My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
Jude Lane's post on Monday about the death of a hen harrier (named Bowland Betty) elicited many responses including this poem from Gavin Jones. Gavin lives near Bowland and I was delighted that he was prepared to share his poem via this blog.
The Ghost of a Ringtail
The moor was bright with wisps of mist,
And floating cotton grass in down.
The pipits pointed skyward wired.
So light the sun, so still the moor.
With pivot, dart and kiting wings,
The ringtail took the northern ridge.
She filled the widest sky with sight.
Forever had her line owned flight,
And now the last in phantom form,
Eternal drifting beauty’s spell:
Though lost to life she haunts the hills,
The emptiness and quartered grounds,
Yesterday, my colleague Jude Lane posted a blog on the latest hen harrier shot and found dead on a grouse moor. Many thanks to those of you that contacted me directly to share your outrage and to offer support. I shall return to this later in the week.
Today, I want to write about another conservation headcase (with serious economic and social consequences): climate change.
Remember the drama of Copenhagen? Billed as our last chance to save the planet, but ending in spectacular disappointment. Since then, world leaders have slowly been re-building consensus, towards a new global deal on climate by 2015. Their most recent meeting closed yesterday in Qatar with only the smallest amount of progress to report (see here and here).
We still remain hopeful, however, that we will get that elusive deal – and we’ll be doing everything we can to achieve this. Why? Because the RSPB’s mission is to save nature, and we simply can’t achieve this unless climate change can be kept to within safe limits.
Yet, whilst countries were doing their best to make progress in Doha last week, the Chancellor announced a new gas strategy for the UK that brings us to the brink of pulling apart our own climate targets.
The Strategy suggests that we could see up to 40 new gas power stations being built with support from Government by 2030. The Committee on Climate Change has long advised that the UK needs to effectively have zero-carbon electricity by 2030 if we are to meet our climate targets. With the publication of the gas strategy, this advice has effectively been snubbed, and the CEO of the Committee has responded accordingly, saying that the strategy “would not be economically sensible" and was "completely incompatible" with our climate targets.
Worse, the detail of the strategy suggests that post-2020, the Government is effectively ready to walk away from renewable energy, and is even setting out conditions under which our targets could be reduced. Have a look at this graph from the strategy.
Post 2020, growth in renewable energy slows and comes to a halt by the end of the decade.
I think we will remember 2012 as a turning point in our acceptance of anthropogenic climate change and the threat it poses to humans and wildlife. The extreme weather we’ve seen here and across the world is a taste of what’s to come. The reality is we have to break our addiction to fossil fuels – including gas – and we have to do it by 2030. Lets hope that this Government wakes up to this fact fast and begins taking its commitment to avoid dangerous climate change seriously.
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.