Friday, June 7, 2013

What future lies in store for the Forest of Bowland and its value for Hen Harriers?

Sadly, nowadays, it would seem we can't take anything for granted. After being involved in Bowland for twenty years and overseeing Hen Harrier protection, and then following the area's fortunes for almost another fifteen years, I confess to having more than a passing interest. Regrettably the bird interest has deteriorated in recent times. No Hen Harriers, fewer Merlin, persecuted Peregrines still and, it would seem,in the opinion of some, the quality of the habitat reducing too.

Over the past few years the shooting estates appear to have become more "independent". Despite a permanent staff presence in the area, the RSPB it would seem has less direct liaison with them than previously, which is a great shame. Similarly, given the area is an SPA, Natural England also appears to have less influence in the sense that various new roads have progressively appeared, running into the very heart of the fells, initiatives which I believe intrude enormously into such an area of valuable wilderness.

Currently, RSPB's  presence in Bowland is largely confined to the United Utilities Estate wherein it monitors bird of prey communities, advises farmers on management techniques supportive of wading bird communities and carries out educational activities. The halcyon days of real partnership between everyone in Bowland have gone in my opinion, despite in past times the crowns of co-operation resting uneasily at times on the heads of the private estates,United Utilities and, indeed , the RSPB itself. Such was the essential ingredient of success that took the fortunes of harriers from a low ebb in the 1980's to a more regular and productive status thereafter. That situation has now altered dramatically with the demise of the species in its most regular stronghold due to deliberate and premeditated persecution outside the confines of Bowland itself.

But what of the future? What lies ahead given the absence of Hen Harriers since 2011 from what had been its English stronghold for at least thirty years?  What role can the RSPB now embrace and will United Utilities's willingness to fund the operation still be evident?  One might also throw in the possible eventuality of the Company being taken over (others have been! ) and the new owners having a different perspective on things!!

United Utilities, whilst undoubtedly acknowledging the presence of the RSPB as part of its green agenda, nonetheless seem to play a rather detached game when it comes to declared commitment and involvement, at least as seen from the outside. A firm resolve expressed through declared policies and a better declared recognition of the undoubted persecution that still exists in Bowland would be welcome.  At the moment the subject appears to be like a family secret, with the weird ways of Uncle Hubert never being mentioned!! Neither the RSPB nor United Utilities appear willing to address aggressively the fact that such persecution is part of the current problem.  Nor does the RSPB or Natural England publicly acknowledge the situation or pursue the reasons involved sufficiently in the fact that the whole of the Bowland massif is designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) whose very status was determined upon an actual carrying capacity or presence of particular raptor populations. Sadly these have diminished significantly. It would be nice to see the content of the last assessment completed by Natural England and their conclusions, but , more importantly, their requirements for the future.

Running in parallel with all this is the ill-fated Hen Harrier Recovery Plan introduced by the Government and administered by Natural England. Within its time of application the species has reached the point of extinction as an English breeder and the Plan would be better described as  " The Hen Harrier Retrogressive Plan". The fact that the results of the accompanying research to the Plan are being withheld by DeFRA, one assumes because of the potential to embarrass upland grouse moor owners, is testament to the lack of any commitment to raptor protection policies by this Government  ( the Greenest Government ever don't forget ).

So, the situation is not rosy!  Our national conservation organizations appear to be unwilling or unable to indulge in direct public campaigning action on this appalling situation, the Government already have a poor record in countryside matters and no demonstrable commitment for change and the private estates just seem to be doing as they please!  Not a mixture for improvement or success I suggest.  As far as Bowland is concerned I can foresee the whole edifice falling around the RSPB's ears and the potential for future improvement being lost unless a change in direction is pursued. There is a necessity to work still with United Utilities, but also with each of the private estates, with an aim of securing the best possible outurn in habitat provision and also securing a joint commitment, across the board, to eliminate persecution activities, whatever their origin.  Claims by outside groups that they have " the solution",  and that things would improve with their involvement, are just sheer nonsense and conjecture as they carry nothing of useful consequence. The presence of the RSPB is essential to ensure some agency can act as a link and pursue a situation whereby, should Hen Harriers return , the building blocks of co-operation and liaison are in place, otherwise the organization's  absence would hasten the acceleration of each of the Estates acting wholly independently. May I offer up a prayer for common sense to prevail?

As far as Natural England's role is concerned then we await the outcome of the recent review. An amalgamation with the Environment Agency is unlikely to strengthen NE's position contrasted against a possible association with the Forestry Commission. Time will tell, but whatever happens the position needed from Natural England will need to be robust and transparent during a time demanding of change in order to secure improvement. All bodies need to be prepared to work for solutions in the "real" world, not rely on polite discussions around policy options in some far off location!