Martin Harper's blog

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Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t
  • England's moors: an update on this burning issue

    Four years ago I announced that the RSPB had taken the serious step of making a formal complaint to the European Commission raising our profound concerns at the state of our finest designated wildlife sites in the North English moorlands -  sites  protected on paper as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) but which have been failing to deliver for nature for too long.

    Our complaint related specifically to the failure of DEFRA, through its statutory agency Natural England, to take adequate measures to tackle serious and persistent damage to one site in particular, Walshaw Moor in the South Pennines. Subsequently the complaint broadened to cover the other Northern English moorland SACs - focussing on the issue of burning the heather and vegetation on the areas of deep peat soils – soils that should be supporting healthy blanket bog and the wildlife that depends on it. 

    The management of many of these places has been intensifying in order to produce more and more red grouse to support the driven grouse shooting industry see here, a land use that has shaped our hills, influenced some of our most iconic landscapes and had significant impacts on our wildlife throughout many decades stretching back into the 19th Century.

    Today we have learned that our complaint and a separate complaint submitted by Ban the Burn have led to the European Commission beginning legal action against the UK Government by issuing a Letter of Formal Notice.  This is the starting gun of a full infraction procedure when the Commission considers a Member State has not applied the relevant laws properly. From the limited information we have it appears that the Commission share our wider concerns over bad application of the Habitats Directive with respect to the blanket bog habitats that are meant to be conserved by SACs in England.  We will update our page dealing with this case (see here) later today.

    We welcome this move wholeheartedly. These are serious matters and much is at stake. 

     

    Moor burn by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

     

    For anyone following these issues over the last four years it will not have escaped your notice that positions have become entrenched. This has manifested itself by, on one hand, repeated calls and petitions to ban driven grouse shooting in England and on the other vigorous defence of the role driven grouse shooting plays and especially the 'benefits' of burning. 

    We want a resolution. 

    We have been calling for reform of the way our hills are managed with proper regulation of an industry whose unfettered ambitions to produce ever higher red grouse numbers for the gun are causing growing concern over the direct and indirect  impacts on wildlife, including hen harriers and other raptors, the ability of our moorlands to cope with increasing rainfall and to play a part in reducing the risk of catastrophic floods downstream, and the impact on  deep peat soils that lock up carbon and prevent its release into the atmosphere and into our drinking water. 

    Over the coming days we will see an intensification of the rhetoric from both perspectives. I fully anticipate repeated and sustained pressure for the RSPB to join calls for a ban. 

    That is not our position. 

    We will probably hear more from our critics, funded by backers linked to the grouse industry, who wish to deflect us from our purposeful work.  Will these be direct or via the pages of supportive newspapers? 

    But now through the Hen Harrier Action Plan and this European Commission led process there is a chance of real progress. The challenge is now with DEFRA, Natural England and the driven grouse industry to respond constructively to the growing evidence that change is needed, and to do so positively - we will be returning to this critical issue regularly both here on my blog and on Saving Special Places

    And I want to hear from you. If you are frustrated that the RSPB is not supporting calls for a ban or if you are outraged that decades of traditional management for grouse are being challenged by our actions or if you are in a place where you see scope for a constructive way forward please let me know your views.

    Walshaw Moor from the air

  • Why the RSPB is withdrawing support for the Hen Harrier Action Plan

    The voluntary approach of the Hen Harrier Action Plan has failed, leaving licensing as the only viable option.

    I’m generally very patient.  My natural preference is to build partnerships and work to make positive change from the inside with those who want to abide by the law and deliver progress.

    However, sometimes that approach simply doesn’t work and there can be no clearer example of that right now than hen harriers, where illegal killing of this rare bird remains its most significant threat.

    The RSPB played a full part in the production of Defra’s Hen Harrier Action Plan and despite disagreeing with certain points (notably brood management), welcomed its publication earlier this year. However, at the time, I noted the need for immediate progress to help build trust in the approach.

    Unfortunately this has not happened.  

    Image courtesy of Shay Connolly

    In 2015, we were all extremely frustrated by there being just six successful hen harrier nests from 12 attempts in England.  2016 is on course to be much worse, with only three nests at the time of writing, none of which are on grouse moors.   

    Some will argue that the weather or vole population is to blame, however, early returns from the national hen harrier survey suggest numbers away from intensively managed grouse moors in north and west Scotland have done ok. We remain convinced that the primary reason for the hen harrier‘s continuing scarcity remains illegal killing.  

    Simply put, hen harriers (and other birds of prey) are illegally killed on some estates because they eat grouse. Crimes are committed to increase the number of grouse that can be shot. This year, there have been a series of depressingly predictable incidents in England and Scotland, the disappearance of the hen harriers ‘Chance’ and ‘Highlander’, the use of pole traps and the hen harrier decoy in the Peak District. And as well as hen harriers, it has also been a really bad year for red kites in North and West Yorkshire with several suspicious deaths.  In addition, there are more cases working their way through the legal system.

    All of this adds up to a picture which shows that the commitments made in the Hen Harrier Action Plan are not being delivered. People are still breaking the law and not enough is being done within the grouse shooting community to effect change.

    Some will argue that we should be more patient as behavioural change takes time.  But the hen harrier does not have time on its side and the longer hen harriers remain on the brink, the greater public antipathy towards intensive grouse shooting will become.

    Hen harriers and other birds of prey in our uplands will not recover without a completely different approach.  

    We have therefore decided to withdraw our support from Defra’s Hen Harrier Action Plan.

    We have come to this conclusion because we believe that reform to protect the hen harrier will only come through licensing of driven grouse shooting where, for example, crimes committed on estates managed for shooting should result in the withdrawal of their right to operate.  

    A licensing system isn’t about tarring everyone with the same brush, or blaming a whole community for the actions of the few.  Quite the opposite: it is effectively a targeted ban that will stamp out illegal activity and drive up the environmental standards of shooting.

    Law abiding estates have nothing to fear from this system and, indeed, I believe that it is in their own interests to champion such an approach.  We believe that this is the only way to deliver a significant shift in attitudes and potentially secure a future for their sport. Licensing systems appear to work well in most other European countries, so why not here as well?

    We fully support the current petition in Scotland and we would like to reinvigorate the call for Defra to introduce licensing in England too.

    Of course, we will continue to work on the ground with our partners, especially raptor workers (who monitor and protect birds of prey), landowners who wish to see a progressive future, local people and the police to provide the most effective possible year round protection.

    My preference is always for the partnership approach, but partnership requires action from both sides. In this case, that has failed. When shooting organisations are either unable or unwilling to lead the necessary change to rein in illegal activity, then reform must be delivered from outside. That is what we will now seek to do though promoting licensing.

    I fully expect our critics (such as the grouse industry funded You Forgot The Birds) to push out a wearyingly predictable series of attacks on the RSPB in coming weeks.  I can only imagine that this is designed to divert attention from criminal activity on some intensive grouse moors.  But this won't shake our resolve to seek change.

    An early opportunity to talk more about all of this will be at the Hen Harrier Day events. I’ll be at the Hen Harrier Day North East event at the RSPB's Saltholme reserve on Sunday 7 August, while my boss Mike Clarke will be at the event at Rainham Marshes on Saturday 6 August. Other RSPB representatives will be at various of the other events too. I hope to see many of you there and hopefully many more will be able to attend other events across the country.

    Together, we can and will save our hen harriers.

  • Why Defra is wrong about buzzards and why I am angry

    Defra wants to spend close to £400,000 of taxpayers’ money (that’s our money) on a trial in England to reduce buzzard predation of pheasant poults by, amongst other things, shooting out buzzard nests and permanently imprisoning adults. You can read the Defra tender document here.

    I want to tell you why I think that this approach is fundamentally flawed, why I am angry and why we need help to call on Ministers to think again.

    Buzzards are one of the nation's best loved birds of prey.  I remember as a boy walking on the Long Mynd being inspired by seeing a buzzard soar over head and I've always had a soft spot for these fabulous animals. 

    In the early 19th century, buzzards were a common sight throughout the UK, but persecution resulted in widespread declines and by 1875, they remained only in western Britain. Subsequent recovery was undermined in the late 1950s, when rabbit populations were decimated by myxomatosis and it was not until the 1990s that the rate of spread accelerated, with birds recolonising much of their former range.

    Happily for me and for anyone else who loves these birds, buzzards now breed in every UK county.  It is a sad fact in some areas the rate of expansion has been restricted illegally.  Buzzards are still the most persecuted bird of prey, with 291 having been confirmed as poisoned in the last 10 years. And as always with wildlife crime, this figure is only the tip of the iceberg.

    But not everyone loves buzzards. 

    Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

    Buzzards will take pheasant poults, given the opportunity. Although generally scanvengers, buzzards can be lazy and will take the easiest meal available – no different to you or I nipping down to the fish and chip shop to save cooking.  Current estimates suggest that pheasant shooting leads to 40 million non-native gamebirds being released into the countryside, often at very high densities.  The result is a meat feast that any self-respecting buzzard is unlikely to ignore. 
     
    So how many pheasants do buzzards eat?  An independent report for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) found that on average only 1-2% of pheasant poults were taken by birds of prey. This is tiny compared to the numbers which die from other causes, like disease or being run over on the road (which accounts for about 3 million pheasants a year).
     
    Even if predation levels are higher in a few instances, there are plenty of legal, non-contentious techniques for reducing predation, which don’t involve destroying nests or confining wild birds to a life spent in captivity. Scaring devices, visual deterrents, more vegetation and diversionary feeding of buzzards could all make a difference, if done well. A few years ago we endorsed a BASC produced guidance note advising gamekeepers on how to reduce bird of prey predation using some of these techniques.

    And is capturing buzzards likely to work? If you swat a wasp, but leave a pot of sticky honey open to the air, it won't be long before another wasp takes its place. The same is true of buzzards. Two gamekeepers previously employed on the Kempton estate in Shropshire were convicted of, amongst other things, illegally killing buzzards in 2007. They had killed over 100 buzzards in less than six months in one small part of Shropshire. As soon as one buzzard was removed, another (ill-fated) buzzard took its place.  We think that the research project is the wrong answer to address what we see as a minor problem.

    We think Defra is taking the proverbial sledgehammer to a walnut in reacting to calls from a small part of the pheasant shooting community to do something about buzzards.

    And I am angry at what I see as bad use of public money. 

    At a time when there is so little to go around, when we know that there is a massive shortfall in funding required to meet the coalition government's ambition "to protect wildlife... and restore biodiversity", it seems ludicrous to be spending a large slug of public money to protect private interest.

    I can think of loads of ways to spend £400,000 on nature conservation.  Helping save hen harrier from extinction in England would seem a better use of cash.

    I should point out that ours isn’t a knee jerk reaction. We’ve been working with Defra for a while to try to identify possible solutions for the small number of pheasant shoots that – we are told – are experiencing losses to buzzards. I genuinely hoped that we would find common ground and that I wouldn’t have to write this blog. That has not been possible. 

    Buzzards are a conservation success story, due in no small part to effective legal protection and a general warming of attitudes towards buzzards and other birds of prey on the part of many lowland land managers.  While some will simply see this as a pilot project and will tell us not to get over-excited.  I think that misses the point.  If we have a perceived conflict in the countryside, let's first look at whether the conflict is real and serious and then look at the underlying causes of the conflict -  in this case the release every year of c40 millions pheasants into the countryside.  What are the environmental consequences of those releases? Addressing the symptom will do nothing to address underlying problems in the long term. 

    I would like to publicly call on Richard Benyon MP, the Minister responsible, to think again and pull the plug on this project. 

    If you are as angry as I am by this misguided use of public money and attack on buzzards, please step up and write to your MP and ask them to pass on your concerns to Mr Benyon.  I will come back to this subject soon, and may seek your further action and support in the coming weeks.

    If you do write to your MP, you may like to highlight;
    - Predation by buzzards is a relatively small cause of loss of pheasants
    - Buzzards are a native and recovering species, while pheasants are a non-native gamebird
    - The good that £400,000 could do for species of highest conservation concern, such as the hen harrier

    I consider it a huge privilege to see buzzards nearly daily on my way to work.  Let's not do anything to undermine the protection which led to their spectacular comeback.

    Do you think Defra should spend c£400,000 on a trial to reduce buzzard predation of pheasant poults in England by, amongst other things, shooting out buzzard nests and permanently imprisoning adults?  If not, what would you prefer them to spend the money on?

    It would be great to hear your views.