A reply – but not an answer

You may remember that I met my MP, Louise Mensch, before Christmas, and she agreed to write to The Treasury asking for the reasons why The Chancellor, George Osborne, announced a review of the Habitats Regulations in his Autumn Statement.

Ms Mensch, being an author of some repute (whether good or ill is up to others to decide), could, I thought, be trusted to write a cracking letter to The Treasury – and so she did.  Ms Mensch asked, on my behalf, ‘My constituent would like to know in the first instance what evidence there is that these regulations harm or stifle growth and business.  He would like to know on what basis that statement was made as he cannot find any evidence adduced for it in the notes attached in the Autumn Statement report.‘  and ‘I do agree with my constituent Mr Avery that as a conservationist and a lover of nature he should have available to him the figures that the Chancellor is basing his assertion that these regulations do harm growth and industry.‘.

Thank you Ms Mensch for doing that – although I see that you were one of the MPs who wrote to David Cameron objecting about onshore windfarms (what is your alternative solution to the climate and energy crisis?). However, you and I get a very limp reply didn’t we – it’s pasted below?

The Treasury quickly passed the letter to Defra to answer and the Minister, Richard Benyon,  signed off the reply.

It can’t just be me that can’t find any evidence or figures in this reply to justify the expensive move to review the regulations.  Indeed, Mr Benyon states that ‘the vast majority of development cases successfully meet the directives’ requirements without undue delay‘.  It is apparently a ‘small number‘ of cases that have sparked this review which nonetheless, on Treasury orders it seems, is an ‘in-depth review’.  An in-depth review based on shallow evidence it seems to me.  An in-depth review based on deep prejudice against Europe and the environment felt by too many now-powerful Tory Government (oops! sorry, Coalition Government – what is the point of the LibDems again?) Ministers?

I think what you are saying Minister, on behalf of the ungreens in the Treasury, is that there really isn’t any good reason for this review.

It’s a disappointing reply but I thank Richard Benyon and Louise Mensch for it – as it demonstrates the shallowness of the Government’s evidence on this important matter.  Louise Mensch’s Corby constituency is a marginal seat, and to be honest I am very unlikely to vote for her or any Tory candidate in the next general election, but if this government took a far-sighted approach to environmental issues then I might just reconsider.

Perhaps the still-awaited reply to the second letter that Ms Mensch wrote on my behalf to Defra asking about farmland bird declines might bolster the government’s green credentials.  I’ll let you know when, if, an answer arrives.

You can vote ‘for’ the Coalition Government in the Nature of Harming award poll.


Yesterday – three strands

I enjoyed yesterday.

I launched the Nature of Harming ‘award’ and it generated a lot of interest.  Around 250 votes yesterday was pretty good and there was a clear leader at the end of the day.  Lots of varied comments and debate – very interesting.  If you haven’t voted yet then please do so here.  It was interesting to see the reactions.  Lots of people from the farming community moaning about me being anti-farmer and yet, I ask you, read what I wrote and tell me where it is anti-farmer.  I don’t see the NFU as the same as the average farmer and that’s why the NFU are in the Nature of Farming ‘award’.

I was rather pleased with myself for working out how to add in a new page to this website and do the work to add a voting function.  In such little triumphs must we take some solace.

Then, mid-morning, having made sure that my monthly newsblast had fired out into the world (sign up for next month’s free newsblast if you aren’t already) and that votes were accumulating on the Nature of Harming ‘award’, I went for a walk at nearby Stanwick Lakes.

We’ve recently passed Groundhog Day and I was wondering how similar my walk today would be to last Saturday’s at the same time of day, same weather, same route etc.  Would I see exactly the same birds in the same places? It was quite similar actually – and that’s good because Saturday’s visit was very good.  The same range of tits, finches, reed buntings, dunnnocks, robins and blackbirds were at the bird feeders.  The same (?) water rail, an unusual bird here, flew across the river, from right to left, in exactly the same place.  The same (?) snipe flew from the same ditch and flew the same way and called at the same point in its flight.  A bit further on, the same (?) little egret lifted off and flew in the same direction.  The same (I’m pretty sure about this) female smew was on the same patch of open water.   But my sanity, or what’s left of it, was saved by thee not eing the same bittern, or any other bittern, perched in an alder tree and early on in the walk I added a new bird to my Stanwick Lakes list – a female red-breasted merganser. So it wasn’t all the same – and the frozen snow beneath my feet today hadn’t been there on Saturday – but the species list was 52 species yesterday and 56 on Saturday which is pretty similar.

Yesterday evening I watched the BBC2 programme on wild flowers and insects.  It was made more interesting to me because much of it was set in Northants and featured the Creaton village green and local farmer Duncan Farrington.  I wrote one of my typically anti-farmer blogs about Duncan earlier this year (see here).  I first visited Duncan’s farm as a volunteer doing the RSPB Volunteer/Farmer Alliance survey, ie giving my knowledge, experience and time freely to the farming community (but do keep calling me anti-farmer as much as you like), in a project which my RSPB budget paid for, and cost the RSPB over a quarter of million pounds a year, and has lasted for more than a decade (but, farmers, do call me anti-farmer as much as you like).  Duncan is doing a great job on his farm – it’s proper farming and innovative marketing.  When Duncan and I talk I always learn something useful about farming and, I’m guessing here, I think Duncan often learns something about the birds on his farm from me.  We need more farmers like Duncan.  And, now I think of it, I need some more of his delicious Mellow Yellow mayonnaise – I love it.  The one thing I might fall out with Duncan about is…that he didn’t tell me about this long-eared owl until he had let it go!

Not a bad day, all in all.



Nature of Harming ‘award’

Today I launch the Nature of Harming ‘award’.

Your vote counts – click here to make your choice.


Who got what

Have a look at this interesting report on where the green money went.

Figure A, page 6, is very interesting.

Environmental funding by trusts etc has fallen since 2006/07 (see page 9).

Wildlife gets a big chunk of total environmental funding (page 12).

The RSPB gets a big chunk of cash – from a large number of sources (see page 28).

What leaps out of the page at you from this report?


Guest blog – NT’s Simon Pryor responds to events in the Peak District

A response to Mark Avery’s blog  An everyday tale of country folk.

Thanks Mark (!) for throwing down another gauntlet, for one of us in ‘Dame Fiona’s team” to pick up.  I’m a relative newcomer to the Trust, but let me pick up this one, and tell you how I’ve found things on this highly charged subject.
Firstly, the Trust has been, and will remain, unequivocal and public in its condemnation of any persecution of birds of prey; by anyone and anywhere, but particularly on its land.  Compliance with the law, and with codes of good practice, is built into the heart of our standard shooting tenancies.   And I can assure you this view is universally held and forcefully expressed right across the Trust.

Even more passionately expressed is my colleagues’ desire to see wildlife flourish on every bit of our land.  And just like the rest of us my new colleagues tend to get even more passionate when it comes to iconic species such as raptors.   As one of the Peak team said to me this week: “Birds of prey are an essential part of a healthy ecosystem and we want to see them on our land in the Peak District just as much as on all the other places we own”.

Some posts here imply the Trust has been oblivious to the issue of persecution, or even turning a blind eye.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I know my colleagues in the Peak District have been very concerned (and vocal) about the low numbers and poor breeding success of birds of prey for some time.  Whilst I don’t think we can match Rod’s alarming tales of physical threats to the FC rangers, I can reassure you that tenants and game keepers have been made abundantly aware of our position on compliance with the law, and our goal of seeing healthy populations of birds of prey.

We would all have preferred to achieve this goal without the need for a court case.   But we will be putting the recent legal outcome to positive use, using it to reinforce our messages to all our shooting tenants and via them to their employees – and thereby try to avoid it ever happening again.

It’s been great to hear how we’ve worked in close partnership with RSPB, Severn Trent, Raptor Groups, the Forestry Commission and the National Park over a number of years to try to reverse this downward trend in raptors.  I gather when a pair of hen harriers recently nested in the Goyt valley we moved very quickly with the RSPB to support 24 hour-a-day surveillance.

Looking wider than the Peak, the Trust have put their name and given their support to the national campaigns on this issue, for example as partners with the RSPB for that excellent publication “Birds of Prey in the UK”.   So we haven’t exactly been quiet and retiring on this issue.

I must admit it soon became obvious on joining the Trust that fieldsports in general are still a sensitive issue for the organisation.    Our formal position no doubt took many hours of debate in the crucible of Council and Committees, but I find it a sound and solid basis for decision making.  So for those of you who aren’t sure where we stand, here it is:
The National Trust is very much aware of the importance of countryside traditions. We allow field sports to take place on our property where traditionally practised, providing they are within the law and are compatible with the Trust’s purposes, which include public access and the protection of rare animals and birds and fragile habitats.”.

One thing I really like about the Trust is how frequently we refer back to our “core purposes”.  I can assure you that the searching question “What will best help us to look after special places, for everyone and for ever” is at the heart of decisions made on contentious subjects.  And to answer your question Mark, I know this principle will be applied to the renewal of leases in the Dark Peak.

Our decisions aren’t always popular, and there are quite a few irate column inches emerging elsewhere this week as a consequence of a decision we’ve recently taken that effectively curtails a lowland pheasant shoot.  It was clear to us that in this case the potential for public access was not compatible with the shoot, and things had to change to enable us to achieve our primary aims.

As Mike Price pointed out, we are (as we speak) taking a fundamental look at the future of the Dark Peak, with a live and wide ranging consultation on a Master Plan for our moorland landholding.  I can assure you that conservation of rare species (including birds of prey) will be a key objective.  As part of this exercise we will be working with our current sporting tenants to see whether the Trust’s objectives for conservation and access are compatible with their shooting objectives.  Again, my local colleagues are unequivocal: “A change in the fortunes of birds of prey on Trust land in the Peak District will be an expectation in any shooting tenancy”.

So, picking up your final challenges Mark, I’m glad you are watching and waiting to see what we are going to do in the Peak; and we’d be even more pleased if you and others joined in directly via this consultation.

I’m relatively new to blogging, but that’s two challenges to the NT in less than a month.  Are they like buses, and we can expect a third before too long?  I’ve always valued your unequivocal challenges Mark, but I have to say some of us here are beginning to feel a bit persecuted ourselves!

Simon Pryor, Natural Environment Director, National Trust