Spring is on the way - let's connect with nature
Bluebells in bloom by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
With the lengthening days and the warmth now apparent when we get a bit of sun, it is increasingly clear that spring is on the way. What a great feeling! I for one find getting up and about seems a whole lot easier, and my energy levels are increasing as each day gets a bit more daylight.
The natural world is similarly inspired – reminding me that we are part of nature still, despite the fact that half the world’s population now live in urban environments. And despite that urbanisation nature is still there to inspire us as this story (getting millions of hits on the BBC website) shows – the little girl who gets gifts from birds. I love the simple pleasure and honesty about this – and the connection an eight-year-old is making with nature. The sad thing about this of course is that it is newsworthy. But when so few young people play outdoors at all, and even fewer have access to wildlife then we shouldn’t be surprised. Getting more children and families connected to nature is one of the RSPB’s key ambitions.
Turning to Scotland it’s hard not to be excited by what spring will offer. Golden eagles (the subject of a national survey this year) are already preparing to lay eggs – some will lay as early as mid March when snow still covers their territories. A morning walk near large trees or in parkland should reveal a mistle thrush in full song – the “Maevis” as it’s locally known can often be seen silhouetted 20-30 meters up perched on an exposed snag singing his heart out! It is another early bird that starts breeding before winter is truly out. Buzzards, sparrowhawks and kestrels will soar in the warmer air, displaying over their chosen territories, and rooks are tending to their bulky stick nests, renewing their pair bonds and getting ready to settle down and rear a new brood.
Curlew by Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
I also love the return of lapwings and curlews to the inland farmlands and moorland. A true harbinger of spring – their calls and tumbling displays gladden my heart. They are both in steep decline, particularly in lowland areas where intensive grass management, or winter cereals have squeezed them out, which is why we are appealing to farmers in Scotland to help look after them.
Soon we can look forward to the wildflowers of the agriculturally unimproved pastures and herb rich grasslands, again these colourful and special areas are all too rare. Native woodlands will also come into bloom, with carpets of flowers seeking the sun before the leaves on the trees burst forth and shade them out. The intensely coloured bluebells, the white of greater stitchwort and if you are lucky an early purple orchid. Yes - I love the spring. But the chorus of birds, the splashes of wildflower colour and the drone of bumblebees must not be taken for granted. A child today has far less chance of hearing a skylark sing (about a 50% less chance) than I did when I was a boy. Agricultural production may have increased, but must we suffer further losses to nature?
Let's think about what intangible benefits nature provides for our health and wellbeing and protect it, because we want a world richer in nature. And our kids today deserve to see it, and experience it just as much as I did.
Why is illegal raptor persecution still happening?
Red kite with chicks by Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
My first job with the RSPB was as an Investigations Officer based at our UK HQ at the Lodge in Bedfordshire. For two and a half years I followed egg collectors, tackled falcon thieves, and assisted the police in searches of the taxidermists who had freezers full of owls, falcons, buzzards and sometimes rarer species. The trail from the latter inevitably led to gamekeepers selling on birds they had killed.
This was the late 1970s, and birds like marsh harriers were on the brink of extinction in the UK, and red kites were still confined to central Wales. But my belief was that illegal activities would soon be a thing of the past as attitudes changed, and my future and the talents I confidently thought I had would be best employed in advocating for changes to legislation and policy to better protect species, sites and advance the status of Environmental protection. So I moved jobs and am (after some 35 years and a number of moves) now privileged to lead RSPB Scotland’s 320 staff, and be a corporate Board member of the RSPB. No better place to work in my view.
Marsh harrier by Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)
But in one area the young Housden got it seriously wrong. I could not have imagined then that in the 2010s some game managers and their staff would still be routinely and systematically killing protected birds of prey. Much of this dislike of raptors (and predators generally) is based on scant evidence at best, and a poor understanding of ecology, but is so deeply ingrained in the culture of parts of the sport shooting community that the illegal persecution of raptors, has lasted into the 21st Century, and shows little sign of abating. The RSPB remains neutral on legitimate field sports – but will actively challenge those who pursue their interest illegally or unsustainably; other organisations stand against sport shooting in any form – but that is certainly not us.
So you would think engaging the RSPB constructively and in partnership would be seen by responsible agencies and bodies that speak up for fieldsports, as a tactically sensible thing to do.
But apparently not. The Countryside Alliance complains to the Charity Commission about the conduct of our work, and our role combating wildlife crime – a charge dismissed by our regulator. The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) complains constantly to the press about our charitable work. In the process they make themselves appear rather ridiculous. On the one hand they are (through gritted teeth) condemning those who flout the law, but on the other demanding the law is changed to allow them to kill species protected by law across the UK and EU!
Now the world is moving in a way which will continue to expose the excesses and selfish behaviour of some in the shooting community, and show this for what it is. And instead of seeking common ground, their representatives continue to alienate potential allies! Thankfully we know it is possible to work constructively with many shoot owners, and we are not shy in commending good work when we see it.
Convicted goshawk killer George Mutch was recently given a four month custodial prison sentence (photo by Peter Cairns, rspb-images.com)
Given the massive threats to the natural environment, and nature posed by everything from unsustainable fishing practices, habitat loss, climate change, invasive non- native species and agricultural intensification – I for one resent the fact I am, after over 35 years as a professional conservationist, still having to worry about people like George Mutch and those who seek to justify his heinous activities.
You do seriously have to wonder at the tactics pursued by some in the sector – those who are in persistent denial of the criminal problem in their midst and fail to root out the “bad apples” in the sector, as widely demanded by the public, and in line with commonly understood professional standards. Where are the calm intelligent voices – please stand up and be counted! We all need you. Nature needs you.
It really belongs in the past and we should all be working together, using the skills and land management experience found in the shooting sector, alongside our own, to address the continued loss of biodiversity here in the UK, and across the globe.
Red grouse. © Jeremy Wilson
The Langholm Moor Demonstration Project (LMDP)* aims to resolve the conflict between red grouse shooting interests and the conservation of raptors. It builds on the Joint Raptor Study (JRS) of 1992-1997 whose principal study site was Langholm Moor, and which showed for the first time the circumstances under which raptor populations constrained driven grouse shooting.
The new, 10-year project, known to many as ‘Langholm 2’, has now published a 7-year review, which evaluates progress against five formal criteria.** So how are we getting on? I discussed this with RSPB scientists Professor Jeremy Wilson and Dr Staffan Roos, who both work closely with the project, to find out.
Heather and grouse – reversing past losses
Langholm Moor lost well over half its heather between the 1940s and the start of the LMDP in 2008. However, the corner has at last been turned thanks to tireless efforts by the gamekeeping team in burning, cutting and re-seeding to establish new, young heather cover (Fig. 1), and the commitment of Buccleuch Estates to reducing grazing impacts by sheep and feral goats.
This is all good news, but the LMDP is seeking to restore driven grouse shooting on a smaller heather area than at any time in Langholm’s recorded history as a grouse moor and expectations need to be set accordingly. Progress with red grouse numbers is formally described in the 7-year review, as ‘not on target’, simply because driven shooting has not yet resumed.
But this hides a simple numerical truth. Red grouse numbers are increasing fast and are already back to the densities recorded at the start of the JRS when driven shooting still took place (Fig. 2).
Figure 1. Recovery of heather on Langholm Moor in May 2014. © Jeremy Wilson
Figure 2. The mean densities of red grouse at Langholm Moor in spring and July derived from block counts. These are the same data as in Fig. 3b in the 7-year review, and black symbols show years in which grouse were shot. Driven grouse shooting is only recommended by the GWCT above a July density of 60 birds per km2 (Hudson P. 1992. Grouse in space and time. Game Conservancy Trust Ltd, p.9)
Hen harriers – a target met
Hen harrier numbers and breeding success have met project targets. In 2014, aided by a year of exceptionally high vole densities, there were 12 breeding attempts, of which 10 were successful, fledging 47 chicks (Fig. 4 on p. 24 in the 7-year review). The strict protection of raptors on Langholm Moor also means that there are good populations of merlins, short-eared owls, buzzards and peregrines (Table 3 on p. 25 in the 7-year Review). Langholm Moor is becoming a healthy ecosystem with many of the top avian predators as an integral part of the food chain. What an example for the moors in the North of England, where illegal killing has almost extirpated the hen harrier.
Management for raptors and red grouse - the resounding success of diversionary feeding
Almost all hen harrier nests at Langholm Moor are provided with ‘diversionary’ food to reduce the propensity of the parents to hunt red grouse chicks. This technique was trialled with great success at the end of the JRS and has been equally successful here, with predation of red grouse reduced to negligible levels (see Position statement on p. 22 in the 7-year review).
The dedication of the Langholm gamekeeping team in conducting diversionary feeding has carried the day and showcases a wider role for gamekeeping on grouse moors. In short we have a technique which, within the law, and at modest cost resolves most of the alleged conflicts between harriers and grouse managers. This is no mean achievement, and all the partners should now actively promote this technique to moorland managers.
Other species – more increases
The successes are not limited to red grouse, hen harriers and heather. Meadow pipit numbers (important prey for harriers and merlins and the upland host for cuckoos) are now above their project target, there are signs that the long decline of breeding wader populations, especially curlew and golden plover, may be beginning to reverse (see Fig. 7 in the 7-year review), and the the number of lekking male black grouse has increased from five to 18 (Fig. 8 in the 7-year review).
So what does it all mean?
Those impatient to see the resumption of big-bag, driven grouse shooting at Langholm Moor seem to be approaching Christmas with their glass half empty, and even describe the LMDP as “failing” to deliver red grouse recovery and “failing” to help resolve long-standing challenges to the sustainability of driven grouse management.
On the contrary: the LMDP’s achievements to date are remarkable, especially when one remembers that the moor is recovering from 60 years of continuous heather loss, has only withdrawn sheep from the main areas of heather ground since 2011, and is nowadays a very isolated grouse moor surrounded by agriculture and commercial forestry rather than the welcoming embrace of other driven grouse moors and their well managed heather, and active predator control.
True, driven grouse shooting has not yet resumed, and perhaps bag size ambitions will need to be moderated. But with three more years to go, a growing red grouse population, a recovering habitat base, and gamekeepers, scientists and raptor conservationists working well together, the LMDP is succeeding. It has the potential to inspire change and should do so by looking beyond the 10-year span of its current objectives to be a role model for defining sustainable grouse moor management in the 21st century. As a committed Project partner, we hope others will share the RSPB’s vision of the future.
* The LMDP is a partnership between Buccleuch Estates, Scottish Natural Heritage, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Natural England.** The extent and condition of heather habitat; red grouse numbers; breeding raptor populations; management for red grouse and raptors; populations of other bird species.