February, 2012

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t
  • NEWSFLASH: Cormorants eat fish!

    Let's get this on the record, I think the Angling Trust does a great job and I’m happy we work so closely with them on so many watery issues through the Blueprint for Water. But like most friends they do seem to have peculiar peccadilloes, and in the Angling Trust’s case its their single minded pursuit of the cormorant where we might fall out.

    Of course, this bird eats fish.  In fact, like some other species of bird – kingfishers and ospreys, to name but two – this bird likes eating fish so much, it eats them pretty much to the exclusion of all else.  It won’t surprise you, then, to learn (if you didn’t know already) that, like the kingfisher and osprey, this bird is extremely good at fishing.  

    Unfortunately, unlike that of the kingfisher and osprey, the fishing prowess of this particular bird – the cormorant – is not universally admired.  To a cormorant, an angling lake stocked full of fish is much like a bird table to a blue tit – a feast to be harvested.  Understandably this can make the cormorant an unwelcome visitor to such fisheries, where income is reliant on the availability of catchable fish. 

    1,779 cormorants were particularly unwelcome in England in 2010.   That’s how many were shot under licence that year to prevent serious damage to fisheries and inland waters.  Does that number surprise you?  Did you know that cormorants can be shot, legally, to protect the interests of fisheries?

    They can.  Acknowledging that these otherwise protected birds can, in some circumstances, cause serious damage to some fisheries, both European and domestic law permit the killing of cormorants provided certain conditions are met.  To my mind, these conditions are perfectly reasonable – there must be a genuine problem to resolve, there must be no other satisfactory solution (to killing) available, killing must present an effective solution, and killing must not have an adverse effect on the conservation status of the species in question.  In short, killing is an action of last resort, the justification of which can only be determined on a case-by-case basis.     

    In England, when it comes to cormorants, these principles of wildlife licensing are not applied as rigorously as we would like.  In 2004, the evidence requirements were relaxed to such an extent that fishery managers need only demonstrate the presence of cormorants at a fishery to qualify as (potentially) suffering serious damage due to cormorants.  This is a markedly different – i.e. decidedly more lenient – licensing approach to that adopted for other bird species in England (and the rest of the UK).

    Isn’t it extraordinary, then, that there are calls to make it even easier to kill cormorants?  This species has always been present inland in Britain – the increase in the inland population has in fact occurred over many years, reflecting a recovery from the effects of historical persecution (and, quite probably, the increase in attractive feeding sites stocked with fish!)  As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, a review is underway in England of the licensing regime for fish-eating birds, including cormorants.  We hope that in deciding the future of this native species, Defra takes heed of its own research, which found no case for large-scale control of this bird.  Furthermore, it found that non-lethal approaches to reducing predation by cormorants, such as fish refuges, exist and are effective.  When such sustainable, non-contentious measures are available, why should anyone reach for the gun?

    While we will continue to defend the right and proper protection offered to the cormorant I hope we can continue to work with the Angling Trust on the things that really matter to rivers and fisheries like unsustainable abstraction drought and pollution.

    What do you think?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • In praise of Charles Dickens

    With apologies to my good neighbour Jenny Diski (discussing the pointlessness of marking anniversaries on PM last night)...

    I couldn't resist blogging about Dickens' bicetenerary. 

    Dickens is so closely associated with London that we might forget the importance that nature played in his novels.  As well as all the dark places in London, Dickens was also aware of small corners and hidden refugia where people could connect with nature and find solace.

    "It [Staple Inn] is one of those nooks the turning into to which out of the clashing street imparts to the relieved pedestrian the sensation of having put cotton in his ears and velvet on the soles of his boots. It is one of those nooks where a few smoky sparrows twitter in the smoky trees, as though they called to one another, ‘Let us play at country,’ and where a few feet of garden mould and a few yards of gravel enable them to do that refreshing violence to their tiny understandings." The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

    When he wants to reward his characters with a happy ending they often find their way to some country idyll.

    "The memories which peaceful country scenes call up, are not of this world, nor of its thoughts and hopes. Their gentle influence may teach us how to weave fresh garlands for the graves of those we loved: may purify our thoughts, and bear down before it old enmity and hatred; but beneath all this, there lingers, in the least reflective mind, a vague and half-formed consciousness of having held such feelings long before, in some remote and distant time, which calls up solemn thoughts of distant times to come, and bends down pride and worldliness beneath it." From Oliver Twist.

    And sometimes it is the sheer sensual delight of being close to nature.

    "The rich, sweet smell of the hayricks rose to his chamber window; the hundred perfumes of the little flower-garden beneath scented the air around; the deep-green meadows shone in the morning dew that glistened on every leaf as it trembled in the gentle air: and the birds sang as if every sparkling drop were a fountain of inspiration to them." From Pickwick Papers.

    Wherever Dickens was writing about - the marshlands of Kent or a suburban garden in Great Expectations - he understood the intimate connection of people to place and the sustenance that nature provides.

    200 hundred years on, despite dramatic social progress, our spiritual need to connect with nature remains as strong as ever.

  • More anniversaries

    Without wishing to, again, raise the hackles of my good neighbour  (see yesterday's blog), here is a list of other anniversaries falling this year

    1. The original Rio 'Earth Summit' took place 20 years ago.  To mark this moment, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, 'Rio+20', will take place in Brazil from 20-22 June 2012.  Today, Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, will be outlining the UK Government's ambitions for the summit.  I'll try and post her speech later and give you our view on the forthcoming meeting.

    2. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published fifty years ago.  Depicting the ravaging effects that pesticide use had on the environment and especially birds, this was the moment that the modern environment movement was born.

    3. The Wildlife Trusts were formed 100 years ago, following its formation as the Society for Promotion of Nature Reserves in 1912.  Happy birthday to all our friends in the Trusts across the UK!

    4. It is 100 years since the death of Octavia Hill, the co-founder of the National Trust.  That is surely worth raising a glass.

    5. It is of course the Queen's Diamond Jubilee this year.  Many congratulations to our Patron!

    6. And it is 123 years since the RSPB was formed by a group in Didbsury.  Not a particularly special anniversary, but if you would like to mark 123 years of campaigning to save wild birds and the environment, you could take part in our latest campaign action to influence the forthcoming Budget. 

    What have I missed?

    It would be great to hear your views.