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 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 birds' covering 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.
Yesterday, I argued (here) that the EU Referendum debate needed to be sensible and based on evidence. I also said that we would do our bit to separate fact from fiction.
Alas, as emotions run high on this subject, I don't expect everyone to heed this advice. So, I plan to highlight any silly statements relating to EU and the environment.
The first silly statement I've spotted was made by Michael Gove at the weekend (here) outlining why he would be campaigning to leave the EU. He said, “EU rules dictate everything from the maximum size of containers in which olive oil may be sold (five litres) to the distance houses have to be from heathland to prevent cats chasing birds (five kilometres).”
The last part of this sentence isn’t actually true.
Ben Hall's image of a Dartford warbler (rspb-images.com)
Mr Gove was referring to one of our nation’s most important wildlife areas, part of which lies within his constituency (Surrey Heath), covering parts of Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire.
The lowland heathlands of the Thames Basin Heaths are really special and of national and European importance. They are one of Britain’s best places for nature, home to rare birds such as Dartford warblers, woodlarks and nightjars.
The few remaining fragments are also highly valued by the large number of people who call this place home, many of whom use the heaths for local recreation.
Research by the Government’s nature conservation adviser Natural England highlighted that the majority of people will travel up to 5 kilometres to enjoy the heaths, and this recreational and other urban pressures were a significant problem for these birds and their heathland habitat.
Yet the solution was found courtesy of the EU Nature Directives. A coalition that included Natural England, the Local Authorities, housebuilders, the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts devised an effective strategic planning solution of new green spaces for recreation alongside wardening on the important heathlands.
By taking the pressure off of these precious heathlands, these measures will enable at least 40,000 new homes to be built within five kilometres of the heathlands but in a way that safeguards this important habitat for future generations.
Mr Gove generally has a good track record on the environment but he shouldn't be mixing up wider problems with the EU with one of its best achievements.
Have you spotted any other silly statements in the EU Referendum debate?
If you have, and the silliness relates to conservation and the environment please do let me know. I am keen to receive examples from both sides of the debate!
This morning, MEPs in the European Parliament adopted (with an overwhelming majority) a report that reinforces the importance of the EU Nature Directives in halting biodiversity loss.
Today’s news follows a series of announcements which suggest that any political appetite to weaken the directives has reduced but alas not entirely disappeared.
© European Union 2015 - European Parliament
In October last year, the European Commission acknowledged that the EU’s 2020 biodiversity targets would be missed unless “implementation [of the EU Nature Directives] and enforcement efforts become considerably bolder and more ambitious”.
This message echoed that sent by half a million people who, last summer, shared their views through the Fitness Check consultation regarding the Directives.
In November (see here), the draft Fitness Check report concluded that the Nature Directives are fit for purpose, and any problems with them are a consequence of poor implementation and enforcement. They make a ‘major contribution to the EU’s biodiversity target’, but complementary action – especially in key policy areas such as agriculture – is essential to halt the loss of biodiversity.
In December (see here), Environment Ministers from 28 Member States, including our own Minister, Rory Stewart, said they wanted to focus their efforts on improving implementation of the Directives to give us a chance of halting the loss of biodiversity.
We now have a situation where the evidence says the Directives are fit for purpose, where elected politicians in both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament support them and where civil society and many businesses want the spotlight to move to implementation and effective reform of Common Agriculture Policy – seen as a driver of loss.
Yet, in a speech yesterday, Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella seemed reluctant to accept that this consensus view had emerged and suggested legal reform was still possible. Clearly, some vested interests are working very hard behind the scenes for EU nature protection to be weakened.
For now, can I take this opportunity to thank all of you that have support our campaign to date. While today’s vote is the latest example of the impact we have had, it is clear that the campaign to defend the laws that defend our nature has not yet been won.
Please do keep an eye on the Defend Nature pages of our website for further opportunities to get involved.