December, 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
  • GUEST BLOG: Jude Lane on the death of a hen harrier

    I have asked our Bowland Project Officer, Jude Lane (pictured), to offer her personal perspective on the death of a hen harrier known as Bowland Betty.  The hen harrier was recovered from a moorland area managed for grouse shooting in the Yorkshire Dales by Stephen Murphy of Natural England on 5 July 2012.  The bird’s death is being investigated by North Yorkshire Police.  Information from a satellite transmitter, a detailed post mortem carried out by the Zoological Society of London helped to prove that the bird had been shot.  Yet more evidence that hen harriers continue to be subject to determined effort to eradicate them from our countryside.  Enough is enough.  We need action now.  Read Jude's personal account and please do support her calls for urgent action by the Government.


    Those of you who followed the Skydancer blog over the spring/summer this year will have been familiar with hearing about the exploits of the female hen harrier 74843 or Bowland Betty as she was known to us locally.

    The reason I've been unable to provide you with regular updates since my last post in June is because in July, Betty was found dead in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. She was recovered by the North Yorkshire Police and Natural England after fixes from her tag indicated that something was wrong and since then the Zoological Society London have been undertaking state of the art tests to determine the cause of her death.

    We've just received the results, which confirm that she was shot and that the resulting injury was directly responsible for her death.

    Gutted. That's how I feel at this news. I was privileged enough to have been present when she had her sat tag fitted. I also had, what I felt to be, the honour of placing her back in the nest once the job had been done. As I placed her back in the nest with her siblings that day, I made sure to wish her luck; silly as it may sound it's something I always do. The natural world is a harsh place for young harriers, even without any threat from illegal persecution. So, superstitious as I may be, in my mind they need all the luck they can get.

    Betty was the first harrier I had 'known' to have had a satellite transmitter fitted. I, like so many others had watched her grow from a little (kind of ugly if I'm honest!) vulnerable white ball of down to a fine young female via video footage recorded at her nest in 2011. The prospect of being able to follow her progress for the next few years and learn a little more about hen harrier behaviour from a bird I had actually held was incredibly exciting. 

    Normally I never know whether the young birds that have fledged from nests I have monitored survive or not, so knowing she had made it through the winter was fantastic and had me hoping that she would go on to fledge broods of harriers herself, maybe even on the United Utilities estate this year.

    In my mind, Betty was England's symbol of hope for hen harriers. She had become quite the celebrity here in Bowland and indeed across northern England, with almost everyone I came in contact with asking what she was up to. No satellite tagged females have ever proved so mobile, especially during the breeding season, so the information she was providing us with was not only entertaining but incredibly valuable. It angers me that someone has taken the life of this beautiful creature and with it our ability to understand more about the behaviours of these incredible birds.

    I want the death of Betty, the young bird I was privileged enough to hold in my hands, to have significance. It already has by proving that hen harrier persecution is still occurring - we need Government and its agencies to use this knowledge to redouble efforts to protect and ensure the recovery of this species.

    If Betty's death is to have a silver lining, it must be in persuading the Government to take illegal persecution seriously and to act to bring this intolerable Victorian practice to an end. We urgently need Government to implement an emergency recovery plan to bring the hen harrier back from the brink, as extinction in England for a second time beckons. A vital first step is to ensure that the National Wildlife Crime Unit, which works to ensure the laws protecting birds of prey are enforced, has a future beyond this March.

    Like so many people, I feel privileged to have known betty in her short life. Her sad, untimely death may not be in vain if it means other young hen harriers avoid a similar fate.

  • A damp, salty squib

    I hate to end the week on a sour note, but yesterday's announcement about Marine Conservation Zones was hugely disappointing. 

    For over a decade, many NGOs and hundreds of thousands of people supported the campaign to get comprehensive legislation for the marine environment.  This ultimately received cross-party support and led to the passing of the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009). 

    Our expectation was that this would lead to the establishment of an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas.  Yet, of 127 sites proposed for protection, only ‘up to’ 31 are recommended for designation in 2013, and there appears to be no clear commitment to any further rounds of designation. 

    Less than half of the 57 sites identified by the Government’s own advisors as being at high risk are to be progressed, the others in many cases being excluded on the basis that the economic implications of designation are perceived to outweigh the conservation benefits.  Many of these sites may therefore be lost.  This news needs to be looked at alongside our inability to establish a network of marine protected areas of European importance (under the Birds and Habitats Directives).

    We, and no doubt those that supported the marine campaign, feel let down by yesterday's announcement.

    I understand Mr Benyon's desire to get this right, but seabirds and other marine wildlife are in trouble.  As I have written previously here, here and here, they need something more than is currently being offered. And arugably, developers at sea need these sites identified fast to help provide provide certainty about the most appropriate sites for development. 

    The coalition Government’s commitment to achieve a ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas now looks undeliverable. We will examine the consultation in detail, including the lamentable attention given to the protection of seabirds and other ‘mobile species’. 

    What do you think of government's announcement about marine conservation zones?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • Bowland Betty's legacy

    Earlier in the week, my colleague Jude Lane posted a blog about the shooting of a hen harrier 74843; we knew her as Bowland Betty. I promised to return to the subject to let you know what we are doing, what else needs to be done to make sure Betty’s death marks a turning point in the fortunes of her species and what you can do to help.

    The killing of any bird of prey is just wrong and we here at the RSPB, the Government and society as a whole, must step up for hen harriers and other species threatened by illegal activity, and stamp it out. Government, society and the RSPB have vital roles in stopping the assult on hen harriers which is on the verge of driving them out of England, for a second time - I’d like to set out exactly what I think they are.

    The RSPB will continue to work to see a recovery in hen harrier numbers and range. We’ve done a lot in the past, particularly in the Bowland Fells (in partnership with United Utilities), but this has not been enough to halt the decline. We will therefore do more. We don’t know what the 2013 breeding season will bring, but in England it is clear that every hen harrier nest will be incredibly significant. We will do all we can to protect nests, wherever they turn up. That is unlikely to be enough. We need to protect hen harriers away from their breeding grounds, and we have ideas as to how to do this. I’ll share when I can.

    We will continue to seek solutions to the harrier’s plight in the corridors of power. Central to the fight against illegal persecution is effective legal protection for wildlife (I’ve covered this previously here).  We recently submitted our response to the Law Commission’s review of wildlife law in England and Wales. This review will determine how the species we value are protected, conserved and exploited for decades to come. It must also ensure that those responsible for wildlife crime – like the person who killed Betty – are held to account and properly punished. And it must address the question of how best to regulate the practice of shooting, given the clear association between bird of prey persecution and land managed for driven grouse shooting. Take a look at the challenge from my colleague, Dave Hoccom, to the Law Commission here, or read our full response to the consultation here.

    As you will see, we strongly support the introduction of vicarious liability, as we did in Scotland. This isn’t a magic bullet to solving persecution, but it would mean that those responsible for land where persecution can be proven to have taken place could be held accountable for the actions of employees.

    We know that a large number of RSPB supporters responded to this consultation. If you were one of those people, thank you – you have shown the Law Commission that there is strong support for the law to work harder for our wildlife. I will keep you updated as to the Commission’s recommendations for reform as they emerge in the spring - and we may need to call on you to ensure that they are carried through to meaningful action.

    It is not just about what the RSPB can do – we need the UK Government and its agencies to step up for hen harriers too. In due course, we need government to act on the recommendations of both the Environmental Audit Committee and the Law Commission, and ensure wildlife laws are improved. In the meantime, Government needs to produce an emergency recovery plan for hen harriers, and find the resources to implement it. It must also reform the policing of wildlife crime. As Jude said in her blog earlier this week, securing the future of the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) is a vital first step. Newly-elected Police & Crime Commissioners (P&CCs) in persecution hotspots must ensure that new policing plans recognise the importance of tackling wildlife crime and direct police resources accordingly. And in the week that Government launches its consultation into the future of Natural England (see our response to yesteday's announcement here), we need a strong, independent champion for the natural environment that acts for nature and upholds the law.

    And then there is society as a whole, including everyone who reads this blog. Hen harriers need you too. Many of you have already helped campaign for better legal protection. You can also support this action by our friends at WWF to help secure the future of the NWCU by contacting your MP. You can find out about local arrangements for highlighting the importance of tackling wildlife crime in new policing plans by contacting the office of your new P&CC. Finally, if you feel motivated to support our work to conserve hen harriers and other birds of prey, please donate to our bird of prey appeal.

    Helping hen harriers recover in England and those parts of Scotland from which they are missing will not be easy. Nothing worth fighting for ever is. The RSPB is not giving up on hen harriers – quite the opposite – and I hope that you will support us in our work. Betty’s death must lead to strong action by this Government to consign illegal persecution to the history books, once and for all.