Triggered by the news that Natural England had issued the first ever licence for the destruction of a buzzard nest at the request of a pheasant shooting estate, a colleague pointed me in the direction of a blog from Matthew Taylor (Chief Executive of the RSA) about how to restore trust in public institutions. In it, Matthew says...
"Modern institutions – especially those which people believe should be expected to act in the public interest – must seek to make decisions as if they are operating in a glass box. (NB: This is not the same as arguing for total transparency. Indeed greater openness is more likely to be the consequence than the cause of more ethical organisational behaviour).
If an organisation which claims to be ethical is making decisions on a basis which the public would not understand or condone then it is ever more likely, sooner or later, that these decisions and the dodgy thinking behind them will be exposed, further eroding trust in institutions."
Makes you think, doesn't it?
This morning I reported that Natural England (NE) had issued licences to destroy buzzard nests and kill or capture adult birds.
Setting aside the serious impact of the licences for a moment, the way in which NE and DEFRA have acted is central to our concerns.
I want to offer a comment on the initial responses from DEFRA and NE.
A tweet from DEFRA said ‘NE is charged with determining applications for licences. Ministers did not make any decisions regarding this licence’.
That seems clear. But let’s check this against the information we have received.
In the Environmental Information Request (EIR) documents it clearly states ‘Insofar as a moratorium was in place (following the decision of the department to review its proposed programme of research on buzzard predation in June 2012), there is now no impediment to Natural England assessing applications for bird of prey licences (conversation between [named Defra Deputy Director] and [named NE Director], 26 October 2012). This position has been confirmed in subsequent Ministerial correspondence (e.g. to National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, 21/11/2012).’
That’s clear too – the department (DEFRA) made an active decision to allow NE to continue with the licensing process.
The National Gamekeepers' Organisation was involved in correspondence. This is probably fair enough as they have been an active stakeholder in discussions with DEFRA. Yet, as another active stakeholder in the research programme we were not (and we have met with DEFRA as recently as last week) – and neither was the public. This is, to say the least, an inconsistent way of dealing with stakeholders.
DEFRA has diverted attention to Natural England who have now issued a myth-buster. In it, NE say that non-lethal deterrents didn’t work ‘despite their consistent application’, yet in one of the EIR documents, they say ‘Overall, there is a pattern of methods being employed inconsistently or not quite as recommended by Natural England’. Why the inconsistency and which is correct?
This is a mess.
Buck-passing between DEFRA and Natural England is not serving any of us well. I do not want this to drag on and for details to emerge piecemeal.
It is time for the Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, to be clear and to stop this once and for all and issue a clear statement that the Government will not issue licenses to kill a native bird of prey to protect commercial gamebirds. This is a simple step which could easily be taken, but it needs to be done to reassure stakeholders and the public that his department is acting in the public interest and standing up for wildlife.
I enjoyed the launch of our joint State of Nature report yesterday. My day started on the BBC Breakfast sofa alongside a common toad ably handled by Jim Foster (from Amphibian and Reptile Conservation). It ended with an excellent event at the Natural History Museum at which Sir David Attenborough gave the keynote address. It was an important moment to highlight the crisis facing our wildlife.
And with nature in crisis, unfortunately today I have to report some bad news regarding one of the species that has been bucking that trend and doing well – the buzzard.
Last Thursday, I became aware that Natural England has issued the first ever licence for the destruction of a buzzard nest at the request of a pheasant shooting estate, allowing up to four nests and their contents to be destroyed between 23 April and 8 May this year. We found out through a request under the Environmental Information Regulations – the Environmental equivalent of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request - about whether any licences to destroy or remove buzzards or their nests had been issued. Since then we’ve been trying to piece the story together and I’m afraid it doesn’t make for pretty reading.
Buzzard populations are recovering from historical declines caused by decades of persecution . Some in the shooting community claim that buzzards are to blame for reduced number of pheasants available to be shot. Yet evidence shows that raptors only play a minor role in pheasant losses (1-2% in most cases), that there are other non-lethal ways to reduce conflict between buzzards and pheasants and that overall predation pressure is unlikely to decrease if buzzards were removed. We therefore believe that lethal control of buzzards and destruction of their nests is unjustified, ineffective and unacceptable.
Following a public outcry last year, supported by 13 organisations and thousands of individuals, Defra abandoned its £375,000 research proposal which would have involved the nest destruction of buzzards. In response, Biodiversity Minister, Richard Benyon, had committed to finding a collaborative way forward, saying “I will collaborate with all the organisations that have an interest in this issue and will bring forward new proposals”. We had been participating in discussions about future research options while continuing to urge Defra to make it clear that it is inappropriate to issue licenses for the killing of a native bird of prey to protect a shootable surplus of a non-native gamebird.
Most of us celebrate the fact that buzzards are now regularly seen soaring in our skies. They are a conservation success story but we cannot take their return for granted. From the information we have received, many questions remain about the process and the evidence upon which decisions were made. We will be seeking further information and considering our options.
Our FOI [EIR] request also revealed that licences for the control of buzzards at a free range poultry farm have been issued. These licences would have allowed the birds to be killed, although subsequently they have been taken into captivity.
We do not believe that this is an appropriate way to address the public’s concerns and available information suggests that non-lethal alternatives had not been properly explored.
In short, I think that it is wrong for Natural England to issue buzzard control licences to protect commercial interests. It is wrong that there has been no public scrutiny of these decisions and it is wrong that we only heard of these decisions after the nests may have been destroyed.
And that's why I'm angered by what has happened..
In the interests of transparency, I’ve attached to this blog all the files we received from our FOI [EIR] request exactly as we received them. Feel free to have a look through all of them, formal Opinion relating to licence A (see below) would be a good place to start. You’ll note that quite a bit of detail has been redacted, in contrast, in Scotland the Scottish Information Commissioner has concluded that assessment of licences related to seal killing should be discussed in the public domain. Clearly that is not the case here!
What do you think?
From the information in the attachments, should these licences have been granted?
Is it ever right to kill a protected bird of prey (or destroy its nests) to protect a shootable surplus of a non-native gamebird?
Is it in the public interest to take these kind of decision in the open, rather than behind closed doors?
What kind of precedent does this set for how we deal with other protected species?6318.1963_response.pdf
Licence A:5684.Licence A - diary figures_RD.pdf7823.Licence A - FW_ Applications for Raptor Licences_RD.pdf8105.Licence A - RE_ Applications for Raptor Licences_RD.pdf6428.Licence A - RE_ CONFIDENTIAL Buzzard Case WLM2013 0569-0581_RD.pdf2728.Licence A - WLM 2013 0569-0581 report final version_RD..pdf5852.Licence A - WLM 2013 0571-77 cover letter - 20130423_RD.pdf8267.Licence A - WLM 2013 0571 licence 20130423_RD.pdf8306.Licence A - WLM 2013 0577 licence 20130423_RD.pdf2275.Licence A - WLM 2013_0569-0581_Advice 20130422_RD.pdf0042.Licence A - XXXXX Appliction XXXXXXXXX_RD.pdf5187.Licence A - XXXXX Appliction XXXXXX.pdf0285.Licence A - XXXXX Appliction XXXXXX_.pdf2476.Licence A - XXXXXX Letter_RD.pdfLicence B: 1033.Licence B - wlm-111801 Buzzard-XXXXXX assessmentver 6a 02_10_12_RD.pdf2043.Licence B - wlm 11 1801 Buzzard licence (trap) ver 13Mar signed_RD.pdf7673.Licence B - wlm 11 1801 Buzzard licence (trap) ver 26Mar signed_RD.pdf0841.Licence B - wlm 111801 Applic form_RD.pdf
Today is a big day.
For the first time, all the UK wildlife organisations have joined forces to compile a health check of nature in the UK and its overseas territories. This evening Sir David Attenborough will help us launch a new State of Nature report. We expect it will serve as a wake-up call to all of us to do more to help us live in harmony with nature.
The report comes in my favourite month of May. A time to reflect on the wonder of those birds that have migrated from Africa to breed here– species such as swift and swallows – a time to take pleasure in seeing our woodlands carpeted with bluebells and to enjoy seeing butterflies again after the long, dark days of winter. But there are real fears that the things we take for granted may not be part of our children's lives when they grow up. In my lifetime, once common species like the turtle dove has declined by more than 90%. Cuckoos down by 73% and nightingales down by nearly 50%. And my former employers,Plantlife, has shown that we are losing, on average, one plant every year from counties in England.
In preparing State of Nature, we have used new and innovative analyses include trend assessments for over 3000 species, and red-list assessments of over 6000 species; mostly derived from data collected by the UK's army of dedicated and skilled volunteer naturalists. Our analyses conclude that 60% of the species for which data are available have declined over recent decades; 31% strongly so. Nature is in flux. Over one in ten of the species assessed are threatened with extinction in the UK.
Understanding the state of the natural world is the foundation for nature conservation. We need to know what's in trouble and what progress we have made. This report reinforces the conclusions reached in 2010: that nature is continuing to decline, the pressures on the natural world are growing, and our response to the biodiversity crisis is slowing.
We know that we all need to do more to inspire moral, political and practical support for nature conservation.
And this is why, following the publication of the report we shall challenge all sectors of society to do more for nature.
We are not claiming to have all the answers but we're determined to do much more. We hope that the report, produced in this time of austerity, stimulates a public debate about what else we need to do to live in harmony with nature.
If you have thoughts on this or any aspect of the report, I'd be delighted to hear from you.
I have just returned from an excellent, if wet, weekend away in the north-west of England with our council of trustees, management board and regional staff. It was a chance to see for ourselves the work we are doing with others in some big landscapes in a fabulous part of England. It was great fun, with lots of wildlife (including otter, orchids, osprey and another 94 bird species) and lots of good conservation conversation.
We explored two of our Futurescapes: the Lake High Fells and Morecambe Bay (the latter also a Nature Improvement Area).
At Haweswater, we are working in partnership with United Utilities as part of our Sustainable Catchment Management Programme to restore water catchment habitat at a landscape scale. This should be good for biodiversity and should provide a cost effective way for UU to improve water quality for the two million people who depend on Haweswater for their drinking water. We also hope to be able to demonstrate that sheep farming in the uplands can be compatible with the wider range of public goods. You'll note that the weather failed to dampen our enthusiasm for the project.
At Bassenthwaite Lake, we have demonstrated the economic value of majestic species such as the osprey. Working with the Forestry Commission, Lake District National Park Authority and one hundred volunteers we have helped to protect ospreys, to highlight the conservation challenges in the region, to attract over one million visitors in a decade which, in turn, has generated £2 million annually to the local economy.
In the Lyth Valley floodplain, we are working with the National Trust, Cumbria Wildlife Trust the Environment Agency and many farmers to deliver major habitat recreation to help recover threatened species such as bittern, lapwings and redshank. We saw the fabulous work that Cumbria Wildlife Trust has done restoring Foulshaw Bog and debated how best to realise our shared vision for a sustainable future for farming in the Lyth valley whilst restoring floodplain meadows and reedbeds.
Finally, at one of our iconic reserves, Leighton Moss, we saw the progress that we have made to create two new satellite reedbed sites to help bittern conservation, to make the site more welcoming to the 100,000 visitors we get each year and to improve our understanding of the eel population. Our long-serving warden, David Mower, has been monitoring daily the number of elver (baby eels) entering the site for the past sixteen years. It is a remarkable endeavour and the data have underpinned the Environment Agency’s eel recovery plan in the north of England.
As ever, I came away incredibly impressed of the work our teams are doing, with many questions about how best to rise to some of the challenges we face, but equally reassured by the maturity of the many partnerships we have forged in the region. This is bound to result in better environmental outcomes. I look forward to our next Council weekend in Scotland next May...