least to this mere naturalist. As dispiriting experiences go I’d rank it somewhere between listening to a Brexit debate and booking a pre-paid Funeral. It turns out helping newts is not so simple after all, and you need a licence to observe them after dark; that’s the best time to spot them of course, with the aid of a torch. I must admit to being slightly baffled but I think the logic goes as follows: as an unlicensed individual, if you see a GCN by chance using a torch that’s tolerated but you can’t submit the record; if you switch the torch off and on again to double-check, or pay a return visit, then that’s a crime; shine a torch at a Great Crested Newt you know is there and you’re a criminal. It’s all about intent apparently.
Buy me a pint and I will bore you with the details but the short version is I applied for a GCN licence but Natural England was unimpressed and my application was turned down. I failed to meet a number of their criteria. An academic background in freshwater ecology and a lifetime spent studying, surveying and writing about British amphibians and other wildlife. Surely that would mean something to Natural England? No, silly me. And I failed on the reference front too: a former colleague of mine, Professor Trevor Beebee, vouched for my credentials. But apparently Trevor (or Mr Beebee as NE likes to call him) is not qualified enough, despite being co-author of Collins New Naturalist Amphibians and Reptiles, having a lifetime of herpetological experience under his belt, and being (as far as I am concerned) the Godfather of British herpetology. No doubt Natural England knows best but it feels more like a victory for bureaucracy than a step forward for conservation. And it has prompted me to wonder if the letter of the law, and its interpretation and subsequent amendments, reflect the spirit in which the legislation was conceived; and whether vested interests might have had an influence?
Call me a criminal but I will always help a Great Crested cross a road if I see one. But if I ever want to see one again in its natural habitat legally it looks like I will have to attend a course next year to be trained in the art of using a torch. There’s more to it than that of course, with netting and bottling also on the curriculum, not that I’d want to use those techniques. All sounds a bit ‘urban dictionary’ to me, but then again I have been out toading every night for the last month. Anyway, unless or until I get a Licence, I will be breaking the law if I knowingly look at a Great Crested again. That seems to be the message. But if I were to take such an unwise course of action I suspect I would not be alone, judging by the nervous glances and awkward silences you get when the subject is raised in amphibian-loving circles. There’s probably a darkweb community out there somewhere, whose members discuss their sick fantasy: the urge to shine torches into ponds in the dead of night. A sort of Urodelean (if such a word exists) love that dares not speak its name. I’d like to say it’s a funny old world, but the Natural England licensing process is entirely devoid of humour.
Probably the only way most ordinary mortals can see a Great Crested Newt legally is by spotting roadkill. This was the Cufaude Lane individual. Photo: Paul Sterry
Before this saga began I would never have dreamt it could be so difficult to help a Schedule 1 species. Naively perhaps I had assumed the legislation was there to protect the newts and their habitats from bulldozers rather than the admiring gaze of concerned naturalists. You want to watch a Great Crested Newt just for the pleasure of it? No chance. But with the aid of a compliant environmental consultant a canny developer can get up to all sorts of tricks, all entirely legal. You want to relocate Great Cresteds so you can build on their home? Hell, yes. Who cares that their new home may already have occupants, or that other unprotected amphibian species just have to take their chances. The Common Frogs and Smooth Newts affected might see this as a Licence to kill.
As a relative newcomer to the legal side to amphibian conservation, what strikes me is the emphasis that is placed on water. Sure, they need to spawn in ponds but adult amphibians, even Great Crested Newts in the main, are essentially terrestrial creatures that return to water just for a brief period each year to breed. Even while in water Great Cresteds need air, hence the need for training in the use of bottle-trapping; this rather distasteful technique, much-loved by GCN surveyors, results in trapped newts drowning if poor deployment denies them access to air. But I guess if the legislation really protected the poor amphibians’ terrestrial habitats that would be far too inconvenient for progress. What with all those house-building targets to meet.
Taking a step back, does Natural England really think this sort of approach – specifically the interpretation of the legislation – acts as an incentive for people to engage with conservation organisations and submit data? GCN licensing may be great for those environmental consultants who thrive on the benefits – a Licence to print money, some might say. But in practice it acts as a deterrent to amateur naturalists, not to mention nervous landowners, and I struggle to see how it operates in the best interests of GCNs, let alone other amphibians, in its current form. In the meantime who knows how many Great Cresteds have been killed as a result of under-recording or the intentional omission of records? Sadly, replace the words ‘Great Crested Newt’ with ‘Hazel Dormouse’ and almost the same story repeats itself in terms of legislative and conservation outcome.
I grew up and cut my natural history teeth in a time before most modern wildlife legislation even existed. A time when kids could jam jar a newt without fear of a spell in borstal. In the ensuing 50 years I have seen the steady degradation and destruction of wildlife-rich habitats around me, so I appreciate the need for legislative protection for vulnerable species. The trouble is I struggle to convince myself that the legislation actually achieves its goal and that its enforcers always prioritise wildlife over expediency.
Natural England-bashing is becoming a popular bloodsport and it’s easy to see why; my gripes about amphibians are trivial compared to some of their other causes célèbres. But if even seasoned naturalists and ardent conservationists are giving up on them, you have to wonder what the future holds for nature conservation. It’s not their fault, some might say. They’re woefully underfunded and only doing their jobs – you should blame the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, whoever that happens to be at the time. But who better than the NE hierarchy to influence Government policy and direct interpretation of existing laws for the full benefit of wildlife? Sadly the sceptic in me thinks that even resistance from within would be futile. I remember the 1980s when Nicholas Ridley MP was the incumbent Secretary of State; you may recall that when the Nature Conservancy Council (for younger readers, that’s a previous incarnation of Natural England) stood up for nature it didn’t end well. But given the era in which we live, maybe things are not so bad: somebody in Government is sure to come up with the bright idea of privatising or involving PFI in Natural England, at least in divisions like its licensing department. Perhaps Seaborne or G4S might be interested in tendering? Or better still, they could get rid of species protection altogether – it must be such a drain on resources.
It’s certainly true that Natural England’s budget has been slashed and its allowance is a reflection of the importance politicians of any hue place on wildlife and the environment. How NE operates internally is another matter. But gripes with the way they interpret and implement wildlife policy aside, you have to recognise that they answer to their political lords and masters. So, strange though it may seem to anyone who knows me, I find myself saying I don’t just blame the likes of Natural England, I blame everyone including myself. Politicians can be responsive creatures but only if they are aware of the strength of public feeling. So don’t just sit there reading this. Get angry, get vocal and above all do something. Do anything, to help wildlife.
At least some toads made it to their breeding pond. The Toad Team wishes this particular happy couple a long and car-free life. Photo: Paul Sterry
In the meantime the Cufaude Lane Gang will re-double its efforts, extend its remit and patrol the stretch of road adjacent to Upper Cufaude Farm, land that Hampshire County Council wants to sell for housing. We don’t expect any support from Natural England: it’s not their job after all. But for our part we want to be thorough and conscientious, and make sure we haven’t missed anything. Like more Great Crested Newts, for example. And of course the team will continue to rage against the machine on the toads’ behalf.
Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus, caught in a net, Cyprus. Photo: RSPB images
Illegal songbird trapping in Cyprus at ten year low on UK military base
Latest report suggests a continued decline in the number of birds being illegally killed on British military base in Cyprus.
The continued reduction is due in large part to work by the RSPB, BirdLife Cyprus and the Sovereign Base Area Administration using covert surveillance methods to catch trappers in the act, leading to stronger court sentences.
Killed songbirds are sold via the black market to restaurants in the Republic of Cyprus for diners to eat, with criminal gangs earning hundreds of thousands of Euros from this illegal activity.
An estimated 121,000 songbirds, such as blackcaps and robins, are estimated to have been illegally killed on a British military base in Cyprus last autumn, according to a new report by BirdLife Cyprus and the RSPB. However, this number was down from 260,000 in 2017 and 880,000 in 2016.
The success in the reduction of illegal trapping on the base is believed to be primarily due to the impact of covert surveillance work undertaken by the RSPB and BirdLife Cyprus with the Sovereign Base Area (SBA) Administration. Since the work started in 2016, some 21 trappers have been caught on camera and prosecuted, with courts imposing three years suspended jail sentences and fines as high as 6000 Euros. More individuals caught in 2018 are due to appear in court later this year. The Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) have also continued to provide crucial support in identifying trapping sites as highlighted by TV Presenter and campaigner, Chris Packham, during the last three autumns.
Along with increased enforcement and heavier sentences, the SBA authorities are also using a range of civil and criminal sanctions against the trappers meaning they now face a double deterrent.
Songbirds are illegally trapped and killed to provide restaurants with the main ingredient for the local and expensive delicacy of ambelopoulia – a plate of cooked songbirds. Organised criminal gangs are driving this illegal activity on a huge scale and it is estimated they earn hundreds of thousands of Euros every year from the songbirds they kill on British territory.
Birds are trapped using nets placed between acacia bushes and within orchards, and speakers playing bird calls are used to attract birds down as they migrate.
The UK Government now needs to ensure invasive tree removal operation continues if this success is to be sustained, whilst Republic of Cyprus must crackdown on black-market restaurants which still serve songbirds.
Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director, said: ‘This continued success is thanks to a great collective effort by many determined people. We are particularly delighted to see such positive results from our on-the-ground work with Sovereign Base Area staff.
However, we must not be complacent. We now need to finish removing the remaining non-native acacia bushes to make sure that there are no longer places where trappers can hide their nets. This is the long-term solution needed for these migrant birds.
The Sovereign Base Area authorities should be congratulated for making use of a wide range of criminal and civil sanctions, such as exclusion orders and vehicle impoundments, to ratchet up the pressure on the bird trapping community, and undertaking the removal of the irrigation infrastructure.‘.
Martin Hellicar, Director of BirdLife Cyprus, said: ‘The last few years have brought a significant reduction in bird trapping levels in the British bases. This is thanks to far more effective enforcement by the SBA Police, plus the building of a real partnership with conservation NGOs that amounts to a real showcase of how such working together can bring tangible results on the ground.
The sour note is this year’s increase in trapping levels within the Republic. We are pushing for the adoption of a much stronger collaborative approach with NGOs, to avoid a reversal of the progress achieved in previous years.‘.
Small-scale trapping of songbirds for human consumption in Cyprus was practiced for many centuries, but it has been illegal on the island for over 40 years, after being outlawed in 1974. Enforcement against restaurants serving ambelopoulia has been very limited in the last few years, yet as the key reason for this illegal activity it is crucial that urgent action is taken by the Cyprus Government as well as by the Ministry of Defence.
Ambelopoulia (means birds of the vineyards) small migratory birds prepared for eating (mainly Blackcaps but also Lesser Whitethroat and Great Reed Warbler), Cyprus, September. Photo: David Tipling/RSPB images
Paul writes: This is a butterfly I wouldn’t mind seeing in the UK, it just scrapes onto the British list as a very rare vagrant. It’s a mountain species that occurs in most of the larger mountain regions in Europe. Isolated populations in several of these areas have led to a lot of different races and variations so sometimes the red marking can be orange. I saw this one near the village of Gimmelwald in the Swiss Alps at an altitude of around 1300m in July last year. Conditions must have been perfect as I had a lot of sightings throughout the day. They are strong fliers but also land regularly on flowers, for a feed of nectar.
British records go back to 1803 when one was reported from Scotland. Records continued throughout the years but most were discounted as being specimens from introduced populations or just hearsay. The most convincing records all occur in years of large scale immigration of other butterfly species, on strong easterly winds. The last record occurred in 1986 at Loose in Kent.
A series of quotes relevant to the environment and/or campaigning.
This week’s quote is from Henry David Thoreau (died 1862).
Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/henry_david_thorea
I was drawn to this quote after Erica McCalister’s guest blog on flies.
More on Thoreau here.
Have you ever read the General Licences?
Help yourself, here they are: GL04, GL05 and GL06. So the reasons why you might be able to kill birds under these licences are quite sensible. They include serious damage to crops and livestock. They include the prevention of disease. And they include the conservation of fauna and flora. And you have to be ‘satisfied that legal (including non-lethal) methods of resolving the problem are ineffective or impracticable’.
There are plenty of questions about the habitual and casual killing of some of these species. How about ‘How does gamekeeping fit in here?’ for starters? Here’s another one ‘What is serious damage?’, it presumably isn’t the same as ‘damage’. And how about ‘Can you shoot a Woodpigeon to eat it if it isn’t wrecking your crops, health or affecting public safety?’ ?
I have met many gamekeepers who have been killing Carrion Crows routinely and with huge enthusiasm and not one of them has ever mentioned the terms of the General Licences – I think they believe that these are pest lists and anything goes. But that clearly isn’t supposed to be the case.
Jay – 10,000 are killed in UK each year. Photo: Guy Shorrock.
So, how exactly does killing 10,000 Jays every year fit into the conditions set out in the General Licence? Loss of acorns?
Woodpigeon – 3.6 million are estimated to be killed under the General Licence. Photo: Tim Melling
It has been suggested to me that this species could be classified as a game bird. I guess it could – it would be the only one as far as I am aware not to have an open or close season. When should the open season for Woodpigeons start? And if all 3.6 million are being killed to prevent serious damage to crops, for example oil seed rape, then who is assessing that damage and surely that would limit the months of the year and counties of the UK where such killing could possibly take place?
I have few problems with Woodpigeons being shot for food but I don’t quite understand how that fits into the General Licences at the moment. And I’d rather have my pigeon breasts lead-free please – perhaps that could be a condition of any licence?
Ring-necked Parakeet in London. Photo: Tim Melling
So this is a non-native species (a bit like the Common Pheasant I guess). Who shoots or traps it at the moment? In what numbers? Under what conditions set out in the General Licences? Does anybody know? I’d be very surprised in Natural England, the government’s advisory agency on wildlife, have the faintest idea…
Carrion Crow – look at the sleekness and colour of that bird! Photo: Tim Melling.
100,000 Carrion Crows are apparently killed in the UK each year. I guess most of them are killed by gamekeepers (and farmers). How exactly does gamekeeping fit under the conditions set out in the General Licences?
The General Licences seem to have been used as a dumping ground for species that someone wants to kill for some reason in the hope that no-one will ever question their placement there.
Even if the General Licences are legal, and Wild Justice’s challenge to them is based on legal advice that they are not legal, then they are a complete mess.
It has been suggested to me that Natural England could regularise (sorry – ghastly word) the killing of these species so that it was legal and perhaps even more of them could be killed. I guess that is possible but how low are Natural England and Defra prepared to sink?
Wild Justice has gifted NE and Defra an opportunity to make things better. We notice that the piece in yesterday’s Guardian about our legal case includes quotes from NE saying they are going to review the licensing of bird killing in England. Woohoo! That is good news and no doubt had nothing to do with our legal challenge even though I cannot find a single person inside or outside NE who knew anything about this until our legal challenge was launched. So when I am told that NE could make things worse in response to the challenge from Wild Justice I have to wonder … quite simply … why would they do that? This is the body responsible for nature conservation in England, and they might choose to make things worse for nature when they have the opportunity to make things better?
How low might NE sink? Would the great Derek Ratcliffe have reacted in that way a mere three decades ago? We can be sure he would not? And I think we can be sure that Marian Spain and Tony Juniper will not either. Can’t we?
And if you would like to contribute to the Wild Justice ‘casual killing’ crowdfunder with over 600 other individuals then please follow this link.