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.
Given the fact that a fire has been raging over Saddleworth moor this week, I thought it would be good to host a guest blog from my colleague Pat Thompson (the RSPB's senior upland policy officer) to offer our perspective on what has happened and what our local team has been doing to help.
You will have seen on the news over recent days, catastrophic images of fire sweeping across the hills near Saddleworth moor. Whilst the worst appears to be over it will be some time before we know the full extent of the damage.
Our dedicated site team have been busy assisting with the logistics of getting equipment to the fire crews. As you can imagine, the moorland terrain and habitat here, coupled with the wind and the unusually prolonged dry spell we have had over the past few months, makes this a challenging situation. Along with multiple partners from throughout the Peak District National Park, we have also been helping to fight fires on the ground.
It is not yet possible for us to fully know the extent of the damage from the wildfire at our Dove Stone reserve, until we can properly assess the site. Whilst the fire likely started some distance from Dove Stone, the unusually dry conditions we have had over the past few months, mean it spread quickly and over a large area, and it has reached land managed by the RSPB.
We are concerned about damage to the blanket bog that we have been restoring in partnership with land owners United Utilities, which looks to be severely damaged, but the size of this area is not something we know at this stage.
Many of you will be familiar with some of our recent restoration work thanks to a feature on the latest series of BBC Autumnwatch. Thankfully the fire has not hit this bog area with the most breeding wading birds such as dunlin, curlew and golden plover, but the area hit will undoubtedly have affected a variety of wildlife that lives on the moor such as red grouse, mountain hares, voles, insects and nesting birds like skylarks and meadow pipits.
Blanket bog is a globally scarce habitat, which plays an important role in storing carbon, improving water quality and giving wildlife a home. Healthy bogs can tackle climate change by locking up harmful carbon and improve water quality by acting as a natural filtration system.
The upland areas of the Peak District used to boast thriving blanket bogs but a combination of industrial pollution, moorland fires and heavy grazing, left them seriously damaged with large areas of exposed bare peat.
Since 2010, the RSPB and United Utilities have been restoring blanket bog at Dove Stone in partnership with tenant farmers. This has involved establishing vegetation on large areas of bare peat, placing dams in eroded gullies to slow water flow and planting sphagnum moss in recovering areas to kick-start the process of bog recovery.
Volunteers working to restore blanket bog at Dove Stones RSPB reserve (Ben Hall; rspb-images.com)
This restoration work has already helped threatened moorland birds with Dove Stone recording a rise in dunlins, golden plovers, curlews and red grouse.
The fire could put a lot of this good work at risk.
There are some out there trying to level blame at the RSPB for not carrying out regular burning of the moorland we manage, suggesting that this may be responsible for the fire or the intensity and speed of the spread. This is patently untrue and seeks to utilise a disastrous situation for their own agenda.
Allow me to lay out some facts:
Once we better understand what the true impact of the fires has been we think it should be time for all parties with an interest in these special places to sit down and better understand what needs to happen to stop fires such as these from starting.
Whatever your views on Brexit, it can be easy to get ground down by the current uncertainty. For farming and wildlife in particular, the future is far from clear. It is at times like this then that we need to top up our reserves of hope and optimism in order to keep our eyes on the end goal of a countryside richer in nature, alongside profitable and productive farming.
After attending the Greener UK and Wildlife & Countryside Link Parliamentary Farmers Market on Wednesday, it’s safe to say that my optimism tank has been topped up. In a hot Members Dining Room overlooking the Thames, farmers and conservationists met with MPs and Peers to make the case for farming with nature at its heart. In a packed room that was buzzing with good conversations (and a farmland bird soundtrack), members of the Commons and Lords streamed in to hear from farmers directly about how it is possible to farm and manage their land with wildlife in mind as well as producing high quality food. And many if not all of them will have gone away with a goody bag of nature-friendly produce to prove it.
There were speeches from Neil Parish MP, the new National Trust Director-General Hilary McGrady, and an impromptu pitch from Thérèse Coffey (who it was great to see back after a period of illness and who also returned to the lectern later in the evening to inform the audience that Germany had been knocked out of the World Cup).
I particularly enjoyed hearing from David Corrie-Close (pictured below) of the Horned Beef Company and Vice Chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network about his mission to farm with nature, and the personal, as well as professional reasons why this is so important to him. Remembering that at the heart of every farm are people with their own personal motivations is something that we as conservationists need to constantly remind ourselves of if we’re to get through to the other side of Brexit with a positive outcome for people, farming and wildlife.
And that personality was in abundance on Wednesday, as farmers from across the UK recounted the many different ways that they deliver for the wildlife and the environment. Seeing MPs and Peers from across the political spectrum, and from both Government and Opposition front benches, also gave me hope that there is political interest in getting the right outcome. Hopefully, this event will have gone some way toward converting that interest into political will, which we will need in spades ahead of the tabling of an Agriculture Bill at Westminster, expected either before, or just after the summer.
So, heading into another sunny weekend – although many farmers will be hoping that it isn’t as they need the rain – I go into it with renewed hope for a better future, reinvigorated to ensure that the RSPB does all that it can to get there. I’m also reminded though that there is strength in numbers, and that working with others, both established partners, but more importantly farmers from different sectors and countries, is more important now than ever, and more powerful than ever too.
So if you’re in need of an optimism boost for Friday, check out the #FarmingForNature hashtag on Twitter. Or, if you have five minutes, get a complete refill by listening to David’s speech to the room on Wednesday evening.
Images courtesy of Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
Recently, I had the pleasure of paying my first visit to our Loch of Strathbeg reserve in Aberdeenshire. The office window has one of the best views in the whole of the RSPB as it looks directly onto a tern island which, thanks to the installation of a predator fence, creates a cacophony.
Loch of Stratbeg (Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)
Built over the winter of 2013-14 to exclude otters which were feasting on eggs, the fence has helped the reserve go from 10 pairs of common terns and 30 pairs of black headed gulls raising no chicks at all in 2012 or 2013 to 178 pairs of terns and 36 black headed gulls in 2017 raising almost 300 chicks. This year looks to be equally successful.
This is another reminder of the impact that fences erected to exclude predators can have on breeding productivity of ground nesting birds.
As I have written in previous years (for example see here), deciding to introduce any form of predator control (lethal or non-lethal) is something we never take lightly. It’s always based on evidence* and guided by our Council-agreed policy.
The RSPB’s approach to any type of predator control means that we first seek evidence of a problem, check whether there is a non-lethal solution and if so implement that. In many cases (as for the terns at Loch of Strathbeg) this does the job needed.
We now have fences at 28 reserves protecting breeding waders over 874 ha. At sites with anti-predator fences, lapwing productivity has been consistently above that necessary for population maintenance (0.6 chicks fledged per pair), even though at most sites only a proportion of the suitable habitat is protected by the fence. The graph below shows mean Lapwing productivity at RSPB reserves with anti-predator fencing, at which productivity has been regularly monitored. Bars show + one standard error. The figures above the bars show the number of reserves with anti-predator fencing, at which productivity was monitored.
But non-lethal methods, whilst always our preferred way of doing things, are not always practical. Lethal vertebrate control on RSPB reserves is only considered where the following four criteria are met:
If we can satisfy ourselves of all these things, then we can be sure to make the right decision.
Below are tables summarising the vertebrate control undertaken by RSPB and our contractors on reserves during the period 1 September 2016 to 31 August 2017, and during the period 1 September 2015 to 31 August 2016 for comparison. Only reserves where control was undertaken during the year have been included. Vertebrate control commissioned by third parties as part of existing rights is not included here.
a) For conservation reasons
No. of reserves
Feral Barnacle Goose (eggs)
To protect ground-nesting birds
UK eradication project to benefit White-headed Ducks
To protect Red Squirrels
Deer - Fallow
To restore woodland
Deer - Muntjac
Deer - Red
To restore woodland & heathland
Deer - Roe
Deer - Sika
To restore heathland & woodland
Gull - Large (adults)
To protect terns
Gull - Large (eggs)
To protect Water Voles
To protect ground-nesting birds & Orkney Voles on Orkney, where recently introduced
* Plus 133 killed (by shooting and Larsen trap) through the Curlew Trial Management Project, although this includes individuals killed in the wider area, not just on the reserve itself
** Plus 20 killed (by shooting) through the Curlew Trial Management Project, although this includes individuals killed in the wider area, not just on the reserve itself
b) For other reasons
Brown Rat & mice
Hygiene around buildings
To protect hydrological infrastructure (2015/16)/for welfare of animals suffering from myxomatosis (2016/17)
Feral Canada Goose (eggs)
Air safety (& damage to adjacent farmland in 2015/16)
Feral Greylag Goose (eggs)
*As I reported in an earlier blog, we have recently published a review of the impact of predation on wild birds based on 81 relevant scientific papers and reports covering 908 cases where the effect of a predator on changes in the numbers of a prey species had been measured. The headlines from our review are that…
…Predator numbers have increased in the UK over the last decades.
…The UK has very high densities of red fox and crows compared to other European countries.
…Seabirds, waders and gamebirds are limited by predation whereas pigeons, raptors & owls, woodpeckers and songbirds are not limited by predation. A few exceptions to these general statements exist.
…There is a real need for research to understand how landscape-scale management could be used to provide longer-term sustainable solutions to reduce the numbers of generalist predators and their impacts on species of conservation concern.