I grew up in Bristol and went to Bristol Grammar School where a couple of masters (Derek Lucas and Tony Warren) were instrumental in fueling my interest in birds. I was in the Young Ornithologists' Club.
In the school holidays I practically lived at Chew Valley Lake - a bicycle and a pair of binoculars were all I needed.
My parents liked nice scenery and walks in the countryside and that gave me plenty of opportunities for birding.
I spent a few years when rare birds were very important to me but aside from the very occasional lapse they aren't any more!
I did a Ph.D. on pipistrelle bats but most of my research before joining the RSPB was on bee-eaters in the south of France (nice eh?) and great tits and marsh tits around Oxford. However, the first scientific paper I wote was about the lekking behaviour of great snipe.
I joined the RSPB staff in 1986 as a researcher, became Head of Conservation Science in 1992 and Conservation Director in 1998 - all have been great jobs!
Flicking through my May-June copy of BTO News I see an article by Stuart Newson and Stephen Baillie about the results of the Songbird Survival-funded study of predators and songbirds (covered in this blog back in March).
As expected, the official BTO account of the results of the study is balanced and fair. It points out that for most songbirds examined (22 out of 29) there was no evidence that population changes have resulted from changes in predation. It also points out that more relationships between predators and potential prey were positive than negative! As pointed out here before, there were some species for which there was evidence of a predator impact - but some of these negative relationships were biologically unrealistic - which makes it difficult to evaluate the others. However, the BTO authors summarise the study as follows:
'In summary, for the majority of the songbird species examined, there was little evidence that increases in common avian predators and grey squirrels were associated with large-scale depression of prey abundance or population declines. For the majority of declining songbird species with unfavourable conservation status, population declines appear to be due to factors other than predation.'
Elsewhere in BTO News Andy Clements writes about the misrepresentation of this study in the press:
'...despite all partners' adherence to the agreed interpretation, some newspapers chose to make mischief with, at least, the headlines.' and '...many readers of popular newspapers will have received a very different message about that bird-table marauding Sparrowhawk!'.
Andy is referring, I guess, to the coverage in the Daily Mail and the Daily Express (see what this blog and others said about them back in March). Yes, I wonder how both papers got the wrong end of the stick? But it suits some that the results of science are misrepresented. I noticed the other day that a new Twitter account (I'm not publicising it so I won't name it!) which describes itself as 'supporting Songbird Survival UK' directs its very few readers to the aforementioned Daily Mail article. Not to the original paper on the internet, not to the BTO website with the agreed account of the study - but to the misleading Daily Mail headline and article. Funny that!
About a third of the MPs in the House of Commons are newly elected and so there are lots of new friends for us to get to know.
One of these, Rebecca Harris MP, I met today. Ms Harris is an RSPB member and mentioned the RSPB in her maiden speech. When we met, Ms Harris was about to launch her Private Member's Bill (she came fourth in the ballot) on daylight saving. The idea behind the Bill would be to give us better use of daylight and one of the consequences of this would be reductions in lighting and other energy use and, as Ms Harris pointed out, extra time for school children to enjoy nature and people to volunteer in the countryside.
There are lots of energetic new MPs for the RSPB to get to know and work with over the years ahead. Every single MP has at least 50 RSPB members in their constituency - Ms Harris has over 1,600.
Over 224,000 people have signed our Letter to the Future campaign and we have publicised this in the billboards into Westminster tube station. Let's hope the MPs look at the poster on the left and aren't too distracted by the one on the right!
There were lots of new faces in Portcullis House. But as we waited to meet Ms Harris, an 'old' face, Huw Irranca-Davies, the former Defra minister, walked past and we exchanged a brief few friendly words.
Defra have announced the demise of the Commission for Rural Communities and the merging of the Animal Health Agency and the Veterinary Laboratories Agency.
Here are what I think are the most interesting parts of the Secretary of State's announcement:
'...Defra has a very big network, with over 80 arms-length bodies. In my first month, I have made it my priority to examine the network critically. In line with the coalition Government’s commitments, I am applying the ‘three Government tests’ to each of our bodies: does it perform a technical function? does it need to be politically impartial? does it act independently to establish facts?'
'The Government believes policy advice should be carried out by Departments, not arms length bodies. Defra will, therefore, reinforce its capacity to undertake rural work within the Department; a strengthened Rural Communities Policy Unit will work across Government to ensure that the interests of rural communities are fully reflected in policies and programmes.'
'Following the principle that Government should do only those things which only Government can do, we are examining how parts of the Defra network’s assets could be marketed or be run better through the voluntary sector, while protecting key Defra outcomes. Further announcements will follow, against the principles outlined above.'
This blog has alluded to the 'retreat from policy' by statutory agencies. The aim of bringing policy back into Defra, where Ministers are accountable, has some very real advantages but it may have disadvantages too.
But this announcement signals three things to me: things are happening apace, the need to find spending cuts is driving some of these changes, but there are real changes in the way government and its surviving agencies will operate.