Saturday, September 29, 2012

Grey lag Geese on the move. 27.9.2012.

Thursday saw me up on the Sound of Islay on a fairly quiet , but nonetheless interesting day. The confusing picture surrounding our resident Grey lag Goose population, which appears then to be supplemented by arrivals ( or dispersals ) from elsewhere in autumn continues to be intriguing at best!! Even worse, a good proportion of our breeding birds also then  move off elsewhere themselves as the early autumn insurgents move on!!

Thursday certainly added to the confusion! First came a skein of about 80 Grey lags moving high to the NORTH over Beinn Dubh . Next was a small party moving SOUTH down the centre of the Sound and bypassing Islay and Jura completely. Finally, a further party flew high to the SOUTH over the hills of the north east of Islay! Nothing remarkable you might say, except that, a few years ago, such observations would have been an absolute novelty!! Clearly, compared to recent years, more Grey lags than ever appear to be on the move in autumn in this part of Scotland and much remains to be discovered.   Recently a flock of Grey lag Geese arrived together with a couple of Snow Geese. Rather than get too excited by the latter ( and I certainly think the Rarity Forms can be set aside ) the arrival provided a possible clue to the origins of the birds, which is interesting in itself.  For several years a feral flock of Snow Geese has prospered on the Isle of Coll and I feel confident in suspecting this location as being that from which the birds originated. But were the Grey lags from further afield or from the neighbouring island of Tiree that has a flourishing population? More questions than answers again!!

Little else appeared to be on the move , although a couple of White-tailed Eagles moved over. Late summer and early autumn always sees numbers of Grey Herons strung out along the Sound originating from the heronry on the nearby DunLossit Estate. Groups of five or six are not exceptional and today showed a number of gatherings along the shore. More exciting was  watching the groups of Red Deer across an extensive tract of hill ground. The ever vigilant stags paced back and forth with no movement of potential competitors missing their scrutiny. One large stag, with his accompanying group of hinds nearby, suddenly charged at full tilt down the hillside and engaged with a lone individual that had, deliberately or otherwise, strolled into the obvious " no go " zone. Several vicious confrontations resulted until the contender turned around and trotted off, the apparent necessary behaviour signalling a dignified withdrawal!  The victor slowly went up the steep slope, back to his harem, which had remained unruffled throughout and continued their grazing unabashed. The last I saw of the contender was his movement towards a distant field full of grazing cows (!) ........ there's always one!!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Hen Harrier persecution yet again.

Whilst I know that I bang on about Hen Harriers and raptor persecution with increasing regularity,  I personally believe that the issues should be "kept alive" as much as possible. As I see it, no progress whatsoever is being made on the problem, the same old hackneyed concerns are being trotted out and, clearly, the discussions and efforts being made at trying to secure some progress with the shooting fraternity are failing miserably. Doubtless hopes are being pinned by some on the provisions, currently out for consultation, arising from the recent review on wildlife regulations undertaken by the Law Commission in that they will provide an opportunity for renewed debate and examination of the persecution problem. Such discussions are way down the road and it strikes me that something ought to be happening in the meantime, rather than let what will probably extend to at least eighteen months go by and be accompanied by even more losses.

In advance of the routine criticisms and suggestions, which various conservation organizations will now be working on associated with the above proposals, it would do no harm to indicate in the meantime what is really expected and what will be sought for via hard campaigning. Putting a shot across the bows, so to speak, will do no harm and signal that there has been enough talking and now the chips are down ( bowshot chips....sorry about that!! ). The errant proportion of the shooting fraternity responsible for the indiscriminate persecution of our birds of prey has singularly ignored opportunities to  embrace initiatives, such as supplementary feeding, and earn themselves a few "brownie points ". Similarly the responsible element within the ranks of grouse moor owners and managers have singularly failed also to convince their own peer group for circumstances to improve. Faced with such an unequivocal indication by some of the lack of a desire, or intention, to improve, then I feel the whole issue should be taken to the next stage without delay. The conservation organizations should unite in their opposition to such practices, roundly condemn those responsible with even more conviction than ever before and indicate that they are to launch an all out assault on the problem in the face of this almost tangible absence of co-operation.  Doubtless there'll be a lot of huff and puff, and ill constructed accusations of arrogance and such like, but the arguments should now become active, not passive, and initiatives aimed at change tabled widely and campaigned for. This is what many members of such organizations provide their financial support for and, at the moment, such required representation, aimed at bird protection, appears to be little more than going through the motions.

Some time ago the RSPB issued ideas about grouse moors being licensed. They were ridiculed and opposed, as one might have anticipated, but they should now be rolled out again and with firmer intention.Within such a system, operating licences would be issued via DeFRA, with the administration of the scheme given to Natural England as the body overseeing the subsidy process associated with SPA/SSSI's.  An accompanying "Charter of Operation", particularly where designated areas were part of the landholding, would also be issued, setting out what was required as far as management practice, and containing clear warnings of what the consequences of breaking the wildlife legislation would result in as far as that particular area was concerned. Where there was such a lapse, and a clear and proven breach of the law, then the licence would be revoked and all subsidies cancelled  for a period of either three or five years, although the responsibility for habitat quality management within any designated area would remain. In a perfect system, the normal court case dealing with the incident would also include the offence of vicarious liability being laid against the owner or manager. It is so important that this is campaigned for without delay. Additionally, especial penalties should be campaigned for if any such an incident involved Hen Harrier and  associated fines increased beyond the levels which are currently applicable.

Now, just a few thoughts about vicarious liability! Of course, landowners don't want it as it exposes their position enormously. For them to plead ignorance is a nonsense! Think about it!  If a gamekeeper were given utter independence in terms of running a shoot, and that then failed miserably at the end of the season, words and instructions would be issued without any doubt at all. It follows that, in operating what is a commercial enterprise, and it defies logic to think otherwise, such instructions would be given at the onset to the employee.. Additionally, the spectacle of an owner being asked if he knew of illegal activities going on over his Estate, and him denying the charge, would hardly go down well with the keeper if sanctions were brought against the latter in addition to the fines and costs. Taking the rap for one's employer ( unless a significant pay-off was involved !! ) is sheer stupidity!! Obeying one's employer, only to then be offered up as a sacrifice, would not go down too well either within the newly claimed "profession", however subservient the individual might be!!

So, in addition to licensing grouse moors it would seem sensible to licence the game keepers that practise what they so often tell us is their "profession". They are not being discriminated against as many other jobs require some form of operating licence. A successful prosecution would mean the licence being withdrawn and the means of earning a living withdrawn too, along with the gun licences they hold. And when it comes to the operation of these commercial enterprises, a proportion of which are undoubtedly securing their success through the parallel practice of illegality, it  might also behove Her Majesty's Customs and Excise to  look more closely at the complete operation. The potential "bonuses",  in the form of tips, which one hears finds their way into the hands of the keepers at the end of a days shoot one hopes are declared as such!! Similarly, a good friend of mine, who occasionally acts as a beater, says he's quite amazed at how many people are called Smith, and even Mickey Mouse, when one looks at the signatures on the requisite Estate form of those who receive the daily payment for traipsing across the moor and channelling the birds towards the guns. If push comes to shove, then clearly there are members of this whole community who are not too squeaky clean in a variety of respects and have much to lose as a result. I'm sure George Osborne would welcome such transparency and a concomitant increase in taxes to the Exchequer.

The beauty of such proposals is that they carry no threat whatsoever to the proportion of the fraternity who operate within the law, and do so proudly and efficiently.  The time has come for fine words and gestures to be abandoned, and for a concerted strategy to be drawn together and acted upon. Whilst much of the above might be seen to be unreasonable, pie in the sky, offend certain factions and so on, ( and I'm perfectly aware that I'm pulling teeth just for the hell of it ) it would serve to show that conservation organizations have had enough and that they are willing to  ACT. With an election not too far away, now is the time to start campaigning for change, to enlist the power of the newly recruited voters, whose youthful passions will respond to something aimed at protecting the country's natural heritage which is currently being deliberately despoiled by a minority. These, coupled with the ever increasing urban dwellers concerned about our countryside, are a numerical force which should not be ignored and need to be addressed directly. We all know what the problems are, and don't need conservation organizations to repeatedly explain such. What we need , and should be willing to provide support for, is representation, concerted action, professionally structured and inserted into the highest level of administration possible,  i.e the Government,  not with an accompanying request for scrutiny, but with a demand for attention and action!

Hirundines on the move. 6.9.2012.

Definitely a day of two halves! Whilst the morning was largely clear , the wind was gusting strongly from the south and, although it reduced later, conditions became even more unfavourable with the onset of rain and incoming mist. basically, when the weather turns like this on Islay, then things are in lockdown!!

The early morning migration watch showed Swallows to be on the move down the glen . Such was the strength of the wind that they were moving, very often in loose groups, over the expanse of the grass moor at a metre or less. Sometimes their progression was lost as they sought to move between different areas of Juncus at ground level. This made counting difficult as it was very much a question of a "now you see them, now you don't" situation. Somewhere between 150/200 moved through, mostly in small groups but with single birds too and even odd birds skimming down the road!  It petered out mid-morning previous to the poor weather commencing. This was nothing compared with much, much larger counts observed at notable migration watchpoints elsewhere in the UK and abroad. For a short period, it was redolent of the many autumn days spent standing at the Narrow Neck at Spurn in East Yorkshire with all the accompanying excitement of what might fly past next!! However, with the exception of a juvenile male Hen Harrier, no other species were involved! The harrier made its way southwards in a very determined fashion, hunched in against the wind and following an arrow straight route down the glen at around two metres height. Each day brings its own surprise! This was a welcome one as the usual breeding pair in this area seem to have disappeared after a consistent presence through the last few years! As yet the usual autumn presence and accumulations of Meadow Pipit haven't started, which will doubtless be a feature at some point in the immediate future.

At migration times I often ponder, several hours after witnessing birds on the move, how far they've actually travelled. Yesterday would have been a hard one indeed and a look at depictive weather maps, such as shown on XC Weather, portrays the extent to which  they are inevitably influenced by poor conditions at any stage of their journey. As we all know, conditions inevitably change and improve, sometimes get worse before improving, but a strategy of waiting it out would be better. Sadly the imperative to move, for them, is long established, whatever the conditions, and doubtless proves to be a final challenge for a proportion of them.   I'll always be hooked by migration!!!!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Political migrants.

Well the long awaited Cabinet shuffle day finally arrived and, as ever, and in the widest context, changes directly associated with the Environment Ministry ( DeFRA ) were writ large within  announcements and one or two changes too with potentially large environmental implications, notably Transport with the current debate on airport expansion running wild.

I actually thought the dismissal of Caroline Spelman, previous Secretary of State for the Environment, was done with undue haste for some undisclosed reason. The media, on several occasions, simply announced  that she had lost her job with no accompanying debate on whether a "move" was in progress. One wonders whether pressing matters away from Parliament have possibly induced a personal choice to step down. Her abortive proposals to sell the Nation's forests will long be remembered as an issue that inflamed many, (  but so did the advice issued by the Party's "petrolhead", Francis Maude),  but she had some successes too. She initiated the research associated with the national capital and ecosystem services , which has been praised, she similarly progressed the carbon reporting rules, which will become applicable next April, and she personally brokered an agreement at the United Nation's Nagoya Summit on Biodiversity that was widely acclaimed by many. Apparently she was also prone to confront Cabinet colleagues on matters to do with planning reforms and Habitat wonders the extent to which George Osborne has had a Machiavellian influence on the changes!! She always seemed to me to be very earnest and sincere, to be getting on with the business in hand, as opposed to acting out some pre-determined role.

She'll be replaced by Owen Patterson about which very little is known, although one report I happened on stated there was a fear he'd pursue an "anti-green " agenda. A strange qualification for THE Department concerned with England's green and pleasant land, but possibly more in keeping with Party intentions. One of his major challenges will be to oversee the production of a climate adaptation strategy and, possibly, newly framed wildlife regulations arising out of the recent review completed by the Law Commission, which is out for consultation until November. Elsewhere in the Department,  David Heath has replaced  Jim Paice. Heath was the LibDem  spokesperson on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the late 90's  and also worked as a parliamentary consultant for WWF  in the early 90's., so one hopes such experience will assist.

Changes, one presumes, aimed at both achieving Tory policies, but making the Party acceptable  prior to the next election. I tend to think that they're their own worst enemies and it's simply a matter of patience on our collective part before change is secured!!

As an aside I couldn't resist putting in the following!! One of the last tasks Caroline Spelman completed on the 30th August was to confirm  the Chairman's position for Natural England ( that "front end", cutting edge body carrying out the whims of DeFRA when it comes to wildlife policy!! ). The gentleman concerned is a dairy farmer in Oxfordshire, Southern England, who has had an involvement in an "Acting" capacity for some time and who will receive a salary of  £72,740 for a three day week ( equivalent to a full time salary of £121,333 ). But this seemed to be the best bit!! On the 4th September the new industry-backed guide to funding and support for dairy farmers was launched by ( yes, you've guessed it !! ) Natural England. It just made me smile...... whilst the gentleman concerned looks admirably qualified for the job based on past accomplishments, I suggest he might have a word with Natural England's Press Officer relating to the timing of appearance of such "guides" in order to avoid scrutiny by the cynics!!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

What should the RSPB be called?

Ever the polemicist, Mark Avery in his Blog today   ( see here Standing up for Nature ) poses the point that it is inevitable that the RSPB will need, at least at some stage, to consider a name change and review its future role. I confess that I read the entry with a great deal of interest and voted for one of the options for an alternative name which he provided ( see the end of this entry for the answer! ) . Do read the entry on Mark's Blog, and the Comments, as I believe it's important the subject is given a thorough airing and that the RSPB is made aware of the opinions being expressed.

After taking a look at the "local patch", which didn't produce much other than a "new" Starling flock of 79 birds, a Whinchat and a very pale Redpoll sp ( whitish underparts with very little streaking, bright forehead patch and small bill!!! ), which disappeared as quickly as it popped up and sat on a fence line, I returned home disgruntled and spent the rest of the morning in a blur of domesticity within which the above subject ( and the Redpoll )  kept recurring time and time again!!  I kept considering submitting a "Comment" to Mark's Blog, but then thought it would be a little unfair as I felt I had so much to express on the issue, so I decided to set out an entry on my own Blog.  I have to say that I'm also currently awaiting delivery of a copy of Mark Avery's latest book, "Fighting for Birds" within which a chapter considers the future of the RSPB. It will be interesting ( it might also be acutely embarrassing ) to see if any ideas are in agreement.

I have to confess that, over the twelve years or so since I took early retirement from the RSPB, I've become increasingly concerned over what might best be termed the "popular image " surrounding the Society. Given it tells the truth, it's not as universally popular as one might think, but I also personally believe it is not as forceful as it ought to be!!  In 1979 I felt a deep and sincere affiliation with an organization pledged to the protection and conservation of the UK's birds. Previous to that date I'd served on the Council of the (now named ) Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, been involved with the Yorkshire Naturalist's Union Ornithological Committee and worked, professionally, on environmental conservation issues for several years. A good mix of either distinct or inter-related responsibilities connected with wildlife and the environment. However, what filled me with joy when I joined the Society's staff was  the clear cut, major commitment to the UK's bird life which the RSPB displayed. For me, the picture was as clear as that which had motivated the good ladies of Didsbury, Manchester almost a hundred years previously when they campaigned to stop the commercial exploitation of egret plumes for the millinery trade. That eventually led to what we know as the RSPB today.

I was particularly impressed , and in awe, of the Society's willingness to fund major land purchases, be they on estuaries, in the uplands, freshwater marshes or remnants of Caledonian pine forest. That continues today and so it should! Its parallel willingness to confront Central Government, the Forestry Commission, MAFF, the River Authorities and many others in the cause of habitat protection displayed the steel and determination required of such a premier campaigning organization.  Sadly all that seems to be so much less apparent nowadays and I don't feel terribly convinced that lasting progress is being achieved either. Access to the machinery of government can be felt to be progress, but the value of independence can be a much stronger weapon to wield. Cosy meetings, and good manners, that lead nowhere in terms of enhanced regulation or legislation can be no substitute for the exposure and promotion of good sense , logic and the fruits of research. Whilst the Society may have achieved maturity, in the sense of acceptance by Whitehall and Brussels, the same old problems prevail and the political will of the powers that influence such aspects remains relatively unchanged. At some point the RSPB will have to confront the values of the Establishment,  which perhaps necessitates a process of reflection and where it would wish to see itself in ten or twenty five years time.

Nowadays I can't help feeling disappointed, coupled with real sadness even, that the fire in the Society's belly has dimmed and the stances of yesteryear are increasingly less obvious. The increasing widening of its areas of interest I suspect are diluting its ability to address a whole series of issues affecting the UK's birds. It's simply not possible to address everything and be all things to all conservationists!!  Now it may well be that all this is nonsense and is nothing to worry about. The flame of bird protection, as a beacon of intention, may be burning as brightly as that which has overseen the recent and current Olympic events, but the messages received, and the PR stance portrayed by the Society, appear to indicate otherwise. Much may be going on in the background, but it doesn't feel like progress, expressed concern or determined commitment. Meet-ups with previous staff members, retired staff members and those still involved with the Society all end up generating the same indictment.....the RSPB seems to have lost focus!! It doesn't please me to make such remarks, and I'm sure some will find it difficult to forgive, but the fact remains that such is the impression being arrived at!! As such it is a problem to be addressed, surely?

Within the UK we have endless organizations pledged to protecting and enhancing its wildlife heritage ( the Wildlife Trusts, Butterfly Conservation, and many others ). That we need a strong organization promoting the conservation interests of our bird life is of paramount importance. The RSPB was IT, but, somehow, now seems intent on diluting that self evident role. There is a crying need for an RSPB, whatever the name , and that is the starting point.  There are so many problems confronting our bird life that to try and address such alongside trying to deal with parallel problems affecting other wildlife can only lead to confusion and an increasing lack of efficacy. I am not saying such requirements on Society held landholdings shouldn't be addressed, but more general actions should be left to others. The attraction of a "biodiversity" name tag I'm , therefore, not convinced about!  I can't personally see the actual benefit of the Society being  "Royal" either. I'm sure it makes some people feel more comfortable , but I can't see any real benefits arising. Such a change would need to be an RSPB Council decision and undoubtedly involve more than a few discussions elsewhere if change was considered. As you can probably guess, I feel the Society should pull in its horns somewhat and concentrate on BIRDS.  But there's another dimension, and one that I never agreed with!! Indeed I even cancelled my subscription to the Society for a period!!  The Society's close involvement with land holdings abroad I feel to be wrong. I'm a great advocate of the BirdLife International "system" and the organization and, whatever the problems, I've felt it wrong that the RSPB should have got involved with land ownership and management abroad , particularly given the endless problems still remaining within the UK.  Support from the Society for BirdLife International by all means, and I'd even sanction a proportion of my RSPB subscription being used in that context, but the bottom line is that the Society should be addressing, and dealing  with, UK problems. Its expertise can be used to assist new countries entering into the BirdLife "family", and even financial assistance offered, but that should be the limit to involvement otherwise the exercise begins to smack of  "conservation imperialism" in my view.

So, where does this emotional rant leave us?  Well, I'd change the RSPB 's name to BirdLife UK and concentrate on birds!  The RSPB is already the UK partner for BirdLife  ( whose BirdLife International headquarters are situated, perhaps somewhat confusingly , in Cambridge, UK ). I don't believe a name change is likely to cause any permanent problems if the PR promotion of such is handled properly and the name firmly communicates the area of concern or operation. Coupled with a full review of future intentions, policies and the like , such a change could be a much needed renaissance in the fortunes of bird conservation in the UK.  What do other people think?  Let's have comments please, supportive or otherwise!!!

This is not a call for rejection!  The RSPB, and many other conservation organizations, will require our increasing support and commitment in the future whatever they choose to call themselves. However, in the meantime, I believe it to be in their interests for them to have a clear view of what their supporters think even if, in the short term, that can't result in change and may not be terribly palatable!!

Migrants trickling through. 1.9.2012.

A day of two halves in some respects as the fine morning later turned into a time of  "thin mist" and light rain. The wind had changed from the light northerly at the end of last month ( August ) to a quite blustery South-westerly. Yesterday, in the area I now treat as my "local patch" for monitoring migration  ( I might yet select out the most appropriate vantage point and contribute to the VisMig project ......just put this into your browser if you're interested! ), there had clearly been a small fall of 10-15 Northern Wheatear with a single "Greenland" Wheatear amongst them. Little else seemed to be involved and they quickly dispersed.

This morning , with the rather stronger headwind arising, it suggested odd other migrants involved in being swept southwards previously had been impeded in their progress , if not held up altogether.  Common Whitethroat, Whinchat, a few Northern Wheatears  and noticeable numbers of Meadow Pipit and Barn Swallow were in evidence. The latter remained around most of the day contrasting with the dispersal of the other birds, which I suspect gradually made their way down the Rinns peninsula.

A later attempt to settle in and try and age some Grey lag Geese met with no success as they persisted in keeping to undulating ground or being on the edge of a crop field where clear views were impossible. Malcom Ogilvie had enjoyed some considerable success with the same task on Friday ( 31.8.2012 ) when he'd managed to age a considerable number of the birds at Gruinart. The coming week promises somewhat more stable weather being forecast so some of the barley may be cut fairly soon, which will undoubtedly prompt a quick move out afterwards onto the stubble. Even the full moon is now in wane, which will mean the potential for night feeding is lessened and better circumstances emerge for viewing and counting the birds!!