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.
As regular readers to this blog will know, earlier this year NE issued licences to control buzzards at a chicken farm and a pheasant shoot. I summarised our concerns and opposition at the time. In the interests of transparency, we published the (heavily redacted) papers we had obtained through an Environment Information Regulations (EIR) request at that stage.
We only learned of these licences after they were issued and enacted in the spring and, unfortunately, there was nothing we could do to turn the clock back. Since then we have made further EIR requests and met with Natural England to discuss our concerns in detail. In view of the very high level of public interest in this issue I am attaching the documents we received from our further information requests and I will summarise the current state of play below.
On 5 July, the pheasant shoot applicant, not satisfied with having destroyed several buzzard nests under NE licence in the spring, submitted further licence requests to kill a total of 16 buzzards and 3 sparrowhawks around four shoots that he manages between August and October this year. This was on the basis that, according to the applicant, nest destruction had no noticeable effect on the numbers of buzzards in the area. No new evidence of damage to the pheasant shoots was provided and Natural England, to their credit, rejected all four licence applications.
Birds of prey are long lived species (or at least they should be!) which have a relatively slow reproductive rate. They are therefore particularly susceptible to the impact of removing adult birds and have a history of being persecuted. So I believe that birds of prey do require special treatment and if a commercial enterprise can only be viable through the routine removal birds of prey then this is neither acceptable nor sustainable. The onus must be on shooting enterprises to find non destructive management measures that reduce levels of predation rather than denying some of our magnificent birds their rightful place in the countryside.
[As far as the chicken farm is concerned we understand that no further licence applications have been made neither are they anticipated. This appears to have been a very unusual and, hopefully, one off case.]
Whilst encouraged by NE’s decision on these subsequent applications I remain concerned at the lack of openness and publicly available information over this issue. For example, most of the relevant background information on shoot returns presented as evidence of alleged serious damage has been withheld. I believe there is an issue of public interest here in a novel, controversial case that potentially sets a precedent for the future. We acknowledge that NE is tasked with the job of considering licence applications within a framework set out by Defra and they do this to the best of their ability. However, in cases such as this I think the public interest and trust in the decision making process would be best served by much greater transparency.
We have repeatedly argued that Defra should change it's policy so that licenses cannot be granted to control/kill birds of prey. The sad reality is that Defra have not budged. We believe that Defra should not have allowed licenses to be granted whilst new research (to reduce conflict between pheasants and buzzards through non-interventionist means) was being explored with us and other stakeholders. But, last year whilst we thought the focus was on research, Defra was telling NE to get on with licensing. Natural England were therefore obliged to respect the Defra direction and follow due process. Meanwhile, there has been no progress on research into reducing conflicts or on assessing the ecological impacts of 40 million pheasants being released into the countryside.
We will continue to monitor bird of prey licensing like a... well, a hawk.
PS It goes without saying that, several lengthy sections of these papers have been heavily redacted by NE. In some cases this makes it impossible to fully understand the justification for licensed control. If you can piece the story together, please do let me know!
Further pheasant shoot licence application 5 July7635.2105_response on further licence applications.pdf8473.Acknowledgement of Wildlife Licence applications_RD..pdf7536.Further Licence Application_RD.pdfWLM 2013 1750-1752 report_RD.pdfRejection letter, Release site recommendations and Site map, references WLM_2013_1750 to 1752 and WLM_2013_1883 to 1886_RD..pdfBackground NE correspondence relating to original licence applications1996_response correspondence request.pdf
Pheasant shootFile A (1).pdfFile A (2).pdfFile A (3).pdfFile A (4).pdfFile A (5).pdfFile A (6).pdfFile A (7).pdfFile A (8).pdfFile A (9).pdfFile A (10).pdfFile A (11).pdfFile A (12).pdfChicken farmFile B (1).pdfFile B (2).pdfFile B (3).pdfFile B (4).pdfFile B (5).pdfFile B (6).pdfFile B (7).pdfFile B (8).pdfFile B (9).pdfFile B (10).pdfFile B (11).pdfFile B (12).pdfFile B (13).pdfFile B (14).pdfFile B (15).pdf
Tony B - belated thanks for pulling together your version of events. Congratulations - you've done a remarkable job. But, as you imply, the level of redaction still leaves a lot of questions
unanswered. As I said in my blog, we shall be keeping a close eye on future applications and keep you posted.
I took up your challenge to piece the story together and put it in this blog. I would be interested in your comments bucknalltony1.blogspot.co.uk/.../iread-martin-harpers-blog-about-natural.html
I don't think it is NE - as Martin is careful to point out it is NE under instruction from Defra and Defra have virtually abandoned the principles of FOI as proven by equally vigorous redaction over the forest sales issue. It is also interesting to note that in a previous case over moorland management they were happy to leave the names of NE staff open - but redacted the name of the estate. In any case, not naming NE staff is virtually irrelevant as the NE organisation chart tells you who is in the firing line on any particular issue. Personally, I'd congratulate NE because who else was it who stood up to the latest round of license applications ? The irony of redacting the names of applicants is that rather than any one estate taking responsibility, the blame falls back on the shooting industry as a whole - which if it has any sense of self preservation will use its considerable ability to 'lean' to prevent any further applications coming forward. They damage the industry's image out of all proportion to their importance.
Thank you Martin.I do not think personally that Eagles in general would take farm or domestic livestock and just back from Mull although hearing a story from other visitors (who seemed very genuine)and were Eagle enthusiasts of Eagles taking a duck from where the owner of their holiday cottage lived and passing it from one to the other.It seemed genuine but very unlikely at the same time.
Think it is probably the fear of what might happen that must worry any livestock farmers and personally I can understand free range pig and poultry farmers being concerned as obviously they cannot be netted over.
What a success the WTE are on Mull with no persecution and we even saw male and female Hen Harrier though less obvious to see than posing WTE.
How lucky for Mull residents,holiday visitors and Mull birds especially WTE to have Dave Sexton as warden on Mull.
Sooty – you asked a question and I am late getting back to you. Sorry about that. I think the starting point for us is whether there are other non-interventionist/lethal means of dealing with the problem. I asked my Scottish colleagues about the WTE situation as I think this is instructive here. They tell me that the likelihood of conflict with livestock was assessed as part of the feasibility of the East Scotland WTE project. The key point is that the east of Scotland has an abundance of live prey in the form of wildfowl, rabbits and strandline scavenging, so that this is not a major issue. There are no large scale free range chicken farms or pig units close to the release site. There have been 5 cases of WTE's taking poultry in the project area since it started in 2007. This involved small numbers of domestic poultry rather than commercial stock. These incidents have been in the first few months after release when the birds have been inexperienced. In two cases we have helped net the poultry enclosures to help resolve the issue. There have been no incidents with poultry since 2011. So I think that it should be possible to deal with sensibly on a case by case basis.
It is good to see Natural England rejecting these applications but this is simply the latest skirmish in what will unquestionably be a long fight. The redaction of shoot returns is an interesting development given that there has been criticism of NE for using these as a benchmark to determine licences. This is the area where the licence process is fundamentally flawed and biased against recovering wildlife populations. How can it be reasonable to use historical shoot returns from decades past when raptor populations were much reduced through huge levels of persecution to judge what shooting businesses should be returning now? Expecting returns to remain the same in the face of both healthy raptor populations and increases in traffic (and surely therefore increases in numbers involved in road casualties also?)Surely what is needed is some common sense from NE and NGO, shooting returns may be lower than those historically achieved and this may in a small part be linked with a healthy Buzzard population but they need to focus on mitigation techniques that do not involve the removal of predators including Buzzards from areas around shoots.
If shooting businesses cannot sustain themselves and co-exist with healthy raptor populations and traffic levels in modern Britain, do they have a future?
If WTE did start taking free range livestock surely it is not beyond the wit of man to work out other satisfactory solutions.
While I see no reason for Buzzard control in general I could envisage if one rogue one took to killing free range chickens then that one could justifiably removed so how do you personally view the answer if the WTE in East Scotland start taking either free range piglets or free range chickens.Fact is that we the public probably including yourself have asked those farmers to produce free range stock and there is no simple way to protect them whatever the conservationists think.
I look forward to your answer as I guess I would dislike any BOP death similar to yourself.
Well done indeed to the RSPB for seeking out all this information. This whole episode of the persecution of buzzards is a complete disgrace.
When the RSPB first brought it to light the issuing of these licenses to destroy our native wildlife I wrote twice to Natural England, purely as an independent person, expressing my complete dismay at their granting of such licenses and asking that they confirm to me that no further licences of a similar type would be issued by them. I received no reply to my two letters whatsoever.
This shroud of secrecy that Natural England operate is just not acceptable in this day and age and something needs to be done by the politicians to ensure they operate a much more open regime in future (maybe we need to lobby our MPs?).
However having said this about Natural England I do detect, as I mentioned at the time, the dead hand of Defra behind this whole episode.
Keep up your very good work RSPB.
As a member it is good to see RSPB bringing this information to light. NE's overzealous use of redaction is unjustified. just what are they trying to hide?