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.
As the hen harrier season comes to an end, I thought I'd welcome Bea Ayling, the RSPB's hen harrier officer, to give her reflections on the season.Whilst hiking in the Pentland Hills last weekend, enjoying the fresh smell of the blooming heather after the rain and the stunning views over Edinburgh, I couldn’t help but feel sad. Not because the summer is coming to an end, but because I knew, yet again hen harriers are struggling to survive in our uplands and I had little chance of seeing a hen harrier myself that day.It’s been a turbulent year for hen harriers and for those of us trying to protect them and given all the confusion, I thought that it would be helpful if my end of year round-up set the record straight. This year, there were only six successful nests in England, fledging 18 chicks. Although this is the most successful year since 2010, we are still a long way from the 300 or more breeding pairs that there should be in England’s uplands. The main reason hen harriers are in such a desperate situation is illegal persecution because they are perceived as a threat to the production of high numbers of red grouse for shooting.The RSPB was involved in the protection of three of these successful nests this year, one in Bowland and two on Forestry Commission land in Northumberland, where we are part of the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership with the Forestry Commission and Natural England. This was the first successful pairing and breeding of hen harriers on a public forest estate in Northumberland for several yearsHowever, it wasn’t an easy ride. We are aware of an additional seven nesting attempts in England that sadly failed. Of these, five failed due to the still unexplained and unusual disappearances of five apparently healthy adult males (four from Bowland and one from Geltsdale). Males are vulnerable when travelling far and wide in order to provision the female whilst on the nest. If the male fails to return to the nest, the female is forced to leave to look for food and the nest will fail.At Bowland, there was a second egg laying attempt by one of the females in one of the original nests (i.e. two egg clutches in one nest). Unfortunately this second attempt failed and we think this might have been due to the adopting male being a young bird who lacked the experience to provision well enough. The final failure at Bowland was likely due to predation by a small, ground-based predator such as a stoat.
CREDIT: James Bray, RSPB
Happier news is that RSPB nature reserves across the UK provided a home to over 60 pairs of hen harriers in 2015, about 10% of the UK population. This was on the tiny percentage of the UK's uplands where the RSPB has reserves, which is why we are working hard to help hen harriers beyond our reserves too. In some cases, the RSPB and our partners operate 24 hour nest protection under necessary licences from statutory authorities and following strict protocols to ensure there is no unnecessary disturbance. It’s a drastic measure, but one that works, protecting two successful hen harrier nests last year and we have operated many similar successful nest watch schemes over the years for other rare birds, such as the bee-eater nest in Cumbria this summer, Montagu’s harriers and red kites.We’re also doing everything we can to protect these birds once they leave the nest and are able to satellite tag hen harriers thanks to the support of the EU LIFE+ Programme. The JNCC identifies illegal persecution as the key threat to hen harriers and satellite tagging is helping to improve understanding of this threat. We can follow the birds where they go and recover bodies if they die which we send for post mortem. This has allowed us to identify cases of illegal persecution that would have otherwise gone undetected. For example, Annie, a female hen harrier chick satellite tagged last year on Scotland’s Langholm Moor went missing in March 2015. Thanks to satellite tagging, her body which had been shot was recovered elsewhere.Through the Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project, the RSPB was able to satellite tag one male chick in Bowland in July. When the tag showed that the bird was not moving, our Investigations Team went out to check on the birds. Sadly, three of the four chicks in the nest were found dead close to the nest; however, one chick had fledged and was seen flying around.The post-mortems and other tests on the three chicks were inconclusive. Our camera footage shows that the juveniles were alive at least two days after tagging and that they were not killed during the day. Since the close proximity of the three bodies doesn’t suggest predation, we therefore suspect that they succumbed to either disease or starvation and were subsequently scavenged.We are closely following the movements of the other birds that we satellite tagged this summer, and we hope to share some of their stories with you soon on the project website: www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlifeWorking with partners and volunteers, the RSPB is doing more than ever to protect hen harriers across the UK thanks to our supporters and EU funding from the LIFE+ Programme. The work underway through the Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project includes:
- making use of the improved understanding of hen harrier movements to enhance the protection of hen harriers at both breeding and wintering sites.
- ensuring as far as possible that habitat availability does not limit harrier recovery.
- raising public awareness throughout the UK of hen harriers, the threats they face, and conservation efforts to overcome these.
- encouraging recognition by local communities and land managers of the hen harrier as an iconic species of upland landscapes, to increase support for their protection.
With better understanding of the movements of hen harriers coming from the LIFE+ Prroject, we remain hopeful that England's harriers can look forward to better prospects.
Further to my blog on Monday (here) where I referenced recent debates about how best to inspire action for nature, here are some thoughts from the RSPB's Chief Executive Mike Clarke
Chris Packham’s piece in the most recent issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine, in which he challenges a number of nature conservation organisations, including the RSPB, to stand up and do more, has been attracting media attention. The RSPB has been asked what we think of Chris’ comments and here, just for the record, is our view.
The short answer is that we have no problem with it whatsoever.
As a strong supporter of our charity’s cause, we are delighted that Chris is one of our Vice Presidents. He is well known as a vocal and passionate advocate for nature. His views are based on broad knowledge of ecology, and reflect a significant strand of public opinion. That does not mean to say that we will always agree on what is the best way to conserve nature, but it would be wrong of us to dismiss such views out of hand. Even where we disagree, Chris’s occasional criticisms usually tell us that we haven’t expressed our view on an issue clearly enough. It is right that we accept his feedback in the spirit that it is meant, because we know that Chris has the interests of nature at heart.
On fox hunting, for example, the RSPB does not take a position, because it is primarily a welfare issue and this is outside of our charitable remit. As a nature conservation charity, we are obliged to be clear in making this distinction, but we recognise that for many individuals “welfare” and “conservation” are part and parcel of their personal values, with respect to how they wish society to live in harmony with nature. It is not unreasonable for one of our charity’s Vice Presidents to reflect concerns that some of our members and the public may also be expressing. The best response is to ensure we are explaining our (often nuanced) positions clearly and regularly enough.
Chris is very clear that he is expressing an opinion, and we will always defend his, or anyone’s, right to express an honestly-held opinion. His views are not opinions masquerading as facts, but are based on his own perceptions as a keen naturalist and the conversations he will be having with others.
We are not afraid to listen to his views – what are the motives of those who do not want him to be heard?
I’ve spent the last few days focussing on the relationship between the European Union and the future of our wildlife and the special places that they call home here in the UK.
Last week European Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella and Biodiversity Minister Rory Stewart helped us to celebrate a significant milestone in our Wallasea Island Wild Coast project in Essex. This event marked the completion of the first-phase of this 670 hectare project to safeguard local wildlife and communities from rising sea levels while helping to provide habitat for climate colonisers such as black-winged stilt. It's a project that highlights the scope to work constructively with industry, in this case our main partners Crossrail, to restore a significant chunk of the Essex coast.
A picture of Wallasea taken on my previous visit - more of the site will look like this over time
It is clear that Mr Vella recognises the free services that nature gives us and believes that a healthy natural environment underpins our economy. He said “if we treat nature well, she will treat us well – if we treat her badly, she will treat us worse”. While praising the partnership between business, government and the RSPB, he also clearly understands the role of regulation in helping to achieve environmental objectives.
I trust that this (and the 520,000 people that spoke up for nature this summer) will influence his thinking as he considers the result of the consultation on the ‘fitness’ of the EU Birds and Habitats Directives (the Nature Directives). The Nature Directives have a proven track record of saving nature here in the UK and across the EU (see here) are compatible with business objectives and are good for people.
Cooperation on the coast is not, unfortunately, quite as apparent in parts of our English uplands.
Quite soon, Mr Vella we have to consider how best to respond to the legal complaint that we have made to the European Commission regarding Natural England’s handling of the management agreement struck with Walshaw Moor Estate, part of the South Pennies in West Yorkshire. You can read a background to this case here.
I was in Brussels on Monday to meet officials to discuss progress with our complaint. As I have written previously, we believe that Natural England was wrong to allow burning on active and degraded peatland* within a Special Area of Conservation (SAC).
Moor burn by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
There is clear and compelling evidence that burning peatlands has significant negative impacts on peat hydrology, peat chemistry and physical properties, river water chemistry and river ecology (see here). The Adaptation Sub-Committee (of the Climate Change Committee) showed that 76,000 hectares or 27% of blanket bog have lost peat-forming vegetation due to regular burning. Moreover, continued burning will thwart restoration of peatland habitats (here). By entering into an agreement that sanctioned burning, Natural England failed to take action to avoid damage - an obligation under Article 6.3 of the Habitats Directive.
However, as I have also reported (see here), our complaint has revealed the scale and extent of burning on deep peat across five SACs designated to protect blanket bog in the north English uplands. Over 150 existing management agreements that give permission to burn blanket bog in these protected areas are up for renewal over the next few years, so this case not only has a bearing on an individual site, it can affect the future management of large tracts of the English uplands.
Through research (here), we have also now revealed how the intensity of burning on peatlands has increased 11% per annum over the past decade and that 44% of 1km squares where burning was recorded was on deep peat rather than on habitats that are less sensitive to burning. The same research also reveals that SACs in northern England have the highest levels of burning of all UK upland SACs and that, across the UK, the area of deep peat soils burned inside SACs was 82% higher than the equivalent areas outside SACs – this means that damaging fires are intensifying in exactly the worst places for nature and the environment.
The drive to burn our hills lies in the desire of the grouse shooting industry to increase and maximise the shootable surplus of red grouse and, in this, they have been successful: current densities of grouse of English moors are higher than they have ever been with post-breeding density of 370 pairs per km2 recorded in 2014 which is six times the density recommended by Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust in the early 1990s, nearly double that recommended by the Moorland Association and perhaps a hundred times the natural density of the red grouse which we see with their continental relatives the willow grouse.
We have a track record of working constructively with many industries – often when our initial encounters have been adversarial – and this is no different with grouse shooting. But, the scale of environmental damage means that status quo is not an option. While some call for a ban, we continue to call for licensing of driven grouse shooting (see here) to secure the environmental benefits provided by well managed moors.
The drive for intensification has a cost measured in lost wildlife and a landscape that is worse for our water supply and is compromised as store of carbon, boosting the release of green house gas emissions.
This is the context that Mr Vella must review as the European Commission is keen to reach a decision on out complaint in the next few months. The European Commission, and ultimately Mr Vella, will have to decide...
...if it is right to allow burning to continue on internationally important peatland habitats when the evidence suggests this is bad for water, bad for greenhouse gas emissions and bad for wildlife ...if it is right for public money through agri-environment schemes to support an environmentally damaging regime ...whether Natural England’s emerging plan to restore peatlands is adequate.
Over the coming months, Mr Vella has an opportunity not only to defend the EU Nature Directives but also to ensure they are properly implemented in the English uplands. This is, of course, hot stuff politically, but Mr Vella’s job is to stand up for wildlife and uphold European law, so I trust he will reach the right decisions.
*Degraded bog refers to bog where the peat-forming surface vegetation has been lost or damaged in some way and includes bare peat, heather-dominated bog, drained peat, afforested bog, burnt bog, ‘over-grazed’ bog.
An active blanket bog is one that has retained typical peat-forming (bog-forming) vegetation types – especially mosses (especially Sphagnum mosses), sedges like bog cotton and even species like purple moor grass (Molinia). It follows that an active peatland must have the plants that form peat.