Saturday, July 30, 2016

Natural England...........what have you become?

The news that Natural England had granted a restricted licence to shoot Common Buzzards that were deemed to be causing a problem for a Pheasant rearing enterprise came as no real surprise in many respects but I think, from the outside, the whole subject deserves a critical examination.

Now, for those who might not know, Natural England is the Government's advisory body on all things wildlife and countryside. It has certain powers and duties , one of which is to consider applications of the above sort.  But , somehow, the Natural England of today appears to operate in a different context to its predecessor bodies of yesteryear. I believe one might have been able to predict the feelings of those involved  "in previous times", and the actions which might be advocated ;  now one can seemingly predict the outcome of things  knowing that, somehow, the organization has no longer any individuality, in fact , it has simply become a conduit for Government preferences. Contrasted against the situation of the individual officers I knew and respected, both for their views and expertise, I really sympathize with those now involved and what I believe the situation to be. Doubtless the same personal commitments are in evidence , but the opportunity to exercise real influence and advise on behalf of our natural heritage appears to be a diminishing element. Mild suppression, through the absence of encouragement and support, simply breeds low morale, reduced enthusiasm and an absence of job satisfaction. Sadly, those sentiments must be endemic within Natural England at present. If the approach taken by the previous incumbent, Liz Truss, (within whose tenure the discussions associated with this case undoubtedly took place ),  is anything to go by, then the situation is at a low ebb. Hopefully it will improve.

                                        By courtesy of Ben Hall, ( )   RSPB.

The RSPB has roundly condemned the action, see Martin Harper ( Director of Conservation, RSPB ) in his Blog of yesterday.  Click on the link below for full details.

Natural England grants licence to kill Buzzards.

Rather than repeat what many have said already, it seems appropriate to simply take a close look at the fundamentals involved, as there are frightening consequences which might yet emerge from what might appear to be a one-off decision. Recent years have provided ample evidence that this Tory Government has little or no empathy with things associated with the environment. The former Chancellor saw the countryside as something little more than a resource to be exploited for financial gain, as opposed to something which harboured a resource we should be taking pains to take care of, namely our natural heritage.  I've no reason to doubt the same attitudes will prevail, particularly as no effective political opposition is in evidence.

The current case basically involves permission being given to kill birds which are claimed to be affecting a commercial enterprise involved in raising other species of birds, which are then shot by people who have paid money for the privilege.   The latter ( Pheasants ) are released in their millions each year, undoubtedly do untold damage to the ecology of the countryside and mere observation of roadkills suggests far more are likely to meet their end in that fashion than being preyed upon by Common Buzzards.  No, it is the biased protection of commercial interests which is the anomaly in all this and the frightening precedent this creates. We've all seen the predictable responses of the NFU to any initiatives which cut across the potential maximisation of profits of their members. And we've all read at times about the proposed "solutions" for perceived " problems" in the countryside ranging from Muntjac, Beavers, Wild Boar, White-tailed Eagles, Mountain Hares, Barnacle Geese such that , if they pose a threat, shoot em !! All such must be opposed , which is a task we must take on as the electorate given the perceived diminished status ( and funding )  of Natural England.

I suspect that Natural England is simply doing the bidding of its masters and independent action is at an absolute premium, however rational it might be. Solutions have to reflect the opportunities for "the big dollar" come what may and the body who is in place to rightfully defend our natural heritage is hogtied. I suspect the objectives within the corporate management manual of our current Natural England probably bear little resemblance to those of predecessor versions. In addition to the spotlight being placed currently on grouse shooting ( may we have a licence the Hen Harriers are killing our Red Grouse ?....think about it ! )  we all need to become more active in ensuring the self serving policies of Government  on behalf of vested interests are called into account.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Sting in the tail for Neonicotinid pesticides.

For a considerable time controversy has reigned over the use of Neonicotinid pesticides. The EU banned their use on flowering crops in 2013.  The UK opposed the ban and made provision for an emergency lifting of such restrictions, which were exercised in 2015, although it has rejected similar calls from the NFU  this year. Serious concerns have been raised across Europe at the declines in bee populations and the subject has been pursued in earnest in the UK to little effect, with parts of the scientific community and commercial interests arguing over the veracity of research results.  In other words, within the UK , the situation has been an absolute mess, with DEFRA's role under the stewardship of Liz Truss ( until recently Secretary of State for the Environment ) being an unmitigated disaster. This is certainly a situation where we were not overseen by EU regulation, but that the UK's own chosen path then being ill defined, inconsistent and a near lottery arising usually from  plea bargaining by the NFU.

                                                Red-tailed Bumblebee courtesy of BugLife

Now research, completed by the University of Berne, Switzerland, has placed a new perspective on the whole issue. It has been shown that the use of Neonicotinids cuts bee sperm down by as much as 40%  which clearly will have an utterly drastic effect on hive communities and natural populations and appears to have done so in the last few years.  Click on the link below to read the full article from The Guardian and better explanatory detail.

Neonicotinids under the spotlight

In the light of these research findings it will be interesting to see what the future response of DEFRA might be  given applications for use of the pesticides are usually made in advance of them being applied in autumn. Previously the recent response had been clear (thankfully ), but the situation appears to be even more convincing now and one might even suggest provide the basis for a review of the Government's current stance and the ban being invoked in the UK on a once and for all basis.  Details of the previous attempts to gain emergency usage can be followed via the link below.

Emergency usage of pesticide rejected.

Interestingly, support for the non-use of such pesticides has recently come from ALDI, who have declared they will not make available products where such pesticides have been used.  WELL DONE, ALDI !

Now , there is an even more interesting twist to all this !  Oh yes, and one which appears not to receive the exposure it might well deserve. I first saw details on this on a TV programme , but further research shows it has received regular "treatment" by newspapers, health magazines etc over the past few years. Those wonderful crops of oil seed rape, which admittedly bring a blaze of colour to our countryside, go on to be processed and appear on our supermarket shelves as Sunflower Oil.  Now we've all been subject to persuasive, promotional material vouching the benefits for health of using such cooking oils but there may well be another aspect to it all.

Heating such oil, particularly Sunflower Oil, to 180C releases aldehydes which are deemed harmful to health and a contributory cause to cancer !  I didn't know, indeed I've been a keen advocate of such use. Read the article via this link and  ( possibly ) be surprised.

Vegetable oils release toxic chemicals

Now it seems to me, naive or not, that we are growing particular crops, treating them with pesticides, which are demonstrably harmful  to, if not decimating, the insect populations that pollinate many other flowering crops associated with food we eat and thereby causing a problem, only to be left with a product ( sunflower oil ) that appears potentially harmful to ourselves in the end.   In the meantime, production goes on, profits are made, subsidies paid (? ),  and to what end? Our natural heritage is poorer, our health appears to be involved and yet the likes of the NFU continues to petition for greater usage of such pesticides in order to minimize financial losses by its members (read ensure profits ).  Quite honestly I wonder whether we should feel any sympathy for farmers whose enthusiasm for a particular crop no doubts links closely to the width of its profit margin !!  Time for honesty and the whole shebang to be thought through and clear advice and regulations issued, in other words DEFRA, stop fiddling around and provide the electorate with what is needed.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Release site for Eurasian Lynx reintroduction determined.

Today ( 25.7.2016 ) the Lynx Trust UK has revealed the latest situation with the proposed reintroduction of the Eurasian Lynx in the UK.

                                                        Erwin van Maanen, May, 2013.

Following several months of discussions with national stakeholders and the completion of further research, the Trust has identified the Kielder Forest as its preferred site for a reintroduction scheme. Local consultations will now begin across the whole of the area involved , which spans the English/Scottish border.

This forest, predominantly in Northumberland, is huge, has sheep largely excluded, has a reduced human presence and accompanying infrastructure ( roads/railways ) and is viewed as economically deprived. As such it  would undoubtedly benefit from the increased tourism that would result following a reintroduction scheme.

Eurasian Lynx have enjoyed success in recent years in Europe after its population dwindled to around 700 in the 1940's. There has been no evidence of attacks on humans in the intervening period and the population is now thought to be in the region of 8000. Similarly the predation rate on agricultural animals  ( sheep ) has been extremely low ( 0.4 kills per year per Lynx ) and I suspect the income from tourism far outstrips any financial losses in that respect.

The proposal continues to meet with general support and enthusiasm and it is hoped this latest stage of consultation  will proceed in the same vein. This is particularly gratifying for the Trust which relies absolutely on public support and pro bono contributions and receives no support from Government.

RSPB withdraws support for DEFRA's Hen Harrier Action Plan.

I'm in London at present and so my opportunities for direct engagement with "things birds" are a bit limited !  Imagine my surprise on this otherwise mundane Monday morning to learn that the RSPB had withdrawn its support of DEFRA's Hen Harrier Action Plan.  WELL DONE !!

Now I'd be the first to acknowledge that I have criticised the RSPB from time to time for what I sincerely felt was an absence of resolve and direct action when it came to harriers. Various entries on this Blog attest to that and I stand by what was said and what I felt was needed at the time. I now have a feeling that things have changed and potentially for the better. In that sense it is essential that even former critics ( me! ) give the RSPB the encouragement it deserves and for the general membership to offer its endorsement and support. The added declaration of the Society firmly advocating the introduction of a licencing system, coupled with its continuing investigations work, nest protection activities and the wide promotion of the persecution problem , are all direct actions to be pursued and reported on independently.

In early 2013 I launched an E-petition calling for the licencing of grouse moors ( and gamekeepers ! ) which expired on the 27th February , 2014 and had, by then, attracted over 10,000 signatures. The RSPB chose not to offer support despite them now embracing the concept of licencing of grouse moors.

I suspect their position was influenced to some degree by the fact that the Law Commission was carrying out a review of wildlife legislation and there were hopes that both licencing and the offence of vicarious liability ( recognized in Scotland ) might be included in recommendations coming forward. They weren't and I contend such expectations were somewhat naive resulting in time being lost.

The search for a solution to the woeful situation which the breeding population of harriers had now reached in England  led eventually , following wide discussions with a variety of stakeholders , to the appearance of the DEFRA Hen Harrier Action Plan in early 2016. There were areas of broad agreement, but aspects , particularly with brood management proposals, resulted in either condemnation or uncertainty from many others. This played into the hands of the shooting fraternity who were quite happy to see continuing obfuscation occur. However, continuing persecution, with little meaningful peer pressure emerging from the wider constituents within the industry, showed even the wider elements of the plan to be resulting in no cooperative initiatives or carrying any lasting influence. In terms of delivery it was very much a case of "Return to Sender" !  Such is the same situation currently and certainly plays its part in the reasoning behind the RSPB's withdrawal , full details of which can be read in Martin Harper's Blog   (click and read )

Why the RSPB is withdrawing support from the Hen Harrier Action Plan.

This action by the RSPB has drawn a line under events in addition to declaring their own immediate objectives ( which, incidentally, includes encouraging people in Scotland to support the E-petition advocating licencing to apply there. ).  It has also isolated the current proponents of the Action Plan and firmly placed their future commitment and actions under the spotlight. Continuing persecution of raptors within the shooting industry will only serve to reinforce the calls elsewhere of there being a complete ban on grouse shooting. Somehow they don't appear to have made this connection or are simply retreating into the comfort of their own complacency.

I have to say that, at my age, I would prefer to see the introduction of a licencing system in the near future as time is running out for both me and Hen Harriers ( I hope relatively so in my own circumstances ! ).  An outright ban would take a long time to effect, would promote arguments about land ownership/rights, effects on a commercial activity and so on. There is much that needs to be addressed within the practices of the grouse shooting industry ( habitat management of unique moorland areas,  consequences for flood control, ingestion of lead,  persecution of part of our natural heritage ).  The abolition or major alteration of grouse shooting as an activity will take time, a lot of time. The ultimate situation might see such activities banned but, in the meantime , we need some element of regulation aimed at seeing Hen Harrier populations get back on their feet and the isolation of those who still insist on arrogantly following their own selfish agenda, with utter disregard for the law, being identified. I believe the most prudent step forward is to push strongly for a licencing system, whilst placing the above aspects under increasing scrutiny, with the ultimate result being for the industry/activity to be banned if no lasting, sensible solutions are possible.  The extent to which this will be possible given the "new" Tory administration is open to question.   Prime Minister, Theresa May's previous avoidance of the chum culture might not now extend to rapping the knuckles of the wealthy landowners or restricting their activities, we'll have to see.

Still way in the future, possibly, but it's still been a hell of a Monday!  Again, well done RSPB.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

More signs of summer. 23.7.2016

Immediately post dawn it was calm, cool (!) and the waters of the reservoir appeared as a sheet of glass........ Ingbirchworth at its best.  A quick count before " a circuit"  showed duck numbers to be pretty much the same as previously and 4 Grey Herons spread around the waters edge.

Despite the shelter of the fringing willows midges were in short supply,  although good numbers of Willow Warblers and odd Whitethroats were taking their toll!  Again, virtually no visible passage was noted other than a rapidly moving party of Black-headed Gulls SW and a single adult Common Gull west, not always a feature of high summer.  And that was it,  other than six Grey Wagtails ( two adults ) , a couple of Yellowhammer still in song and a single Common Sandpiper.

A walk around a couple of other reservoirs showed much the same circumstances.  Royd Moor did have a surprise in the form of 115 Grey lag Geese, a Lesser Whitethroat and a fly through Tree Sparrow, but that was it. Mid morning gave soaring temperatures and an opportunity to look for butterflies which was then the essence of the day.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Signs of summer. 20.7.2016

Post dawn saw utterly calm conditions at Ingbirchworth Reservoir near home with an accompanying, almost strange quietness.  Along the dam wall at least 7 Grey Wagtails and a few Pied Wagtails fed and a single Common Sandpiper explored the water's edge.  Mallard numbers are now begining to rise and a couple of small, late broods were noted too. Tufted Duck, Canada Goose, Coot, Great crested Grebe and Little Grebe all added to the variety along with three Grey Heron, one of which was a very clear juvenile.

Young thrushes, warblers and the odd anxious party of titmice all signalled the breeding season had perhaps not been as bad as feared. A Lesser Whitethroat was in full song, a late arrival with no mate (?), contrasting with the muted alarm calls of its near relative at various places.  A single Great Spotted Woodpecker called, as did a Common Buzzard , and two Sand Martin made their way south westwards across the reservoir, the only direct evidence of birds on the move.

A visit to nearby Gunthwaite Dam produced little ( Mallard, Moorhen, Coot, Tufted Duck ) although Nuthatch and Bullfinch added variety.  Broadstones Reservoir had Mallard and a group of over 20 Swallows but yielded nothing more.  0830 hours and time for breakfast!  Whitley Common held a group of LBBG's and odd BHG whose numbers altered incessantly.  I was intrigued by a young Kestrel which repeatedly launched itself from a tree in a small plantation and circled low over adjacent grassland. It stooped a couple of times, but I wasn't sure how successfully !  It's efforts at regaining its perch position were less than polished with most occasions seeing it sprawled in the branches previous to a final scramble for safety. No doubt a locally bred bird now facing the rigours of independence!

Moving off onto higher ground the silence north of Tinker Hill moorland was shattered by a Curlew circling around and calling repeatedly. This went on for some time, although nothing else was in view until a large immature female Peregrine rose from the ground and flew off south,  possibly after taking a tilt at a Curlew youngster. Winscar Reservoir had its usual collection of Canada Geese, Mallard  and ferals, all sent into disarray by dogs being walked along the shore, bathing or chasing ducks and geese!!  Time to depart, but in any case given it was now late morning , and the temperature was beginning to rise with a vengeance. After  the odd foray into a couple of areas looking for butterflies I called a halt to proceedings, went home and watched the Tour de France participants battle their way up impossible contours in heat similar to that outside !!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Visitor Centre at Spurn.

Well, whilst I haven't seen anything official as yet I understand that, at the meeting of the East Yorkshire Planning Committee yesterday, the proposal to build a visitor centre at Spurn was rejected ! A vindication for truth and common sense.

Following  the previous planning meeting the YWT did indicate that, should the application be rejected, then they would take it to appeal. Again, as yet , nothing has emerged on that subject to my knowledge.

Well, well, well ! there'll be some for whom this is a triumph, others for whom it represents abject disappointment.  But after all this, the challenge still remains and that is for Spurn to be maintained as the special site it truly is despite its uncertain future from storms and erosion. Time for a collective effort in my book to ensure the final years of a great, great place ( and there may be very many indeed ) are aimed at retaining a truly wonderful site.   

Update 1700 hours 19.7.2016.

I understand that the YWT Ltd are to appeal the decision taken by the East Yorkshire Planning Committee yesterday and   " expect the Secretary of State to overturn the decision ".

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Latest edition of RSPB's "Legal Eagle".

I always enjoy reading editions of the RSPB's "Legal Eagle " and the most recent one , which popped through the post this morning , is no exception.  Essentially it's the newsletter of the RSPB's  Investigations Section and, therefore, very much reports on cutting edge topics and recent events. This one is no exception with articles dealing with DNA techniques being developed to combat the illegal trapping of migrants in Cyprus ( plucked birds intended for ambelopoulia in restaurants are difficult to identify when plucked !! ),   to reportage on the most significant conviction (  ever ) for the destruction of a bat roost involving a total fine of £ 10,000, a jail sentence for a Lancashire taxidermist, and various prosecutions relating to poaching, flytipping on a SSSI, the sale of antlers of protected species from abroad and much , much more.  Whilst it might seem the breadth of wildlife crime has widened over the years I feel personally that the efficacy of those organizations involved in its detection has significantly increased , which is welcome news of the best kind !!

Years ago, when I worked for RSPB ( in the 1980's and !990's ), egg collecting was a problem and it was supposed around 500 active collectors were in existence.  Dedicated and persistent detection work , resulting very often in prosecutions, has changed that pattern of  anti-social behaviour, which seems to have receded to virtually nothing.  What has most certainly shot into prominence is the international aspect of wildlife crime. Such activities are no longer a "domestic" issue but can involve the merciless trapping of birds in some foreign enclave simply to service the demands of the habit of keeping exotic captive species in another. And neither are such  habits confined to birds with mammals, reptiles, even exotic plants, being the subject of such depredations.


The leading article outlines how an internet dealer , based in Kent, offered for sale protected specimens, in the form of body parts ( 134 primate specimens and two leopard skulls ). In what appears to have been a very involved case the person was given a suspended prison sentence and ordered to pay £4724.34 in fines additional to an original imposed fine of £800. The UK Border Force was involved and an aspect that I personally found gratifying, the illegal supplier of the material was apprehended by the East Java police in Indonesia.

Wildlife crime is a far more extensive activity than in previous times, but certainly the RSPB Investigations Section is at the forefront of the fight against such activities. Whilst the cases reported on are the most prominent in a given time period,  the dedication and involvement of the Section's staff  " at home" is in response to an incessant demand than requires countless hours of  application of effort. Much of that grind results in little that is tangible or able to be reported on . Knowing that such effort is unrelenting I think we all owe a debt of gratitude to our colleagues in the " Investigations Section, RSPB" for their efforts on behalf of us all.   Thanks all, and a good retirement to Duncan!!

Do please access the above report on line or contact the Investigations Section at the RSPB HQ at Sandy
(01767 680551 ) for details.  

Spurn Visitor Centre.........decision now imminent !

Yesterday ( Friday )  East Yorkshire Planning Committee members and officers visited Kilnsea and Spurn  and examined at first hand what the implications of allowing a Visitor Centre to be constructed at Spurn would actually be. At their previous meeting concerns had been raised as to the proposed location of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trusts new Centre,  flooding risks and whether other alternatives premises or ideas  might be considered. In many senses these reflected similar concerns in the very many objections to the proposal that had been submitted to the Council.

Note that the large mast is no longer part of the application, otherwise the image gives a general impression of what a new Centre might look like.

I personally feel such visits are sensible, costly in time and resources maybe, but resulting in a much more rounded appreciation of all the factors involved.  Whilst the likelihood of aspects like the future claims of visitor attendance would no doubt have been only superficially considered  ( I still personally believe the claims by the YWT in this regard are wildly optimistic and support little other than the prospect of a "white elephant "  being the result if the proposal is approved ),  the occasion will undoubtedly have provided the Councillors with a better insight into the situation previous to their meeting on Monday when the matter will be resolved.  At least the process can be judged fair and democratic based on the evidence available!!

Sadly the YWT saw fit to declare,  following the previous planning meeting at which the matter was deferred pending the site visit, that they had every intention of mounting a legal challenge if the Planning Committee turned down its proposal. The reportage was couched in rather naive terms too, " We are the Wildlife Trust".  Uhmm, a product of frustration or a knee jerk reaction from some individual source we shall never know, but unwise in my book given the responsibilities presided over by the planning system nowadays. Surely better to wait for the outcome, and the basis of any decision,  rather than suggest  further action by what came over as a veiled threat, particularly after the open relationship and information exchange between the parties in the run up process.

Whatever the circumstances that prevail, there is only a matter of days to wait now before the outcome is known as the next meeting dealing with the matter is scheduled for Monday next !  Whatever the decision, it must still be appreciated that there is a major job of work to address at Spurn and the YWT has the unenviable task of carrying that responsibility.  As a National Nature Reserve the habitat management work is still required, visitor safety is still a major issue and the "normal" responsibilities of land ownership faced up to. In the background lingers the almost inevitable consequences of the effects of further debilitating erosion to the peninsula , even flooding,  against which such actions need to be carried out.   Not an easy scenario by any means, but not one in which major capital investments should be considered either in my view  ( although such would be of little consequence as Eon is potentially picking up the bill!! ).  Time will tell in all respects!