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.
Yesterday, an article in the Sunday Times stated “Michael Gove, the environment secretary, has issued licences for farmers to shoot the birds [ravens] in Derbyshire, Lancashire, Berkshire, Wiltshire and Dorset.” This comes hot on the heels of the concern in Scotland over the research licence granted by Scottish Natural Heritage to local estates to cull over 60 non breeding ravens per annum over 5 years.
In the Sunday Times piece, a shepherd in Dorset expressed concern about the growth in the population locally, and the effect this was having on his sheep, claiming the birds last year were killing a couple of lambs a day from the 9000 sheep he tends.
The RSPB’s initial concern here is the lack of transparency in the process by which farmers are allowed to shoot ravens and what checks and balances are in place to safeguard against population level impacts on the birds.
Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
Ravens are undoubtedly doing well, especially in the West Country. But this is after a long period of scarcity. In Dorset towards the end of the 19th Century the species was almost extinct, driven to the edge by persistent persecution. There was a slight recovery in the first half of the 20th Century, with up to six pairs in the county, and mixed fortunes up until the late1980s (including a period in the late 70s when there were no ravens breeding in Dorset). But throughout the 1990s, the population, as elsewhere, began to recover. By the time of the 2007-11 Bird Atlas each 10km square in Dorset had possible or probably breeding pairs.
Naturally, many would celebrate such a recovery of a once scarce bird and delight in the company of such a legendary and intelligent creature. However, ravens are in part, predatory, or rather, they are great opportunists with a hugely catholic diet and will indeed, on occasion, kill lambs. The RSPB acknowledges this can be a distressing situation, and recognise that in some cases it may be necessary to issue licences to farmers to kill ravens for livestock protection.
However, our caution and concern is over how these two things, the increase in raven numbers, and the effects on sheep farming, can be managed appropriately so as to allow both to thrive.
The key to this is the licencing system operated by Natural England (NE).
This is how it should work …
...A farmer has a problem with ravens and applies for a licence for culling. Before being granted such a licence, he or she will need to have clearly stated the extent of the problem, what non-lethal measures had been tried to deal with the problem, and why these failed.
...NE will then review the application with regards to the status of the raven locally and nationally. This is a crucial step. The UK has a duty to protect wildlife and thus NE needs consider the number of licences with respect to the number of ravens to safeguard against population level impacts. If non-lethal methods have been tried and failed, and if the number of birds to be killed does not endanger the national population, a licence may be granted.
...And in this perfect scenario, we would not have any issue with the granting of such a licence. The farmer gets to deal with a local problem, and the raven population recovery is not threatened.
However, currently, the process appears far from transparent. And this is what concerns us about this case. It begs more questions than it answers:
None of this information is in the public domain.
In this darkness, as black as a raven’s plumage, how can we have confidence that these principles of wildlife licensing are applied rigorously, to protect both farmers’ interests, and ensure that the continued recovery of ravens in England will not be compromised?
This week is the first ever UK Swift Awareness Week, a brilliant initiative which aims to highlight the plight of these amazing birds.
When I look up at swifts screaming through the skies over my house in Cambridge, it seems that they live in an altogether different world to our own. They have an almost exclusively airborne existence, coming in to land only to nest. Swifts eat, sleep, drink, feed, bathe and mate on the wing. Their time with us in the UK is brief, just twelve weeks each year. Despite all this, we know that human activities are having a serious impact on these aerial acrobats and it pains me when my summers, like his year, are quieter because swift numbers are down.
Image courtesy of Killian Mullarney
Swifts depend on access to tiny nooks and crannies high in buildings and in the past human houses were ideal. In fact, traditional building techniques actually included spaces for swifts to occupy. However this fell out of fashion in post war era, as houses started to be built on standardised designs. So now there's little room for the birds and their populations have halved in the past 20 years. That’s why we encourage housing developers to make space for swifts: who wouldn’t want them as neighbours? They’re clean, gobble up biting insects, and are pretty spectacular to watch.
We’ve been working with Barratt Developments, and in 2017 they won the NextGeneration innovation award for helping boost the number of swifts in the country, having installing special swift bricks at many of their sites. In just one year nearly two hundred of the specially designed nest boxes have been installed into new Barratt homes being built at developments in Aylesbury and Exeter. Overall Barratt is aiming to install up to 900 of the boxes at its flagship nature development, Kingsbrook in Aylesbury, with hundreds more being planned across the rest of country.
We want to know what else is going on in the lives of swifts: what are the other challenges they face? Our joint work with the BTO, tagging swifts nesting in Belfast (which is where I was on Friday) is already revealing more about their extraordinary lives. Below, my colleague Kendrew Colhoun tells the story of the journey one of the swifts took:
“It departed Northern Ireland during the first week of August last year, and headed south at high altitude (around 1 km off the ground). It's GPS tag showed it passing over the Iberian peninsula, crossing the Mediterranean at Gibraltar and skirting west around the Sahara. After three weeks of travelling it crossed the equator, and carried on until a point 40 km west of the mouth of the Zambezi, around 9,020 km from its nest site just before Christmas. We calculated that between July and December it had passed through the airspace of at least 25 countries! Research on swifts continues, also looking at where they go to feed during the nesting season: you may have seen the birds' impressive commute for food illustrated during last week's Springwatch.”
You can help by contributing to another really useful source of data, by letting us know where you see swifts nesting, or flying at roof level in their 'screaming parties', suggesting a nest is nearby. Take part in our easy to use swift survey here. The results are already making a difference in planning buildings. For example, we were able to advise RG Group contractors in Redhill when they worked on extending a supermarket. An existing building was being demolished, and because we were able to show swifts nested on it, they added swift boxes to the new structure!
There are 90 events taking place as part of Swift Awareness Week: walks, talks, open gardens, exhibits and family activities. These are all arranged by local swift groups, working with Action for Swifts and Swift Conservation. You can find out more here.
And, whatever you do this week, make sure you take time to look to the skies and enjoy the swifts. They'll be gone before you know it...
I have been out and about a bit over the past couple of weeks catching up with colleagues in Scotland and Northern Ireland while seeing the impact of the work we are doing. I visited our Abernethy, Loch of Strathbeg and Fowlsheugh nature reserves last week and I enjoyed my first visit to the Garron Plateau in the Antrim Hills yesterday.
Reflecting on these and other recent visits, I am proud that it is becoming routine for us to look beyond the boundaries of our nature reserves and build partnerships to transform landscapes for nature and for people. If, as a contribution to the global endeavour to save nature, we want to ensure that 20% of our land is well managed for nature by 2025, this approach must become custom and practice for all interested in keeping common species common, preventing threatened species from becoming extinct and ensuring we continue to benefit from the services that nature gives us.
For example, Abernethy is a core part of the Cairngorms Connect vision to restore 60,000 hectares of Caledonian forest, and our work to restore the blanket bogs of Garron is part of a major multinational programme: our Cooperation across Borders for Biodiversity Project (CABB).
CABB is, as its name implies, seeking to restore habitats in Northern Ireland, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland. Supported by EU Interreg and managed by the Special EU Programmes Body, it is led by the RSPB in partnership with Birdwatch Ireland, Northern Ireland Water, Butterfly Conservation and Moors for the Future.
Yesterday, I joined our Northern Ireland Advisory Committee to hear about progress we are making at three key sites: Montiagh Moss, Pettigoe Plateau and Garron Plateau. The main focus is on restoring blanket bog habitat on these internationally important sites and I think Seamus Heaney would be impressed by what we are achieving on land that he loved. In his poem 'Bogland', Heaney wrote...
"We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening -
Everywhere the eye concedes to
I wooed into the cyclops' eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun"
Our current work on the Garron Plateau is an extension of the sustainable catchment management project we ran with Northern Ireland Water and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. By the end of the CABB project, c3,500 dams will have been installed to block 26 km of drains to help restore blanket bog. This is good news for wildlife, good news for water companies who save money from cleaner water and also good news for the climate as intact bogs means more carbon remains locked in the peat.
The RSPB has many years of experience of blocking drains on a large of number peat bogs in places such as the Flow Country and the Peak District. It is a satisfying intervention as the return on investment of effort is pretty quick. While the success of these projects is dependent on partners rallying around a shared vision and doing the work to a high standard, none of it happens without funding.
While there is, of course, a case for seeing these interventions as ‘payments for ecosystem services’ and so would constitute good investment of public money, I am struck that like so many other great nature conservation projects, CABB is dependent on European funding.
As the Brexit saga continues, future funding must be part of the debate. Alongside reform of farming and fisheries policies and the establishment of new environmental legal and governance framework across the UK, we have to make the case for replacing the £428m of environmental protection funding that will be lost when we leave the EU.
These details matter. Without targeted financial support, the hard graft of restoring our fabulous landscapes could come to a shuddering halt. That would be bad news for wildlife and bad news for all of us. So, as the politics around the UK vote to leave the EU intensifies, we shall remain ruthlessly focused on ensuring that the final outcome works for Heaney’s bogs and all nature across the UK.