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 RSPB’s latest report on crimes against wild birds; Birdcrime 2015, goes live today. Although we’ve been publishing yearly reports on illegal killing of wild birds, this year the report is online. I am pleased to welcome Angela Smith MP, and Hen Harrier Species Champion, to give her reflections on the report and what it means for one species in particular - the hen harrier.
The upland areas in my constituency, Penistone and Stockbridge, are a fantastic place to see some of the wonders that nature provides. From curlew to snipe, golden plover to mountain hare; the uplands are full of sights not to be missed. But there are some species missing. In common with other parts of the UK, many of the glorious birds of prey that should call the upland home are still being unlawfully killed.
Birdcrime 2015 is the most recent instalment of RSPB’s annual report on illegal killing of wild birds. And the findings are truly shocking.
In 2015, the RSPB received 196 reports of shooting, trapping and destruction of birds of prey. 64 of these were confirmed, including the shooting of 46 birds of prey, and 16 trapping incidents. There were 32 confirmed incidents of wildlife poisoning, including 15 buzzards, four red kites and three peregrine falcons.
Whilst the overall numbers are disheartening, the impact it is having on individual species is devastating. The English uplands have enough habitat for over 300 pairs of hen harriers, but in 2016 only three pairs successfully raised any chicks. The hen harrier is the most threatened bird of prey in England and we are at serious risk losing this species.
For me this loss is personal as I am the Species Champion for the hen harrier. That means it is my privilege and responsibility to be a voice for these beautiful birds in Parliament.
Image courtesy of Tim Melling
What can be done?
1. Understand the threat
Though shocking, Birdcrime shows only the small proportion of crimes against birds of prey that are actually discovered. There is significant scientific research that shows the serious impact of persecution on hen harriers and other birds of prey. The more recent use of satellite tags on bird of prey, with birds found illegally killed or mysteriously disappearing, raises yet more concerns. In Scotland, work is underway to investigate the fate of missing satellite tagged birds of prey. A similar investigation of the satellite tag data held by Natural England on hen harriers should be considered.
2. Make sure the law works
Birds of prey have been legally protected for decades. But legal status alone is not enough; it must be properly enforced. Regulation must be backed up by effective sanctions, and any reports of illegal activity must be properly investigated.
3. Create an industry that’s fair for all
Historically, grouse moors and the accompanying heather management have shaped our uplands, giving them the tradition and character I see throughout my constituency. The businesses that operate in these areas have helped manage these uplands, providing jobs and recreation to local people.
However, with a worrying number of birds found killed on or near grouse moors and intensive management practices that include damaging burning on deep peat, there are serious questions about future management of the moors. Members of the shooting community who condemn the illegal killing of birds of prey must help by driving up standards in their industry. This could include supporting the government in introducing vicarious liability and a robust system of licensing, improving accountability and transparency.
Responsible landowners have nothing to fear from this and everything to gain; by isolating and effectively dealing with the illegal practice, law abiding estates can gain rightful credibility and trust.
A feathered future
Birdcrime 2015 makes clear the perilous position some of our raptor populations are in. We simply cannot wait before we deal with this problem. In 2009, the UK Government set Raptor Persecution as one of the national wildlife crime priorities yet serious problems remain. We need better regulation and enforcement to constructively deal with the conflict on our grouse moors.
For the sake of our precious species, we need the UK Government to show leadership and demonstrate their sense of the responsibility that now falls at their feet. No more prevarication; let’s have leadership, determination and a promise that our raptors and our uplands can look forward to better days.
Since 1973, membership of the EU has played a significant role in shaping environmental policy in the UK. As stated by the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee in a letter to the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU last July: “There are few areas...where the decision to leave the EU will have a more widespread impact than the environment.”
Although the Prime Minister’s speech on Brexit last month provided a degree of clarity on the Government’s plans for leaving the EU, the environment was notably absent. However, following the judgement by the Supreme Court on the need for Parliament to have a formal say in the Article 50 process, the Prime Minister agreed to publish a ‘White Paper’ this week setting out further details of the Government’s plans for Brexit.
The substance of the paper published at lunchtime today is similar to the speech given by the Prime Minister last month. This time, however, the environment does get a mention.
Specifically, the paper reiterates the Government’s manifesto commitment “to ensuring we become the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it” and also makes reference to the UK’s climate targets. In addition, it rightly notes the significant role that the EU law and policy currently plays in influencing the UK’s agriculture and fisheries sectors, including when it comes to environment-related matters. According to the paper, the Government’s plans for these sectors after the UK leaves the EU will include delivering “a cleaner, healthier environment”.
However, while these are undoubtedly welcome statements, the details of how such ambitions will be achieved in practice remain unclear and many questions remain unanswered. For example...
...on environmental standards
Whatever the UK’s future relationship with the EU, it is essential that the Government commits to retaining existing environmental standards if we are to leave the environment in “a better state than we found it” for the next generation.
The White Paper repeats the Government’s commitment to converting the body of existing EU law into domestic law via the so-called ‘Great Repeal Bill’ in order to provide legal certainty as we leave the EU. However, the future of these laws post-Brexit remains far from clear.
Once we have left the EU, we will be free to decide which laws “to keep, amend, or repeal”. To date, the Government has not provided any firm reassurances that existing standards of environmental protection will be upheld.
As such, it will be particularly important to ensure that delegated powers granted to Ministers in the Great Repeal Bill allowing them to amend primary legislation via secondary legislation are both subject to appropriate limitations regarding their scope/purpose and to appropriate parliamentary scrutiny/control. Today’s announcement that the Government will produce a separate ‘White Paper’ on the Great Repeal Bill will hopefully provide further details on this critical issue.
...on future governance arrangements
Although the UK will be leaving the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union, the Government has nevertheless committed to continuing “to honour our international commitments and follow international law.”
However, what remains unclear are the replacement governance arrangements/mechanisms that the Government plans to put in place domestically so that it can be held to account in delivering against its national and international environmental commitments. To date, it has remained largely silent on this matter.
As noted recently by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee: “...simply transposing legislation without replacing the governance arrangements will lead to significant weakening of environmental protections in many areas, such as the lack of reference to a higher court and the absence of a body updating and enforcing legislation.”
These are not the only questions that remain unanswered. For example, although the White Paper reaffirms the important short-term commitments that the Government has already made regarding the future of EU funding streams (e.g. wildlife-friendly farming payments), there remains considerable uncertainty in the medium-to-long term regarding what might replace a range of vital EU funding streams that benefit the natural environment (e.g. LIFE). Clearly, there is currently a large mismatch between stated government ambition for securing nature's recovery and available resources. We hope and expect the emerging 25 year plan for nature will confirm how these resources will be secured.
It will be some time yet before we can predict with any confidence what Brexit might ultimately mean for the natural environment - negotiating UK withdrawal from the EU and then determining our future relationship with the EU is a deeply complex process.
Rest assured that we shall - as part of the Greener UK coalition - do everything in our power to ensure that the environment is not overlooked in this process and that we make Brexit work for nature.
A fortnight ago, I was checking the press release we were issuing in response to the latest plans to develop Lodge Hill. In it we referred to the 90% decline in our nightingale population in the last fifty years. I paused on the 90% figure. It didn't seem right. I knew the decline was significant, but for some reason I hadn't equated the nightingale decline to that suffered by turtle dove or willow tit. So, I went on the BTO website - the best place to check bird trend statistics - and this confirmed the 90% decline.
The nightingale population has declined by 90% since 1967.
Unless we take action to protect nightingales on its breeding grounds and work with others on its flyway and wintering grounds, we are going to lose this iconic bird from our countryside. Its evocative song, which adds so much to the avian soundtrack to our spring and summer, will be lost.
So, why on earth are we even contemplating developing the most important site for nightingales in England?
As I have written on eight previous occasions, Lodge HiIl (shown in the image above) in Medway, North Kent is protected as one of our best sites for wildlife - a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) . Normally I get excited if I hear one or two nightingales; in 2012, Lodge Hill had 85 singing males!
Now, Medway Council has just brought out a consultation looking at the overall future of the area in which they state their commitment to want to see the site developed; and we know they want 5000 houses to be built there. If, after the consultation, the Council does indeed put Lodge Hill into its Local Plan, it would help pave the way for one of the largest ever destructions of a protected site in the UK and would put two fingers up to the Governmental ambition to pass on the natural world in a better state to the next generation. I don't think the next generation would thank us for depriving them of nightingales.
We want your help to do two things......yes, to save Lodge Hill and its nightingales...but also to stop a dangerous precedent being set that would threaten all of our protected wildlife sites.
So we're hoping you will tell Medway Council that the nightingales matter and that to allocate it as a site for development would weaken the protection for all our best wildlife sites across England. The Council might think this is a local matter, but threatening such a nationally important site makes it a national matter. We need to #SaveLodgeHill.
Medway Council's consultation runs until 6 March 2017. You can join our campaign here and tell Medway why it must not develop the site. It will take you a minute and it would be great if you could add personal reasons why you want the site to be saved.
We have to change the current mindset that loss in inevitable and short term economic gain always trumps wildlife. And if you need any further motivation to act, remind yourself of the fabulous song of the nightingale here.
Andy Hay's photo of a nightingale (rspb-images.com)