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.
Today, we have a guest post from RSPB Chief Executive Dr Mike Clarke. As the grouse shooting season begins, Mike talks about hen harrier conservation...
Two weeks ago I was at the CLA Game Fair, talking direct to a range of people from the shooting and countryside sports communities. This weekend I was in Buxton, Derbyshire, celebrating “Hen Harrier Day” with Birders Against Wildlife Crime and hundreds of others from across the country.
What was fascinating, was that despite the very different audiences (although there were a few people present at both), the topic of hen harriers and how to recover their populations, especially in England, was high on the agenda.
As you can imagine views on how best to do this were many and varied.
This Wednesday is the Glorious 12th – the traditional start of the grouse shooting season – and so it only seemed right to reflect on the conversations I've had over the last couple of weeks and update you on what we think should happen next.
Firstly Defra needs to publish its action plan for wider discussion.
From what we know of it there are in essence, six points to the draft Action Plan. The first four are all targeted at tackling illegal persecution – this is acknowledged to be the biggest factor limiting England’s hen harrier population.
The RSPB fully supports these and indeed we are getting on with delivering action to conserve hen harriers on the ground in northern England and southern and eastern Scotland through our EU Life co-funded hen harrier project. We are also working in partnership elsewhere.
The fifth point is a reintroduction scheme to southern England. We've not been a huge fan of this proposal, as it does nothing to tackle the main limiting factor on England’s hen harriers.
However, in the interests of finding a plan everyone can support, we have come to the conclusion we would be happy with such a project being progressed, as long as it was within the IUCN guidelines on reintroductions.
This wouldn't be an alternative to tackling persecution – indeed, the project would be most unlikely be successful unless persecution was addressed – but if taken forward alongside the first four points of the action plan, it could increase the nesting range of harriers in England.
But, it is critical that a re-introduction element does not distract us from getting hen harriers settling and breeding successfully in the uplands of England.
Our view on the sixth point – a brood management scheme – remains unchanged. We think there are significant legal, ethical and practical questions to answer. But we’ve not said never to brood management.
All we’ve said is that there must be some level of reasonable national recovery before it kicks in. There’s two principle reasons for this.
The first is purely biological.
There are currently barely a handful of hen harriers nesting in England. It bizarrely seems to get forgotten in much of the debate, but the idea of hen harriers impacting grouse numbers in England is currently entirely hypothetical.
But we must acknowledge it can happen under some circumstances as was shown at Langholm moor, but currently there is no grouse moor in England that can claim hen harriers are adversely impacting on grouse numbers – there simply aren't enough harriers.
With that in mind, it seems daft to start the recovery of the hen harrier by prioritising a predation reduction scheme over all the other pressing points in the plan, especially as we know that diversionary feeding works very well!
The second reason is perhaps less concrete, but just as important – trust.
Trust is a hard thing to come by and in this area it’s sorely lacking. With an industry often in denial that there is an issue to be dealt with and attacks on the RSPB from some sectors, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that there is a lack of trust that a brood management scheme could be delivered.
After all the law says you shouldn’t interfere with harriers, but we know it happens. Only today we have confirmed news that Annie, a hen harrier tagged as part of the Langholm Demonstration Project, has been illegally shot in Scotland – and awful and timely reminder that this is far from a hypothetical argument.
A reasonable national recovery of hen harriers before brood management kicks in is vital not just for biological reasons, but to provide evidence that the grouse shooting industry can be trusted to work within the law and deliver on its promises.
In the interests of fairness, I should point out that the Moorland Association did tell me at the Game Fair that they considered many of the public comments made about the RSPB “inaccurate and unhelpful”.
It is perhaps worth at this juncture considering what the Government in England must do now.
First they have a duty under EU conservation law (The ‘Birds’ Directive) to maintain the populations of hen harriers across their natural range. They must also declare Special Protection Areas (SPA’s) for them, and ensure they are in Favourable Conservation Status (FCS).
Neither is the case at present and both require concerted action inside and outside of SPAs to effectively deliver these requirements. In England, two SPA’s (Bowland fells & North Pennine Moors) were designated for hen harriers. Both comprise significant areas of grouse moor.
So addressing the conservation problems on these moors is surely essential. That includes looking calmly at the latest evidence on illegal persecution and habitat management (e.g. managed burning, drainage) practised on these uplands, to ensure they provide what harriers need.
Given the paucity of harriers in England, even on the SPA’s declared for them, it is clear work needs to be done across the whole of the North of England.
The grouse moor owners say (and I paraphrase), we will work with you to help harriers but only if we can have brood management-now, and certainly before harriers become an impediment to our sport. We say, lets have some harriers please, and the best way to get them is to obey the law.
If numbers do build up, deploy diversionary feeding, and only when the population is on the road to recovery, and subject to the strongest legal safeguards and transparency, might we accept a Government led scheme using brood management, whose ultimate aim is really to avoid deep impacts on grouse numbers (stocks). Depending on your viewpoint we are still light years apart-or tantalisingly close to a deal. But surely moorland managers see the need to build public confidence in their activities?
But before we start to confidence build-as we surely should let’s get the Defra proposal out there in the public domain.
There’s too many conversations going on about it, without most of us having seen the full specific proposals which are being advanced. Let’s put the terms for a proposed brood management scheme on the table, and we can all have the debate in an informed way, rather than dealing in rumours and supposition.
And I don’t mean the mechanics of rearing birds in captivity-important though that is.
No, we need to agree how we get FCS on our Upland SPA’s, recover harrier numbers and have a system that roots out illegal activity, and builds long term public trust. It could trial a pilot ‘licensing’ system, to show what can be done, and yes if harrier numbers rise sufficiently to warrant it, introduce brood mangement.
The 12th will come and go and the grouse shooting season will kick off again. I hear there might not actually be much shooting as grouse numbers are well down due to the weather. Its a lesson that no matter what man does, in the end the weather is ultimately the biggest determining factor for most birds, even above the role of predation.
But one thing is for sure. As I said at the Hen Harrier event in Buxton, the RSPB will never ever give up the fight for our hen harriers. Protection of birds of prey is one of those issues that runs through this organisation like the pattern in a stick of rock.
We’re doing everything we can to help broker a deal, for the benefit of harriers and the other species of wildlife which rely on our iconic upland habitats. But we are absolutely clear what we still consider unacceptable.
Dialogue has its place and is undoubtedly important, but we’ve been talking for years with little measurable movement towards sustainable land management on driven grouse moor areas.
It’s time to act.
After the wet Bank Holiday weekend I am looking forward to going to Hope Farm tomorrow. It will be good to catch up with our farm manager, Ian Dillon, to hear about harvest and results from this year’s breeding season. Together we’ll be hosting some new visitors and, as ever, it will be interesting to see how they respond to what we have achieved over the past 15 years or so.
Arable flowers at Hope Farm this year
We’re still learning and testing new techniques, but want as many people as possible to hear how we have managed to increase farmland bird populations while maintaining healthy yields. And, we want government to be curious about how to maintain farm profitability while enhancing the natural world.
Defra has the opportunity to create the right policy framework through its proposed 25 year food and farming strategy. Yet, when I attended the launch of the consultation earlier in the summer, I was disappointed that the focus was on growing the brand of Great British Food to encourage exports.
If we want our countryside to be a thriving place in 25 years time (for me that means providing a home for wildlife as well as producing sustainable healthy food for all) then we need to look beyond short term economic boosts to exports. We need to think deeply about how we can support farmers to invest in their soils and manage for a diverse countryside which is rich in nature and resilient to the challenges of climate change. There are many fantastic farmers who are doing great things for nature and producing great food (you can read about them on our farming blog) and I know there are many others who would like to do more if conditions allowed.
The challenges of our food and farming system are inextricably linked to those of nature, health and climate change. The Square Meal report published last year, which RSPB helped produce, describes these challenges. I would urge Defra to revisit this report and use it to reframe their approach to food and farming and to ensure it complements the 25 Year Plan for Biodiversity.
Perhaps the Plan we envisage is a little more challenging that one simply focusing on exports. Yet, a plan which recognises the challenges faced across government on wildlife declines, obesity and climate change is more likely to ensure that in 25 years time we truly have a Great British Countryside which we can all be proud of.
You can find out more about Defra's 25 year Plan here and Hope Farm here. Better still, why not keep 5 June free for Open Farm Sunday and visit Hope Farm next year.
My first week back after an excellent holiday ended with a visit to Birdfair on Friday. It was a great to bump in to so many friends and there was a lovely, warm atmosphere. It felt like one, big birding family epitomised by over 20 Birdlife International Partners from five continents represented at the RSPB reception hosted by my boss, Mike Clarke.
Earlier that day, we (and I mean 'we' given that the RSPB is the UK Partner of Birdlife) had launched a new report looking at the scale of illegal killing of wild birds across the Mediterranean. It is staggering to think that at least 25 million birds are being poisoned, trapped or shot illegally every year. We don't yet know the conservation implications of of this activity, but given the many other pressures on wildlife it is clear that the illegal killing will only compound existing threats such as habitat destruction and pollution.
Yet, despite the appalling figures, it was inspiring to hear from the heads of the Lebanese and Egyptian partners outlining the efforts they are making to crack down on illegal killing. Birdlife partners across the region are working with police, government authorities and local people to end this crime. And this is the approach we adopt in the UK and RSPB investigation staff were busy all weekend at Birdfair talking to people concerned about the ongoing illegal killing of birds of prey in this country.
So many of the problems that wildlife face are trans-national - climate change being the most obvious. And, saving migratory species such as Turtle Dove, Cuckoo, Nightingale and Wood Warbler is only possible through collaboration across borders. This is why Birdlife is so important. We can only save nature by acting together as was demonstrated this summer when, in just ten weeks, more than 520,000 European citizens called on the European Commission to defend the EU Nature Directives.
Returning to the office after a holiday can sometimes be challenging especially when you hear news of another Hen Harrier shot and that SSSIs are not safe from fracking (of the 27 blocks of land that will be formally offered to fracking companies for exploration, they included 53 SSSIs and three RSPB nature reserves - Dearne Valley, Fairburn Ings and Langford Lowfields, see here). But by the end of the week, as well as being buoyed by Birdfair and Birdlife exploits, I'd heard loads of good news stories coming in from across the RSPB (Cranes breeding on the Somerset Levels for the first time in 400 years, Brown Hares recovering at Havergate and our new involvement in Sherwood Forest).
It's wrong to stay gloomy for long.
In his very good opening speech to Birdfair, Simon Bentley (Director of Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust) quoted Simon Barnes who suggested there was a third way between pessimism and optimism where we strive to to save as many glorious species and places as possible while we still can.
I like that sentiment - it seems to just about sum up the work of Birdlife International and the whole nature conservation family.
And it also allows me to show a gratuitous holiday picture of Coquet Island - another glorious place full of glorious seabirds where our warden, Paul Morrison, has led our conservation efforts for a quarter of a century. He and his team have a lot to be proud about: Coquet is now home to a record breaking 100 pairs of Roseate Terns alongside 35,000 other nesting seabirds. Thanks to Paul, I was able to step foot on the island after twenty years staring at it from my hut on the Northumberland coast. It was an absolute privilege to experience first hand the cacophony and smell of the UK's Roseate stronghold. I was also very happy to get back onto the mainland (but that's another story)
So, if you are part of this great big, birding family, my post holiday message is simple - do what you can in pursuit of Simon Barnes' third way.