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
  • 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.

  • Hen harriers on the brink: it's time for action

    I wrote last year that Biodiversity Minister, Richard Benyon, might lose sleep over known threatened species which might be committed to extinction on his watch.  The parlous state of Hen Harrier as a breeding species in England ought to force the Minister to jump out of bed and take action immediately.

    It is clear that Hen Harrier is on the verge of extinction as a breeding bird in England.  This season there has been just one known breeding attempt.  This compares to four successful attempts in 2011. While it is early in the season to draw conclusions, the signs are not good.

    If we lose Hen Harrier, the Government will have failed in its England Biodiversity Strategy commitment to avoid human-induced extinctions of threatened species in England. 

    Government-commissioned research has shown that the English uplands could support more than 300 pairs of hen harriers. The authors conclude that persecution, associated with the practice of managing moors for driven grouse shooting, is to blame for the harrier’s plight.  What's more, Natural England has previously stated that there is compelling evidence that persecution, both during and following the breeding season, continues to limit hen harrier recovery in England.

    The Government has identified raptor persecution as one of six UK wildlife crime priorities, focussing on golden eagle, white-tailed eagle, hen harrier, red kite, peregrine and goshawk.

    The RSPB is doing its best to protect hen harriers in England, with the support of HLF, United Utilities, Northern England Raptor Forum and other partners, including many volunteers.  We have initiated our Skydancers programme and you can read more about it here.

    We have now written to Defra and Natural England to urge them to lead and fund a comprehensive conservation plan for hen harriers, endorsed by stakeholders including landowning and shooting organisations.

    We think that years of talking must now translate into action. 

    Adult hen harrier in flight with twig (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)

    I accept that this is challenging for the shooting/landowning community.  It is, of course, the case that hen harriers can be a problem for game managers by eating grouse. However, long-term declines in grouse bags are related to land use practice and habitat condition.

    Our point is simple - grouse moor owners and managers should comply with wildlife law, protect hen harriers and adopt legal approaches to minimising predation of grouse, such as diversionary feeding which has been shown to effective in places such as Langholm.

    There has been much talk about an approach termed 'a brood management scheme' which would involve translocation of eggs away from moors and establishment elsewhere to remove the conflict with grouse.  We have said to Defra that this could be included in a recovery plan and may merit experimental investigation in England in the future, but only once hen harrier numbers have recovered to an acceptable level and diversionary feeding has been widely trialled.

    Finally, we are pleased that the Law Commission is seriously considering the introduction of vicarious liability for birds of prey persecution.  We think that this is an appropriate measure to help take to tackle the problem.  It has been introduced in Scotland and we think that it is timely for it to be adopted in England and Wales.

    If you agree, please do sign the petition here and then please tell your friends and family to do the same.

    One last point, I want the UK Government to lead the world in tackling climate change and halting biodiversity loss.  I want Mr Clegg and Mrs Spelman to play strong leadership roles at the Rio +20 Summit in June this year and make the case for urgent global action to decouple economic growth from unsustainable exploitation of the natural world.  Losing Hen Harriers as a breeding species in England would seriously blot their copybook.

    How do you think the Government should respond?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • Wildlife Licensing: how the RSPB uses it to support nature conservation.

    Since 1981, all wild birds, their eggs and chicks have been protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (WCA). This means they cannot be killed, have their eggs taken or have their occupied nests destroyed unless this is done under licence.

    We have been quite vociferous over licensing recently, particularly in relation to our anger at licences issued by Natural England for the destruction of buzzard nests to benefit shooting businesses. Although we have opposed the issuing of licences for the purpose of protecting game interests, we need to rely on the WCA licensing system for conservation, occasionally, too. And, in the interests of openness, I thought I’d share this information with you.

    The bulk of the work we complete under WCA licences relates to ‘disturbance’ of wild birds, including those sensitive or rare species listed on Schedule 1 of the WCA. For example, armed with licences authorised staff and volunteers can: monitor the nests of declining wading birds; erect temporary fences around the nests of Montagu’s harriers in arable fields; or place nest protection cages over little ringed plover nests, or electric fencing around little tern colonies. All of this work is done to increase the breeding success of threatened bird species. We have also needed to rely on the licencing system when setting up reintroduction projects for red kites, corncrakes or cirl buntings, or when our investigators try to thwart the attempts of collectors to steal the eggs of some of our rarest birds.

    In all of these cases, disturbance is temporary. And, all of this work is only done for research, educational or conservation purposes. Every year we submit a comprehensive report of all our work carried out under these licences to the licensing authority.

    Occasionally, we also have to control certain bird species under licence on some of our reserves, but only after all possible management has been done but failed to provide all the conservation needs for those species of concern. In most cases, this is to recover the numbers of threatened wild birds: for example, we remove certain predators to aid the recovery of ground-nesting bird populations. We always favour approaches - such as habitat management and predator exclusion techniques – but, as a last resort, killing may sometimes be necessary.

    It is certainly not an everyday tool, and it must be justified on a case-by-case basis. In line with legal requirements and our own policies, we will only contemplate predator control when predation is shown to pose a threat to species or populations of conservation concern, and is sufficiently serious to warrant action. We will also only countenance lethal control where there is no satisfactory alternative and where any control measures are restricted to the predator, are humane and are capable of reducing predation pressure.

    To benefit breeding wading birds, such as black-tailed godwit or lapwing, we carry out lethal control of carrion crows on some reserves. This happens under the so-called general licence, which means – like everyone using this provision - we’re not obliged to submit records on the number of birds killed (which we think is wrong), but we keep the records anyway and here are the most recent figures we have available:

    In 2011-12, 292 crows were killed on our reserves. Eleven magpies have also been killed under general licence on RSPB reserves for conservation purposes during the same period.

    To protect breeding terns from predation, licensed control of herring gulls, lesser black-backed gulls and great black-backed gulls is also undertaken on specific reserves as a last resort. In 2011-12, 76 large gull nests were destroyed (mostly lesser-black-backed gull) and three adult lesser black-backed gulls were shot on RSPB reserves. Both herring and lesser black-backed gulls have an unfavourable conservation status. So we would never carry out lethal control which endangers the predator species.

    We also carry out control (through egg oiling) of greylag and Canada geese on two reserves in England for aircraft safety. In 2012 this amounted to 73 greylag goose eggs and 25 Canada goose eggs. Also 195 eggs of introduced barnacle geese have been destroyed on another reserve to reduce the impact of aggressive behaviour towards nesting species of conservation concern. At one site we also oil Canada goose eggs to prevent hatching to avoidserious crop damage to a neighbouring landowner.

    The licensing system for permitting disturbance or control of wildlife exists for particular problems and we believe it is legitimate to make small-scale interventions for conservation, or as the law allows. However, we remain opposed to any plan to reduce the integrity of the licensing system and make it easier to kill things in general.