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 publish our annual Birdcrime report- the only centralised source of incident data for wild bird crime in the UK. I am incredibly proud of this document as it reflects the hard work and dedication of volunteers, the RSPB’s Investigations team, the police, the statutory nature conservation agencies and others in tackling wildlife crime. While impressive, the report remains a sobering read.
Here are this year's headlines..
...in 2014, the RSPB received 179 reports of shooting and destruction of birds of prey, including the confirmed shooting of 23 buzzards, nine peregrines, three red kites and a hen harrier.
...there have also been 72 reported incidents of wildlife poisoning and pesticide-related offences. Confirmed victims of poisoning include 23 red kites, 9 buzzards and four peregrine falcons.
...these figures are believed to represent only a fraction of the illegal persecution in the UK, with many incidents thought to be going undetected and unreported.
The messages in our latest report are clear...
...bird of prey persecutions still continues in many parts of the UK, and is one reason that is stopping some of our native birds of prey from recovering to their natural levels.
...despite decades of legal protection, raptor persecution has been persistent over a wide geographical area with negative conservation impacts for several species. This is evidenced by a number of scientific studies and Government reports. As a result, the Government has made raptor persecution a national wildlife crime priority.
...to protect birds of prey we must defend the laws that protect them, in particular the EU Nature Directives. We need a consistent approach and effort across the UK to protect our most threatened birds of prey, such as the hen harrier and golden eagle, from illegal persecution.
To me, each incident illustrated in the report shines a spotlight onto the almost hidden world of wildlife crime. These crimes against our most vulnerable species often occur in the remotest areas of our countryside, away from the public eye. On occasions it seems like a small miracle that any cases get to court at all, depending, as they do, on witnesses not only recognising that a crime has occurred, but knowing how to report it.
Many of these crimes are hard to police and serve as a reminder that tackling wildlife offences requires both effective penalties and suitably resourced enforcing authorities.
I am often asked about the RSPB's position on proposals to strengthen protection for wild birds. So for the avoidance of doubt, here is a summary of what we believe is needed...
...we support the role of the National Wildlife Crime Unit to aid police dealing with wildlife crime and have urged a rethink of proposed budget cuts which could impact on species protection.
...we want full implementation of the laws which protect those species, including more effective penalties, to enable enforcement and provide a genuine deterrent to those who stand to gain from wildlife crime. For example we think the introduction of a robust system of licensing to govern driven grouse shooting and vicarious liability for wildlife crimes throughout the UK could lead to many improvements. We are disappointed that the Law Commission's review of wildlife law (here) failed to pick up these recommendations
...we will continue to share knowledge with partner organisations to help in the fight against wildlife crime in the UK and throughout the EU, via our involvement in the European Network against Environmental Crime (ENEC).
Our campaign in defence of the EU Nature Directives has demonstrated (once again) the huge public support for protection of the environment in the UK and throughout Europe. And, the over the past two years we've seen growing public unrest about the ongoing illegal killing of wild birds. This has expressed itself through the Hen Harrier Days which started in 2014 and protests in the streets which followed the mass poisoning of red kites and buzzards in Scotland. These represent just a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands who have called for an end to bird of prey persecution.
And, it is clear that many members of the shooting community want an end to illegal persecution and make a significant contribution to conservation. While we will continue to work with the police to crack down on illegality, we will also continue to work with anyone that wants to see our birds of prey fly free from harm.
It is only by working together that we can finally consign bird of prey persecution to the history books.
Proceedings of scientific symposiums are often not the most exciting reads. There are frequently full of fascinating and useful information and as such are vital in informing our conservation actions, but the fact remains they are usually written by scientists, for scientists, which means you sometimes need to take a fair bit of time to sift through and identify the key conclusions.
However, you may have noted that the Proceedings of the Oxford Lead Symposium were published yesterday especially as it was covered extensively on the BBC (for example see here). The Symposium had been organised by Oxford University about this time last year and it brought together a range of experts on the impacts of lead ammunition use on wildlife and human health. I wasn’t able to attend, but several colleagues were in the audience including our Principle Research Biologist, Professor Rhys Green, who contributed two papers.
It has, as I signalled on Monday, been a busy week so I’ve not had time to read and digest all 154 pages of the Proceedings yet. But what is clear is that even on a cursory read, the take home message is absolutely clear: whether you’re from Denmark or Germany, the UK or Sweden; whether you’re an expert on wildlife, human health or ammunition ballistics - the time to phase out lead ammunition is now. If you have ten minutes, I recommend reading the closing remarks from Professor Ian Newton. Having summarised the evidence (which includes up to 100,000 waterfowl estimated to die each year from lead poisoning), he concludes,
"There are two approaches towards getting hunters to switch from lead to less toxic alternatives. One is by persuasion; informing them of the facts and hoping they will make the switch themselves. This approach has clearly not worked: witness the continued use of lead shot over wetlands for more than a decade after the 1999 ban; witness the continuing opposition by some hunters and their organisations to restrictions in the use of lead. This leaves us with the only other approach which is mandatory. All other major uses of lead have long been banned or strictly regulated by law, yet this particular use, which provides a direct and important route for lead into the human blood stream, remains unrestricted. Legislation proved necessary in Denmark to cut the use of lead; as in Britain, the dissemination of scientifically-collected findings and appeals to the better nature of hunters had not worked. Danish hunters now accept it, and (as confirmed by surveys) would not go back."
This is encouraging as it tallies with the UK Government’s commitment under a Convention on Migratory Species resolution agreed last year which again sets a clear roadmap to a lead free future. Scientists and policy experts are on the same page on this one. With more science supporting the need for action, we look forward to working with Government and other stakeholders to deliver the necessary change.
And it’s clear that there is an expectant public watching and waiting. An e-petition has been set up asking for an end to lead ammunition use. This could be a further useful contribution to the debate, so please do go and look at this and consider adding your name. Showing Government there is a strong desire for action can only help encourage change which benefits wildlife and people. The petition is in line with RSPB policy and so we support it.
Proceedings of scientific symposiums might not always be the easiest read. But when scientists, policy experts and the general public are all pointing us in the same direction, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the time for action is now.
It seems like ages ago that the Law Commission consulted on its proposals for reforming wildlife management law. But then it was back in August 2012! After considerable deliberation and several postponements the Law Commission’s final report and accompanying Bill was published on Tuesday.
The brief was to consolidate the varied laws that cover the control, exploitation and protection of wildlife species in England and Wales into one streamlined piece of legislation. Everything from egg collecting, game management, badgers, seals and poaching to licensing and criminal liability.
This was always going to be a complex task given the age of some of the legislation, and the need to ensure that we comply fully with our international obligations under the Nature Directives.
If you want a detailed analysis of its strengths and weaknesses including what we support and what we are concerned about, well I’m afraid you are going to have to wait. Basically, it is big at 465 pages and 266 recommendations! So we haven’t digested it all yet.
But we will and in doing so we will consider the pros and cons of what is being proposed and then respond to Defra accordingly.
My colleague, Robin Wynde, has managed to skim-read the report and this is his initial assessment...
"An initial look suggests this will be a curate’s egg of a report with some proposals that we will support, some that we will need to consider carefully and others that fall disappointingly short of what wildlife needs.
For example, the proposal to protect roost sites of protected birds is a positive step. The report also underlines the importance of licences not being issued to control birds when there are other satisfactory solutions. However, the report also suggests opening up the use of licences to cover the, ill defined, ‘judicious use’ of birds, which would mean much more work for NE’s hard pressed licensing staff.
The Law Commission makes the welcome recommendation that the ‘reverse burden of proof’ should be retained in relation to certain possession offences. For example, if you have an egg collection the burden of proof is on you to show that it was taken legally rather than on the prosecution to show it was taken illegally. Conversely, they do not support the introduction of ‘vicarious liability’ where an employer would be liable for wildlife crime by a person under their control. This is despite originally consulting on such a proposal, similar to the law in Scotland, and the majority of consultation responses supporting such a proposal. In this case they cite reverse burden of proof as being one of the reasons for rejection. This was a golden opportunity to bring this aspect of the law in England and Wales up to the standard set north of the border.
In addition to covering control, exploitation and protection from harm there is a fourth and vital role that wildlife law should play. The Law Commission recognise in their introduction that the law has a role ‘to conserve wild animals and plants as a fundamental part of our common natural heritage and as integral components of complex ecosystems.’ I agree. This review must do more than making the law less of a burden and easier to use for people. The key test for the Law Commission's proposals should be what they will do for the conservation of wildlife?"
Defra aspires to lead the world in environmental protection. Responding positively to the Law Commission’s review and conservation proofing each and every proposal would be a start.
Of course, there is an argument that the most effective use of time for our politicians and civil servants at the moment would be to focus on implementing existing legislation. This is essential as a response for nature and the 25 year plan to restore wildlife.
At a time when the EU Directives are subject to review (with initial findings emerging yesterday - see here) and Defra is facing considerable budget cuts, one has to question the wisdom of embarking on a major exercise in consolidating legislation.
Yet, this is, as I say, a preliminary assessment and I shall return to this once we have all managed to assess the report in greater detail.
In the meantime, I would be delighted to hear your views.