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Mark Avery's blog

I'm the RSPB's Conservation Director. My aim with this blog will be to comment on matters of conservation importance and give you a few insights into the RSPB's conservation work - there's plenty to write about!

The fans of Songbird Survival

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Songbird Survival have been in the news a bit recently - and I wrote a blog concerning them just recently (here) to add to a few mentions they have had in the past (click here, here and here).

One of their supporters appears to be Mr Mark Osborne, a game manager from Banbury, who wrote recently in the Farmers Weekly about the 'extraordinary imbalance' of raptors.  I've met Mr Osborne a couple of times and he is a well known figure in shooting circles. 

When I say that he is well known in shooting circles I refer to the fact that apparently he is known for his ability to take a poor grouse moor and turn it around.  James Marchington, an occasional poster on this blog, and one of the most reasonable figures in the shooting community (at least on a good day) wrote of Mr Osborne's bad luck in running moors where illegally killed eagles have been found over the last few years.  And the Guardian has mentioned Mr Osborne's name too. 

But Mr Osborne usually keeps out of the limelight so it's interesting that these days he appears to be emboldened to speak on the subject of raptors.  And he is not that keen on raptors - I got that impression when we met. 

Mr Osborne writes of the 'massive localised damage being caused by some raptor species' and 'We in the countryside are going to have to accept often significant damage caused by raptors, but equally if this damage is at a level that threatens to wipe out the prey species, or even take their populations to a vulnerable low, then we should be unequivocally pushing for control of raptors in some format.  That way we may actually make some progress.'.

Well, apart from the fact that I live in the countryside, and used to live in the countryside near Banbury where Mr Osborne lives, and I don't share Mr Osborne's views, this is the clearest call for a long time for a reduction in protection for raptors.  This subject never goes away.  Those 210,567 signatures calling for the protection of birds of prey may well come into their own again in the future.

Another trustee of Songbird Survival, Robert Middleditch from Suffolk, was outspoken as an opponent of the proposed reintroduction of sea eagles to Suffolk.  He feared that these eagles would further reduce farmland bird populations.  The prospect of an eagle chasing a skylark or a linnet or a corn bunting takes quite a stretch of the imagination.  The ecological understanding embedded in these statements is poor. 

And it's interesting that some of those supporting Songbird Survival such as Lord Coke and Mr Osborne come from a shooting background. 

  • David & Mark:

    You may be interested in the article/video in today's Sunday Times:

    I do wonder if Mr Liddle would have got some answers if the Songbird man had been allowed time to answer before he carried on waffling inanity at him?  I notice all the other interviewees had time to respond.  I'd like to have heard what he had to say.  I will email Songbird and see if I can get the responses that way.


  • "To take one paragraph out of 56 pages of a research report and use it to claim the RSPB is calling for predator control is a bit strange."

    Bob, good morning. Nowhere do I claim that the RSPB is calling for predator control.

    If you read my post, waht I say is that the RSPB themselves carry out predator control. I also point out that the RSPB report states that more research is needed in this area.

    In regards the latest RSPB research into predation on ground nesting birds, I am aware of it. Also of much other research in that area. While habitat control is of paramount importance, when predation is a major factor, and alternative methods of controlling the probelm, as advocated by RSPB fails, then predator control needs to be resorted to, as proven by the RSPB themselves in many cases.

    "............their own charter would require them to fight against."

    I am also cognizant of the wording of the RSPB Royal charter. I cannot remember a clause that says they only need to protect some birds, but may cull others.

    Mark, thank you for your welcome to the blog.

    Not just historical use of predator control Mark, this is still current on many RSPB reserves and has been going on throughout your tenure with RSPB. If these alternative measure of controlling predators and if habitat management was enough, why is it that RSPB still control predation on reserves through use of larsen traps and other methods. As you say, RSPB

    "I wouldn't want to generalise.................."

    But you  do Mark.

    In regards

    "Legal predator control is legal and we have not campaigned against it. "

    The Songbird Survival & G&WCT research study is being done under license and is therefore legal. It is also fulfilling the RSPB call for more research in this important area where there is a paucity of research.

    Why then are you campainging against it?

    My main concern in this whole issue is that the constant sniping at farmers, other charities, conservationsist, landowners and the G&WCT and shooting fraternity - " the dark forces" as I constantly see them referred to on the RSPB fora is not conducive to furthering conservation of all species and the environment. Because some people may carry out the abhorrent practice of illegal persecution of raptors, this should not lead to the generalization that all landowners or shooting interests do nothing of value in the conservation area, but only take "relish" in killing.

    If habitat was the sole criteria for healthy bird population, then the RSPB have failed miserably in the last 20 years. They have control over 200+ nature reserves covering 130,000 + hectares and huge resources in manpower and money, yet we see decline in many species, even on the reserves.

    To ignore any aspect of conservation management because it may not sit well with sections of the membership, and to antagonize a large section of the community and landowning fraternity does not to me seem like a good way forward.

    Conservationists / landowners / government bodies and the shooting fraternity must work together.

  • davidbinos.   To take one paragraph out of 56 pages of a research report and use it to claim the RSPB is calling for predator control is a bit strange.   It is a research report and quite rightly would be criticised as incomplete if it didn't include that as a possible option and it is certainly not what the summary findings say.

    Now have a look at the latest RSPB research into predation on ground nesting birds and you will see it is aimed at habitat control. I am not sure what the outcome is; I don't think it is quite finished.

    I have been a member of the RSPB for 40 years.  In that time there have been various fashions in criticsm of the organisation and these have ranged widely.  I never known a time when such heavy criticism is aimed specifically at an apparent failure to support bird killing (amongst others) which is a subject that their own charter would require them to fight against.

  • davidbinos - as I said - welcome to this blog!  I am not uncomfortable.  I was stating how we see predator control - we do it with regret and no relish.  I wouldn't want to generalise, but I do find that the apparent enthusiasm for killing crows, foxes, badgers, raptors etc from some others a little undermining of their call for objectivity.  But maybe I have misjudged them.  

  • Hello Mark, I am not Mr  Street and do not know who he may be.

    However, I do hope that me raising what are legitimate questions are not considered as defamatory just because you feel them uncomfortable truths.

    Yes I have been on the the other RSPB fora and yes, I do have an interest in predator control, and also conservation / WeBS counting / Ringing / and practical conservation measures.

    Now we have dealt with your red herrings,

    "But we do predator control where we feel it is necessary for conservation reasons and we do it with regret and no relish"

    Are you then saying that everyone else takes "relish" in carrying out predator control and does it with "no regret"

    "How do you feel about birds of prey by the way?  That's what this post was actually about...."

    I love raptors.

    Actually given the title, and your first paragraph I thought this post post was about Songbird Survival and the proposed G&WCT research. The very research that RSPB called for when they said on predator control in RSPB Research Report no 23. RSPB that,

    "Further studies that provide clear evidence of whether

    predators limit populations of their bird prey are needed.

    While such evidence is best obtained from predator

    removal experiments, these are not always

    straightforward, so an alternative approach is to

    compare populations of bird prey in areas, or at times,

    with differing predator densities. So far, most studies

    have been of ground-nesting birds, and similar studies

    of songbirds are needed, for example in urban and

    suburban areas."

    Gibbons DW, Amar A, Anderson GQA, Bolton M, Bradbury RB, Eaton MA, Evans AD,

    Grant MC, Gregory RD, Hilton GM, Hirons GJM, Hughes J, Johnstone I, Newbery P,

    Peach WJ, Ratcliffe N, Smith KW, Summers RW, Walton P and Wilson JD (2007).

    The predation of wild birds in the UK: a review of its conservation impact and


    Surely this is that very research. Or do you consider the only valid research to be that done by RSPB or research that supports the current RSPB line.

  • davidbinos - welcome to this blog! I see you joined the RSPB community recently and have an interest in predator control.

    Yes the links you provide show what happened in the early 1990s and back in the 1970s.  That's quite a long time ago - and even though I've been at the RSPB for nearly 25 years some of it was before my time and all of it before I became Conservation Director.  So I don't know much about that ancient history.

    I notice that the letter from SNH was addressed to a David Street - I don't know whether that is you or not - but that Mr Street has been banned from the site '' for the following reason 'Despite previous warnings this account has been banned for posting potentially defamatory material.'.

    Coming right up to date - yes we do some predator control on our nature reserves - it has been discussed in this blog in the past.  And your quote above is correct - it's on a case by case basis.  Legal predator control is legal and we have not campaigned against it.  But we do predator control where we feel it is necessary for conservation reasons and we do it with regret and no relish.  

    How do you feel about birds of prey by the way?  That's what this post was actually about, and the impression I have got that SS are an anti-raptor group.  But thank you for your comments.

  • Mark, I would have a lot more faith in your statements if the RSPB were not so guilty of double standards.

    RSPB are happy to carry out culls when it suits them. However, it seems that it is not acceptable for others to do so.

    RSPB were licensed by Scottish Natural Heritage to take or kill  sea birds in the Firth of Forth by the use of alphachloralose and Secanol poison.

    Gull culling using poison also took place on Fidra and the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth.

    See here for full details.


    SNH Letter confirming this happened.

    and also

    "RSPB policy on predator control.

    Controlling predators

    "To achieve our conservation objectives, the RSPB sees the killing of birds and mammals as a matter of last resort.

    We aim to restore populations of wildlife principally through habitat management and any measures to control predators is considered carefully, case-by-case. Nevertheless, we recognise that ground-nesting birds are especially vulnerable to predation by both mammals and crows.

    To understand the role of controlling predators better, the RSPB is undertaking a scientific trial control of foxes and carrion crows on some of its nature reserves where lapwings nest, in conjunction with positive land management.

    We also control foxes and crows at Abernethy Forest in Strathspey, where poor weather and predation resulted in low productivity of the increasingly rare capercaillie during the 1990s."

    You know full well that RSPB carry out fox, corvid culling and utilize larsen traps on some reserves.

    You also support culling of ruddy ducks.

    It seems to me ( an EX member of RSPB ) that you should re-name yourselves as the Royal Society for the Protection of Some Birds. Which ones being protected being decided by their eco-tourism pulling power quotient.

  • To save advertising such a group should you not be using their abbreviation just like the RSPB. Then the public would see what they really stood for - The SS!

  • I don't move on? Try the mirror.

    when you say "we've dealt with.... and we've explained that..." is that the Royal we?

  • Lazywell - you are, of course, entitled to your views.  Interesting that you move from Songbird Survival immediately, without taking breath,  to the conflict (because there is a conflict) between hen harriers and driven grouse shooting being looked at by a group of us under the good offices of the Environment Council.  Is that what 'the raptor issue' is?  So, are you saying that it isn't raptors eating songbirds?  I agree!

    essex peasant - there is no moving you forward is there?  We've dealt with why the FBI includes 19 species and which species they are.  We've explained that these are the species most dependent on farmland - admittedly lowland farmland - but farmland all the same.  It's not a bit odd that one doesn't mix wintering and breeding numbers together.  

    Batnovice and Gayna - good points.

    Sooty - OK.  Let's move on.

  • Songbird Survival is a registered charity, just like the RSPB, with wholly legitimate concerns and objectives ( While I agree it didn’t major on science when it was first established, it is now actively commissioning scientific studies, and deserves credit for doing so. I’m afraid I find rather unattractive your attempt to rubbish it by crude insinuations against a small minority of its more controversial supporters.

    As for the raptor issue, there is a genuine conflict between quite reasonable representatives of the various stakeholders, as you well know. Perhaps it is time you acknowledged as much by reference, for example, to the conflict resolution process being facilitated by the Environment Council at which you represent the RSPB. We all want a solution to the controversy, but stirring up hostility against the broader shooting community in this way does not help anybody.

  • Batnovice - agree, thats what we do here but Barn owls have still had a hard time this winter.

    Mark - have birds of the farmed countryside declined ? If you just mean nesting species and limit things to just the 19 species on the FBI then yes but then you are only counting one bird in three on most farms and you are ignoring the over wintering which is a bit silly and very selective, if you expand your horizons and look at the 52 species used at Hope Farm to monitor bird health or the 120 species we see in most years on this farm then 'no'.

  • and the mantra ought to be habitat, habitat, habitat.

    Why do owls get hammered in snow - because the grass was cut in very late autumn and never grew long enough to provide shelter for the small furries - long grass with snow is ideal for small furries - and where there are enough small furries, the owls do OK.   Stop cutting grass late, start leaving stubbles, stop flailing hedges in the winter

  • It's very simple  - habitat, habitat, habitat

  • I'm just shocked that anybody can think that the relationship between predator and prey is the reason for declines in certain species over the last 30 thirty years. They have evolved together over millions of years! Hopefully good science or just plain old common sense will prevail.