Saturday, June 8, 2013

Special Protection Areas, Freedom of Information requests and Hen Harriers !!!

Special Protection Areas, as the name suggests, are especially important sites for breeding birds judged in an international context. They are designated (take a deep breath) under the European Commission  Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds as being strictly protected sites classified under Article 4 with the aim of affording protection to rare and vulnerable bird species as listed on Annex 1. In other words they are the creme de la creme as far as our bird sites are concerned.  The Act came into force in April 1979 and the first sites began to be designated in the early-mid 1980's.

After we completed an intense period of data collection in Bowland the RSPB submitted details to JNCC for the area to be designated, which I recollect occurred in 1993.  Bowland Fells ( reference UK9005151 ) is now one of the UK's SPA's comprising 16,002 hectares of the most wonderful upland scenery in England and playing host then, to key populations of raptor species. Indeed the designation was based upon 8 pairs of Hen Harriers being present and 20 pairs of Merlin. {I can't recollect why Peregrine is not included in this schedule for the site and will have to research further}.

So, here we are, amidst much acclaim and self congratulation, we had secured SPA designation and for what must still be acknowledged is an important area.  But less so for birds than previously I have to admit given that there are no Hen Harriers present at all  within the past two years. As the Government's agency, Natural England under its parent Ministry, DeFRA, has the responsibility for overseeing such designated sites and being in liaison with owners and others.  Given the reduction in value one wonders what steps have been taken in recent times to address this issue. Such is my interest and concern on the issue that I have submitted a series of questions today under the Freedom of Information Act requesting feedback on the steps taken to rectify this reduction in value, the frequency of monitoring and so on.  And I have to give notice to those involved that such will be a regular feature until I gain what I feel are sincere and rational responses to my enquiries, particularly as I will be notifying Shadow Ministers of the outcome.

Why should I feel so bloody minded ( and no, it's not because I'm a Yorkshireman! )?  We are talking here of some of the best of our bird heritage  being allowed to go down the pan because of a deliberate lack of action on what is recognized as the prime cause, namely illegal persecution. Oh yes, there'll be wringing of hands and references to Hen Harrier Recovery Plans and a whole host of excuses, none of which include the words commitment and focus.  The area of Bowland is still there, is still managed for grouse shooting and no doubt in its guise as an SPA has, at intervals, been the subject of subsidy payments, the truth about which will hopefully be revealed in my FOI answers!!!  As an expression of value , and referring only to Bowland ( although it might be levelled at the North Pennine Moors SPA too ) , the SPA designation is now like recommending fake clothes made in a sweat shop. All designer labels and no quality. The populations upon which the designation was based are in decline or have disappeared!!  This is like allowing paintings in the National Gallery to deteriorate because of damp, so what are the custodians of these gems of our national wildlife heritage doing about it?   They could start by issuing the results from the satellite tagged harriers carried out under the Hen Harrier Recovery Plan, which will give an indication of the locations at which such birds mysteriously disappeared.  But let's exercise a little restraint ( me that is !) and see what answers emerge and what justifications are given.

So that readers realise the full implications surrounding this whole subject area, let me appraise you of the results and conclusions arising from the 2010 Hen Harrier survey for the UK and Isle of Man carried out by the RSPB and others.  COMPARED TO 2004 THERE HAD BEEN A 20% DECLINE.  Yes, in 2004 there had been 806 pairs counted which had reduced to 646 pairs in 2010.  The majority of these were in Scotland, BUT HERE THERE HAD BEEN A DECLINE FROM 633 PAIRS IN 2004 TO 500 PAIRS IN 2010.  It was widely accepted that the biggest single factor affecting the species was illegal killing and that they were particularly targeted on grouse moors. The saddest thing of all is that it has been calculated that, BASED ON THE PRESENCE OF SUITABLE HABITAT IN ENGLAND, THERE IS THE POTENTIAL FOR 323 BREEDING PAIRS.  

AT PRESENT THERE APPEARS TO BE NONE.  

So , folks , you can appreciate why I'm more than a bit concerned and pledged to trying to improve matters.