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.
In the run up to our AGM tomorrow, there has been some debate about the RSPB’s position on driven grouse shooting. I am not surprised - this is a high profile issue and everyone has a right to have an opinion. However, I thought it would be useful to re-articulate our position.
In theory, grouse moors, in conservation terms, are not inherently a bad thing. A well managed moor could offer help for curlews, golden plover and allow birds of prey to fly free from harm. Sensitive management of semi-natural vegetation, active restoration of degraded habitats, and a welcome place for walkers and birdwatchers could be hallmarks of good grouse moors. Grouse moors could be striving for the highest standards of environmental management, adapting to new science and information on things as diverse as lead shot or habitat management practices.
But is there a driven grouse moor which does all of the above? If there is, we would love to know. As with any other land management system, there is a spectrum of intensity and not all grouse moors are the same. Some moor owners strive for the above, but it’s clear they are in a minority.
The current voluntary approach to meeting public expectations of what we want from our uplands, is quite obviously not working (see my recent update on the RSPB’s Walshaw complaint to the European Commission here), and the illegal killing of hen harriers and other raptors continues. This is leading some to call for an outright ban on driven grouse shooting. Whilst we do not yet take this stance, we can certainly see their point and the anger about ongoing persecution is shared.
The RSPB, which has always been neutral on the ethics of shooting, has had dialogue with the grouse industry for decades, but laws protecting the nation’s birds of prey continue to be broken. Intolerance of any predator appears to be part of the “business model” of some driven grouse shoots.
Over the last decade we've seen a significant change in the way the industry operates, with intensification of management practices, as expectations of big grouse bags have grown. These include an increase in the frequency of heather burning, often over deep peat soils, the use of grouse medication and, in some places, the culling of mountain hares in a bid to control grouse disease; and even more intensive predator control, including the widespread illegal control of protected birds and mammals.
Any responsible industry would take action to raise environmental standards and put pressure on those that tarnish the reputation of others. While there are those within the moorland community calling for reform, their voice is not loud enough or being heard. What’s worse, is that much of the grouse moor sector seem to be in denial of the impacts this intensification is having on our shared environment and wildlife. While we recognise the potentially significant benefits of grouse moor management, there is compelling and still-growing evidence that the on-the-ground reality of driven grouse shooting as currently practiced in many parts of the UK, is one where damage outweighs any benefits.
Which, if you are concerned about these things, means the status quo is not an option. You can either regulate through licensing, or ban it.
We believe that the effective regulation of grouse shooting and its associated management practices, delivered through a sensible licensing regime and effective enforcement, can deliver a grouse shooting industry fit for the 21st century. We’ve also developed and shared principles for such a scheme (here). This would complement existing legislation such as the EU Nature Directives and domestic wildlife legislation. Only time will tell if licensing is sufficient but it is the most logical next step, and long overdue. And, of course, there are many questions about how a ban on ‘driven grouse shooting’ would work in practice.
Intensive driven grouse moor management, as currently practiced in much of the UK, is environmentally unsustainable and damaging.
Licensing has the potential to deliver all of the benefits I mention at the top of the blog and more – notably healthy populations of upland wildlife of which protected birds of prey, such as hen harriers are a characteristic component. It would also set out what is expected in the wider public interest from this large scale land use in the uplands and that surely has to be a good thing.
Given the growing public profile of environmental harm associated with intensive grouse shooting, a rational industry would embrace licensing and take action to raise standards. Governments across the UK should recognise that growing intensification is incompatible with their environmental and political commitments and as a result, they need to regulate.
Failure to act will simply mean calls for a ban will intensify.
We want licensing and we want it to work.
The status quo is not an option and we cannot allow it to persist much longer.
All was calm and still for my trip to the Forest of Bowland of Friday. The sky was blue, the heather showing off its purple best while northern wheatear refused to start their migration and peacock butterflies enjoyed the late summer sun.
It was hard to reconcile this serene landscape with the turmoil and conflict that had surrounded the moor earlier this summer. A plume of smoke on the horizon (from a moor burn) was the only sign of the root cause of the conflict. Hen harriers and driven grouse moors are uneasy bedfellows, yet it was at Bowland on United Utilities land, in concert with the local shoot, that the RSPB team of volunteers and paid staff tried to provide sufficient 24/7 protection for hen harriers to nest and fledge their young.
Reams of column inches have been written about this summer’s breeding season and at times the commentary on social media has been hostile, disingenuous and divisive. All this evoked by attempts to recover England’s most threatened breeding bird.
The facts (shown below in the table published by Defra) speak for themselves: in Bowland, internationally important for its bird of prey population and designated a Special Protection Area under the EU Birds Directive, there were six nests, four missing males and just one chick fledged.
The SPA target for Bowland is 13 pairs.
Its clear we have a long way to go to end the conflict and deliver what the law requires. But, the team working in Bowland have bucket loads of dedication and determination. Lesser mortals would be forgiven for running away from such a contested landscape, yet our team are already planning how to deliver better results next year.
Those of you interested to find out more about our work to recover the Hen Harrier population should come to this Saturday’s AGM in London where they will be able to hear my colleague, Jeff Knott, outline our experience and plans for the future. A sneak preview of his talk is given here.
If you are unable to attend, please do keep an eye out on our Skydancer blog for updates on our Hen Harrier work.
Fate of Hen Harrier nests from the 2015 breeding season in England
Nest monitored by
Local raptor workers
This summer, 520,000 European citizens – including over 100,000 from the UK – sent a clear message to the European Commission that they place great value on the laws that protect nature (the EU Nature Directives). By using their voices for nature they have shouted loud and clear that the outcome of the current ‘Fitness Check’ of these laws should be a renewed focus on better implementation and enforcement. They, and a coalition of 100 NGOs from across the four countries of the UK, believe that making changes to these laws at a time when nature is in crisis would fundamentally undermine our collective efforts to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity by 2020.
The Nature Directives are important for protecting special places like the Cairngorms, for driving species recovery like Red Kite and for people such as those living in the North Kent Marshes
But it is clear there are some who hold a different view. These people are quite difficult to identify as they seem to do their business in dark corridors across Europe and seem reluctant to speak publicly. But their main gripes are clear; they argue that the Directives are a ‘burden’ on business and a ‘barrier to growth’.
In many debates about Europe, myths develop that are often based on anecdote rather than an objective assessment of the facts. So, I thought I'd take the opportunity to debunk some of the Nature Directives-related myths so as to encourage others to come forwards and share their views.
Contrary to myth, the Directives are good for nature AND business.
Smart businesses recognise the need to protect biodiversity, and value the clear and consistent level playing afforded by the well-established regulatory framework provided the EU Nature Directives. This provides businesses with certainty and helps to ensure that no Member State can gain a competitive advantage over others through the adoption of lower environmental standards. For example...
...Cemex – a leading supplier of cement, ready-mixed concrete and aggregates – has stated that "... sound and well implemented legislation are important in order to provide a level playing field for industry and stimulate innovation and enhanced performance. The EU Birds and Habitats Directives provide an appropriate and effective legal instrument for the conservation of biodiversity in Europe and an appropriate framework for the development of extractive activities in harmony with nature."
...Energy UK – the trade association for the UK energy industry – has stated that "[Our members]... are very familiar with the EU Nature Directives and consider that they are very important to nature conservation. The Nature Directives are generally achieving their conservation objectives and we do not wish them to undergo significant revision. Re-opening the Directives would introduce a degree of unnecessary uncertainty to energy project developments that would damage investor confidence at a time when it is vital to deliver new energy infrastructure...that contributes to UK and EU renewable energy targets."
...the European Landowners Association has stated that “One of the principal benefits of the Nature Directives is the extent to which it helps ensure a level playing field...a basic standard of environmental protection which all Member States must meet. This accords with the terms of the Single Market and its requirements for common standards and mutual recognition.”
And both Defra and Decc appear to agree with this view...
...in its submission to ‘Fitness Check’ consultation, Defra stated that the Directives “…provide a level playing field by requiring that Member States all set a broadly similar level of ambition without compromising economic growth.” and that they “ensure that no Member State is able to gain a commercial advantage over another Member through taking lesser action”. In addition, they have “improved the development of conservation measures and raised the level of ambition”.
...and Decc stated that the legislation “...provides a high level of certainty for businesses...even if, in a minority of cases, the Directives do cause difficulties. It is difficult to quantify the financial benefits of the current stable legislative climate. There is a risk that if the Nature Directives were opened up for review with possible changes of an unknown nature and timescale, then this could introduce additional uncertainty which may affect investment decisions. In most cases, costs are considered proportionate to the size of the project and to the level of environmental risk.”
Projects like Wallasea – an innovative partnership project between the RSPB and Crossrail – also highlight the importance of the Nature Directives in driving positive and sustainable developments for people, business, and wildlife.
Contrary to myth, the Directives do not place ‘disproportionate’ or ‘unnecessary’ burdens on business, or act as a block on development.
The UK Government’s own review (the 2012 Habitats and Wild Birds Directives Implementation Review) found no evidence to support the “burden” claim. Instead, it found that “in the large majority of cases the implementation of the Directives is working well, allowing both development of key infrastructure and ensuring that a high level of environmental protection is maintained.”
In particular, the evidence suggests that...
...Of the approx. 27,000 land use consultations received by Natural England each year, less than 0.5% are objected to on Habitats Regulations grounds, and most of these objections are successfully dealt with at the planning stage.
...Defra figures for environmental regulations as a whole suggests that the costs are outweighed 3:1 by the benefits (only some of which can be estimated in monetary terms), and account for less than 2% of industry turnover on average.
This makes it clear - the Directives do not prevent all development; they simply provide the minimum safeguard necessary to ensure that biodiversity is properly taken into account when planning decisions are taken.
Nevertheless, the UK Government review did identify a range of practical solutions to improve implementation and reduce costs within the legislative framework provided by the Directives, including the development of clearer and more consistent guidance, more streamlined licensing processes, introduction of clear conservation objectives for protected sites and improved access to/availability of data (see also protected species below). The recommendations of the review were supported by both businesses and NGOs. Yet, as pointed out by Energy UK in their response to the ‘Fitness Check’ “many are yet to be fully implemented.”
Contrary to myth, the Directives take a sensible and proportionate approach to protecting species like great crested newts.
When it comes to species like great crested newts that are strictly protected by the Directives, there are some who believe that the Directives are placing disproportionate obligations on developers, and the solution to this is that such species should no longer be granted protection.
While it is true that problems can sometimes arise when it comes to these ‘problem’ species, such problems need to be kept in perspective. According to the UK Governments own figures...less than 0.05% of planning permissions each year in England require a licence for European Protected Species.
Moreover, where problems do arise, they relate not to the laws (Directives) themselves, but rather to the way in which they have been implemented. The evidence suggests that solutions that work within the existing legislative framework are available. For example...
...the great crested newt has suffered substantial declines over recent decades in the UK and Europe which is why it is protected under the Habitats Directive. The current approach to licensing development that affects this species has been criticised by some developers and landowners who feel that the cost and delays they have encountered are disproportionate (for example requiring the capture and relocation of individuals). Fortunately, Natural England in partnership with Woking Borough Council will shortly be piloting a new approach (here) designed to speed up development and improve the conservation of great crested newts. If successful, this will influence any future licensing regime.
The problems that people have encountered are nothing to do with the law, rather how we choose to implement it. I am pleased that creative approaches are now being explored to overcome difficulties without compromising the conservation of threatened species.
Contrary to myth, the Directives are coherent with other EU policies... but the Common Agricultural Policy remains an issue.
Recent reports on the State of Nature in the EU have once again highlighted that the main drivers of biodiversity loss in the EU are land use changes, and most notably agricultural intensification. At the same time, many of the habitats and species that are protected under the Directives are dependent on, or associated with, extensive farming systems and practices for their continued survival. In such cases, support is required to both (i) ensure the economic viability of the extensive farming systems on which the beneficial management depends, and (ii) addresses the specific management practices needed for the conservation of the key habitats and species.
Unfortunately, only a small portion of EU Common Agricultural Policy supports farmers that provide a range of public goods such as an attractive countryside rich in wildlife accessible to all. It is possible to farm in harmony with nature; in the long-run, the two are inextricably linked. However, perverse subsidies and inadequate support for high-nature value farmers is hindering, rather than helping, the EU to meet its biodiversity conservation goals.
So to conclude this rather long myth-busting blog...
The Directives are not a burden on business or a barrier to growth. They are good for people, nature, and business. If and when problems do arise, the solutions lie in better implementation and greater investment in nature conservation.
This is why the Aldersgate Group have called on the UK Government to “...champion smart environmental regulation in key areas of European legislation. Priorities should include...the effective implementation of the Habitats and Birds Directives.”
The case for better implementation and greater investment in nature is supported by citizens, NGOs, and businesses. As well as deflecting attention from the much needed focus on implementation and wider action for nature, making changes to the Directives now would be undermine decades of progress in clarifying requirements and developing best practice, and would cause sustained uncertainty for developers and investors alike.
It's time to put these myths to bed and for politicians to come out and proudly support the EU Nature Directives.