February, 2016

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Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t
  • Further thoughts on the Hen Harrier Action Plan for England

    Two weeks ago, I published a blog on the launch of Defra’s Hen Harrier Action Plan (here). While the plan is limited in its commitments, I welcomed its publication as a step in the right direction.

    Since then, I have received quite a few comments and questions via twitter, this blog and email. I have not been surprised – this is an issue where the stakes are high.

    Image courtesy of Guy Shorrock

    I thought it was worth setting out a few more details on what this plan is and what difference we think it could make.

    The first thing to say is that this is not like any other species action plan that I have been involved in over the past twenty years. Unlike other plans, there are objectives not just for the recovery of the species but also for a thriving rural economy.  I don’t fear this second objective because a lot of research that we have done has demonstrated the value that birds of prey have brought to local economies (see here).

    Second, this is a plan that has support from the landowner community. I do not believe that it is possible to make progress with hen harrier conservation without changes to the way some landowners relate to this species.  Their support for the plan and its objectives is therefore essential. 

    With the publication of the plan, therefore, everybody should be committed to delivering more successfully breeding hen harriers in 2016. If we see things starting to improve on the ground, we can have some confidence that the plan is having the desired effect and is beginning to build the trust necessary to address the bigger challenges to come. After all, this is about more than just hen harriers. Our uplands are not in good heart (see here), and the benefits we all receive from our uplands are being eroded, in some places literally.

    The cessation of illegal persecution of hen harriers and other raptors should be an easy first step to take. Such persecution can and should stop immediately.

    How will we know if the plan as a whole is working or not? Well the ultimate measure of success is clear – more hen harriers nesting in England. Has Defra set a population target and time limit on this?   The short answer is no although the first test will be this year’s breeding season. I would also like to think that by the end of the decade legal SPA targets for hen harriers in England will also be met (see here and here) so that we are moving towards favourable conservation status for the species.

    The two actions which have inevitably provoked most discussions and debate (as they did during the lengthy and challenging process of producing the plan) are those regarding a southern England reintroduction and brood management.

    On the reintroduction proposals, it is difficult to say too much until there’s an actual project on which to comment. But the most important thing to note at this stage is the reference to IUCN guidelines. These are essentially the handbook for how to plan a justifiable and successful reintroduction project. One criterion is particularly pertinent here.  In sourcing birds for reintroduction, the source population of birds must not be adversely affected.  Given the critically low nesting population of hen harriers in England, and on grouse moors elsewhere, it is clear that birds could not come from elsewhere in England or any other grouse moor area. 

    Part 6 of the plan on brood management has been the focus of an extraordinary amount of debate over recent years but the reality remains there are huge unanswered legal, practical, scientific and conservation challenges, all of which are still to be addressed.  We do not even know what the objectives would be for a trial.  The Plan acknowledges that questions need to be answered and the group that Natural England will lead must now work methodologically through them.  For the avoidance of doubt, the RSPB’s position on brood management has not changed: we would only consider supporting experimental investigation in England in the future once hen harrier numbers have recovered to a pre-agreed level and if less interventionist approaches, particularly diversionary feeding, have been widely attempted.

    So, there is still much to do. Our dedicated staff will continue to do what they and our volunteers do best – work tirelessly to protect hen harriers on the ground.   Our exciting Life project will again be tagging hen harrier chicks in 2016 and you’ll be able to follow their journeys on the project website (link). My hope is that the publication of this action plan will help ensure that the Life project has some successful new hen harrier lives to report in 2016.  

  • Bird crime - a shooter's view: guest blog by Rob Yorke

    In November, I wrote that "many members of the shooting community want an end to illegal persecution and make a significant contribution to conservation".  Following an exchange of comments, a challenge was issued to encourage someone from the shooting community to offer their perspective.  I did receive one offer. Here Rob Yorke, who is a member of the RSPB, BTO, BASC, GWCT, is a birdwatcher and self-professed bird hunter for the pot, offers his thoughts on our recent Birdcrime report. He is also a rural surveyor and commentator at robyorke.co.uk and @blackgull


    ‘I would be interested to have some numbers on the 'many' shooters who want to stop wildlife crime. Perhaps you could get one of this throng to write a guest blog.

     This was the challenge set to me via a comment under Martin Harper’s blog on 'Documenting crimes against wild birdscovering the recent ‘Birdcrime’ report. The report covers a range of subjects from killing protected birds, egg collecting and possession of wild birds (something renowned naturalists undertook in the past), to wildlife photographers that disturb Schedule One birds plus illegal poisoning and trading of wild birds.

    Martin said in his blog that ‘it is clear that many members of the shooting community want an end to illegal persecution’ and as the report ‘headlined’ on this matter in respect of birds of prey, it is that subject on which I focus - set within a historical and contemporary context in an attempt to explain why these crimes continue and how we seek to end them.


    ‘A Naturalist Sketch Book’ by Archibald Thorburn referred, in 1919, ‘to a bird now very rare, which was once plentiful in the British Isles having acquired its name from the ravages it committed in the poultry-yard’.


    Although that was almost 100 years ago, this provides us a key as to why some birds of prey are still persecuted today: it is not because gamekeepers are born ‘raptor haters’, but is all about a threat – perceived or real - to livelihoods impacted upon by wildlife.


    The hen harrier has been persecuted from when it threatened hens in yards to red grouse on moors today. Buzzards for similar reasons and until 1961, the National Trust and others listed sparrowhawks as ‘vermin in game shooting leases. For after millennia as hunter-gathers, we are still hardwired to fear that which threatens our food production or livelihood.


    This is where subjective views, some illogically prejudiced and perceived, diverge. While some birds of prey are of conservation concern, others are not. A matter explored by this opinion in British Birds with a telling comment under the piece indicating perhaps why many of the shooting community don’t engage on illegal persecution.


    ‘The debate always starts off with a description of what is being done by whom to what and why, and then degenerates rapidly into judgements about motivations and cultural values. Unless we can create a non-judgemental space, where those value judgements can be set to one side, then we will not be able to move on.’


    So, rather than be judgemental of all those that shoot, and visa versa, let all conservationists (which includes the shooting community as well as birdwatchers) work towards removing the motivation to commit the crime rather seeking to ban the activity of shooting. An example of this is when the RSPB (a wildlife organisation concerned with conservation not animal welfare) did not block the introduction of Larsen Traps which replaced the indiscriminate use of poison to control crows – with a resultant resurgence of buzzards.


    “We (RSPB) are neither anti nor pro shooting. We are neutral on the ethics of shooting”


    There are some that intransigently refuse to work towards common ground believing that to do so is a sop to the shooting industry or the thin end of the wedge. However, anyone that goes to war over biodiversity conservation to defeat the ‘other side’ may placate public opinion, perhaps increase membership, but is unlikely to deliver public benefit from becoming bogged down by unwinnable trench warfare tactics.


    From those conservationists that claim ownership of bird-crime, to those that believe they control how ‘red in tooth and claw’ countryside operates, war-like language does nothing to help conservation achieve its goals. In fact, it may drive some towards more vindictive behavioural responses. Woe betide we end up like Malta where anti-hunting and pro-hunting groups so antagonise each other that the latter kill protected birds just out of spite to the former.


    There will always be elements of countryside management, whether in the name of conservation, human health and safety or livelihoods, that conflict with wildlife. Natural England still issue occasional licences, judged on their merits, to ‘remove’ protected birds from threatening business viability from bullfinches in commercial orchards to buzzards over free range chickens.


    At the moment those who care about the countryside risk being separated from achieving our shared goals. No one in their right mind condones a crime but, with such a long history of mistrust and cultural divide in how we deal with real or perceived threats, we must learn to work together.


    Let us create those non-judgemental spaces so we can initiate peace talks to build trust enabling the shooting conservation community to work closer with non-shooting conservationists. One such way has brilliantly just appeared in the form of the Hen Harrier Action Plan and, once harriers do start to breed on grouse moors, we can all reconcile differences and push on for the benefit of both livelihoods and wild birds.

  • The Hen Harrier Action Plan - guest blog from Charlie Moores from Birders Against Wildlife Crime

    Yesterday, I shared a perspective on bird crime from someone who shoots (Rob Yorke).  Today, I am delighted to welcome Charlie Moores, chair of BAWC (Birders Against Wildlife Crime) to offer his perspective on the Hen Harrier Action Plan.


    Martin Harper's blog of 14th January was on the recently-published Hen Harrier Action Plan, a six point 'plan' that, according to Defra, aims "to help revive the hen harrier, one of England’s most iconic birds as part of "the government’s ongoing commitment to preserve and enhance our nation’s natural environment." The 'Plan', all twelve pages of it, is supposed to take the heat out of one of the most contentious issues in the worlds of wildlife management and of wildlife crime. Martin, who when it comes to most things seems to be a fair-minded man, asked for comment. I'm grateful for an opportunity to provide one.

    Far from taking the heat out of the issue, it seems to me that the 'Plan' has fanned the flames. The details - at least what details there are - are here (here). In broad terms though some shooting groups are largely pleased with it, as it appears to offer a way to support the ever-expanding driven grouse industry that occupies much of the countryside that the Hen Harrier previously occupied while not demanding too much change from them, while some conservation groups are largely not in favour for much the same reasons.

    Speaking on behalf of BAWC  - an independent, volunteer-led, campaign group set up in 2014 by a group of experienced birders and conservationists and whose remit is simply to help tackle wildlife crime - my comment is that we're thoroughly unimpressed by a 'Plan' that largely recounts what is already being done in terms of monitoring and nest protection, suggests a reintroduction in southern England without explaining in detail how IUCN guidelines on reintroductions will be met, and finally argues for trialling a brood management scheme which looks to be all about controlling numbers of a legally protected species for the benefit of a handful of shooting estates. Defra, incidentally, calls their brood management option "a relatively simple idea": it is anything but.

    This is supposed to be a "Joint action plan to increase the English hen harrier population", but can there be population increases without firm plans to stamp down on the illegal persecution that led to calls for this Plan in the first place. Where is the promise of funding to bolster policing efforts? There are no hard numbers, the time-scales are woolly. There is nothing detailing new ideas, new legislation, new commitment.

    Maybe this will come in time, but few of us will be holding our breaths in anticipation.

    It is in fact difficult to see how a 'Plan' that allows for controlling and relocating populations of one of our most persecuted raptors before seriously tackling the causes of their persecution can be said to show a "commitment to preserve and enhance our nation’s natural environment" at all.

    Martin is all too aware that some supporters and allies of the RSPB will feel this way too, but he is in an admittedly difficult position. There are sections of the media that will always have a Pavlovian attack-response to anything the RSPB does or says, but as a large, national charity the RSPB sits down with governments and landowners while balancing the wishes (and indeed sometimes the disinterest) of a million-plus members as it does so.

    While I personally would have liked the RSPB to speak out against this 'non-Action Plan' I can more or less sympathise with the tensions they have to deal with out in the real world. On Hen Harriers the organisation has sailed an unswerving line, remaining avowedly neutral on shooting issues while repeating, at every opportunity, that illegal persecution must end and that harriers be allowed to occupy their natural place in the countryside. But they are not in a position where simply saying 'No' will achieve anything in the long-term. Besides, even with the resources they can call on, there are plenty of other issues they need to focus on as well: habitat loss, climate change, renewables, attacks on the Nature Directives.

    Persecution matters, and while Hen Harriers will always find friends at The Lodge it's perhaps unrealistic to expect the RSPB to throw all their resources at a problem where, after so much fruitless debate, compromise must seem to be the only viable option.

    And if the 'Action Plan' had be summed up in one word, 'compromise' would fit the bill.

    Why is that? There will be sighs when shooting representatives read this, but it is because shooting has absolutely insisted on it being that way. It's the simple truth that most of us just want crimes against Hen Harriers to stop (the law to be upheld in other words), but shooting interests and landowners - who say they want the same same thing - have attached numerous conditions before that can happen. 

    This is not the platform for a debate on the pros or cons of shooting per se, but whether we support or oppose shooting we should at the very least all be able to acknowledge that wildlife crimes against Hen Harriers takes place solely because they eat Red Grouse. That's hardly news. Neither is it breaking new ground to say that's the reason they are shot on sight in some areas and why they are disturbed when they attempt to nest.

    Lobbyists for shooting groups say that conservationists don't recognise the work they do to promote wildlife and protect the countryside. Perhaps conservationists would be more inclined to do so if shooting spokespeople would just acknowledge the irrefutable fact that it is not conservationists or birders (or - as one well-known blogger once put it - nurses out on day-trips) who are persecuting Hen Harriers. I will never deny that over-enthusiastic birders/photographers do disturb protected wildlife: they do, and BAWC has said so on many occasions, but let's face it we are not the ones systematically exterminating protected birds.

    Unfortunately for those lobbyists, whether most shooters are moderate and law-abiding or not has become moot. The fact is that the criminals persecuting this raptor are to be found amongst their numbers, and that should be their concern as much as it is BAWC's and like-minded groups.

    The rhetoric around Hen Harriers, like the line above, is often inflammatory but that's hardly surprising. People like me who love birds hate seeing crimes committed against them. Conservationists are often described as being at 'war' with shooting interests, but speaking for BAWC that's simply not the case. We are at war with wildlife crime and the people who commit it. There's a difference. And that's why we're so disappointed with Defra's 'Plan'.

    The 'Action Plan' should have acknowledged the very strong and justifiable emotions that wildlife crime causes, made clear that Defra's absolute priority was to tackle crimes against Hen Harriers, and spelt out in unequivocal terms that crime must stop before quotas, control, and brood management would even be referenced.  Defra should first and foremost be protecting Hen Harriers by ensuring the law is upheld. That would increase numbers, not fiddling around the edges and moving birds to areas where they think persecution might not take place (which is a huge assumption on their part).

    It is so frustrating that measurable, observable actions to end crimes against Hen Harriers is not in place on England's grouse moors, and if law-abiding shooters are irritated that wildlife crime keeps being mentioned in the same breath as grouse shooting, they should force their leaders to put them in place. If they did so then the gaps that exist between the two 'sides' would start to close. 

    At the moment though it appears to many that the 'Action Plan' is more about supporting an industry that - despite its denials - appears to have a Wenger-like knack of looking the other way when a foul is committed*.

    Right now there seems little scope for lasting progress, and surely no-one but wildlife criminals can genuinely think that's a good idea. 

    *A reference to the manager of Arsenal football club who refuses to criticise his players in public