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.
The voluntary approach of the Hen Harrier Action Plan has failed, leaving licensing as the only viable option.
I’m generally very patient. My natural preference is to build partnerships and work to make positive change from the inside with those who want to abide by the law and deliver progress.
However, sometimes that approach simply doesn’t work and there can be no clearer example of that right now than hen harriers, where illegal killing of this rare bird remains its most significant threat.
The RSPB played a full part in the production of Defra’s Hen Harrier Action Plan and despite disagreeing with certain points (notably brood management), welcomed its publication earlier this year. However, at the time, I noted the need for immediate progress to help build trust in the approach.
Unfortunately this has not happened.
Image courtesy of Shay Connolly
In 2015, we were all extremely frustrated by there being just six successful hen harrier nests from 12 attempts in England. 2016 is on course to be much worse, with only three nests at the time of writing, none of which are on grouse moors.
Some will argue that the weather or vole population is to blame, however, early returns from the national hen harrier survey suggest numbers away from intensively managed grouse moors in north and west Scotland have done ok. We remain convinced that the primary reason for the hen harrier‘s continuing scarcity remains illegal killing.
Simply put, hen harriers (and other birds of prey) are illegally killed on some estates because they eat grouse. Crimes are committed to increase the number of grouse that can be shot. This year, there have been a series of depressingly predictable incidents in England and Scotland, the disappearance of the hen harriers ‘Chance’ and ‘Highlander’, the use of pole traps and the hen harrier decoy in the Peak District. And as well as hen harriers, it has also been a really bad year for red kites in North and West Yorkshire with several suspicious deaths. In addition, there are more cases working their way through the legal system.
All of this adds up to a picture which shows that the commitments made in the Hen Harrier Action Plan are not being delivered. People are still breaking the law and not enough is being done within the grouse shooting community to effect change.
Some will argue that we should be more patient as behavioural change takes time. But the hen harrier does not have time on its side and the longer hen harriers remain on the brink, the greater public antipathy towards intensive grouse shooting will become.
Hen harriers and other birds of prey in our uplands will not recover without a completely different approach.
We have therefore decided to withdraw our support from Defra’s Hen Harrier Action Plan.
We have come to this conclusion because we believe that reform to protect the hen harrier will only come through licensing of driven grouse shooting where, for example, crimes committed on estates managed for shooting should result in the withdrawal of their right to operate.
A licensing system isn’t about tarring everyone with the same brush, or blaming a whole community for the actions of the few. Quite the opposite: it is effectively a targeted ban that will stamp out illegal activity and drive up the environmental standards of shooting.
Law abiding estates have nothing to fear from this system and, indeed, I believe that it is in their own interests to champion such an approach. We believe that this is the only way to deliver a significant shift in attitudes and potentially secure a future for their sport. Licensing systems appear to work well in most other European countries, so why not here as well?
We fully support the current petition in Scotland and we would like to reinvigorate the call for Defra to introduce licensing in England too.
Of course, we will continue to work on the ground with our partners, especially raptor workers (who monitor and protect birds of prey), landowners who wish to see a progressive future, local people and the police to provide the most effective possible year round protection.
My preference is always for the partnership approach, but partnership requires action from both sides. In this case, that has failed. When shooting organisations are either unable or unwilling to lead the necessary change to rein in illegal activity, then reform must be delivered from outside. That is what we will now seek to do though promoting licensing.
I fully expect our critics (such as the grouse industry funded You Forgot The Birds) to push out a wearyingly predictable series of attacks on the RSPB in coming weeks. I can only imagine that this is designed to divert attention from criminal activity on some intensive grouse moors. But this won't shake our resolve to seek change.
An early opportunity to talk more about all of this will be at the Hen Harrier Day events. I’ll be at the Hen Harrier Day North East event at the RSPB's Saltholme reserve on Sunday 7 August, while my boss Mike Clarke will be at the event at Rainham Marshes on Saturday 6 August. Other RSPB representatives will be at various of the other events too. I hope to see many of you there and hopefully many more will be able to attend other events across the country.
Together, we can and will save our hen harriers.
Many of the readers of this blog will remember ‘buzzardgate’, the subsequent u-turn and the licences granted to control buzzards in 2013.
The thorny issue of licenses for buzzard control reappeared today when Natural England issued a licence permitting the control of up to 10 buzzards to “prevent serious damage to young pheasants”.
The killing of a recovering British bird of prey to protect an introduced gamebird for the benefit of commercial interest is wrong. The decision sets a worrying precedent. What will be next? Red kites, peregrines, hen harriers?
Buzzard flying free from harm? Ben Hall, rspb-images.com
The fact that these commercial interests remain private and confidential is the second troubling point. Where is the transparency in this decision? As an issue of public interest why must it remain confidential?
Most importantly, I believe the legal framework behind this decision is broken. There needs to be a public policy debate about how can it be right that as a growing number of gamebirds are released, a protected bird of prey is in the firing line to safeguard a shootable surplus of pheasants.
Forty five million pheasants and six million red-legged partridge are released into the countryside each year. We don’t know what the ecological consequences of this introduction are but it’s hardly surprising that it attracts predators. The loss of some of these gamebirds is an inevitable consequence of doing business. Natural predators should not be bearing the cost in this instance. What we really need is the gamekeeping industry to identify ways in which they can live alongside buzzards and invest in protecting their poults without resorting the lethal control.
Some might say about our position, you control wildlife, what's wrong with people controlling buzzards to protect pheasants?
This misses the point entirely.
The control of predators is sometimes necessary for conservation and the RSPB is open about its use of such control on its own reserves (see here). Deciding to use lethal predator control is something we never take lightly, it is always a last resort after other methods of non-lethal control have failed. But there is a fundamental difference here. We use it in order to protect and conserve a public good, species already under pressure, delivering nature that all can see and enjoy. In the case of the buzzard license, the control is designed to protect a private, commercial interest.
Whilst some will try to paint it as such, this isn’t about the RSPB deploying an anti-shooting agenda through the back door, this is about us wanting to see a public debate around our relationship as a country with the natural world in the 21st century.
A test of a modern society is one that tolerates predators and finds ways to live in harmony with them. Reaching for the gun, every time there is a perceived conflict, is the wrong response.
What do you think about this decision?
It would be great to hear your views.
Yesterday, the Scottish Raptor Study Group successfully lodged a petition with the Scottish Parliament calling for the introduction of a licensing system for gamebird hunting in Scotland. This is a good initiative and one the RSPB fully supports as it offers the potential for meaningful action to reform shooting.
The petitioning process in Scotland is very different to the one operating south of the border. In order for a petition even to be posted it needs to jumps through a few hoops. As a consequence, although the petition is only open until 22 August 2016, irrespective of how many signatures it gets, it will then be considered by the Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament and by the Environment Committee. They then propose recommendations based on their findings. Clearly we are hopeful that a concrete proposal to reform ‘gamebird hunting’ will emerge.
These petitions are really only open to Scottish residents so if you live in Scotland, please do considering adding your name.
South of the border, the political dust is still floating around Westminster following the EU Referendum. No-one seems particular sure how things will land - although we do at least now know that we shall have a new Prime Minister in Number 10 tomorrow night. But once the dust settles, we’ll look for opportunities to push licensing in England as well.
Why do we think reform is necessary?
Image courtesy of Dom Greves
I have written extensively about the failure of self-regulation of driven grouse shooting as well as the environmental consequences of intensive grouse moor management (for example here, here and here).
Yet of all of the problems associated with grouse shooting, there is one issue that stands out above all others and that is the continued illegal killing of birds of prey.
Despite the best efforts of enforcement agencies, often supported by the brilliant RSPB investigations team, the current legal system has failed to end the illegal killing of birds of prey. For species like hen harrier, illegal persecution remains the primary reason for hen harrier‘s continuing scarcity.
This year, there have been a series of worrying incidents, such as the apparent use of hen harrier decoys in the Peak District and setting of pole traps in the vicinity of a hen harrier on another estate, the disappearance of the hen harrier ‘Chance’, as well as a series of further incidents of which we are aware and which are working their way through the legal system.
Despite lots of words spoken by those representing moorland shooting, there appears to have been no change in behaviour. This is why we need a licensing system to provide a more effective stick to bring those people who still persecute birds of prey to book.
I have previously outlined the principles of a licensing system. While there’s a huge amount of detail that would need to go into drafting a new system, in essence it is really quite simple. What it says is “you absolutely can run your shoot as you see fit, but if you don’t abide by the rules society sets, that privilege will be taken away”. This seems to me absolutely fair and proportionate.
A licensing system isn’t about tarring everyone with the same brush, or blaming a whole community for the actions of a few bad apples. Quite the opposite: it is effectively a targeted ban that will stamp out illegal activity and drive up the environmental standards of shooting.
Good estates have nothing to fear from this system and indeed I believe that it is in their own interests to champion such an approach. We believe that this is the only way to deliver a shift in attitudes and potentially secure a future for their sport.
As I write this, I can see a buzzard circling on a thermal outside of my window. Buzzards, like red kites and marsh harriers have experienced a remarkable recovery in my life time. While things may look bleak for hen harriers right now, experience demonstrates that change can happen and that the future can be different from the past. Licensing represents the best next step to helping hen harriers join the list of raptor success stories.
And talking of things looking bleak, in a moment of madness I have agreed to run this year’s Great North Run on 11 September 2016. I shall be doing so to raise the funds for the RSPB's Investigations Team who work to tackle illegal killing of birds of prey. I will add 50% of any money raised, but will double the donation if I run it over an hour and forty five minutes. If you would like to sponsor me, you can do so here.