* Steep decline in gull populations jolts Natural England into reassessing its kill licences.
* Lethal control of gulls for conservation purposes will largely be stopped.
* After two years of our campaigning, is Natural England finally waking up to a shocking reality?
Natural England is turning down many applications for the lethal control of Herring gulls and Lesser black-backed gulls this year.
In an official statement, the agency said that it is "unlikely that many further licences for the control of gulls for conservation purposes will be granted this year."
This could be a major turnaround - and potentially a significant success for our campaign.
But let's look at some details, it's not necessarily that straightforward....
Although Natural England are unlikely to grant permission to shoot gulls in rural areas - which is a very significant development - it will be "prioritising applications related to health and safety, public health and air safety." So, for example, seaside gulls labelled as 'pests' will likely still be culled as the agency bows to pressure from urban councils.
While I welcome any reduction in lethal control licensing, some countryside groups are unimpressed.
According to a report in The Telegraph, and republished on Yahoo, "Farmers are in uproar with Natural England for refusing to allow the shooting of seagulls".
The report cites a group of rural organisations who claim that "only one farmer has been given permission despite hundreds of requests".
The Telegraph says that "only 600 herring gulls and 900 lesser black-backed gulls can be killed under licence this year", compared with many thousands in previous years.
It goes on to quote Natural England as saying that 713 individuals have applied to control Herring gulls, and 487 for Lesser black-backed, of which 10 have been granted so far.
If this is true then a quick calculation suggests that Natural England is issuing licences to less than 1% of applicants, at least where it comes to some species of gull.
It would be interesting indeed to see how this refusal of gull licences is reflected across other species. Because a decrease in licence approvals would contrast starkly with the situation from 2018 when I was told by Natural England's operations director that the agency basically approved 80% of licence applications (across all species of birds and mammals), refusing a mere 20% of requests it received.
Incidentally, the farmers are 'in uproar' because they say that the gulls are threatening vulnerable species, such as ground nesting birds. According to the report, there have been claims from some countryside groups that gulls are even "attacking lambs and their mothers".
Doubtless many farmers really do care about the welfare of ground nesting birds and indeed animal welfare - but cynics might suggest that for some landowners there may be other less virtuous reasons for wanting to control and manage birds in the countryside.
According to the report, Marian Spain, Natural England's chief executive, said that both Herring and Lesser black-backed gulls had 'declined significantly in recent years' and were now considered at risk.
This statement seems unbelievably crass given the mindbogglingly high numbers of gulls which Natural England has sentenced to death through its gung-ho granting of kill licences over the past few years.
Natural England has, in my opinion, been complicit in the sharp decline of some species of gull. Meddling, as Natural England does, in 'conservation', by granting permission to shoot tens of thousands of gulls in past years, it has itself added to the pressure on these species and hastened the birds' decline.
Marian Spain added: “It’s essential that we do all we can to reverse this worrying trend. This means placing a limit on numbers that can be killed."
The agency's newly discovered concern for these species was echoed by David Slater, Natural England's director for wildlife licensing.
In a recent blog post he pointed out that Herring gulls have declined by some 60 per cent , and Lesser black-backed gulls by 48 per cent in rural areas. He added that "It is therefore unlikely that many further licences for the control of gulls for conservation purposes will be granted this year. "
This reassessment of gull control licences is long overdue, even though it might be too little and perhaps too late.
But it's a welcome turnaround nevertheless and a sign that there may be changes afoot at Natural England.
Since our campaign started, our main aim (alongside calling for more transparency and accountability from Natural England), has been to cut the number of licences that are issued each year, a figure that had spiralled out of control.
We have now succeeded in persuading Natural England to publish the licensing data annually, so that we the public can peruse and examine the statistics, and hold Natural England accountable where we feel it is necessary.
Now, with the refusal to issue lethal control licences for gulls, it looks like our efforts are reaping rewards.
It's early days, but if Natural England really is starting to significantly limit the number of licences it issues, then we might be on the verge of seeing all of our hard work come to fruition.
*Up to 10% of the entire UK breeding population of Egyptian Geese killed in a month, with more to follow
*Licence to kill 25 baby Great Tits
*Licence to shoot Red Kites in ongoing battle between human activity and wildlife
Just to keep you all in the loop regarding my latest Freedom Of Information requests from Natural England. I have now had a response to my first round of questions. Rest assured these were just the initial enquiries, there are many more licences which I will be asking them about in due course.
So, last month I asked Natural England about three sample licences that they issued in 2019.
One was to 'capture' or 'possess' Marsh Tits (together with Blue Tits and Great Tits), another was to exterminate Egyptian Geese, and the third was issued to shoot Red Kites.
There were no real surprises in the information I received, although I do have several concerns which I'll outline below.
I'd appreciate readers' views on these licences.
Some of you may think they are justified, others may balk at the idea of killing any birds for 'scientific research' or even 'air safety', though they are of course contentious issues which give rise to strong opinions..
To summarise the three example licences then....
'Invasive Species' : Up to 10% of the total UK breeding population exterminated in a month.
The Egyptian Goose (actually a relation of the Shelduck), is a non-native species, introduced to the UK in the 17th century. Though never particularly successful at breeding here due in part to our cooler climate, they have nevertheless managed to survive in relatively modest numbers, mostly in Norfolk. The Egyptian Goose has never been a common sight in the UK.
While populations in the UK are believed to be increasing, the IUCN red list suggests that, internationally, numbers of Egyptian Geese are decreasing and notes that "The species is persecuted by shooting and poisoning in parts of its range".
Every reason to conserve - and celebrate - our naturalised colonies then you might think?
But no, an EU directive in 2014 slapped an 'invasive alien species of union concern' label on these most attractive and intelligent birds. This regulation obliged EU member states to "take action to prevent introductions of the species and to manage existing populations" so, dutifully following orders, Natural England have been busy issuing licences to shoot Egyptian Geese, even though the modest UK populations have been quietly co-existing with other species here for three hundred years.
Natural England's decision has led to the equivalent of 10% of the total UK breeding population of Egyptian Geese being exterminated in a little over a month last year, with the licence renewed to kill 200 more birds in 2020.
Adult birds shot and goslings 'humanely despatched'
The latest return figures for this individual licence suggest that 196 of the Geese were killed between February and March last year, adults being shot and goslings being 'humanely despatched' by the hunting party.
Just to re-iterate, this is the equivalent of 10% of the total UK breeding population - exterminated in a little over a month.
The figures were provided by the licence holders themselves, though as we know Natural England often relies on the 'good practice' of those carrying out the killing to report the final figures accurately.
So who really knows how many birds have been killed....
As already mentioned, Natural England has renewed the licence meaning that hundreds more geese will be shot and 'humanely despatched' again this year. The licence holder also planned to employ the use of cruel Larsen traps as part of this year's cull.
From treasured ornamental birds to persecuted aliens.....and hunters' prey
It won't perhaps be long before those in power see their plan through to fruition and the species is eradicated from this country forever.
Some invasive species clearly pose a risk to our native species and the environment (think Japanese Knotweed perhaps); this in my opinion, is not the case with the Egyptian Goose however. This seems to be an excuse for hunters to hunt.
Licence to capture or possess 6,900 Marsh Tits, Blue Tits and Great Tits....
This licence was issued in the name of 'scientific research'.
An applicant in Cambridgeshire was granted a licence to capture up to 1,500 red-listed Marsh Tits, 2,700 Blue Tits and 2,700 Great Tits using mist nets and funnel traps and to keep them temporarily contained until they produced faeces.
This ongoing action is part of a 3 year research project. The aim of the project is two fold, according to Natural England's technical assessment, the motive being to "understand [the] link between microbiome and behaviour and any causal link, with a wider perspective relating to the use of antibiotics and prebiotics increasing in farmed landscape which birds have access to."
This may be a valuable piece of scientific research, I'll leave that opinion to those more knowledgeable than myself. But there are still ethical questions here, and the inclusion of a red-listed species, however useful to science the findings may be, makes me uncomfortable.
Concerns over repeated capture of birds
While most of the birds would be released as soon as they had produced faeces, it is acknowledged that they would be recaptured regularly during the course of the experiment. And although most of the adult birds used in the research would only be held for a short period of time, one wonders what stress they must suffer, especially when they have been trapped again and again.
This is something that worried Natural England too. I've seen an email trail in which they expressed their concerns over the repeated capture of the same birds over a period of time. Presumably these concerns were ultimately allayed as they approved the licence.
Approval to take 25 baby birds from nests at 10 days old
Natural England agreed that the same licence holder could remove 25 Great Tit fledglings from the wild at the age of 10 to 13 days and keep them in captivity for study.
The licence holder told Natural England that: "At the end of the experiment, great tits will either be released if deemed safe to do so, or euthanised as a humane end point, in accordance with Home Office Licencing."
This part of the application led to Natural England issuing a kill licence for 25 of the baby birds.
Approval to 'capture' or 'possess' 6,900 wild birds
And look again at the permitted numbers of birds covered by this licence, potentially 6,900 birds. Even accounting for re-capture of the same birds, it's a huge number.
It's a factor that arises with so many of Natural England's licences.
While responsible licence holders may well be in the majority, there will always be those less principled who will take advantage of the huge numbers of birds associated with the licences they have been given. This is particularly problematic with those licences issued to shoot large numbers of gulls for example, where we have seen in the past some evidence that the licence holders don't even seem to know the difference between species....
Approval to shoot Red Kites
And that brings me to the third licence, issued for the shooting of Red Kites. Once faced with national extinction, the reintroduction of the Red Kite has been a rare conservation success story - but now we find it targeted again as it comes into conflict with human activity.
Natural England approved the shooting ('to aid scaring') of eight Red Kites, this year, under a licence that appears to have been active, in one form or another, since 2013. The killing of the birds is being carried out at an undisclosed airfield owned by the MOD, where the Red Kites pose a risk to aircraft using the runways.
The 'problem' of local residents feeding the Kites has been cited as one of the reasons why the birds thrive in this 1000 acre environment.
The Natural England member of staff who carried out a site visit noted that (quote) "I would estimate that the total number of kites seen on the day on and around the base easily exceeded 200 kites" which begs the obvious question, how killing eight of the birds will have any significant effect in reducing the threat to aircraft.
Natural England's representative explained this decision: "Bird strikes have stayed at 1-3 per year for the last few years but the number of near misses involving fixed wing aircraft, both taking off and landing, is increasing year on year mirroring the increasing population of red kites."
Clearly the problem of too many Red Kites at an airfield is not one that will go away. It seems that we can save a species from the brink of extinction, pat ourselves on the back for our noble conservation success - and then proceed to persecute it all over again if it happens to be in the wrong location.
Interestingly, this same licence holder was apparently advised by a representative of Natural England to apply for the Red Kite licence because there had already been a 'separate issue with Curlews' at the same location.
So, the first round of enquiries hasn't thrown up anything surprising, this kind of thing is what we have come to expect from England's nature watchdog.
But it's further confirmation that conservation in the UK needs a radical re-think.
Natural England are not always on the side of wildlife in this country. The badger cull alone is proof of this. And Natural England's authority over the licensing system still requires close monitoring if they are to continue in that role.
Will Natural England be remembered for dubious conservation and poor decisions?
Personally I think that Natural England's approach to wildlife control will ultimately come to be seen as an example of slapdash conservation and poor decision making.
Even in rare situations where lethal control of wildlife might be deemed 'essential', my heart sinks at the thought of someone sitting at a desk, behind the closed doors of a government agency, ticking boxes (literally) and condemning hundreds or thousands of wild birds to death, sometimes simply for being an inconvenience to human activity.
Some time ago, when I pressed them on the matter, Natural England told me that, of the thousands of applications they receive each year, only 10 to 20% are refused.
That needs to change.
Refusal of wildlife control licences should be the rule, rather than the exception.
In this day and age we really should be doing everything we can to preserve wildlife - but persecution in one form or another continues unabated, and is often perpetrated by governments and organisations with vested interests in promoting extermination above conservation.
The 'capture' or 'possession' of thousands of Blue Tits and Red Listed Marsh Tits and the taking of hundreds of Egyptian Geese for 'science, research and education' purposes.....
Natural England prepare to answer my latest round of questions over their licences.....
I have now asked Natural England a set of questions relating to four licences that they issued last year.
Thanks to those of you who trawled through the licence data and contacted me with your concerns. I did receive quite a number of responses so this is just the first set of enquiries I am raising with Natural England, more will follow.
Licences to 'capture' or 'possess' Blue Tits and Marsh Tits.....
Anyway, these initial questions relate to the 'capture' or 'possession' of thousands of Blue Tits and Marsh Tits, and the 'capture', 'killing' or 'taking of eggs' of potentially hundreds of Egyptian Geese all for 'science, research and education'. I've also asked about licences that allow the shooting of Red Kites in the name of 'air safety'.
I put a set of specific questions directly to Natural England over these particular licences and they will be getting back to me with detailed answers soon.
I was especially perplexed by the extraordinarily high numbers of Blue Tits and Marsh Tits covered by Natural England's licences, running into the thousands - something which really does require a very full explanation.
Trade in Black-headed gull eggs a 'legitimate business activity'
In other news, there was a huge response to my blog post about Natural England's approval of licences to take eggs from nests of amber listed Black-headed gulls, to supply gourmet restaurants and 'fine food' merchants, mostly operating in and around London.
I subsequently asked Natural England about this trade in gull eggs and they told me that they "can't comment on the controversial nature of the trade, it's a legitimate business activity in the eyes of the law."
I don't know if the collecting of gull eggs is something which has continued during lockdown. I did see Black-headed gull eggs advertised online a few weeks ago, though I can't find any now. With restaurants closed and their customers staying at home, perhaps the gulls have had something of a reprieve this year.
'Irrational' behaviour in an age of environmental enlightenment
Other wildlife has not been so fortunate. Despite the lockdown, the frenzied destruction of ancient woodlands by HS2 goes on unabated, as does the enthusiastic strimming of wildflower verges by local councils up and down the country.
This is 'essential work'? Really?
Many of us consider this to be bizarre and irrational behaviour in an age of environmental enlightenment - but the human race is full of fools in high places....
Time to review more licences
Well getting back to the licences, let's see what we make of the answers I get from Natural England over the four specific examples I have asked them about. I'll report back of course.
With your incredible support, we will get to the nitty gritty of some of these licences and hopefully show that the time has come to review - and withdraw - them.
Well, in the midst of the mayhem that we find ourselves living through, Natural England has released the bird licensing statistics for 2019.
In fact, for some reason, they have tagged them on to the 2014 to 2018 data that we had already seen, and reissued the whole thing, meaning that there are huge numbers of licences to wade through.
But they include a comprehensive list of licences issued to control birds last year, and into the early part of 2020.
Unfortunately even at first glance it makes for depressing reading.
I'll be seeking to obtain more details in due course (this may not be easy at the moment with everyone in lockdown) but Natural England has already shown a willingness to engage with me further over the details.
Threatened species remain on the list.....
As in previous years, a number of threatened species appear on the list, including the much persecuted Herring gull and even the rare Curlew, in spite of the species being under extreme pressure in the wild, while the eggs of Mute Swans were also still being destroyed.
Moorhen and Coot were again on the list, along with several species of Geese, and our old friend the Mallard, whose eggs continue to be oiled or smashed in the name of 'public safety'. And all with official approval.
But some licences stand out even more than others. One issued to 'capture' or 'possess' a staggering 1,500 Marsh Tits needs explaining for example.
It is fair to reiterate Natural England's own words of caution here, they point out that "Annual returns show that the actual numbers affected are significantly less than the numbers covered on the licences. Due to the complexity of return information it’s not possible to publish these figures."
But, while it's true to assume that the numbers associated with each licence may be overstated , it is also true to say that Natural England gave permission to 'affect' the total number on each licence. Potentially many thousands of birds could have been legally captured or killed.
So the figures are not clearly defined which is a problem, and that's not helped by duplicate, renewed and amended licences appearing throughout the data. With such complexity it is difficult to whittle the figures down into anything of great clarity, which means many questions are left to be asked.
And ask I will.
Indeed it is important to remember that each of us has a moral responsibility to look at the figures and, where necessary, to ask questions, more of which later.
Evaluating the campaign
Meanwhile, enforced self isolation during the past few weeks has given me some time to evaluate our campaign.
I feel we have made progress but I also feel that each of us must vow to take some individual responsibility for the welfare of our wildlife. Most of you reading this already do so, from the heroic rescuers dedicating their time to saving wildlife in distress to the social media stalwarts who share relevant links and opinions far and wide.
I am pleased to have played a part in spreading public awareness of the whole wildlife licensing process in England, and indeed the rest of the UK, and alerting people to the scale of the lethal control actions being carried out under the umbrella of government bodies.
Prior to launching the campaign, it seems that the British public were largely unaware of the killing, and it was a shocking revelation to most, especially the large scale control of some of our most loved native birds. All this was being sanctioned from behind the very firmly closed doors of Natural England, so it's no wonder we were all in the dark.
Since starting the campaign back in 2018, so much information has come to light. And so many people have signed the petition; in fact, as I write this, the figure is an incredible 356,739 signatures. Change.org told me some time ago that our campaign was one of the most successful on its platform.
I've been fortunate to have a good deal of mainstream media coverage too, most of the big national newspapers have covered the story from time to time as the campaign has developed.
Progress and results
This time last year I had useful talks with Natural England - a result in itself - and further major developments followed, in particular the promise from Natural England to publish annual statistics covering many details of their wildlife licences.
This is hugely significant progress.
Furthermore, Natural England has vowed to be more open with information going forward. I have found them to be (ultimately) helpful, though I have to say there were times of very great frustration along the way!
We must not underestimate the successes we have achieved.
As a result of our campaigning, we can all see and analyse the data for ourselves. Data that was previously hidden. We can see just how many licences are being issued each year, we can see for what species action is being taken and we can even see the numbers and the reasons and method of control.
We have also succeeded in spreading awareness, nationally and internationally, and we have encouraged Natural England to become more transparent.
Public examination of data imperative
Of course we all want to see the actual numbers of licences reduced. We want to see fewer birds being killed. This was, and remains, the aim of the campaign. The hope is that, with widespread public examination of the figures, Natural England might be more careful and considered about the licences they issue. And there are some signs that this might be happening with certain species.
Now that we are all able to peruse the figures, we must do so.
We can hold Natural England accountable.
If we notice something on the list of licences that concerns us, then we should ask questions. This is something I will continue to do and indeed this is something Natural England has invited me to do.
Should the campaign continue...?
I had, at one point recently, considered winding the campaign down, but on reflection I think there is still work for me to do.
But I'm very keen to have public input with this.
That is why I'm asking everyone to take a look at the latest figures (link at end of post), bearing in mind the cautious approach I mentioned earlier, and pick up on any particularly worrying licences.
If you message me through my website, quoting the licence number, then I can ask Natural England directly for an explanation.
For example, I'm already vexed by the continued issuing of licences to those who supply the 'gourmet' restaurant trade with eggs of amber listed Black headed gulls, and I'm currently writing an article on this shameful trade.
But there are many other questionable licences there too. I'll work my way through them all in due course - but, as I said, please do take a look and feel free to contact me with your own concerns.
I'll put those concerns directly to Natural England on your behalf.
Anyway, in the meantime, I'm sending everybody warmest wishes from my part of the world to yours.
Stay strong, stay safe, stay well - and most of all enjoy the Spring :)
NATURAL ENGLAND DATA LINKS: CLICK HERE
CAMPAIGN/PETITION: CLICK HERE
Bad Taste: The 'Gourmet' British Restaurants Serving Gull Eggs - With The Approval Of Natural England...
* Thousands of Black Headed Gull eggs are collected each year for human consumption, to satisfy the expensive tastes of restaurant goers....
* Natural England issues the licences that permit the taking of the gull eggs from the wild.
* Black Headed Gulls are amber listed of conservation concern.
A resurgence of nature might be one of the very few positive things to come out of this very harrowing chapter in human history. While the human race fights a battle against a virus, nature is flourishing and certainly much more visible in many parts of the country where human activity has decreased dramatically.
On a less positive note, I've recently seen the latest installment of wildlife licensing data from Natural England, covering licences that they issued last year. The sheer number of species for which Natural England issued lethal control licences is alarming, and includes red and amber listed species of conservation concern - as in previous years.
I'm wading through the data as I write and will be asking questions of Natural England in due course. And the data does beg many many questions.
'Gourmet' restaurants fuel trade in gull eggs - with approval of Natural England
One particular area of concern that stands out immediately is that of the trade in eggs of Black Headed Gulls, which are served up by 'gourmet' restaurants on their fancy menus. Yes, in 2020, it's quite astonishing that the eggs of an amber listed species, of conservation concern, can be collected - under licences issued by Natural England - and sold to elite restaurants, so that the well heeled can indulge themselves in this 'delicacy'.
All at the expense of a declining species.
This scandalous trade has been highlighted in the media over the past few years, yet it still continues - with the approval of Natural England.
Greed and gluttony - dining out on the eggs of a declining species is not acceptable
We can't blame Natural England entirely for this of course, they are merely licensing a trade that is being fuelled by greed and gluttony. Indeed if it were not for the licences then there could be a free-for-all with absolutely no regulation.
So perhaps we should apportion a big part of the blame to the restaurants themselves for demanding that the eggs appear on their menus.
I'd love to hear from restaurateurs who think that serving eggs of a threatened species is acceptable - and there must be many of them because between 2018 and 2020 Natural England approved licences to collect thousands and thousands of eggs, from the wild, in locations such as North Yorkshire and Hampshire. It's a bizarre anachronism in these environmentally aware times, and it is clearly not acceptable.
Natural England issued many other licences affecting Black Headed Gulls for other reasons too, meaning that this vulnerable species is under serious threat from the very organisation that is tasked with 'looking after' wildlife.
Natural England's licensing of gull egg collection must stop
While the restaurateurs serving gull eggs should hang their heads in shame, so should those loons (no disrespect to the bird of the same name) who think it's in any way appropriate to dine out on the eggs of a threatened species.
However, judgement will finally fall on Natural England who are issuing these licences in the first place.
How in any way can they justify taking the eggs of an amber listed species to satisfy the whims of high end restaurants?
Natural England, in their role of "helping to protect England’s nature," should surely make a stand and refuse any further applications to collect gull eggs for the restaurant trade.
Perhaps this year at least Black Headed Gulls will be safe from the egg collectors, while restaurants are forced to close under lockdown measures.
It might perhaps be a good time for Natural England to rethink these particularly distasteful licences....
Just thought I'd check in with an update and see how everyone is bearing up in these strange and challenging times.
In spite of the current situation, Natural England have today told me that the 2019 licensing stats are still scheduled for publication towards the end of this month, though (as with everything at the moment), constantly shifting events mean that nothing is entirely certain.
I will of course keep you up to date with this as and when I have more information, and I'd like to thank Natural England for keeping channels of communication open and for offering to discuss the data with me when it is released.
If current events have taught us anything, then it is to work together and to communicate, even when we have different perspectives and opinions.
The news that is assailing us from all parts of the world is shocking and often worrying, yet on this, the first day of Spring, there is still much to celebrate. While the human race is tested, the rest of nature carries on, following the seasons as it has since time began. Tides still ebb and flow, the buds on the trees are bursting open - and the birds are singing loudly.
Indeed, while we all try to make some sense of what we are experiencing, many people have been noticing that wildlife is undergoing something of a resurgence.
With the sharp drop in numbers of people travelling, industry shutting down, and a general reduction in human activity, birds seem to be much more visible and vocal everywhere, including parts of China where, in some areas, people have heard bird song for the first time. Dolphins have appeared in the canals of Venice, and here in the UK I've heard reports of wild mountain goats wandering through the streets of Llandudno and peacocks strutting along Bangor high street!
It all goes to prove what many of us already suspected, that when humankind becomes less demanding, wildlife can flourish and the planet can begin to recover from the damage we, as a species, have caused.
As someone put it recently on social media, with this coronavirus, nature seems to have pressed the 'reset' button on us.
Nature will heal us too - if we show some respect.
When we come through it all - and we will - lessons will need to be learned from this unique episode in human history. Will we learn? Who knows.
Meanwhile, though times are going to be extremely challenging and hugely difficult for many of us, life will go on.
I wish you all good health.
Stay safe and be kind to yourselves, to each other - and to nature.
Disappointing news to report today.... Natural England have told me that the long awaited and much anticipated 2019 wildlife licensing statistics, scheduled to be published by the end of this month, will NOT include detailed numbers for each species affected under their licences. This in spite of the fact that they had told me they hoped to include this key information going forward.
2019 licence stats were expected to include detailed figures...
After I complained that the 2018 statistics (published in January) were lacking some significant detail, interim operations director David Slater told me that "as part of our plans to publish the 2019 data in March we hope to include the numbers, similar to what we gave you for your FOI".
However now it seems that the 2019 data may be just as basic and ambiguous as the previous set of figures.
"....the total numbers for each licence type won’t be part of this package at this time...."
This news is likely to cause consternation among the supporters and followers of our petition who have been asking, for a considerable time, why Natural England appear to be reticent in providing detailed figures for the wildlife actions they licence, in particular the licences they issue approving lethal control of thousands of our native birds.
As many of you will know, it was only through freedom of information requests that I was able to obtain statistics and reveal the shocking numbers of birds killed under licence. Subsequently, a stunned public, previously unaware of the scale of this officially sanctioned killing, began to demand much more transparency and accountability from Natural England and its secretive licensing system.
So, I was dismayed when, on Monday, Natural England informed me that "we do plan to publish the 2019 data at the end of March.......[but] the total numbers for each licence type won’t be part of this package at this time".
I asked Mr Slater for an explanation of this decision and he told me "There are quite strict rules when we publish data, it needs to be defendable and explainable and the maximum numbers do give a exaggerated picture of actual numbers of animals that were subject to controls. While we do have that data for some species - the data is much more onerous to collect for others so it would be an incomplete picture anyway."
I have questioned this decision and have suggested to Mr Slater that publishing the maximum figures attached to each licence is relevant and would be of public interest as (either in theory or in practice) this is in fact the actual number for which Natural England has issued approval. For example, if Natural England issue a licence to kill 1000 Herring gulls then, regardless of how many gulls the licence holder finally kills, he or she would have permission from Natural England to kill up to 1000 of the birds. This may, according to Natural England, give an exaggerated picture of the actual final numbers killed but nevertheless that maximum figure is permitted and perfectly achievable without any wrong doing on the part of the licence holder. In other words, the figure appearing on the licence, exaggerated or not, is the figure approved by Natural England.
Mr Slater has invited me to discuss the data with him and raise any questions I might have.
My intention, when the data is published later this month, is indeed to examine some of the individual licences and ask some relevant questions.
So watch this space.
This may be a small step backwards but the campaign goes on....
PLEASE SIGN/SHARE THE PETITION HERE
"Where were the RSPB....?"
I've lost count of the number of RSPB members who have contacted me, complaining about the Society's initial response to Natural England's bird kill licences.
When I first revealed the shocking statistics behind the bird culls, the natural reaction from many of my blog readers was to contact the RSPB for reassurance. While it seemed obvious for members to turn to their Society for advice, people tell me that they were disappointed with the banal responses they received.
The RSPB was hardly reassuring its worried supporters with statements like: "...without knowing the reasons for each license, it is impossible to comment on individual cases, but some of the species that have been listed raise questions..."
By the time our petition had reached a quarter of a million signatures, the RSPB were telling one of my readers: "...we are aware of this matter and are trying to find out further detail. This may take some time so I’d ask you to bear with us while we investigate."
The Society added that it was "in the process of working with Natural England....on the licencing process", but there were suggestions that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds should have already known the extent of Natural England's bird killing.... never mind having to 'investigate'.
"...As members of the RSPB, shouldn’t they have told us?"
Discussion on my blog began to tell a story of growing dissatisfaction with the RSPB, some people were even beginning to question the role of the Society in protecting the nation's bird life, "...it does make you wonder why we have to rely on Jason to tell us this stuff. As members of the RSPB, shouldn’t they have told us?" asked one reader, while another remarked "I am also an RSPB member and cant think why they are not more involved in all this."
The RSPB killed nearly 600 foxes in just one year....
Some felt that the Society had been ambivalent over a flawed licensing regime that had gone unchallenged for years.
However, the RSPB has been involved in its own killing spree....
As part of its conservation efforts, the RSPB kills thousands of animals and birds each year. The Society is quite open about this, even publishing an annual summary of its own wildlife culling. Yet many of its members seem unaware that RSPB management initiatives involve large scale slaughter of selected wildlife.
I took a look at the most recent set of statistics, which were published by the RSPB last July. I have to say that the figures seem shockingly high, even with an understanding of the motives behind the killing (motives with which I personally strongly disagree).
In just one year, between September 2017 and August 2018, the Society killed 598 foxes and 800 Crows, on and off its reserves, as part of its work in conserving various threatened species of birds.
RSPB destroying eggs of amber listed Barnacle Geese....
The RSPB also destroyed 322 Canada Goose eggs and 321 Greylag goose eggs (the reason given for this action being 'Air Safeguarding').
They also removed 22 Barnacle Goose nests and destroyed more than 100 eggs of this amber listed species (in the name of 'Tern and Avocet conservation').
In total the Society killed at least 2,719 animals and birds in just one year.
"An option based on rigorous scientific research..."
One of my readers, worried about fox and crow killing at their local RSPB reserve, was told that "...occasionally, when all other options have proved ineffective, we have had to resort to lethal control to protect some of our most threatened and vulnerable species..." and that "it is an option based on rigorous scientific research..."
But surely it is not beyond the means of an organisation as large and resourceful as the RSPB to have found a way to capture and relocate at least some of the animals on its kill list?
And surely there are far better ways of controlling birds than wrecking nests and eggs.
Am I naïve in suggesting that, rather than destroying the Barnacle goose eggs, they could be removed if necessary, and hatched elsewhere to maintain the population of this threatened species?
"These decisions can be controversial...."
Of course the RSPB feels that it can justify its action, but as the Society's Global Conservation Director, Martin Harper, admits in his introduction to the figures, "these decisions can be controversial".
Something of an understatement perhaps.
Controversial indeed... it seems odd, for example, that the Society still advocates the use of Larsen traps to catch and kill corvids, a cruel system that has been outlawed in other countries. In recent years, there has also been criticism of the way the Society chooses to despatch foxes and other mammals.
I don't doubt that the RSPB carry out some excellent work, but it does worry me that they exterminate large numbers of animals, and for so long apparently ignored the slaughter of thousands of birds, many of conservation concern, that were being killed under licences issued by Natural England.
Public pressure brings change...
It took the determined and remarkable efforts of our campaigners, members of the public, to bring about more transparency at Natural England.
Our petition, with nearly 360,000 supporters, made huge strides in bringing about change at Natural England. Many think that this should have been the job of the RSPB.
The RSPB do seem to be more engaged now, recently telling one of my readers that "we are asking Natural England for greater transparency on their decision-making process......we are recommending that there is clearer data collection and publication of this data which, where necessary, will enable Natural England to be held accountable for the decisions they make."
The frustrating part is that I was already saying that more than a year ago, while it had apparently taken the RSPB some time to acknowledge, at least publicly, that there was a problem at all - and to speak out.
An increasingly skeptical - and knowledgeable - public
Perhaps we need to question the RSPB itself over its extensive killing of native wild animals and birds. 598 foxes in one year? 800 Crows? Doesn't this seem excessive?
As more and more of the Society's members discover that protecting a handful of species involves killing thousands of other animals and birds, the RSPB might have to work harder to placate an increasingly skeptical - and knowledgeable - public.
Are contrived 'reserves', for selected species, really the answer?
How, one wonders, did wildlife survive before it was so carefully managed by the likes of the RSPB and Natural England? Humankind has desecrated habitat and countryside to such an extent that many species simply cannot naturally thrive in this country - that is why we have artificially contrived areas of habitat, 'reserved' for these selected species, often at the expense of other animals.
Clearly we have a need for reserves like those run by the RSPB, due to the mess we have made of our countryside - but there is a danger of accepting them as an alternative to proper protection of the environment outside these areas of conservation. Note HS2 and its desecration of ancient woodland, where 'mitigation' measures merely facilitate destruction.
Reserves must not become zoos. Species which are currently being exterminated on reserves, may soon themselves be under threat elsewhere.
Personally I think we should celebrate - yes and protect - those species that have found a way to thrive in the hostile environments that we have created. That includes foxes and crows. And gulls and geese. Killing them in large numbers, as a means to conserve other species, whose demise was itself caused by misguided human activity, seems like flawed thinking.
It's killing, it's exterminating lives of wild animals.
In a world on the brink of natural disaster and mass extinctions, is killing more animals really the best solution?
The RSPB kill figures for 2017 to 2018 include:-
Carrion/Hooded Crow: 800,
Fallow Deer: 38,
Muntjac Deer: 38,
Roe Deer: 333,
Red Deer: 547
Sika Deer: 146
Feral Goat: 4
Grey Squirrel: 97
Great Black-backed Gull: 3 shot, 2 nests removed
Lesser Black-backed Gull: 5 shot, 30 nests removed
Herring Gull: 2 shot, 19 nests removed
* statistics have been collated from RSPB published figures. The author has attempted to reference them as accurately as possible from the source material.
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