A confusing debate?

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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!

A confusing debate?

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Was it just me - maybe it was - but was Peter Kendall in a bit of a bad mood today?

Have a look at the Farmers Guardian debate and judge for yourself.

Peter seemed very keen to have a go at me and the RSPB whatever I said. 

And how predictable to see NFU mouthpiece Guy Smith going back to criticising the FBI - there is precious little acceptance, by the NFU President  or by Guy Smith, that there is a problem with farmland birds.  The NFU's attitude to the environment may be summed up by Peter Kendall's phrase 'wrapping (farmers) in green tape'.  Remember please, NFU, that's the taxpayers' money you get and so there do have to be some rules attached to it.

But very good to see lots of good comments - many I guess from farmers who are working closely with the RSPB in all sorts of ways.



  • In response to Esssex Peasants comments that intensification of farming hasn't ocurred in the last 20 years. Utter twaddle, everytime a large farm buys up fields or small farms the first thing that happens in this area is that hedges are removed and any reasonable wildlife habitat is immediately destroyed.One of my favourite green lane areas which was fantastic for birds and butterflies was utterly devastated when a large farm bought adjoining fields aand took over it's management. Gosh I can think of some good meanings for the acronym NFU but am afraid they are not printable here.

  • Badgers and TB - let us have a little clarity.  TB is a disease of high population and poor hygiene in humans - look where it is at its most virulent?  Badgers populations are high where they occur; why else would they create setts in abnormal habitat?  Best guesstimates suggest 500,000 badgers in UK, double the fox population.  The disease must be cured before the UK dairy industry disappears.  The cure is lowering the badger population in places of known disease, then filling in the setts so that the bacillus is killed.  

    As to the NFU’s comments about the CFE - I suggest it is not disingenuous – it is that they have not found the right method of convincing their members to sign up.  Their members do not understand they can still be just as profitable and look after wildlife; they have to change their mindset and understand how to do it.

  • EP - yes thanks, I did see it, but as its primary objective is to avoid regulation, which seemed a tad disingenuous to me and hardly promoting ground breaking conservation measures I didn't pay it a huge amount of attention.

  • Sooty,  Well said

  • Gert,

    on the opening page of the NFU web-site - right at the top in large letters - there is a link to the campaign for the farmed environment. Have a look.

    Nightjar - we are growing less crops, have less animals, use less fertiliser and pesticdes than we did in 1990. We are also 10% less self sufficient in indigenous food stuffs.


  • Hi Nightjar – I trust you are well

    • “killing badgers” and political appeal? – Treating Tuberculosis in wild and domestic mammals needs political appeal does it?  

    • “It'll be a disaster for farming if you and NFU do manage to persuade the politicians to go ahead” – don’t you think it’s a disaster for farmers now?

    • “And defining farming's relationship with RSPB around badgers is another real loser” – the RSPB has such a great depth of knowledge driving its policy regarding bTB that the Conservation Director has to get the latest book to find out what’s been going-on over the past 10 years and then sides with the author because he (too) is a trained scientist – still - it’s what most scientists do

    • NFU Council? – I don’t think so – mind you I wouldn’t mind Kendall’s job – I’d certainly sort out the RSPB for starters!  Just like badgers and cattle are locked in a ‘deadly embrace’ – so too are the likes of the NFU and the RSPB – it will take some decent brainpower to address the issue – something the RSPB appears to lack – it deserves better!

    • You have to ask yourself what would have happened without the RSPB – all the ladies would still be wearing exotic bird feathers in their hats I suppose

    • 125 years £125 M annual turnover – still complaining – still failing – time to rethink the business model – time to re-appraise – time to be honest and recognise Truth – Time to move on!

    Cheers All

    "And, being fed by us, you used us so  as that ungentle gull, the cuckoo’s bird, useth the sparrow – did oppress our nest; . . .

    William Shakespeare

  • All this about N F U is just confusing the issue,individual farmers quite capable of making decisions about wildlife on their own or with friends and discussion groups they have.Everyone should be on the same side and if that means all sides taking a softer stance then so be it,all this acrimonious debating and articles does wildlife no favours at all.Think it would be better not to have these debates if they just bring up the big differences that just get the moderates on all sides back up.  

  • Trimbush - killing badgers has all the political appeal of selling the National Forests. It'll be a disaster for farming if you and NFU do manage to persuade the politicians to go ahead with it - especially bearing in mind Jim Paice's proven skills at communicating with the wider public.

    And definining farming's relationship with RSPB around badgers is another real loser. Of course, everyone at the Farmers Club will support you, but where does that get you other than onto NFU Council ?

    The NFU website reminds me of the Forestry Commission before the Flow Country - the standard 'Forestry Practise' publication had two pages on wildlife - almost all about stopping it damaging the trees.

  • Accept the value of Skylark patches but for heavens sake why bang on about them so much the whole picture of birds in decline is neglected and not just farmland birds as the RSPB seems intent on ramming down farmers throats to perhaps hopefully improve membership by kicking farmers.All are never going to be interested in wildlife anymore than all interested in Rushden And Diamonds.Skylark patches are absolutely of no use or interest to grassland farmers,completely impractical as well so lets get some information out to grassland farmers that will help wildlife instead of just these next to useless margins round the outside of fields.

  • Sadly I missed the debate, as the day job intervened.  However it does not surprise me that it was a bit confrontational that is the style - unproductive and difficult. Yes, skylarks benefit form the skylark plots designed by RSPB; yes, the FBI shows  continuous decline; yes, no other farmland birds are deriving benefit from those plots; yes, farmers want to do better helping the wildlfie on their farms; Yes RSPB sets about convincing farmers in the wrong way.  The acute issue is the way land and crops in particular are having to be managed to grow a good productive crop of winter cereals.  The areas needed to support farmland birds and all wildlife [properly researched] are wild bird mixture pollen, nectar mixes and all other cover crops, but they extract land from producing income - hence ELS/HLS schemes.  Let us together answer such crucial problems - why no peewits? They are in much more serious decline than some other farmland birds - would you agree?  We need a solution - do we not?

  • EP - the NFU website says very little if anything about conservation. Eventually you come to a link headed 'Wildlife Issues' - speaks for itself really. Wildlife is merely an issue, not valued, not an opportunity, but a bit of a thorn I suspect. Where is their advice that is given by charities like the RSPB for free and by people like me who spend their weekends voluntarily surveying farms. The NFU isn't interested - thank god the RSPB are!

  • It’s very difficult to achieve anything positive from such an exercise with each party (RSPB, NFU, CLA & FG) working to a pre-defined script and with the live audience bombarding all with observations or questions – and only 60 minutes to do it in!

    Page 3 of the current FG headlines –

    “NFU slams RSPB over ‘shameful’ accusation”  

    So how can the NFU be anything other than somewhat tetchy with the Mark and the RSPB?

    The only point I would make is that Mark said “We (the RSPB) love farmers to bits!”

    Well it is all too apparent that both Mark & the RSPB palpably do not!

    Rather - the following statement:-

    “After the sick diseased, distressed, infective, tuberculous badger population (which should be left alone to rot along with other similarly infected wildlife and domestic cattle) we love some farmers to bits!” is more (wholly?) accurate.  

    Do you see? That just isn’t good enough – I might work with you if it was beneficial to me – but I would not regard you as a friend.

    And I spoke with Kendall’s secretary immediately before the transmission and to the FG immediately after!  I know what I’m talking about!

    True friendship (let alone love) doesn’t work the way the current RSPB regime believes it should!

    With friends like the RSPB .....................?

  • Essex Peasant - so how did yields keep going up until recently ? (I'd be interested to know why home grown food has decreased - is it Oil seed rape going to non-food uses ?)

    The stats are all very well - but birds probably illustrate it better - what about Yellowhammer ? When i started birdwtaching you ticked it like Robin or Great Tit. Now you have to look for them - I haven't seen one yet this year. I'd be interested in your views on an unintended consequence - oil seed rape and the extent to which it may have reduced lost grain because when it came in farmers had to make their combines much less leaky ?

    One thing that did interest me in what Peter Kendall said was about less intensive farming - last night there was a farmer on TV talking about minimal cultivation as a way of saving diesel. I worked on ultra low volume herbicide application in the 1980s, aimed at reducing hauling water into the hills rather than the environment - but it 'placed' a much lower volume of active ingredient much more acurately due to consistent drop size & an electrostatic charge. I dobelieve in technology - just mistrust the way a lot of its applied (as with GM) - and its interesting to consider just how much we could achieve through applying even what we already know. I'd support public money going into helping farmers upgrade to lower inputs - just as it did so successfully to help dairying clean up its act & our rivers.

    We really need to think a bit broader and open a dialogue between the town and countryside - I don't think the almost religious defence of how things are now is helping - I know NFU are trapped by their membership but bthere is a need for much braver leadership on both sides of the argument. And the farmers do themselves no good getting personal - RSPB have been very, very careful not to criticise individual farmers - they haven't got into how much subsidy individuals get, for example, an obvious target and have only named farmers they've praised.

  • I followed the debate live Mark and thought the approach adopted by the NFU and CLA representatives were predictable including the "red herring" of the RSPB criticising farmers. I did make a comment myself but it didn't seem to get posted. I thought both those parties were quite dismissive of the RSPB and the comment about, you should be in the pub or something like that, was unnecessary. I thought they glossed over the fact that the farmland bird index is not improving at all and that wildlife levels are the best indicators of the health of the natural environment generally. They seemed little interested in the example you made of making skylark patches. As you say, they get a lot of tax payer's money. Also I felt like saying to them, there are over a million people in this country alone (RSPB members) who are concerned about skylark patches, so DO NOT dismiss skylark patches or the RSPB so lightly!    

  • You're right, it was probably a Sparrowhawk not a Hobby, I was guessing from a long distance, there was defintely a Harrier about though, Hen harrier I think. You boys have more tuned in eyes than me, but I know most my birds.

    As said, I don't deny species I used to see more of as a boy like sparrows and yellowhammers have declined and changes in farming are one of the reasons and we do put measures in place to help bring them back. But I do get fed up with this idea that because species I see regularly on the farm are not one of the 19 on the  Farmland Bird Index then they are not considered indicators of farmland bio-diversity. Its nonsense.

    Nightjar, I won't deny there was intensification in the 1960s and 1970s, but there has been none in the last 25 years, in fact its the opposite, so to try to correlate species loss in the last 25 years with changes in farming doesn't add up.