June, 2014

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
  • Why it’s time to license driven grouse shooting

    There was good news earlier this month.  We were able to report on three hen harrier nests in Northern England.  I hope that this is the start of a long road to the recovery of this species.

    But, even to guarantee the nesting success of these birds, we have to mount a 24 hour nest watch to protect them.

    Hen Harrier chicks. Photo by Mick Demain
    Photo by Mick Demain 

    And then we wait.  We wait to see if they can survive - once they leave the nest, we can’t do much more than monitor their progress and hope for the best.  

    It is ridiculous that in 21st century England, we have to run a round-the-clock surveillance programme.  But we can have no confidence that they are safe on their nest or that they can fly free from persecution (see here).  Driven grouse moors are the most intensive form of game management and the trend from some has been to increase the shootable surplus of birds: burning on peat or non-peat soils, medicated grit, and both legal and, still, some illegal predator control.  Hen harriers are for some grouse moor owners their least loved bird. 

    Given the near eradication of the species as a breeding bird in England (see here) and the intensity of the management of our uplands (see here), we cannot accept the status quo.  

    The RSPB is 125 years old this year.  It spent much of its first fifty years campaigning for law reform to prevent the wanton destruction of wild birds.  Today, we think more reform is urgently needed.

    We need and expect the grouse shooting community to change: the industry must demonstrate they can operate in harmony with birds of prey and help to restore the environmental quality of our hills.

    So, today, we have written to the organisation representing the moorland owners of England explaining why we believe it is time to regulate the industry.  A copy of the letter is shown below.  We shall also be writing to the major political parties to urge them to introduce a robust licensing system to govern driven grouse moor management after the election.

    We attach great importance to working positively with progressive voices in shooting and our Skydancer programme is just one example of this.  We are delighted that Skydancer is one of the good causes that has been nominated for a National Lottery Award (for which the public can vote)  in recognition of the approach we are taking with our partners.

    Yet, no other country in Europe has such lax laws governing hunting with no control on quotas or intensity of management. Illegal killing of birds of prey, including peregrine falcons and goshawks, continues (see here) and our upland environment remains in a parlous state: just ten percent of the 162,000 hectares of blanket bog designated as SSSI are in favourable condition (here), and inappropriate management leads to water contamination and increase in greenhouse gas emissions (here). This was the context for our formal complaint to the European Commission to protect Walshaw Moor, part of the South Pennines Moor SAC, SPA and SSSI. We took this unprecedented step to stop inappropriate burning on degraded blanket bog, which is preventing it from being restored, as required under EU law. We wouldn’t have to take this action if our uplands were being managed properly (see here). 

    Intensive burning and drainage measures on a Natura 2000 deep peatland site

    If birds of prey populations were flourishing and if our uplands were in better condition, perhaps there would be no need for a licensing system to guarantee standards.  But that is not the case in England, which is why we need a licensing system to govern grouse moor management to deliver environmental outcomes.  This would complement other proposals such as the introduction of an offence of vicarious liability for illegal killing of birds of prey (to match the system in place in Scotland), and greater efforts to restore our peatlands.

    The growing concern about hen harriers in England has also seen bird watchers unite to dedicate 10 August as hen harrier day with a series of rallies being organised across Northern England.  We will be supporting the day offering ways for people to get involved and we will be emailing our supporters with more information about how they can support Hen Harrier Day during July.  We want people to unite to call for the end of persecution of this extraordinary bird.  

    And we will continue to urge DEFRA to develop the promised robust action plan that will drive hen harrier recovery.  We expect leadership from a government that has committed to preventing extinction from human causes.  But, the grouse shooting community needs to change.

    Photo by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
    Photo by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

    If you would like to support our campaign for restoring the uplands and saving birds of prey, you can do three things...

    1. Please take part on hen harrier day by attending an event or show your support through social media.

    2. Vote for our Skydancer project in this year's National Lottery Awards (see here)

    3. Donate to our appeal which will be launched in the next couple of weeks. This appeal will help us to match EU LIFE+ funding, allowing us to purchase satellite tags to keep track of our hen harriers, survey them on their breeding and wintering grounds, collect new evidence to bring criminals to justice, and raise public awareness of the plight of this amazing species.

    We shall provide updates on how you can help our campaign in due course. We shall continue to focus on the state of nature and call for action to reduce the impact of any land use.  It is our job to do whatever nature needs.


    See the letter to the Moorland Association here: Letter to The Moorland Association from the Chief Executive of the RSPB.pdf

  • Moor Nature: Letter from the Moorland Association

    We have, today, received a response to our letter to the Moorland Association regarding our call for licensing of driven grouse moors.  

    While, I don't want to give a running commentary on what will now inevitably become a private conversation, this letter appeared on the Moorland Association website earlier today, so I felt it appropriate to share here.  

    Later this week, I shall share the principles by which any licensing system should operate.

    For now, I'd welcome any thoughts on the Moorland Assocation's response.


    Dr Mike Clarke
    Chief Executive, RSPB
    The Lodge
    SG19 2DL

    Dear Mike,

    The Moorland Association welcomes the RSPB’s support for sustainable grouse moors that “provide a safe home for birds of prey and other threatened species” and agrees that “our amazing upland wildlife” needs our collective care. Thank you for your letter.

    I can assure you that the aim of the Moorland Association is to encourage and promote the conservation and enhancement of the ecology and natural beauty of heather moorland. We take great pride in the flora and fauna that are doing well under the careful management of our members; the black grouse, ring ouzel, merlin, lapwing, golden plover and curlew are just a few amber or red listed birds that have refuges on driven grouse moors. All are benefiting directly from grouse moor gamekeepers undertaking predator control and habitat management funded by grouse shooting.

    As red grouse are wild, sympathetic management of the moors is all our members can do to safeguard the population and encourage a viable surplus to then be harvested by shooting. With that in mind, it makes no sense to deliberately ‘damage or destroy’ the very habitat on which the grouse depend.

    Over 70% of grouse moors are designated as SSSI for flora and fauna largely delivered by the way grouse moors have been managed so well over the last 200 years, with 96% in favourable recovering condition. Clearly, there is still room for improvement, but with designation comes regulation and the Moorland Association feels that a further regulatory framework is at least unnecessary red tape and at worst could be damaging to the huge progress now being made with statutory and other bodies on peatland restoration on grouse moors. Equally, the hen harrier conflict is well recognised and we hope to see Defra’s Joint Recovery Plan, which you have helped write, signed off and implemented so that we can build on the success of this year’s breeding on moorland managed for red grouse in Bowland across England in a sustainable way.

    The definition of what sustainable and successful land management in the uplands looks like is perhaps the nub of the question that needs answering. The Moorland Association, whose members look after one fifth of the uplands of England and Wales, need to work with you and other partners and through constructive dialogue create a Code of Practice for all upland land managers based on clear outcomes that also take into consideration the multiple objectives of the land use; be they water quality, conservation, agriculture, access and grouse moor management. Surely a healthy abundance of a suite of waders and an economically thriving local upland community are just as important as re-wetting the moors and encouraging sphagnum moss growth to clean water and lock up carbon?

    This is challenging work, but I am sure we are more than tenacious enough to rise to it and rediscover the common ground that I think we still share.

    The Chairman and I look forward to meeting you to discuss in the near future.

    Yours sincerely,

    Amanda Anderson BSc., MSc., PGCE

  • Buzzards in the firing line again?

    The buzzard is a wonderful bird of prey that has only recently recovered from sustained historic persecution, to become a regular and cherished sight in our countryside,. However, it still remains the victim of widespread persecution in the UK – remember the recent slaughter of six buzzards and 16 red kites in Ross-shire? It is, like all birds or prey, long-lived and produces relatively few young every year. This makes the species susceptible to the impact of removal of adults from the population. Any relaxation of their protection coupled with ongoing persecution could ultimately threaten the population and this is why we continue to fight for their protection. Unfortunately, it seems as though there are still people out there who can’t tolerate buzzards in our countryside.

    You may remember that Natural England granted licences to control buzzards at a chicken farm and pheasant shoot last year – the first time that such licenses had been issued. I made it clear at that time that we had very serious concerns about the use of licences to kill buzzards. Subsequent licence applications to kill adult buzzards at four pheasant shoots managed by the original applicant were then rejected by NE, which was good news. The applicant admitted that destroying nests had not solved the ‘problem‘.

    Credit: Ben Hall rspb-images.com

    To find out what is happening this year, we asked NE to tell us whether any new licence applications had been made to control buzzards or any other birds of prey. Perhaps not surprisingly, we have found out that an application was made on 23 April to cage trap and shoot ten buzzards across four sites to prevent ‘serious damage’ to pheasant poults. We also know the applicant has sought licences to control buzzards in previous years.

    I am disappointed that a new licence application has been sought to control buzzards to protect gamebirds.

    To our knowledge, there isn't any evidence to justify issuing licences for the control of buzzards and we think the application should be rejected by Natural England, especially since they rejected applications for the same activity last year.

    We would wish any new evidence to be put in the public domain.

    We also can’t understand why this case is so exceptional that the applicant needs to apply for these permissions when other pheasant keepers don’t see the need. There are loads of ways to prevent young pheasants being killed by buzzards, for example by creating cover for the gamebirds or by installing deterrents to keep buzzards away.

    What happens next year if more buzzards fill the territories left vacant by those killed this year? Another application and more dead buzzards? 

    We believe Defra should issue clear guidance to NE that they should reject all licences to control buzzards given the lack of evidence of widespread problems and their status. To date, they have shown no signs of doing so.

    In the meantime, we’ll continue to ask NE to give the public information on these licence applications and their reasons for accepting or rejecting them. What we really need is the gamekeeping industry to identify ways in which they can live alongside buzzards and invest in protecting their poults without resorting the lethal control. We can’t understand why they haven’t invested in research into this if it’s such a big problem. We will watch carefully to find out whether NE grants the licence or not and let you know what we find out.

    I know that most people would prefer to see buzzards in the sky rather than trapped or killed. They want to know that they are flying free from persecution.

    A test of a modern 21st century society is one that tolerates predators and finds ways to live in harmony with brids of prey. Reaching for the gun, every time there is a perceived conflict, is the wrong response.

    If you are as concerned about this as we are, please ask Defra to tell Natural England to reject this licence application by emailing them at defra.helpline@defra.gsi.gov.uk or on Twitter @DefraGovUK using #buzzard.