Last Friday

Friday was a good day. After a couple of days in Edinburgh seeing people including my son, I got the train down to London in sunshine. There were skeins of Pinkfeet flying over as we passed Dunbar, and the autumn colours in this part of Scotland are ahead of the trees back home.

In London, that evening, I gave a talk about why we should ban driven grouse shooting to a crowded lecture theatre in Birkbeck College. I’m surprised that people have nothing better to do in London on a Friday evening than listen to me on what is a fairly serious subject so I was really pleased to get this email afterwards, ‘I had the pleasure of being in the audience this evening to witness your absolute master class in how to convey a clear and persuasive message with humanity, humour and clarity.‘.

I headed off afterwards and it was such a mild evening that I sat outside an Italian restaurant in Covent Garden and had a glass of wine and a pizza.  It was very mild, too mild for Pinkfooted Geese one might have thought, and it’s not often one can eat outside in the evening in London in mid-October.

A woman popped out of the restaurant to have a fag – she asked if I minded and I said ‘no, provided you blow the smoke away from me’ and we got chatting – she was quite chatty and I can be too.  She was waiting for a comedy evening to start in the basement and she asked me what I was doing in London so we got onto the subject of grouse shooting. She said that she had signed my e-petition last time around so I pointed her in the direction of the new petition. I wonder whether she has signed, or will remember to sign.

When she finished her cigarette I watched the four young men who had been drinking beer at another table and realised they were the comedians. Crikey – they looked serious! And nervous.  I know the feeling – although I am pretty accustomed to speaking in public I get a bit nervous and introspective before I give a talk.  I had that evening.

Then a scruffy-looking bloke came and chatted to the waiter – I was still waiting for my pizza. The guy, who I will call Jason, tried to sell me a Big Issue but I gave him my small change (less than the price of the magazine) and on the spur of the moment offered him a pizza. Jason, said he wasn’t hungry, and told me he didn’t drink or do drugs, but he said he’d love a cup of coffee so he joined me at my table and we chatted. Jason said he was in his mid-forties and to my mind he didn’t look good for those years.

I heard the story of his life and he told me he’d like to write an autobiography – which did sound quite interesting – but I can’t really see that happening.

I enjoyed my pizza, ordered another glass of wine and then cheesecake for both of us. When we parted a while later I wished him luck and gave Jason a fiver.  And, of course, I walked off wondering how my £5 would be spent – would it be on a place to sleep, on food or on something that would keep Jason on the streets? The waiters at the restaurant clearly knew Jason but I didn’t ask them for a reference!

I’ve had a good life, I’m having a good life, and I intend to continue to have a good life. Maybe if things had been different Jason might have been sitting outside relaxing and I might have been the guy selling Big Issues. Who knows? And if I was conned out of a few quid when I was hoping to be friendly and human to someone worse off than myself then…well, it won’t have done me any great harm.

I’ll remember Jason when I walk that part of London again. I wonder whether we’ll meet again. Will I remember his name? I doubt he’ll remember me as I think he has more important things on his mind.

 

 

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Dr Coffey’s reading list (1)

Therese Coffey

Dr Therese Coffey is the junior minister at Defra. When Gavin Gamble’s e-petition in favour of banning driven grouse shooting passes 10,000 signatures then Dr Coffey will need to sign off a government response.

In order that she does not make Defra look even more foolish than they do already I am providing a reading list for the minister to inform her response.

This, the first item, is from the written evidence that was asked for, and totally ignored, in the debate on the same subject which was held about a year ago.

This is the summary of a very powerful piece of written evidence which was submitted anonymously:

  • The shooting industry and its representatives should be removed from all positions of power where wildlife crime law enforcement policy are discussed or decided upon.
  • Driven grouse moors should be rewilded.  This at a stroke, would remove the many very serious problems of driven grouse moors and provide real, significant, tangible benefits for the whole of society.
  • Driven grouse moor management normally involves very high levels of wildlife crime as well as a range of very serious conservation issues.
  • The illegal persecution of birds of prey in the UK has a very serious detrimental effect, especially on hen harrier and golden eagle populations.
  • Raptor persecution should be treated as organised crime.
  • Detection of wildlife crime on grouse shooting estates is currently ineffective.  Enforcement need to be far greater, with clear and strong backing from political leadership.  A dedicated Wildlife Crime Enforcement team should be set up comprising perhaps 10 officers for Scotland.  Employers and managers must be targeted for prosecution, not simply those actually undertaking the illegal killings
  • Penalties for raptor killings should reflect the fact that these crimes are of a commercial nature.  Custodial sentences should be made routine for employers, managers and employees.  Financial penalties should be linked to the value of the business.
  • The industry has consistently shown no will to reform itself, despite much help to that end for many years.
  • There is practically no accountably to ensure that those managing driven grouse shooting estates adhere to lawful and decent environmental practise.
  • It is clear that driven grouse shooting should be banned.  However, in the absence of such a ban, it is essential that vicarious liability and shoot registration are urgently required.
  • Society is failing to get any benefit from the huge subsidies given to driven grouse shooting estates, indeed these monies are funding very serious environmental degradation.

And here are some quotes from it too:

  • It is essential to understand that raptor persecution is committed on remote land that is normally free from potential witnesses and by individuals with an intimate knowledge of the land, often operating at night with high tech, essentially military, equipment.  The risk to them of detection is extremely low.  Around 100 confirmed incidents of raptor persecution are recorded each year.  It is not known what percentage of actual incidents this number accounts for, but I believe it will certainly be far, far less than 1%.  The RSPB has received multiple reports of in excess of 100 raptors being killed on individual shooting estates in one year.  Apart from the extremely low detection rate, of the confirmed incidents, the subsequent successful prosecution rate is less than 5%.  As such, the chances of an individual gamekeeper killing a raptor and actually being prosecuted for it are extremely low.  For every successful gamekeeper prosecution, I estimate that there will have been, very roughly, far, far more than 2000 other offences.  Having been convicted, it is likely that the employer will pay any fine, meaning that there is effectively no consequence for a gamekeeper illegally killing raptors or other legally protected wildlife.  [Only one gamekeeper ever, has received a custodial sentence for raptor killing in Scotland.  This is probably the one and only time ever, that a significant deterrent was handed down, and the only occasion where managers or owners were unable to protect their employees from the law.]  When gamekeepers are prosecuted in court, they are normally unusually well represented in court, often by QC’s, even for minor offences, by specialist defence firms.  Having been convicted of wildlife crimes, gamekeepers invariably retain their employment.  This arrangement allows managers and employers to remain very distant from the criminal actions of their staff.  If a gamekeeper was ever to give evidence against his employer or manager, he would have practically no chance of working as a gamekeeper ever again.  Gamekeepers coming forward publicly with information about raptor persecution would effectively make themselves unemployable.
  • Whilst it is invariably gamekeepers committing the offences on grouse shooting estates, they are not the primary problem.  It is the shooting industry, the managers and employers of gamekeepers, who are the real problem and who create the environment for gamekeepers to operate in and who direct the widespread criminal practices taking place.  The desire to produce incredibly high, unnatural numbers of grouse for driven grouse shooting is the motivation for widespread illegal predator killing.  For many years, there has been numerous partnership working projects between conservationists and the shooting industry to find ways to enable this hobby to continue legally, but despite much help, there has never been any serious engagement from the shooting industry and the illegal killings continue.  If the driven grouse shooting industry was serious about tackling problems like raptor persecution it could easily do so very quickly.  It is essential to fully comprehend that this will never happen without serious and meaningful governmental action.
  • I have absolutely no doubt that any voluntary approach or code of conduct will never be effective.  It is clear a robust and enforceable legal framework, backed up with the resources for rigorous enforcement, is needed to ensure the environment is properly protected.
  • It appears that sometimes employers/managers may be aware that their gamekeepers are illegally killing raptors, but ignore it.  On others estates, it appears that gamekeepers are given explicit instructions to illegally kill raptors and are given specialist equipment to that end.  Some estates spend vast sums of money supplying specialist equipment, firearms, night-sights, thermal imaging sights, illegal poisons, to enable their gamekeepers to commit crimes and avoid detection.

 

Please sign this e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting and to put Dr Coffey on the spot.

The government response should:

  • be published within 2 weeks of Gavin Gamble’s e-petition reaching 10,000 signatures
  • announce that vicarious liability for wildlife crimes will be introduced in England because of the unacceptably high levels of wildlife crime
  • announce that Defra will ask the RSPB to come forward with proposals for licensing of shooting estates within a month and that Defra will respond to them by Christmas
  • acknowledge the level of concern about driven grouse shooting which led to 123,077 signatures being gained last year for an absolute ban on this hobby (I’m not expecting Dr Coffey to say anything nicer than that about a ban)
  • confirm that Defra is looking at removal of farming subsidies from grouse moors in its post-Brexit agricultural strategy
  • confirm that the evidence for wider environmental damage of heather burning has increased recently and that this is an issue that government will address and that this will require widespread changes to grouse moor management (burning and draining)
  • mention where the government is with dealing with the RSPB complaint to the EU over unsustainable moorland management due to grouse shooting practices
  • acknowledge that the plight of the Hen Harrier has not improved in two breeding seasons since the Defra Hen Harrier plan was launched and that the grouse shooting industry has not cleaned up its act and is on a last warning
  • announce that the details of the 15-year Natural England Hen Harrier study will be published by Christmas 2017 in a government report with further recommendations for Hen Harrier conservation
  • acknowledge that wildlife crime applies to many other protected species other than the Hen Harrier
  • announce that the National Capital Committee has been asked to compile a report on ecosystem services and grouse moor management
  • announce a review of the economic costs and benefits of intensive grouse moor management will be carried out by independent academics and published by Christmas 2018.

The government response should not:

  • say that funding of the NWCU is a sufficient response to combatting bird of prey persecution in the uplands (because nobody who knows has ever suggested such a thing)
  • say or suggest that grouse shooting provides a nett economic benefit to the nation (because there are no such figures)
  • suggest that the current Hen Harrier Action Plan is remotely fit for purpose
  • praise gamekeepers
  • conflate benefits of all shooting (economic or environmental) with benefits of grouse shooting (because it makes the government department and/or its ministers look either stupid or biased)
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Guest blog – At the Gates of the Supreme Court by Chris Murphy

Chris Murphy has lived in Northern Ireland since arriving on the ferry from Liverpool in 1984 as the RSPB’s first, and last, Assistant Regional Officer. Together with his German wife, Doris, he’s known to shout HALT! when special places are threatened like the Belfast Harbour Pools and the Bog Meadows – once zoned for development, now nature reserves. He presently chairs two awareness-raising groups: Lecale Conservation where he lives in County Down and Lough Beg for Life.

His previous guest blog was Saving Loughs Neagh and Beg, 6 December 2016. Here he returns to the subject.

 

UK’s largest freshwater wetland is at the gates of the Supreme Court

The Environmental Audit Committee, one of the House of Commons Select Committees, pondered in January this year over the Birds and Habitats Directives. It warned that Brexit could have potentially far-reaching negative consequences for the UK’s biodiversity.

Step into the picture Environment Minister Michael Gove. In his speech in July titled The Unfrozen Moment – Delivering a Green Brexit he stated that he has ‘no intention of weakening the environmental protections that we have put in place while in the European Union’.

Is the UK’s largest EU designated freshwater wetland, Loughs Neagh & Beg in Northern Ireland, destined to be a practical example of the situation the Select Committee pondered on? Loughs Neagh & Beg, totalling 41,188 hectares in size, was listed in 1976 under the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance and in 1998, under the Birds and Habitats Directives, as a Special Protection Area (SPA). I began legal action in August last year in an attempt to quash a decision to route a section of the upgraded A6 dual carriageway through a part of the Natura 2000 wetland known as the Toome Complex. This is at the heart of Ireland’s single most important Whooper Swan wintering, staging and breeding site and the third most important in the UK. These swan fields are centred on the Creagh Meadows (Creagh is pronounced locally as ‘crake’), which also happen to be part of the Lough Beg landscape made famous by poet laureate Seamus Heaney. The Judicial Review having progressed through Northern Ireland’s High Court and Court of Appeal is now on the threshold of heading to the Supreme Court in London.

Work on the contested section of the road has been suspended since the end of September to the beginning of April to avoid disturbance to hundreds of overwintering Whooper Swans, one of the SPA’s selection features. While my legal challenge is concerned with the integrity of the whole SPA one habitat in particular, lowland wet grassland, which is the preferred habitat of swans, geese and some wading birds such as Golden Plover and Lapwing stands to be affected most. The total amount of wet grassland protected within the SPA equates to just 0.37%. This habitat is used by internationally important numbers of birds for foraging and grazing. The BTO has issued 16 site specific Red (High) Alerts and 12 Amber Alerts for 18 of the 21 SPA selection species that have been evaluated. There is insufficient count data to assess the impact of the scheme on the site’s significant population of Icelandic Greylag Geese.

In June Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland won a separate challenge in the Court of Appeal over unregulated sand extraction from the bed of Lough Neagh, yet this extraction continues unabated and unregulated without a Northern Ireland Executive in place to implement the court’s directions to issue a stop notice.

FoE are alone among leading environmental NGOs in actively working to protect Loughs Neagh & Beg from irreparable damage and have successfully highlighted the legal importance of the Habitats Directive’s ‘Precautionary Principle’.

Against this backdrop of large-scale impacts, including a major Tributyltin oxide pollution incident, peak mid-winter totals of c.100,000 waterbirds in the 1980s and ’90s have declined dramatically; last winter fewer than 39,000 waterbirds were counted. This sharp decline is indicative of unsustainable pressures that conflict with the objectives of the EU Birds and Habitats Directives, the Ramsar Convention’s goal for the wise use of wetlands and the aims of many other international conservation treaties to which the UK is bound.

At the heart of the legal challenge is an announcement made by Northern Ireland’s Minister for the Department for Infrastructure in August 2016 which included the formal adoption of the Statement to Inform an Appropriate Assessment (SIAA) as the Department’s own Appropriate Assessment in compliance with Article 6(3) of the Habitats Directive.

The Department for Infrastructure is also the Competent Authority under the Habitats Directive, making this public body the regulator, promoter, developer, assessor and decision maker – effectively adjudicating in its own court. Murphy maintains that consultation advice from Northern Ireland’s statutory nature conservation body during the route selection process was ignored: “Article 6(3) creates an entirely stand-alone duty and is subject to a high standard of rigour in terms of the inputs and outputs of the process. Adverse impacts were identified under Article 6(3) for this road section that cannot be avoided and therefore not mitigated. The statutory advice to the Department was that the measures proposed to offset Likely Adverse Impacts were compensatory and that the contested route selection could lawfully only proceed subject to the significant hurdle of Article 6(4).

The EU provides the UK with key environmental protections such as the Birds and Habitats Directives, which have been transposed in England and the devolved regions into local law; in the case of Northern Ireland the Conservation (Natural Habitats, etc) Regulations (NI) 1995. Is it enough to copy EU legislation into UK law when there is neither the will nor the means to enforce it?

In court the Competent Authority described this internationally important wetland as a ‘deficiency’. RSPB and WWT are both assisting this Competent Authority by promoting an academic study of the road’s impact on this discreet, site-faithful population and by sitting on its Whooper Swan Working Group rather than resisting the site’s further fragmentation, degradation and disturbance. A sea change is needed in our attitudes towards protecting the integrity of this and other Natura 2000 sites.

 

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A phenomenon – Stuart Housden

Photo: Chris Rollie

Stuart Housden (above, 9th from the left and sixth from the right) retires from the RSPB and I was glad to attend his farewell do in Edinburgh last week.

I thought I was at the RSPB for quite a long time, 25 years, but Stuart was there for 10 years before I breezed in and stayed for the 6 years after I breezed out.  Stuart was, and still is, a phenomenon.

He started at RSPB as an investigator in the team catching wildlife criminals but moved into dealing with a different group of miscreants when becoming the RSPB’s parliamentary officer where he was involved with advocacy in parliament to get the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. Stuart became the head of policy and advocacy next (although it had an odder name than that) and that was when I first encountered him when I was a very junior research biologist.

Stuart deserves much of the credit for moving the RSPB from a bird protection organisation (concentrating on nature reserves and influencing wildlife laws and their implementation) to a wildlife conservation organisation which still does great work in its core areas but also tries, and succeeds, in influencing major policy areas (eg agriculture, forestry, planning etc) which affect all wildlife.

But Stuart is a birder at heart, and not a bad one either – although he has never shown me a lifer whereas I have shown him one. We can explain the smiles in the photo above, and date it to mid/late April 1996 (!), because we had all seen a couple of Harlequin Ducks on the Ayr coast on that trip.

Stuart moved north, to follow Frank Hamilton as the RSPB Director, Scotland in 1994 (and it was good to see Frank last week too), and that has been his role for the last 23 years. He has built up a good team, added to the RSPB’s nature reserve landholding in Scotland (not something he would have supported in his previous Lodge-based job!) and generally raised the RSPB’s prominence in Scottish environmental decision-making.

I said to Stuart last week that I was sorry we hadn’t worked together more often in an external role – most of our interactions were either agreeing or disagreeing (usually agreeing) internally rather than having the opportunity to address the world together. Stuart is the type of colleague that you want by your side in a fight, particularly a long-drawn out fight – and much of advocacy is essentially to do with the combat of ideas – because he has great sticking power, the ability to shrug off setbacks and insults and an ability to undermine the other side’s case through their weakest point.

Stuart was always a valued colleague (even when he was being very irritating) and has been a major force in nature conservation for decades.  He’s also a birder and a good bloke.  The RSPB will miss him but as you look around the organisation there are many who were recruited by him, mentored by him and inspired by him so his influence will persist for many a year although there will be fewer and fewer who will realise that.

Stuart has asked that if you want to mark his achievements and departure then please make a donation to help establish a grove of 500 native trees at a wonderful restoration project in the highly endangered rainforest of coastal Brazil – where only 7% of this biodiverse habitat survives. For the price of a pint of beer, a native tree can be grown from seed, and established on protected land at REGUA.  The 500 trees will be equal, more or less, to the number of months Stuart has worked for RSPB.

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Dr Coffey – do the right thing

Therese Coffey

Dr Therese Coffey is the junior minister in Defra and some time fairly soon will be asked to sign off a government response to Gavin Gamble’s e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting assuming that it passes 10,000 signatures (which it will).

Dr Coffey closed the debate on grouse shooting almost a year ago in a very poor manner. She blatantly ignored the widespread existence of wildlife crime on grouse moors and sent a strong signal to the wildlife criminals that the government, yes the government, was turning a blind eye to criminality and that she as biodiversity minister was turning a blind eye to the killing of protected wildlife. As I say, it was shameful.

This is the type of hubris that governments and politicians exhibit when they believe that they are so secure in their jobs that they can get away with anything, however crass and however much it flies in the face of the evidence.  But things have changed greatly in the last 12 months.

For one thing, the last general election removed any thought that the Labour Party was dead and buried and it showed that a similar act of hubris, talking up fox hunting, hurt the Conservatives in the ballot box.

For another thing, we have a new Secretary of State at Defra who has already moved on ivory sales and penalties for animal cruelty – Michael Gove won’t see grouse shooting as a vote winner for his party and he won’t see why his department should be so aligned with wildlife crime as previous ministers have allowed it to be.  We’ve also seen the Minister of State in Defra, George Eustice, trailing the possibility that post-Brexit grouse moors should not receive agricultural support in our future farming policy. And whereas the lines in the Bluffer’s Guide to Moorland Imbalance were seen to be useful tactically a year ago they are now more generally seen as hopeless, wrong and a liability (see here just for examples).  An air of electoral, economic and environmental realism might just be blowing through the Defra corridors – it’s not quite an Ophelia yet, but keep signing Gavin Gamble’s e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting and the chill breeze will strengthen.

But also, and this comes as no surprise, the killing of birds of prey has continued apparently unabated in the past year.  The results of the 2016 Hen Harrier survey show a decline in numbers in all parts of the UK but more importantly there were, again, no Hen Harriers nesting on English grouse moors and only 7 pairs (3 of which were successful) in the whole of England and yet the Defra response was wholly complacent. To say that the Defra Hen Harrier Inaction Plan has been a massive failure is to give it more credit than it deserves. Did I, and other, tell you so?  Yes, we did. And then yesterday North Yorkshire Police were hunting for a missing satellite-tagged Hen Harrier on grouse moors in the Yorkshire Dales National Park to add to the very long list of ‘the disappeared’.

Rory Stewart signed off the previous two government responses to e-petitions on banning grouse shooting – and they were utterly hopeless (see here and here). They stoked up resentment and public determination to sort out grouse shooting and helped to lower Defra’s reputation as a serious government department even further. Dr Coffey could begin to put that right and she should start her civil servants thinking about that right now.  Does the Conservative Party want their mindless and unquestioning support for a rich person’s hobby which is underpinned by wildlife crime to be an election issue whenever the next general election will come? If not, then do something to defuse the situation now because I predict that Labour will be on this subject soon and the ‘Rich toffs’ hobby floods your home‘ and ‘Public pays wildlife criminals to trash National Parks‘ headlines won’t necessarily go down that well anywhere in the country but will certainly endanger Calder Valley, Pendle, Morecambe and Lunesdale, Rossendale and Darwen and the seat of the former Chief Exec of the Countryside Alliance in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, Simon Hart.  But aside from electoral self interest, surely Dr Coffey wants to do the right thing for the public even if it means losing the braying approval of some of her more antediluvian MPs.

And to help Dr Coffey, this blog will provide her with some reminders of the issues over the next few weeks before the government response emerges – we haven’t got to 10,000 signatures yet after all.  Blogs will be entitled ‘Dr Coffey’s reading list’ and there may be quite a few of them.

Once Defra civil servants and Dr Coffey have reminded themselves of the issues then here is a short list of ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s for her to smarten up Defra’s act -and for which this blog and others will praise her:

The government response should:

  • be published within 2 weeks of Gavin Gamble’s e-petition reaching 10,000 signatures
  • announce that vicarious liability for wildlife crimes will be introduced in England because of the unacceptably high levels of wildlife crime
  • announce that Defra will ask the RSPB to come forward with proposals for licensing of shooting estates within a month and that Defra will respond to them by Christmas
  • acknowledge the level of concern about driven grouse shooting which led to 123,077 signatures being gained last year for an absolute ban on this hobby (I’m not expecting Dr Coffey to say anything nicer than that about a ban)
  • confirm that Defra is looking at removal of farming subsidies from grouse moors in its post-Brexit agricultural strategy
  • confirm that the evidence for wider environmental damage of heather burning has increased recently and that this is an issue that government will address and that this will require widespread changes to grouse moor management (burning and draining)
  • mention where the government is with dealing with the RSPB complaint to the EU over unsustainable moorland management due to grouse shooting practices
  • acknowledge that the plight of the Hen Harrier has not improved in two breeding seasons since the Defra Hen Harrier plan was launched and that the grouse shooting industry has not cleaned up its act and is on a last warning
  • announce that the details of the 15-year Natural England Hen Harrier study will be published by Christmas 2017 in a government report with further recommendations for Hen Harrier conservation
  • acknowledge that wildlife crime applies to many other protected species other than the Hen Harrier
  • announce that the National Capital Committee has been asked to compile a report on ecosystem services and grouse moor management
  • announce a review of the economic costs and benefits of intensive grouse moor management will be carried out by independent academics and published by Christmas 2018.

The government response should not:

  • say that funding of the NWCU is a sufficient response to combatting bird of prey persecution in the uplands (because nobody who knows has ever suggested such a thing)
  • say or suggest that grouse shooting provides a nett economic benefit to the nation (because there are no such figures)
  • suggest that the current Hen Harrier Action Plan is remotely fit for purpose
  • praise gamekeepers
  • conflate benefits of all shooting (economic or environmental) with benefits of grouse shooting (because it makes the government department and/or its ministers look either stupid or biased)

 

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