No Nightingales

By Noel Reynolds (Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s that time of year when I make the pilgrimage to Glapthorn Cow Pasture to listen to Nightingales.

I write about this almost every year (2010, 2012, 2103, 2014, 2016) because that visit to a local wood has become a tradition. I’ve been there with my mum and my late father (over 20 years ago), and I’ve been there with my kids when it meant them staying up late (a treat!) to be able to come and listen and I’ve been there with my kids now they are in their 20s.  I was kind of imagining, though I don’t spend that much time thinking about it, that I might, some day, go there with a grandchild. But I almost always make the trip.

So imagine my feelings when this greeted me on a recent visit:


I’m not sure you can imagine actually.  I was very upset.  I am still upset. The world is not spinning in the proper way – spring has not brought the Nightingales back to Glapthorn.

We stood in the wood for quite a while hoping in vain for a Nightingale to burst into reassuring song but it didn’t happen. This Wildlife Trust reserve still looks great for Nightingales (though I am not actually a Nightingale and their view matters more than mine) but it’s not as though the place has been trashed.  It looks as though it has perfect habitat still, and that the Wildlife Trust has done the right mixture of management and benign neglect that should work.

But they aren’t there.

And Birdtrack suggests that nationally Nightingales are late and low this year.

And I haven’t yet seen a House Martin in my street. And Swift numbers are definitely down at the moment.  These things are as important to me as Brexit, interest rates and the cost of living.  In some ways, more important, because they are fundamental aspects of how the world is working, or not working, rather than artificial human constructs.

I shall be writing to my MP about Nightingales.


Open letter to Andrew Sells

Dear Andrew

I hope you are well but I fear that the organisation of which you are the Chair, is gravely sick.

Natural England seems to have caught a disease whose symptoms are an inability to work for nature conservation in the uplands but instead to align itself with one small sectional interest, grouse shooting, that is fundamentally inimical to nature conservation and environmental sustainability.  Have you got a virus? Was it from a tick bite? Here are some details of the symptoms you are exhibiting:


Moorland Management Plans: you are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the public and the European Commission by signing a series of voluntary agreements with upland landowners which are worthless.  They purport to revoke consents for damaging burning of protected blanket bog but they are a sham. Restoration burning? Heather beetle? Your agreements will allow burning to continue unmitigated.  Each time I see these symptoms exhibited I am going to try to call you out – it’s tough love, but in your best interests.  I wouldn’t be a true friend if I didn’t help you in this way.  You need help, you really do.

Last week NE had to admit to having produced an unlawful agreement with the owner of Walshaw Moor Estate. Oh, it’s a grouse moor. When you were younger, and under a different name, you prosecuted landowners for building tracks across blanket bogs, more recently you refused them permission, but now, in your muddled and confused state, you are paving the way for tracks across protected habitats.  You’re really very poorly.

Expect more legal challenges in this area if you do not pull yourself together.  You’re not in a fit state to drive nature conservation practice – you’ll crash it too often and be a danger to others.

Brood meddling of Hen Harriers: you can’t afford to lose another legal challenge really can you? And you face two, one from me and another from the RSPB, on this subject. We’ll see.

Hen Harrier data: before you became ill, back in 2008, you produced a report on your Hen Harrier study which showed signs of clear thinking. Do you remember when you said ‘Persecution continues to limit Hen Harrier recovery in England.’? Since then you have carried on your studies but not analysed them or published them except when forced to do so. I gather a vastly overdue analysis of your (our – we taxpayers paid for it) data is in train. Please tell me when that analysis will be available to the public. But also why has it taken so long? This study started in 2002 – it’s a disgraceful situation and makes many wonder whether the data have been kept secret because they implicate grouse shooting even more deeply in losses of Hen Harriers (as your 2008 report clearly indicated).

Southern reintroduction of Hen Harriers: I gather this is off the table for another year. I also gather that this is because those who might provide Hen Harrier chicks from outside England have noticed your strange and irrational behaviour and don’t think that you are a fit and able body to be given Hen Harrier chicks until you are feeling better. Is that right?

Bowland gull cull: I have been sending your nether regions FOI/EIR requests for information on this since last July (see below). As you probably know, people have been bumping off gulls in a protected area which was notified partly for their benefit. Oh, it’s a grouse moor. You are consistently refusing to come clean on this matter claiming that an investigation is under way. Whose investigation? It’s not a police investigation, it’s an NE investigation, isn’t it? Does it really take 10 months to investigate known individuals killing juvenile gulls in an SPA? You aren’t running a very efficient ship are you? Are you investigating yourselves or others? I find it difficult to believe that you are so inefficient as an organisation that you have not resolved this issue by now – it almost feels as though you are pretending to be investigating something so that you don’t have to admit that you, NE, were at fault here. Please tell me what is going on (and please regard this as a further FOI/EIR about the conduct of the ‘investigation’).

Secrecy and a consistent lack of openness:  almost all of your work in the uplands is carried out in secrecy with a small group of grouse shooting interests.  The public and wildlife NGOs are treated as though they are inconveniences.  It’s hardly the way to win public support for your and Defra’s work is it? But then, if you came clean there wouldn’t be support for it, would there?



My diagnosis:

You are very sick indeed.  You have been captured by the grouse shooting industry and have lost the respect of your natural allies. And you are internally conflicted – some parts of the NE body are less infected but your extremities are uncoordinated and out of control of the main internal organs.  There is little connection between the organisation’s brain and its digits which is giving rise to uncontrolled and unpredictable spasms of anti-social and anti-conservation behaviour.  There is no sign of cordination and the body’s conscience has become wholly disconnected from its actions.

You have already trashed the reputation built up by your predecessors in statutory nature conservation.  It’s clear that NE isn’t fit for work.  You shouldn’t be out and about because you are a danger to yourselves and to the environment which you were set up to conserve.



The trouble with these chronic diseases is that the patient continues to decline gradually and gets worse and worse without realising themselves that they are behaving very strangely and they aren’t their old selves.  It’s a slippery slope, and those are dangerous things when in the uplands.  And you have fallen a long way already.  Your friends  and acquaintances are shaking their heads over how deeply you have declined.


Is there a cure?:

At the very least, a series of transplants involving new Chair, new Board, new Chief Executive and a new senior management team is necessary.  The illness seems to be systemic now and although we can discern some healthy organs they are seriously weakened and embedded in a heavily challenged body.

Even your friends are beginning to believe that euthanasia may be the kindest thing for you as well as a necessary step to protect the upland environment from NE’s ever more unpredictable and destructive behaviour.

Get well soon!


Mark (I am a doctor)

Please treat the questions highlighted in red as FOI/EIR requests. Or just send me a guest blog which addresses the issues raised here and I will (almost certainly) be happy to publish it.




Book review – Swifts in a Tower by David Lack


This is a reprint of the classic 1956 book by David Lack but, as in the updated version of his Life of the Robin, this is updated whilst maintaining the original text.

David Lack’s study of Swifts took place in the tower of the Oxford University Museum and has continued to this day.  Lack’s son Andrew, a professional scientist himself, has written a very good chapter at the end of his father’s original text to bring the story of what we know about Swifts up to date.  The mixture of a classic study and its modern developments works very well in my view.  New photographs are used and are superb, both a couple of flight shots by Steve Blain and a much larger number of images of the birds, including nestlings of all ages, from the nest boxes in which the Swifts nest and which made studying them practical.  These intimate portraits by Manuel Hinge are a very valuable edition. And the cover and end papers by a former colleague of mine, Colin Wilkinson, are attractive too. And the book has a foreword by Prof Christopher Perrins FRS, who studied Swifts for his D. Phil supervised by Lack, and then went on to be Lack’s successor as Director of the Edward Grey Institute for Field Ornithology.  All in all, this is a delightful and attractive and appropriate update of what was always, and ever will be, a classic study and also a classic example of making science intelligible to the person in the street.

So this is a lovely book about the mysterious bird which you are likely to see if you look to the skies above you now. I have just looked out of the window and I saw a Swift within 10 seconds, although they are declining in numbers and this doesn’t feel like a good year for them to me.

This book was made possible by funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund as part of the Oxford Swift City project – a 2-year project led by the RSPB which started in May 2017, and which aims to raise local and national awareness of the Swift’s plight.  What a good idea – and what a lovely book, that will certainly contribute to that aim.


Swifts in a Tower by David Lack is published by Unicorn Press.

And what could be more appropriate than buying your copy from Blackwell’s, an Oxford (the Oxford!) bookshop which is literally down the road and round the corner from this very tower…?


Book review – Eagle Country by Sean Lysaght

Reviewed by Ian Carter

Seán Lysaght is a poet and writer and he brings his poet’s eye for observation to this exploration of his home country of Mayo and the wider west coast of Ireland.

Spurred on by an interest in eagles and the tragic history of the two species in Ireland he trawls the literature and place names on maps to find remote sites where they clung to survival at the start of the 20th century. He then visits these sites during a long summer season, sometimes driving with his wife but often trekking alone into remote back-country, to get a feel for the places where eagles once lived. A series of double-page black and white photographs of some of the landscapes he visits offer an entry point to the chapters, each of which covers one month of the summer.

The book has a gentle pace to it and the writing is warm and engaging. You feel as if you are strolling alongside him as he describes his route, the weather, his impressions of the landscape and his encounters with wildlife, including the occasional eagle from one of the reintroduced populations. The book is mainly about wildlife and wild places, but he also touches on Irish history, literature, politics and environmental issues as they become relevant to the landscapes he walks through, or the people he meets along the way. The twin blight of overgrazing and intensive forestry is an inescapable, recurring theme.

I share his love of remote places and particularly enjoyed his take on the way some of Ireland’s most stunning coastal sites have been wrecked by catering for the mass visitor experience – ‘marketed and branded out of existence’ as he so eloquently puts it. With apologies to the RSPB I couldn’t help but think of places like Minsmere and Titchwell – sites that support wildlife in abundance and to which people either gravitate towards or avoid like the plague, depending on disposition. There is a need for such places but it would be tragic if, in future, they were the only option for those seeking out wildlife and wild places.

Many of Lysaght’s explorations end up homing in on potential eagle nest sites – mountain ledges sufficiently sheltered, remote and inaccessible to have supported generations of eagles down the centuries, secure from the elements and (at least for a time) from human intrusion. He is always aware that these sites could potentially be reoccupied, quoting the old eagle watcher’s adage ‘once an eagle rock, always an eagle rock’.

In the coming years, he may be able to match his observations against the choices the birds make for themselves if they are able to reclaim lost territories. In the final, and for me most interesting, chapter he deals with this question when visiting the Donegal Golden Eagle reintroduction project; talking at length with Lorcan O’Toole from the Golden Eagle Trust as they visit a nest site. The short answer is ‘very possibly’ for the Sea Eagle but ‘perhaps not for a while yet’ when it comes to the Golden Eagle. The long answer is well worth reading, as is the rest of this engaging book.

Eagle Country, by Seán Lysaght is published by Little Toller Books.


Book review – Mrs Pankhurt’s Purple Feather by Tessa Boase


This is a very interesting book which I recommend highly as a challenging read.

The author takes us back over a century to Victorian and Edwardian London where in nasty little workshops the women working in the millinery trade produced the hats to adorn the heads of rich women – many of these hats contained the plumes and feathers of birds and some even were constructed from complete feathered remains. Birds from all around the world were shot and trapped specifically so that their keratin could make women look good.  This was a massive industry with its trade tentacles reaching to all corners of the world.

These fashions, and this trade, were the impetus for the establishment of what has become the RSPB, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.  And the moving lights behind this campaigning movement were women – mostly women.  In North America, at the same time and for the same reasons, the Audubon Society was coming into being.  I knew some of this tale but I found the detail fascinating.

In these pages we meet some formidable and successful women. As well as the Duchess of Portland, the SPB’s and then RSPB’s first and longest-serving President, we meet Eliza Phillips (a founder of Croydon’s Fur, Fin and Feather Folk), Emily Williamson (a founder of the SPB in Didsbury, Manchester) but also most notably Etta Lemon a driving force behind the RSPB for decades but also a leading member of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League.

For also in here, we find the stories of other women campaigners, whose campaigns overlapped in time with those of the early conservationists; the suffragettes and suffragists.  There are some brilliant insights into what it must have been like to live in these times, if you were poor or rich, and if you were male or female.

The author seems more interested in the sexual politics and fights for justice than the nature conservation story.  I would have liked a bit more on that. But I was absolutely fascinated to learn that the question was raised at the SPB’s 1896 AGM about the apparent disconnect between opposing the killing of birds for the plumage trade and the lack of action against shooting of gamebirds.  The SPB constitution was ‘clarified’ after that to reflect that the attitude of the SPB was strictly neutral on the question of killing of game birds, and so it remains today (at least so far as the ethics of that subject is concerned) which is why the RSPB, over a century later, would find it difficult (although not impossible) to support a ban of driven grouse (or any other form of gamebird) shooting. I knew this in outline, but I didn’t know the timing nor the characters involved in this clarification.  Fascinating.  And there were many more insights in these pages.

I learned a lot about Mrs Lemon from this book.  I did know her name and had a vague knowledge that she had been a driving force in the development of the RSPB but the truth is that she was arguably the most influential of all those who helped the RSPB into existence. She remained important in the Society until her ousting in 1939 and she died in 1953.  She deserves to be better known, and to be remembered with admiration, and this book is a fitting memorial to Mrs Lemon.

I wonder what those early women movers and shakers would think of the RSPB now?  They were essentially animal welfare campaigners rather than nature conservationists – at least that’s how it seems. Although, as the book shows, the focus was on some birds and some welfare issues rather than all.  The RSPB moved away from Mrs Lemon’s original focus and became more scientific, more of a conservation organisation and with a much wider scope and power. A meeting between the current leadership of the RSPB and the original leaders of the SPB would be fascinating for both groups and I’d love to hear how the conversation would go.

And I am left wondering what the evolutionary pathway was, over more than a century, from the founding to the present. I’m really curious to know what the route was, who were the major players, what and when were the critical decisions.  That book is not this book, but I’d like to read that one too.

This was a fascinating and fast-moving read. I enjoyed it very much and learned a lot.  But I said that it was a challenging read. I probably meant that it was a challenging read for men, or at least this man. It felt as though all the men in this story were either a bit feckless or a bit nasty, and I’d be surprised if that were wholly true. It would be difficult for a man to write a book that showed women in that light without attracting some criticism but I’m pretty sure that reading this book did me a lot of good.


Mrs Pankhurt’s Purple Feather: fashion, fury and feminism – women’s fight for change by Tessa Boase is publised by Aurum Press.


PS How about these two connections between the past, more recent times and the absolute present? The Duchess of Portland, the RSPB’s President from 1891-1954 (!!) was born in Murthly Castle in Perthshire not very far from the birthplace of the RSPB’s first female Chief Executive, Barbara Young, who grew up (much later!) in the grounds of the nearby Scone Palace where her parents worked (see my interview with Barbara in Behind More Binoculars for details of her childhood).

Murthly Castle is on the Murthly and Strathbraan Estates where SNH has wrongly licensed a cull of Ravens!  If the RSPB’s first President, a vegetarian and a hater of game shooting (not a view shared by her husband), could have a word in the ear of the RSPB leaders of today, perhaps particularly in that of the RSPB’s Director in Scotland, Anne McCall, she might be saying ‘Fight this injustice! Fight it in the media, fight it in the corridors of power and fight it in the courts! That’s what we would have done!’.  We’ll see.


Remarkable Birds by Mark Avery is published by Thames and Hudson – for reviews see here.

Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.