September, 2013

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
  • Natural England rejects further buzzard licences

    As regular readers to this blog will know, earlier this year NE issued licences to control buzzards at a chicken farm and a pheasant shoot. I summarised our concerns and opposition at the time. In the interests of transparency, we published the (heavily redacted) papers we had obtained through an Environment Information Regulations (EIR) request at that stage.

    We only learned of these licences after they were issued and enacted in the spring and, unfortunately, there was nothing we could do to turn the clock back. Since then we have made further EIR requests and met with Natural England to discuss our concerns in detail. In view of the very high level of public interest in this issue I am attaching the documents we received from our further information requests and I will summarise the current state of play below.

    On 5 July, the pheasant shoot applicant, not satisfied with having destroyed several buzzard nests under NE licence in the spring, submitted further licence requests to kill a total of 16 buzzards and 3 sparrowhawks around four shoots that he manages between August and October this year. This was on the basis that, according to the applicant, nest destruction had no noticeable effect on the numbers of buzzards in the area. No new evidence of damage to the pheasant shoots was provided and Natural England, to their credit, rejected all four licence applications.

    Birds of prey are long lived species (or at least they should be!) which have a relatively slow reproductive rate.  They are therefore particularly susceptible to the impact of removing adult birds and have a history of being persecuted. So I believe that birds of prey do require special treatment and if a commercial enterprise can only be viable through the routine removal birds of prey then this is neither acceptable nor sustainable. The onus must be on shooting enterprises to find non destructive management measures that reduce levels of predation rather than denying some of our magnificent birds their rightful place in the countryside.

    [As far as the chicken farm is concerned we understand that no further licence applications have been made neither are they anticipated. This appears to have been a very unusual and, hopefully, one off case.]

    Whilst encouraged by NE’s decision on these subsequent applications I remain concerned at the lack of openness and publicly available information over this issue. For example, most of the relevant background information on shoot returns presented as evidence of alleged serious damage has been withheld. I believe there is an issue of public interest here in a novel, controversial case that potentially sets a precedent for the future. We acknowledge that NE is tasked with the job of considering licence applications within a framework set out by Defra and they do this to the best of their ability. However, in cases such as this I think the public interest and trust in the decision making process would be best served by much greater transparency.  

    We have repeatedly argued that Defra should change it's policy so that licenses cannot be granted to control/kill birds of prey.  The sad reality is that Defra have not budged.  We believe that Defra should not have allowed licenses to be granted whilst new research (to reduce conflict between pheasants and buzzards through non-interventionist means) was being explored with us and other stakeholders.  But, last year whilst we thought the focus was on research, Defra was telling NE to get on with licensing.  Natural England were therefore obliged to respect the Defra direction and follow due process.  Meanwhile, there has been no progress on research into reducing conflicts or on assessing the ecological impacts of 40 million pheasants being released into the countryside.

    We will continue to monitor bird of prey licensing like a... well, a hawk. 

    PS It goes without saying that, several lengthy sections of these papers have been heavily redacted by NE. In some cases this makes it impossible to fully understand the justification for licensed control.  If you can piece the story together, please do let me know!

    Further pheasant shoot licence application 5 July
    7635.2105_response on further licence applications.pdf
    8473.Acknowledgement of Wildlife Licence applications_RD..pdf
    7536.Further Licence Application_RD.pdf
    WLM 2013 1750-1752 report_RD.pdf
    Rejection letter, Release site recommendations and Site map, references WLM_2013_1750 to 1752 and WLM_2013_1883 to 1886_RD..pdf

    Background NE correspondence relating to original licence applications
    1996_response[1] correspondence request.pdf

    Pheasant shoot
    File A (1).pdf
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    Chicken farm
    File B (1).pdf
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  • Five things to look forward to this autumn

    I was lying on my back in a park this weekend looking up to the heavens when my field of vision was filled with swallows and house martins.   Maybe I was on my back because my boy had just nutmegged me at football, maybe I wanted some late summer sun on my face or maybe I was day-dreaming about taking a sea kayak down the River Tay next year to witness the spectacle of thousands of Hirundae sweeping past me (I was with our Eastern Scotland team last week).

    Whatever the cause of my langorousness, it made me think about the summer that's becoming a memory and the season ahead.

    It is easy to get a little maudlin about the end of summer: migrants you take for granted for four months push off back to Africa and the long haul of winter awaits.    But this year feels a bit different.  For the first time in years we seem to have had a decent summer and I am hopeful that this has helped breeding success of some species particularly those vulnerable to the weather such as some of our insects and those birds that eat them.  End of season breeding records will confirm one way or another but for now, I've sensed that this has been a season to aid nature's revival.

    And I am determined to retain my optimism.  So, if you are anxious about the loss of migrants, of the sun losing its warmth or of the nights drawing in, here are five things to look forward to this autumn...

    1. Dust off your Roger Phillips' guide to mushrooms and fungi.  The flowers may be fading, but now is the time to work on your fungi identification.  The one below (yes, the thing in the middle) has stumped me a bit and so would welcome any suggestions from mycologists out there. 

    2. The geese are coming.  Pink-footed geese have started to arrive from the north and others are on the way to create some wildfowl spectaculars.  With my daughter's permission, I will plan my birthday trip to RSPB Snettisham.

    3. The rutting season is just round the corner.  Whether you are in Richmond Park or in Rum, it's always worth being around red deer when the stags start competing for control of groups of hinds.

    4. Waxwings could turn up near you.  Whether in a car park in Ipswich or in the snowy landscape of the Aln valley, this is one of my favourite species and it is the bird that is guaranteed to get RSPB staff out of their seats if one turns up at the Lodge.

    5. There are only 235 days until 1 May. Even if the above does not excite, May will come again, I promise.

    I hope you have fond memories of this summer and here's to a great autumn 2013...

  • Talking for Nature: the RSPB on the party conference merry-go-round

    I am on my way to Brighton for the Labour Party conference. For me, it is my first foray of the conference season. For our parliamentary team, this is week two. Over the years, I have been to all three on many occasions and you do feel like you start with Lib Dems in summer and finish in autumn. In between your life stands still... a blur of meetings, speeches, canapes and B&Bs.

    Well, it still feels like summer to me. But last week, our parliamentary team definitely enjoyed autumn in Glasgow. Below is their summary of events last week - see it as a message from our own Westminster wigeon...

    The UK party conference season is in full swing and the RSPB is on the road to Glasgow, Brighton and Manchester, making sure that in these difficult economic times the environment doesn't get forgotten as the parties start to draft their manifestos for a likely General Election in 2015, giving our supporters and conference delegates the chance to quiz leading political figures.

    The questions at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow were wide ranging, from GMOs to funding cutbacks to climate change. On the latter question, Stuart Housden, Director of RSPB Scotland brought the debate to life with evidence of real life, present-day impacts of climate change that RSPB scientists have identified by monitoring the effects of food chain changes on capercaillie numbers. Even a subtle change in weather patterns can shift the emergence of caterpillars out of a crucial window for feeding chicks and year-on-year, even a small change in food availability can have a crippling effect on a species that is still struggling on the IUCN red list.

    This kind of demonstrable impact of climate change is a powerful tool in our communications with members and policymakers, a distinctive RSPB contribution and one of our best ways in to talk about the urgency of mitigation and adaptation. Few other organisations can bring as much depth of data and experience to the table as the RSPB, thanks to our scientists and members across the country.

    Our engagement at conferences and in the wider debates in society is about using RSPB's distinctive voice to make a difference for nature. A single political decision can have as much benefit for the environment as long, costly conservation projects and the RSPB has a proud history of making a real difference on the back of its weighty, evidence-based research. We bring a message that speaks of the importance of all of nature, and people’s place in nature, with the support of a million members. As MPs often remind us, we have more members than all three big parties combined.

    In Glasgow, we spent much of our time reminding politicians and party members that climate change and “green” aren’t synonymous. We have to find ways to create a low-carbon economy without causing serious damage to nature in other ways. We met with MPs and MSPs including Liam McArthur, David Heath, Julian Huppert, Vince Cable and Roger Williams and challenged them about policies like the Common Agricultural Policy that have such wide ranging impacts on wildlife.

    In particular, at this conference, we found ourselves asking why the environment is struggling to appear in the Liberal Democrats’ top line messages. Nick Clegg may have been talking about the new 5p levy on plastic bags (a welcome step), but the conference strap line was “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society”. From a party that once shouted about the “green thread” running through its manifesto, we would have welcomed clearer recognition that a healthy economy and a healthy, fair society both rely on a healthy environment.

    So, that’s why we are at the party conferences: the RSPB has a unique and urgent story and we want to harness the passion of some of our million members to tell it. Being there to tell RSPB’s story is more important than ever and we’'ll be holding the parties to account to make sure that by the time the next State of Nature report is published there are positive results to report.

    Tonight, I'll be participating in our next State of Nature Question Time event joining Mary Creagh MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the panel.  I'm hoping that our event and subsequent meetings helps to raise the profile of nature conservation this week and more political attention in subsequent months.

    I'll let you know how we get on.

    In the meantime, what do you think the Labour Party should be doing to use it's political voice for nature?

    It would be great to hear your views.