Herring Gulls are down 82%, European Shag down 51%, Razorbills down 55%. The list goes on....
* The world's biggest offshore wind farm is just a few miles away.
* Isn't there a conspicuous connection?
The Isle Of Man wildlife charity Manx Birdlife has reported a shocking 40% decline in the populations of many species of sea birds around the island's coast.
The worrying figures emerged following a comprehensive census that took place over two years. Whatever the reason for the sharp decline of the birds, it illustrates that something has gone very wrong.
I've noted with interest that this unprecedented drop in populations, of several of the island's maritime species, coincides with the proliferation of wind farms in the Irish Sea - something which has worried me during the past few years, as I have witnessed the frenzied development of the wind industry in the waters off the western coasts of England and Wales.
World's Biggest Offshore Wind Farm just a few miles away....
We know that offshore turbines kill birds and bats, though it is almost impossible to estimate the number of casualties because there are no retrievable carcasses to count at sea....
It is also highly likely that wind farms adversely affect many marine mammals.
The world's largest offshore wind farm is now in operation off the Cumbrian coast at Walney, just 40 miles or so from the Isle of Man, and, with the news that nearby bird populations are in free-fall, we must seriously ask whether the huge turbines might be killing more birds than we ever anticipated.
The Isle of Man study was, ironically, partly supported by the Walney Extension Offshore Wind Farm Project. How paradoxical would it be to find that the project itself, with its giant 640 feet turbines, was responsible for the plummeting numbers of sea birds.
The report is full of depressing statistics. Herring Gulls are down 82%, European Shag down 51%, Razorbills down 55%. The list goes on.
Marine Protected Areas "may not necessarily be major barrier to new projects..."
I've been increasingly concerned at the feverish pace of industrial offshore wind farm development in this country and especially in the Irish Sea. Such a high density of turbines in a confined area - an area renowned for its wildlife - has been watched with dismay by many environmentalists, especially since large parts of the sea have been designated Marine Protected Areas (MPA's), supposedly limiting the scale of industrial development in precious areas that provide important habitat for so many species.
Alas, development has been allowed in vast parts of the sea that fall just outside the protected zones - and there have even been hints that the MPA's themselves may not be off limit for future wind farm expansion. Last year, a report carried out for the Welsh government suggested that "this protection may not necessarily be a major barrier to new projects" - which sounds shockingly irresponsible to me.
Isle of Man plans might seriously threaten birds' survival
Though the Isle Of Man currently has none of its own offshore wind farms, their government is reportedly close to approving industrial wind development off the island's coast as early as next year. Such plans might seriously threaten the survival of species already struggling to cope with the industrialisation of their habitat.
Wind energy companies might flaunt their green ideologies for all to see - but their industry nevertheless hides a grim reality. Their 'green' energy kills wildlife.
Money Vs Wildlife...
Speaking about the alarming drop in bird populations, managing director of Manx Birdlife, Neil Morris, suggested that "there are a number of causes for these declines and the solutions, such as protecting nesting sites, restoring food chains and mitigating climate change, will be challenging.”
It will be interesting to see whether more research will be carried out into just how many birds are being killed by the Irish Sea wind farms. My hunch is that many people would rather keep that information under their hats. So much money invested in offshore wind means that bad publicity would be very unwelcome and it is common for critics of the industry to be ridiculed.
It seems likely that vast swathes of our coastal seas are likely to be further industrialised by the wind giants - even if it is at the expense of wildlife.
7000 Herring Gulls condemned to death in two years
"...if this level of lethal control continues.......then the public will want an explanation as to why Natural England allowed - and facilitated - the demise of another iconic species...."
7000 Herring Gulls condemned to death in two years
In the course of my ongoing research into Natural England's bird kill licences, I've uncovered some truly shocking statistics....
Including the fact that in just two years, between 2017 and the first few months of 2019, the agency issued licences to kill more than 7000 Herring Gulls.
The population of this beautiful bird has collapsed in the UK in recent years. The very survival of the Herring Gull is threatened to such a degree that the iconic bird is classified as being of primary conservation concern, and has been included on the ever growing Red List of species at risk since 2009.
We have known about the rapid population decline of the Herring Gull for more than ten years, yet it has been earmarked for widespread extermination by Natural England, the government sponsored body tasked with 'protecting biodiversity'.
Is Natural England itself the biggest threat to the survival of this red listed bird?
The figure of 7000 Herring Gulls, for which Natural England has issued kill licences, represents 5% of the entire UK's breeding population of this beautiful species.
And this total does not even include licences that Natural England issued for removal of Herring Gull eggs or nests, nor does it include licences issued to control the birds in order to protect another species. The agency's onslaught against this much misunderstood bird has been relentless.
Based on their own data, Natural England's actions appear to present a direct threat to the species' very survival in the UK.
Baffling decisions of bizarre licensing system
So what is the reason that the agency considered it appropriate and acceptable to sanction the potentially devastating cull of 7000 Herring Gulls?
As part of my dialogue with Natural England, I have asked them for an explanation of just one of their Herring Gull licences, issued to an applicant in Devon, which permitted the shooting of 100 birds on the grounds of 'preserving public health'. I requested both the precise reason for lethal control in this instance and the final number of birds killed. Using this as an example, I hope to discover the 'logic' behind the agency's baffling decision to officially support the shooting of 7000 red listed birds. I'm currently waiting for the results of this request
Bizarrely, Natural England's own Operations Director has himself had to submit a Freedom of Information request, on my behalf, to obtain this fairly basic information from within his own department which, some might say, speaks volumes about the secretive way in which Natural England conducts its affairs. The fact that he put in a FOI request to access the data might be a delay tactic or it might just prove that Natural England's system is woefully inadequate.
Public must have more involvement in licensing decisions
One piece of information that the agency will be unlikely to divulge is the identity of the applicant, even if that applicant happens to be a local council or other public body. This I find unacceptable. If a public body applies for a licence to kill so many protected birds then the public have a right to know. And (should they wish to) a right to object. Making these details available for public perusal continues to be one of the main aims of our petition.
And there is at least a glimmer of hope that change is in the air.
Recently, in the course of some correspondence I had with Natural England, their Operations Director hinted at the possibility that in future they might not be opposed to public involvement in decisions where bird culling was being proposed in public areas, such as parks. Notices might be posted to alert the visiting public about a planned cull. In such cases, the applicant's details would be made public, together with their motivation for requesting a lethal control licence. Any interested members of the public would then be able to offer an opinion or an objection. And this, to my mind, is essential in order to maintain a democratic and balanced approach to protecting wildlife. Wildlife, which it must be said, does not belong to Natural England or any other organisation.
The public must be allowed to have an opinion.
Our campaign is pushing for this more democratic approach to licensing. The consensus of opinion is that the public would overwhelmingly resist lethal control and would rather work with authorities to find alternative solutions in situations where birds are causing a perceived or actual problem.
Slow progress - but it is progress....
I've said it before, and it's worth repeating, that I am indeed thankful for having ongoing dialogue with the agency, and in particular I value the assistance I am receiving from their Operations Director, James Diamond. I wish progress were swifter but I do believe that, at least within the restraints under which he is working, Mr Diamond is willing to listen and to consider changes in policy, changes that will instill much needed public confidence in the role of Natural England.
But change is needed - as the Herring Gull saga all too clearly illustrates.
Natural England: facilitating the demise of an iconic species?
Meanwhile I await the results of my enquiry into the Herring Gull licence, and we can only speculate just how much of a role Natural England has played in the decline of this beautiful creature. What is certain is that if this level of lethal control continues, then the wonderful sight of the Herring Gull soaring above the coastline of England could become a distant memory.
And the public will want an explanation as to why Natural England allowed - and facilitated - the demise of another iconic species.
Ongoing Dialogue With Natural England Brings Glimmer Of Hope Amid Calls For More Public Consultation Over Bird Kill Licences.
The recent piece I wrote about the Coots being killed in a public park caused a great deal of anger and generated a huge amount of feedback, not one single person supported the action, which had been defended by Natural England who issued the licence for lethal control, due to the birds fouling in public areas.
Many people told me that they want more consultation in these situations, such as notices informing the public of any plans to kill birds in public spaces so that they could have an opportunity to oppose the action and find alternatives to lethal control.
'Seek Views And Engagement Of Local Public....'
So I put this to the Operations Director at Natural England, James Diamond, suggesting that an interested public should have some involvement in the decision making process, especially when lethal control licences are considered for public spaces, like parks for example.
I have been encouraged by his response.
The official line hasn't changed, he reiterated that "public consultation on every individual licence application is very unlikely to happen" .....but I am really heartened by what he went on to say....
"If a public body was planning action in a public park it may be good practice for them to seek the views and engagement of the local public to help manage and understand the issue."
I see this as very significant.
I feel, intuitively, that we are making progress. Publicly, Natural England has not changed its stance that applications must remain confidential. However this acknowledgement that public opinion should be heard does speak of changes afoot, albeit behind the scenes.
There are already some occasions where the agency requires applicants to consult the public and other interested parties as part of a licence application.
I believe that this stipulation to include public consultation as a condition of an application may now be implemented in more cases due to pressure from our campaign. This may not be openly acknowledged by the agency yet - but I hope that the annual publication of all the licences that they issue (another success brought about by our petition) will in future reflect a drop in the number of lethal control licences that they have issued, due to more public consultation during the licencing process.
A Question About Herring Gulls...
On another note, I have asked for a breakdown of a further example licence which approved the killing of 100 Herring Gulls, a red listed species in severe population decline. In the past couple of years alone, the agency has issued licences for the lethal control of thousands of Herring Gulls so I want to know why. They have promised to get back to me on that one and I'll update you all further when I hear from them.
I was prompted to ask about this particular example after watching a nest of Herring Gulls high on a rooftop in Liverpool last weekend. We had a 'bird's eye' view from the roof terrace of a hotel in the city centre where we were guests at a very blustery wedding. On the opposite rooftop to where we stood, two Herring Gulls were looking after their chicks in a nest that perched precariously at the base of a steep slope. The devotion of the parents was a beautiful thing to witness. But as I watched them, I was painfully aware of the fragility of their existence. Always at risk of being swept away, not only by the weather but also by the intolerance of some people who might want to remove the birds and their nests. It is not acceptable that licences have been officially approved and issued to kill thousands of them.
The sight of these beautiful birds struggling to survive, in a world that has become ever more hostile towards them, made me even more determined to fight for their increased protection.
So, on behalf of the Coots, the Herring Gulls and the dozens of other species at risk of officially approved lethal control - thank you again for your loyal support in striving for a more compassionate and tolerant approach to nature.
Please keep sharing the petition!
We really are making a difference.
* We have an assurance that details of every licence will now be published in full, annually.
* We have an acknowledgement that public bodies should seek the views and engagement of the local public when planning action "to help manage and understand the issue".
* We have constructive ongoing dialogue with Natural England.
* We have a voice.
And we are making change happen, of this I feel sure.
Natural England approved the licences - and defended their decision.
Public outraged and demand more involvement in decision making.
As part of my ongoing research into the activities of Natural England, earlier this week I revealed on my blog that the government sponsored agency had issued licences to cull Coots in a park due to fear that their droppings could pose a risk to public health and safety.
I had asked Natural England for an explanation of one of their typical 'lethal control' licences and I selected Coots as an example because they are a harmless bird, but also one that appears on Natural England's 'kill list' in huge numbers.
At first the agency denied that Coots were killed at all ("unless a bird is injured"), so I sent them an example of a kill licence taken from their own data. I received an apology, saying that they had 'overlooked' that licence (though it was only one of many Coot kill licences that they had issued) but it was their 'explanation' that caused so much consternation among readers of my blog, who were furious.
Widespread Condemnation Of The Cull
There was an outpouring of condemnation from readers, and rightly so. Coots are inoffensive birds and people are outraged that they are being killed for such an apparently spurious reason.
Natural England justified their decision to grant the licence by saying "Our site visit and technical assessment of the initial application found that coot in excess of 200 were causing a risk to public health and safety in and around a lake at a park visited by large numbers of the public throughout the year (via fouling of those public areas)."
But that didn't sit well with my readers who expected more decency from a government agency apparently tasked with protecting nature.
Indeed, one reader suggested that those in charge of such decisions might be "educated beyond the bounds of common sense".
Whether or not that is the case, one has to wonder at the logic behind culling birds for defecating in a public park. Many people pointed out that human visitors to the park, which is believed to be in Norfolk, pose a greater 'risk' to public health than bird poop might. "I wonder how much litter / trash / dog waste was left by those members of the public?" asked one, "Coots do not leave rubbish lying around..." added another.
Public Want More Involvement In Decision Making
A number of people have suggested that, in cases like this, notices should be displayed prior to a cull taking place, to alert the public and importantly to allow any objections to be raised, very similar to the process involved in planning applications, where public notices are obligatory prior to a final decision being made. One reader said it would be a "great idea to put up notices regarding impending culls. There's far too much secrecy in things like this, and a public that's kept in the dark has no chance to voice an opinion."
This is something I raised with Natural England's Director of Operations, James Diamond, during our discussions in April. I maintained that it would be in everybody's interest, not least that of the wildlife, that where possible, details of an application should be published ahead of a licence being granted (including the applicant's name, especially when this is a local council or other public body). He was adamant that no such plan would be considered. "we must protect peoples' right to privacy and confidentiality" he told me. In spite of this, he was very keen to point out that there is "no culture of secrecy" behind the doors of the agency. This seems to be a contradiction. The very fact that currently the only way to obtain licence data is to apply through a Freedom of Information request alludes to a culture that isn't exactly transparent.
More Transparency Would Not Deter Genuine Applications
This refusal to make public the details of applications prior to them being granted remains a major focus of our petition, now at 330,000 signatures. I believe that publishing the details of applicants will have two main benefits. It will allow a concerned public to offer an opinion on whether the licence should be issued (and to put forward any objections). It will also deter any applications from those who might not be acting in the best interests of the wildlife or the public... having their names published should not deter honest applicants with a genuine reason to request a licence.
And surely the public have a right to object. They would not, for example, have agreed to the killing of Coots in a public park.
Questions Over So Many Licences
So far, as a direct result of our campaigning, Natural England have promised to publish details of every single licence that they issue annually - but only after the licences have already been issued.
So there is much work still to do.
I think we had all hoped that Natural England would be issuing lethal control licences only when absolutely necessary and in cases where there really was no possible alternative. Their approval of shooting Coots for defecating in a park proves that this is not the case. And it raises so many questions about the other 5,000 or so licences that the agency issues every year.
We are losing our native birds at an alarming rate - and the agency set up to "to protect England’s nature" seems to be complicit in their decline.
Just after I 'tweeted' earlier today that I'd not heard back from Natural England re: the Coot licences, as if by magic I had a reply from them!
I'm not sure how you will all view their response.....but at least it's a response.
As you may know, I had raised concerns about the Coots specifically when Natural England had claimed that "Control of coot by shooting has only been licensed when a bird has been injured", when in fact they had issued several licences to shoot hundreds of the birds.
I gave them one example of a specific licence they had issued for lethal control of Coot and asked them for an explanation.
Today I had an apology and an explanation. I'll quote from the message.
"First, an apology. This case was overlooked in pulling together the information for my previous reply to and you were right to challenge that."
Okay, that's a decent start isn't it.
But it wasn't just this particular case that was 'overlooked', as a quick scan of the licence data clearly shows many other lethal control licences that were issued against Coots.
In their message, Natural England explain that the example licence "was a renewal licence and included permission for up to 100 coots to be killed, injured or taken and 50 coot nests destroyed."
I think 100 Coots on a single licence is too many.
Anyway, the agency go on to explain:
"Our site visit and technical assessment of the initial application found that coot in excess of 200 were causing a risk to public health and safety in and around a lake at a park visited by large numbers of the public throughout the year (via fouling of those public area).
We visited and held a discussion with the applicant and reviewed the records of sightings and numbers. A highly significant amount of fouling to public areas was evident.
Non-lethal methods of control, including bird-scarers, gas-guns, visual deterrents and shooting to scare were judged inappropriate as the site lies close to a nature reserve and has large numbers of visitors throughout the year.
The applicant therefore wished to control numbers of coot via the deployment of a range of methods as appropriate, including the destruction of nests and eggs and to shoot birds with the aid of a sound moderated rifle."
According to Natural England, the actual report of action taken under that licence showed that between February and August of 2016, 24 Coots were shot and that 14 nests were destroyed.
The same (renewal) licence for the following year apparently reported a 'nil' return, indicating that no Coots or nests had been destroyed.
My concern, as always, with these returns is that they seem to rely entirely on the honesty of the licence holder to accurately report final figures.
So I'll leave it up to you to decide whether this all seems acceptable.
For me, a much stricter monitoring of licences is essential to avoid relying on (as Natural England put it) the 'good practice' of applicants.
And I'm still very uncomfortable with so many licences being granted in the first place.
I feel that the issuing of thousands of licences each year by the agency surely makes for too many opportunities to kill birds on a large scale.
Though Coots are not red listed, licences are issued to kill many other species that are of conservation concern, including the Herring Gull which appears frequently in the data in huge numbers.
New figures obtained through a Freedom Of Information request reveal that more than 2000 red listed birds, including 1,589 Starlings, have been culled since 2014 with the blessing of NRW (Natural Resources Wales), the Welsh Government sponsored nature regulator.
The data shows that 193 bird kill licences were issued between 2014 and 2018, including several to kill Starlings, which are on the RSPB's red list and are among the most exterminated species in the country.
NRW's official figures confirm that more than 500 Herring Gulls, another red listed bird, have also been killed across Wales in the past five years.
The birds, both of whose populations are in severe decline, are classified by the RSPB as being of 'conservation concern'.
It is very worrying that these threatened species have been killed in such large numbers with the approval of the Welsh government. So why is Natural Resources Wales officially sanctioning the lethal control of legally protected species that are already in rapid population decline?
Well, reasons for the Starling culls are believed to include the prevention of damage to cattle feed and to maintain air safety, and in the case of the Gulls to ensure 'public health and safety' at landfill sites.
Other birds killed under NRW's licences included Amber Listed Lesser Black Backed Gulls, Red Listed House Sparrows, widely persecuted Cormorants and legally protected Ravens.
All that said, the numbers of licences issued by NRW is significantly less than those issued across the border by Natural England, who in the same period of time, have granted thousands of licences affecting red and amber listed species, and whose reputation as killers of wildlife has left many questioning the very future of that agency.
As I continue to assess the data surrounding Natural England's bird licences, I'm constantly wondering about the legalities of the whole process. As the recent legal challenge to some of their general licences clearly illustrated, we cannot be certain that any system, even at government level, is sound and watertight.
Legal questions might be beyond the scope of our current petition, but during the discussions I had last month with Natural England's Director of Operations, James Diamond, I asked some pertinent questions. One of my main concerns was, and remains, the monitoring of the licences that they issue. As I understand it, applicants in possession of bird kill licences are obliged to report back to Natural England within a specified time frame, detailing the outcome of the licence that they were granted. They must stipulate just how many birds were finally killed (or not killed) under their licence. But what happens if an applicant fails to do so? This worried me, so I asked Mr Diamond about the follow-up process. I had assumed that there would be rigorous monitoring in place to confirm that the licensee had acted lawfully and responsibly within the parameters of the licence. Surprisingly, I was told that Natural England rely on the 'good practice' of the licensee in carrying out the actions of the licence and reporting back with the results. "We continue to chase them", said Mr Diamond, but there is "no fine" if they don't report back. The only punishment for non reporting is that they are unlikely to be granted another licence should they ever apply for one.
Well, this seems entirely unacceptable, given that in theory someone who has applied for a licence to shoot, say, a dozen Heron might have shot hundreds. It would be lovely if we could rely on everyone's integrity - but obviously some people might have less than honest reasons for wanting to exterminate a bird that they consider to be a pest or a problem.
'Five Test' System No Guarantee Of Compliance
Natural England are always keen to point out that they have a strict 'five test' system in place before applicants are granted a licence. For example, the applicant must satisfy the agency that non-lethal alternatives have been attempted to control birds before a kill licence will be granted. But once the licence is issued, then it appears to be largely down to the applicant to carry out the extermination responsibly. This system seems to leave too many opportunities for the applicant to misuse the licence, whether it be mistakenly killing the wrong species (not everybody is an ornithologist) or simply killing more birds than were permitted under the licence. In spite of the agency 'chasing up' licensees for final figures, the lack of a penalty or proper punishment for neglecting to provide the information means that, while many licensees are no doubt honest and responsible, there is limited pressure on less honorable applicants to report back with figures, the result being that nobody really knows how many birds have ultimately been killed.
This renders the figures unreliable.
Not Enough Monitoring?
Some monitoring clearly does take place. During my discussions with Mr Diamond, I asked specifically about the licences issued to kill legally protected Ravens and he assured me that all of the people who were granted licences to kill Ravens were visited in person. But that is just one example for which a limited number of licences were issued. Up to 6,000 licence applications are received by the agency each year (for all animals, not just birds), so it would seem impractical for Natural England to personally oversee each of them. I should point out that not all of these applications are for 'lethal control' (some might be for egg oiling, nest destruction etc.) and between 10% and 20% of licence applications are refused. But that still leaves a huge number of lethal control licences and, of those that are granted to kill birds, how many are fully monitored?
Ongoing Dialogue But Slow Progress
My dialogue with Natural England is ongoing, though I'm making slow headway in interpreting their ambiguous data. For example, after Natural England told me that licences were only granted to shoot Coots in cases 'where a bird has been injured', I pointed out to them that the agency had in fact issued several lethal control licences to kill hundreds of these birds. They are looking into this for me and I'll update when I have a response.
None of this inspires confidence. Surely it's now time for a complete overhaul of the whole licencing system....?
Natural England's Response Begs Yet More Questions - And Provides Confused Explanation Of Bird Kill Licences....
This evening I heard from James Diamond, Director of Operations at Natural England, with the agency's response to my questions, specifically about their licences to kill Coots and House Sparrows.
I'm afraid to say that, at this point, the response they have provided raises many more questions than it answers.
During the very friendly discussions I had with Mr Diamond last month, I had asked why licences were issued over a four year period to kill several hundred Coots, a modest and harmless bird that inhabits our waterways. I'd also asked about licences issued to kill RSPB red listed House Sparrows.
Confusion and Contradictions Over The Killing Of Pesky Coots...?
With reference to the Coot kill licences, Mr Diamond has offered the following explanation, "Most of the licences are for egg oiling to reduce population levels and help to manage impacts upon other species through aggression, competition for food and egg predation". It sounds odd but plausible if one stretches reality to a point where Coots, even in their more aggressive breeding period, have somehow become a danger to other species. Which other species one might ask? It becomes less convincing when he refers to licences issued for egg oiling at a site "...where the proximity of large numbers of coot and coot droppings to public areas frequented by young children was causing a public health issue". Coot droppings? No, I don't buy that one either.
What is much more worrying still is that Mr Diamond told me that:
"Control of coot by shooting has only been licensed when a bird has been injured."
This appears to entirely contradict the official data provided by Natural England themselves.
The data clearly shows many licences issued to 'kill, injure or take' hundreds of the birds and states the method used, this being very specifically 'shooting'. Reasons for this lethal control (as stated in the official data that I have in front of me) include 'public safety' and 'falconry and aviculture'. So to say that shooting has "only been licensed when a bird has been injured" seems to be completely at odds with the statistics provided by the agency themselves.
The Questions Over Sparrows
Moving on to House Sparrows, Mr Diamond's limited response again begs still more questions.
Mr Diamond helpfully provides an example of lethal control applied to this species; "an application in 2018 requested a licence to shoot a single house sparrow trapped in the bakery area of a supermarket. There were two sparrows but one had been successfully trapped and removed. Natural England requested, and was satisfied with, the evidence of the attempts made to flush or capture the remaining bird and remove it over a period of five consecutive months before issuing a licence for lethal control."
So that's the shooting of one bird explained then. But what of the hundreds of others?
According to Mr Diamond, "In recent years we have issued licences for controlling sparrows at between 5 and 7 sites each year for the purposes of preventing the spread of disease and/or preserving public health."
Given that the licences permit the killing of hundreds of Sparrows, perhaps this 'threat to public health' suggests that the half dozen sites licenced to shoot them really need to get their act together and make their premises bird proof!
So, I have not been at all reassured by the long awaited response to my enquiry. I have already asked Mr Diamond if he can explain the apparent anomalies regarding the Coot licences. I'll also raise my concerns over the Sparrow licences again and I'll update everyone further when I have a reply.
I really do respect Mr Diamond, he has been ready and willing to discuss the issues raised through our petition.....
It's not looking good though is it? If Natural England think that we will be happy with that response then they are mistaken. If, on the other hand, they really don't have a grasp of their own licencing figures then boy have we got a problem.....
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