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.
There has been a bit of a hullabaloo over the blog that I wrote below and subsequent interview I gave to the Observer. For much of the past year I have been castigated for being anti shooting and the ultimate insult for some was me being seen alongside the Chief Executive of the League Against Cruel Sports at the December Rally for Nature. So, it was rather bemusing to see another headline writer misunderstand our position and the inevitable uproar on social media.
I think I shall continue to disappoint everyone and say that we are neither anti nor pro shooting. We are neutral on the ethics of shooting. And, guess what, we have been for over a hundred years.
As I wrote in the original blog and on many previous occasions, we will continue to condemn bad practice associated with shooting such as burning on peatland to increase the shootable surplus of red grouse. Moreover, when this is illegal (such as the killing of birds of prey) we will work with the police to catch the criminals. I am proud of the track record of our investigations team - no other organisation has done more than the RSPB to try to stamp out illegal killing and this effort continues.
But, there are people who are doing some good things and what I was trying to do was give praise where it is due. 60% of UK species for which we have data is in decline. Nature needs all the friends it can get especially those who invest in managing their land in a sensitive and thoughtful way. And we will continue to work with those that try to do good.
We have a rich and diverse charity sector which includes those that champion animal welfare causes and those like the RSPB whose charitable objectives focus on conservation.
Both causes take action for public good and the distinct approaches should be respected.
And, one final thought. Today's little storm has, if anything, reinforced the point I was trying to make - a simplistic interpretation of our position is not only wrong but unhelpfully divisive.
If you are a regular reader of certain shooting or farming magazines, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the RSPB had a fraught working relationship with the whole landowning community.
The reality is very different. We have developed excellent relationships with many farmers and landowners over the years. We have done this because much of the UK's wildlife depends on farmland and we work with thousands of farmers to find and share practical wildlife-friendly farming techniques.
These relationships are important to us and have resulted in some amazing conservation stories, such as the recovery of the cirl bunting and, as James Robinson described in his guest blog last week, the stone curlew. The future of these two species relies almost entirely on the sympathetic management of their habitats by farmers.
Andy Hay's wonderful image of an adult male cirl bunting (rspb-images.com)
Many lowland farmers also manage their land for pheasant and partridge shooting. The RSPB is neutral on the ethics of shooting wild or released birds yet we are often misrepresented in the shooting press as anti-shooting. This is wrong, unhelpful and unnecessarily imposes a strain on our relationships with some in the farming community.
Yes, we condemn wildlife crime including any persecution of protected birds of prey. And yes, we continue to work with the police to end illegal killing which remains prevalent in the uplands, threatening the future of hen harrier, and still occurs on some lowland estates.
But, the contribution progressive shoots can make to supporting threatened wildlife is significant, and we are delighted to help them further.
This isn’t a contradiction. We simply do whatever nature needs and will work with anyone that wants to help wildlife.
Plenty of farmers with shoots provide beneficial habitat management for wildlife and we recognise and value this. In areas where good habitat management is combined with low release densities, or in areas that work to promote breeding populations of gamebirds, the impacts can be very positive. For the grey partridge, work by shoot owners through farm management is really important for the species’ long-term recovery.
Game estate habitat management includes woodland sky-lighting, planting cover crops, creating conservation headlands, and more. Recent figures from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) show that shoots create or maintain 7,000 ha of hedgerows and 100,000 ha of copses (see here) . That’s a lot of land for wildlife. It is likely that game estate management, including farmland habitat management and targeted predator control can increase the numbers of some birds, for example ground- nesting species such as lapwing and grey partridge. Research shows that woodland management for pheasants can increase the numbers of some bird groups, such as warblers (see here) and estate management also benefits some small mammals, particularly wood mice and bank voles (see here).
I am delighted that many farmers recognise the constructive working relationships we develop. For example, Kate Mayne, a farmer from Shropshire recently said, “We have received invaluable advice from the RSPB regarding cereal mixes for our grey partridge release programme; mixes which are also beneficial to a local population of Corn Bunting on our farm. The RSPB have been extremely supportive as they have recognised the value that our farm shoot has to wildlife and we have worked with them to maximise this.”
As I have written previously, however, there can be negative environmental impacts associated with high densities of gamebird release, (for example see here, and here). And it is the continued increases in the numbers of pheasants and red-legged partridges released - up to c50 million per annum - that cause us particular concern (see trends in pheasant releasing here) and some of the impacts demand further research. Organisations such as GWCT provide advice on sustainable lowland shooting to help their members, many of which are farmers too (see here) but I think much more should be done to understand and address these impacts.
Our work with landowners who create wildlife-rich habitats through the work they do on their land is important for recovery of farmland wildlife. This is why we cherish our work with farmers and will continue to form new relationships with any farmer or landowner that is keen to help the wildlife we all care about. And, we will not be distracted by those wishing to cause mischief by suggesting otherwise.
What do you think about the RSPB's work with farmers and shooting estates?
It would be great to hear your views.
I’ve blogged several times about the so-called “brood management” of hen harriers, including setting out two big unanswered questions and 25 more specific ones raised by the idea of brood management.
To be honest, I’d rather hoped not to have to write another blog on brood management this soon. I’d much rather be talking about the positive work RSPB and our partners are doing for hen harriers, for example through our Life project on the species.
But the Hawk and Owl Trust have now elaborated on their apparent plans for a Brood Management Scheme, with two pieces on their website covering the “conservation” and “science” around the idea, so it feels necessary to comment.
It’s worth saying I have a huge amount of respect for the Hawk and Owl Trust and a lot of the work they’ve done over the years. While we all make bad judgements from time to time, in this case the consequences could be extremely serious.
I also think it is unedifying that Defra have left it to another conservation organisation to try to justify a brood management scheme.
This is not the way to instill confidence from those sceptical that the brood management scheme is anything other than a sop to those running the most intensive driven grouse moors.
There is one section on the Hawk and Owl Trust website that exemplifies all that is wrong with this scheme.
“The six point plan has been agreed in principle by all parties but has yet to be ratified as one member believes that the brood management trial should be delayed until Hen Harrier numbers have recovered to a pre-determined number.
This is a worthy but sadly unrealistic objective, as it is not always understood or appreciated that Hen Harriers, as colonial or semi-colonial nesters, will become concentrated on a small number of individual moors. The fact of this concentration places these birds at huge risk of further persecution.”
I object to the implication that a brood management scheme is essential to prevent further illegal killing of birds of prey.
Let’s call it what it is. The brood management scheme is a persecution avoidance scheme. And its supporters primarily come from the shooting community including the Moorland Association, the Countryside Alliance and the National Gamekeepers’ Association. Its only support from the conservation sector has been the Game and Wildlife and Conservation Trust and now the Hawk and Owl Trust – an organisation that was not part of the talks which have taken place over the past two years.
These proponents and especially Defra will have to do more to explain how it be justified legally.
The brood management scheme is a project involving a European protected species. As such it would be subject to a series of tests under European law. These aren’t arbitrary bureaucratic tests – they are the embodiment of smart nature conservation decision-making.
The first test is to demonstrate that there are no alternative ways of meeting the objectives of the project.
There are clearly alternative ways of stopping illegal killing either through better enforcement or through the proven technique of diversionary feeding.
There are no imperative reasons of overriding public interest for intervening in this way. What is so peculiar is that Defra itself recognises that the alternative measures are necessary and appropriate components of the draft Hen Harrier action plan. By including these measures, it has essentially shot its own fox – or should I say, grouse.
Even if the alternatives test was somehow past, I struggle to see how it could be justified to issue the necessary licence under section 16 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
I could offer a point by point rebuttal (I really could - I have a piece of paper sitting on my desk that does exactly that) but I cannot see how that helps anyone.
I don’t want the Hawk and Owl Trust to be set up as the fall guy by being Defra’s champion of an ill-conceived and potentially unlawful scheme.
For now, I simply want to reiterate publicly what I have said privately on many occasions. Let’s get on with the non-contentious parts of the Hen Harrier Action Plan and consult more widely on the concept of the brood management scheme.
A couple of weeks ago I spent an afternoon in court. It is rare for the RSPB to mount legal challenges and even rarer for us to go to the Court of Appeal so it felt right to pop along and listen to the debate. I am glad I did especially as earlier this week we received the good news that the panel of Judges found in our favour. They concluded that the former Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, was wrong to decide that culling a quarter of the bird populations listed within a protected site in north-west England wouldn’t affect the site’s conservation value.
This is a long-running saga which I covered previously here.
The Judges were reviewing Mr Paterson’s decisions on the Ribble and Alt Estuaries Special Protection Area, which is a site designated under the Birds Directive as being of European importance for certain species of bird, including its nesting population of lesser black-backed gulls.
John Markham's image of a lesser black-backed gull
The site is adjacent to Warton Aerodrome. BAE Systems, who operate the Aerodrome, were understandably concerned about risks to air safety from the breeding birds using the Ribble and Alt Estuaries Special Protection Area.
Having explored all possible non-lethal alternatives to reduce the risk to air safety, BAE Systems had sought permission to cull part of the breeding gull population in the Ribble and Alt Special Protection Area to reduce that risk to a safe level. In May 2013, the Secretary of State agreed to allow part of British Aerospace’s request and directed Natural England to consent a licence to cull 552 pairs of breeding lesser black-backed gulls . This was in addition to existing consents to cull 500 pairs of herring gulls and 200 pairs of lesser black-backed gulls at the same site.
We felt that the original decisions created a deeply concerning precedent for similar sites in the UK and therefore challenged those decisions by means of a Judicial Review. This challenge was heard last May but was unsuccessful. We were disturbed by the decision and sought an appeal.
Following the Court of Appeal’s Judgment, we will work with Natural England and BAE Systems to balance air safety risks with the conservation of lesser black-backed gulls and the breeding seabirds assemblage, including herring gull.
To be clear, we recognise the air safety risk, but we believed the Secretary of State’s conclusions were based on a fundamental misunderstanding of wildlife protection designed to conserve the UK’s best wildlife places. If this decision was allowed to stand, it would have had huge negative implications for future decisions concerning our best wildlife sites.
Separately, we will be taking Defra up on its offer of further discussions concerning the declining national status of these two gull species, both of which are undergoing significant national declines, including at their other major colonies in England. Alongside Natural England, we look forward to developing a national conservation strategy that will secure these birds’ long-term recovery and conservation.