Bitterly disappointed, hugely disappointed, shameful, pitiful, appalling, lamentable…

Bitterly disappointed, hugely disappointed, shameful, pitiful, appalling, lamentable…  That’s how the Wildlife Trusts, Marine Conservation Society and RSPB described Defra’s announcement that it was consulting on designating just 31 of 127 marine sites selected by a lengthy, inclusive and costly process involving hundreds of people.  Further progress might be made next year.

Defra described this as ‘pressing ahead’, presumably in the same sense as tripping up is starting a journey.

I’ve signed up as a friend of the MCZ127 with the Wildlife Trusts – I’m hoping they’ll give me lots of information and lots of things to do.

There are many areas where the precautionary principle could be applied but isn’t – designating marine zones is held up until there is proof that the areas need protection, neonics are used until there is proof that they do harm and abstraction licences are granted until it is proven that they do harm.  In all cases the loser is nature.  Nature doesn’t do science or lobby politicians, that’s why it needs help from all of us and why we need to gather together in NGOs, and why those NGOs have to do their very best to make a difference.

Imagine a situation where fishermen had to prove that their fishing would not harm marine wildlife before they could leave port, that pesticide companies had to prove that their products caused no damage to wildlife before they could sell them to farmers and where farmers had to prove that their abstraction of water caused no drying out of adjacent wetlands before they could suck up a drop.  Yes, imagine the boot being on the other foot.

Would we be worse off if that were the case, I wonder?  And Defra could stand up for nature more often – or sometimes.  Defra could ask the difficult questions of those whose activities might well harm the environment rather than ask for proof that nature will be harmed.  But Nature doesn’t vote.

One of the problems with the Westminster system is that government departments act as silos – The Treasury is pretty much single minded about money; the Ministry of Defence is tunnel-visioned about the military.  The only government department that doesn’t act like that is Defra.  Defra acts apologetically or not at all for the environment.  We don’t see Defra making big decisions and telling other government departments that they can stick their objections wherever they like because this has to be done – do we? If so, I missed them.

Defra is hopeless and getting worse.


Who you are, or at least, who you say you are.

The Readers’ Poll was filled in by just over 400 of you – thank you.

You seem to be like me: 82% living in England, 75% male, middle-aged, Guardian reading, wildlife-magazine reading, potential Labour voting, RSPB members.  Well – there’s a surprise!

This blog now gets c8000 unique visitors each month.  I would guess, and it is a guess, that there are about 2000 ‘hard-core’ readers of my blog and that lots of other come and go, so 400 responses should give a good indication of what the readership is like.  And I think it probably does as the results weren’t very different after the first 10 responses let alone the first 100.













Lancashire’s ‘Bowland Betty’ bites the Yorkshire dust

Bowland Betty being fitted with satellite tag. Photo:RSPB

A female hen harrier raised in the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire, last year, and fitted with a satellite tag, was found dead on a grouse moor in the Yorkshire Dales in June this year.  I hadn’t realised the trans-Pennine rivalry was so strong that the War of the Roses included shooting each other’s hen harriers.

But both the Lancashire Telegraph and the Harrogate Advertiser covered the story.

This blog by RSPB Bowland Project Officer, Jude Lane, is an appropriately emotional and angry response.

Bowland Betty being ringed. Her left leg was shattered when she was shot and killed. Photo: RSPB

Using cutting edge (pun intended) technology, scientists were able to show that there were traces of metal, mainly lead, on the fractured leg of the bird.

It doesn’t come as any great shock to hear this news.  The bird was picked up by Natural England’s Stephen Murphy who has been satellite-tagging hen harriers for several years.

We already know that many of those birds disappear long before either they or their satellite tags should cease to work.  Many of the ‘disappeared’ have been lost on grouse moors as was this one.  When asked to comment on this study back in May, Defra Minister Richard Benyon described it thus: This work showed that hen harriers travel over large distances and some individuals range widely over both upland and lowland areas before returning to traditional upland heather moorland sites to breed.

Well actually Minister that isn’t all the study showed as pointed out in my blog a few days later.  Here are some quotes from the NE report A future for the hen harrier in England? :

  • evidence of persecution is irrefutable
  • we have observed masked and/or armed individuals in the vicinity of nest and roost sites and recorded activities likely to disturb birds at or near their nests
  • we have nevertheless found direct evidence that Hen Harriers have been persecuted
  • we have, for instance, been looking into the disappearance of six Hen Harriers at an autumn roost known to us in the northern uplands. The anecdotal evidence of deliberate persecution given to us in confidence by a local land manager correlates with the information provided by the last known location of a number of birds that were being radio-tracked by project staff
  • a number of birds, including six birds fitted with satellite transmitters have been tracked from the Bowland Fells into parts of the North Pennines managed principally as driven grouse moors, and have not been recorded subsequently
  • in three incidents nests had been destroyed by illegal burning
  • we have also come across eight instances where other birds of prey have been shot, poisoned or disappeared on sites where Hen Harriers have been observed

But the point is that they don’t all return to traditional heather moorland areas to breed – particularly if their ranging takes them onto grouse moors where they may be shot by a person or persons apparently unknown.

Bowland Betty is an anecdote – a short-lived anecdote. She was hatched, flew around upland areas of northern England and south Scotland and was shot on a grouse moor before she could reproduce herself.  Just an anecdote really.

But the science is very clear – there should be hundreds of pairs of hen harriers in the north of England and they rarely reach double figures these days let alone treble figures.

Last May the RSPB called for a government recovery plan for hen harriers endorsed by landowners – I haven’t seen one, have you? Now the RSPB is calling for an emergency recovery plan from Defra one of whose actions should be the continued existence of the National Wildlife Crime Unit whose future is not secure.  I would like the NWCU to survive but I have to say that it hasn’t yet made a material difference to the fate of the hen harrier in England.  I can’t really believe that it would even if its budget were doubled – which is beyond anyone’s hope.

No, we have to face the fact that while commercial grouse shooting remains as a widespread land use in northern England then the hen harrier will always remain an endangered species – or worse, become extinct in England.  Let’s see how many hen harriers there are nesting in the north of England in 2013.  Unless things miraculously improve then it will be time to start the campaign, on 12 August 2013, to end grouse shooting.  Put the date in your diary.


Guest Blog – Is the future in safe hands? by Findlay Wilde

Hi, my name is Findlay Wilde, I am ten years old. I live in a small village in Cheshire with my mum, my dad, my brother and dog.

I am fascinated by wildlife, in particular birds.

The reason I got involved in nature is because of the vast wonder it has to offer. I only have to take a step out of my door and I am surrounded by all sorts of species of birds and other wildlife.

I enjoy all sorts of nature; however most of all I enjoy birdlife. I could give a thousand reasons why I enjoy wildlife, but the main reasons for me are watching it, learning about it and seeing how it all works together. For example, seeing how a bird like a Jay is part of the life cycle of trees, simply by carrying and spreading fallen nuts and seeds.

I am always exploring the countryside and gathering more and more information into my head; I don’t know how it all fits inside there some times. I am learning more about wildlife all the time, mostly by watching it closely, reading books and asking people for information and opinions. You can learn so much just by making simple observations. There is a flock of Canada Geese that visit the field near us each autumn. I know it is the same flock because of a white domestic goose that has flown with them for the last two years.

Another good example of my hands on learning is my recent visit to WWT Martin Mere to watch a ringing demonstration with the BTO. I was able to handle a wide variety of birds including a Great Spotted Woodpecker, Blue Tits and even the smallest bird in Europe, a tiny Gold Crest.  I was able to look at the birds closely, learn the names of particular body parts, and even work out if they were young or old, male or female. This is the sort of stuff I want to get involved with more and more. Due to this, I am quite frustrated that I am not considered old enough to do this amazing wildlife stuff just yet.

Even though I enjoy birding so much, there is one thing that worries me deeply and that is the fact many species of wildlife, including birds, have an uncertain future.  Climate change, lost habitat, diseases, pollution and even wars are all threatening our precious wildlife. I did a project for school on the Northern Bald Ibis and learnt that there is only a handful left breeding in Syria.

I know there are some successful conservation programs such as the one that has helped grow the number of Avocets. The Avocet numbers have gone up, but will this continue? And who will make sure this increase stays positive in another 30 years time.

Most of my friends are not interested in birds and other wildlife, they would rather be playing on computer games or think wildlife isn’t interesting or cool. I am not saying that they’re not allowed to play on computer games, since I sometimes like to have a go, but they are missing out on so much that nature has to offer.

I got myself interested in nature, but my parents have helped and supported me with millions of things, which I am extremely grateful for. For example, taking me to wildlife places, buying me equipment, making me a bird hide out of the old shed; all this has helped me to learn more and enjoy the most amazing experiences.

Unfortunately as I get older I can’t save the planet on my own, even though that would be cool. So who exactly is going to help?

I think the problem is that a lot of people my age just don’t understand how interesting and important nature is, because no one is showing them. Parents are always busy, roads are too dangerous for kids to go out alone and no-one seems to have any time.

My knowledge of birds and wildlife has all been self taught, but it would be great to have school lessons on wildlife and conservation. It would be great if we could have a Nature Day in school once a month. This could include trips or walks out to wildlife places and guest speakers from groups like the RSPB, Woodland Trust, Wildlife Trust or other conservation groups.  This might just get other children interested and make them understand how important it is to protect all sorts of wildlife from small plants to giant trees, and from bees to the 21 species of Albatross.

My hope is that adults and children get interested in nature and birds by getting out and about, and maybe even by putting up a few feeders in their gardens so they can watch, enjoy and unlock the real secrets of nature.

I am sure you have heard that plenty of bird species have declined, for example, since 1980 40 million Starlings from the European Union have disappeared.  The House Sparrow population dropped by 71% between 1977 and 2008.  I don’t know what the exact answers are for solving these problems, but I do know that if no one else my age is taught to care, these problems will never be solved.

Thank you for reading.

All my studying and findings can be followed on my own blog


Bankrupt policies from Defra

Last week George (Gideon) Osborne had to do something different because it was clear that his economic policies weren’t working (he did the wrong thing, but he did have to do something) whereas there is no sign that Defra is going to do anything different even though their policies aren’t working either.

The differences between last week’s Autumn statement and last week’s announcement of the Farmland Bird Index are many – but one crucial one is that the Chancellor keeps making predictions about the economy and can be shown to be falling short of them every few months.  Defra does not tell us how high (or low) the Farmland Bird Index will be next year or in five years time and so can never fall short.


Source: RSPB, BTO, JNCC, Defra
Note: i) figures in brackets show the number of species,
ii) the dotted line shows the smoothed trend.

The overall FBI for England edged up a little thanks to increases of generalist species but farmland specialists continue to decline and the overall picture remains utterly bleak.

It’s not as though this, and the previous, government has no policy on this subject. Hundreds of millions of pounds pour into farmers’ pockets every year through agri-environment payments that are supposed to reverse these stark declines.  And they could, easily, as proved at the RSPB’s Hope Farm where farmland bird numbers have increased for years, if only Defra got off their backsides and gave the schemes a good tweaking.

When c70% of English farmland is covered by Entry Level Scheme and farmland bird numbers continue to be in free-fall then it is time for Defra to realise that its policy response is wholly inadequate.  Defra is failing farmland wildlife and failing the tax payer with its bankrupt policies.

It’s all very well concentrating on CAP negotiations and the ‘big’ picture but if we are wasting agri-environment spend through our own inept policy response here in England then it really doesn’t matter too much whether funds are doubled or halved (and neither will happen).

Whereas George Osborne looks foolish because he stated his recipe for economic recovery, and its timescale, and has not delivered, Defra looks foolish because it has no recipe for ecological recovery, has set no timescale, and is not delivering.

The only part of CAP spend that demonstrably works for wildlife in England is HLS.  ELS delivers very little wildlife value for insects or plants and precious little for farmland birds either.  And yet it costs us, the taxpayers, as much each year as five RSPBs.  Almost anyone could deliver more wildlife benefit with half a billion pounds a year than Defra do for us at the moment.

The taxpayer is being robbed, wildlife is being short-changed and Defra policy is bankrupt.  Can I have my money back please?