Thought I'd just update you with the latest happenings regarding the petition.
Early this morning, I heard from James Diamond, the Director of Operations at Natural England.
I'd requested some further details regarding some specific data for birds killed under licence, notably figures for House Sparrows and Coots, both of which appeared very prominently in the Freedom of Information results. This was one of the questions I raised during the discussions I had with Mr Diamond about three weeks ago.
Well, as you will know, there has been a whole lot of hullabaloo surrounding Natural England's revoking of the general licences recently; you will have seen the news of this in the media, with Chris Packham taking the brunt of criticism after Wild Justice's legal challenge provoked a surprise response from the agency, which hastily revoked three licences, covering 16 species, causing a backlash from those who exterminate birds under these general licences - farmers, 'pest' controllers etc.
So, Mr Diamond wrote to me this morning explaining that his staff are 'fully occupied', including working late nights and weekends, as they try to sort out the reworked general licences. Quite a task I'm thinking....
We will get the answers to our questions in due course - but not just yet.
As I've said before, I find James Diamond both helpful and respectful, and I appreciate, given the pressure he must be under, that he is keeping in touch with me over our petition.
But what about revoking the other licences?
But I have suggested to him today that the current controversy surrounding the three general licences might have provided a good opportunity to revoke all the other licences too - including those issued to kill songbirds and the other species covered by our petition. The reason the general licences are being hastily reviewed is because they were challenged on their legality.
And that got me wondering about the legality of these other licences.
Those applicants who successfully apply for a licence to kill birds are obliged to report the results of their licence to Natural England within a specified time frame. But it seems they don't always fulfill their obligations.
Mr Diamond told me during our discussions that the agency do rely on the 'good practice' of applicants to report the final figures for birds killed, including those killed under 'class' and 'individual' licences. "We expect returns and we continue to chase them," he told me, "but there is no financial penalty for those who fail to comply."
Might this suggest that there is potential to challenge the compliance and/or legality of these licences?
I'm no lawyer but any thoughts on this matter, from those more qualified than I, would be welcome.
While this may all be beyond the scope of our petition, it might be noteworthy when Natural England review the remaining licences later this year (as they have said they will), including those that cover the 65+ species under the umbrella of our petition.
314,000 Signatures and Counting...!
Meanwhile, I'm delighted to say we are currently at 314,000 signatures, with more people signing all the time. The more support we have, the more chance we have of continuing to make change. So please keep sharing!
Thanks and best wishes,
"...as is often the way with precious and beautiful places, Rimrose Valley Park has been earmarked for development by those who would nurture profit over nature...."
"They paved paradise and put up a parking lot", wrote Joni Mitchell back in 1970, lamenting the loss of precious green spaces to development.
Now, in an era when we know the consequences of destroying our natural resources, those prophetic words of warning seem ever more poignant. Those in power continue to choose ignorance and greed over a moral and ethical obligation to preserve what little remains of our countryside. They release sacred green belt to dubious development, they chop down trees, cover hedgerows with plastic nets and build car parks and supermarkets over untouched countryside.
They still 'pave paradise' in spite of everything.
Rimrose Valley Park - a green lung in an industrial landscape
Recently I wrote an article describing the loss of a much loved urban park in Liverpool, England, recklessly bulldozed to make way for proposed office space, in spite of brave efforts from locals to save one of the last green spaces remaining in their city.
No sooner had I published that article than I was contacted by a member of another group of campaigners, from the same area, who are locked in a desperate battle to save their own precious natural resource. If the planners get their way, which is looking increasingly likely, locals in Sefton, just north of Liverpool, will see a massive six lane carriageway driven right through their treasured country park.
Rimrose Valley is a wonderful 300 acre parkland, which nestles amid the urban conurbations of north Merseyside, literally providing a breath of fresh air in the midst of a largely industrial landscape. Indeed it is known as the 'green lung' of Sefton.
This beautiful, natural wilderness is under imminent threat of being cut entirely in two by the huge new road project, which will destroy everything in its path.
Rimrose is not your average park. Here, several diverse habitats, including ecologically sensitive reed beds, meadows and woodland, form a valuable space for nature to thrive and for people to enjoy. The valley itself was formed more than a million years ago and many rare and endangered species survive in this unique environment.
The current park was created from waterlogged wasteland in the early 1990's, and has since become a very important wildlife sanctuary of national significance.
Rare Natural Habitat
Rimrose is home to at least two types of Orchid, together with a host of rare birds including several types of Warbler and Bunting, along with Snipe, Water Rail and Woodcock.
The elusive and legally protected Water Vole has also made its home here, with a number of colonies of this endangered species having been identified within the park.
And more wildlife continues to move in to this unique habitat - locals have recently reported catching tantalizing glimpses of wild deer and red squirrels.
Accessible by public transport and wheelchair friendly throughout, this much loved park is not only a valuable ecosystem but also a priceless asset to the local community.
But, as is often the way with precious and beautiful places, Rimrose Valley Park has been earmarked for development by those who would nurture profit over nature.
Compromise Too Expensive Says Highways England...
The problems began when plans to expand the nearby Port of Liverpool highlighted a need for improved transport links connecting the port to the national motorway network further north.
A proposal had been put forward to improve and upgrade an already existing 'A' road which would have saved the park, but this compromise was rejected by the Government agency Highways England, who are overseeing the whole project.
Many of those fighting to save Rimrose recognise and accept the need to improve local infrastructure, and so they backed a second alternative plan that would have catered to both the logistical requirements of the urban transport network and the critical need to secure protection for the Rimrose Valley Park. Instead of ploughing a dual carriageway through the park, which would entirely destroy the habitat of hundreds of species of plants, animals and insects, it was suggested that a tunnel could be constructed for part of the route underneath the park. But Highways England rejected this compromise too, citing the cost to be an issue, in spite of similar multi-billion pound projects that have been approved in London and Wiltshire.... leading to accusations of North/South double standards.
Now, unless protesters can somehow overturn the decision, the huge dual carriageway will be built right through the centre of the park and the unthinkable now seems inevitable.
There could have been a balance, addressing the needs of both the environment and industrial development. But it was ignored in favour of short term financial gain.
"Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone".
For many of us, the thought of industrial expansion determining the survival or demise of our increasingly precious natural landscapes does not sit comfortably in an age when we all know that we are killing our planet. What we choose to do now will affect our world for centuries to come.
So, Rimrose, in many ways, is a symbol of the choice we have to make between allowing human infrastructure to dominate and destroy - and taking a step back to see a bigger picture, where our own survival depends on the decisions we make today to protect the environment - and ultimately ourselves. We are, after all, a part of the ecosystem.
And it usually doesn't have to be a stark choice. We can accommodate both our needs and the needs of nature. Indeed we have to.
"Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone".
Now, nearly 50 years on from Joni Mitchell's lament, we still find them taking our open spaces away from us, against our will.
We know the consequences and, however loud we protest, it feels like they don't listen.
Rimrose: The Fight Goes On
But the Rimrose Valley campaigners valiantly fight on, co-ordinating efforts to save their park and still ambitious with their plans to enhance this very special place. They are currently raising funds to create a wildflower meadow at Rimrose, which would be the biggest in the whole city region, you can donate to this project HERE.
Meanwhile, they have a petition aimed at stopping the dual carriageway HERE.
More information at: www.rimrosevalleyfriends.org and www.saverimrosevalley.org
In a surprise announcement today (23/4), Natural England have revoked general licences covering 16 species of birds, including Crows, Pigeons, Jays and Canada Geese.
This follows a legal challenge brought by the Wild Justice organisation set up by Chris Packham, Mark Avery and Ruth Tingay.
The news means that anybody wanting to kill these species will now have to apply for a licence through Natural England, whereas before the new rules they were allowed to kill an unspecified number of the birds under the general licence - without having to apply for permission.
The new law does not directly affect the species we are fighting for through our petition, although it is certainly good news for the 16 species which are now legally protected under licence.
Pressure from our petition
But, according to FieldSports News, a source from Natural England is quoted as saying that "the reason for the decision stems from recent media reports about licences issued to kill songbirds...." This certainly appears to suggest that our petition has at least partly fuelled this latest change in policy - which is great news!
There appears to be some confusion within the agency itself about today's announcement, the unnamed source also suggests that general licences will be reinstated soon, but it seems highly unlikely that they will revert to the previously unregulated versions.
Those affected by the new rules are livid of course.
Many hunters, pest controllers and others who shoot birds for a living (or pleasure) have taken to social media to vent their anger. No longer will they have carte blanche to kill these 16 species, now they will have to apply for a licence - as is already the case for most other birds - which means that potentially, and hopefully, millions of birds will be saved from the bullets of some over enthusiastic 'conservationists' .
Another positive outcome from all this is that it appears the horrific Larsen traps, employed to catch corvids and other species, will also be outlawed as a result of the action - though this and other matters are still subject to clarification.
NE Chair, Tony Juniper distances himself from decision
Bizarrely, on his first working day as the newly appointed chair of Natural England, Tony Juniper publicly distanced himself from his own agency's decision, claiming that this was 'not Natural England's initiative'.
Answering criticism from angry protesters on social media, he tweeted "We will try to find a solution, but this is not our initiative - certainly is not one of mine."
Amid the confusion and mixed messages we are getting over this development, it is clear that we must now continue to push for tighter regulation in granting licences for all birds, together with more effective monitoring of licences issued.
We have already seen a major move towards more transparency within the agency thanks directly to our petition - Natural England's Director of Operations, James Diamond, has personally assured me that full details of all licences will be published annually beginning this year. This will presumably now include details of individual licences issued for the additional 16 species, which will tell us for the first time just how many of these birds are being shot.
A statement from Natural England says that today's news "...is the first stage of a planned review of general and class licences, which will be completed this year."
So let's wait and see exactly what that means.
Please keep sharing the petition. With today's win for Wild Justice and the continued pressure from our petition, it seems that major changes are indeed afoot at Natural England....
A sight to make a winter-weary heart sing is the first glimpse of a Sweet Violet peeking out from a mass of fresh green leaves, sheltering under an English hedgerow in Spring.
I was lucky enough to happen across a bank of these spirit lifting wild flowers today as I wandered along a little used footpath that meandered through fields filled with Dandelions and along shady corridors of Hawthorn, Elm and Oak.
This is the English Spring of legend, so much more difficult to find in the hustle and bustle of the modern world. But it does endure. Thankfully. Here you can still gather Lilacs and smell the fresh cerulean scent of the Bluebells. It all just becomes ever more elusive as urban sprawl encroaches on the countryside.
Such timeless pathways are more precious than ever. For the scene I saw today had likely not changed in five hundred years. As I ambled on, a Peacock Butterfly followed me along the path for perhaps twenty yards, celebrating the first warm sunshine of the year. I contemplated the thought that the ancestors of this rare, otherworldly creature would have delighted travellers before me who walked this same trail a century ago. Or even a thousand years ago.
It is comforting, in this transient existence, to know that some of the abiding miracles of nature that survive amid the loud, brash, modern world cannot be hurried and will go on.
But, along with the delight and the wonder of discovering the eternal, comes a heart wrenching awareness of the fragility of it all. For the manifestations of eternity can be so easily wiped out in the blink of an eye, at the whim of those who don't understand. Those for whom wealth or greed might appear to be worth more than the priceless beauty of nature.
I won't be telling anyone about my countryside pathway. It's too precious. But I would urge you to discover your own.
For there is no other sight that can make a winter-weary heart sing like that of the first Sweet Violet in Spring.
Today I had a long and helpful chat with James Diamond, the Director of Operations for Natural England.
I believe it's always good to talk - which is why I have been keen to arrange this discussion as part of our campaign to examine and potentially overhaul Natural England's licencing system.
Mr Diamond is an affable chap, and we had what really appeared to be an open conversation.
I'm happy to say we have made some progress.
Some Good News!
And a significant result which has come about because of our campaign.
Later this year, Natural England will begin to publish figures on their website which will detail the number of licences issued by the agency, including those issued to kill birds. The first set of figures, will be published sometime in 2019 (Mr Diamond couldn't provide an exact date but assures me it will be this year).
This will detail the licences issued for 2018. The figures will include the numbers of each species for which licences have been granted and the reasons why the licence was approved. The information will be available for all to see and peruse. This development will mark the start of an annual public reporting of licencing figures from the agency.
This is a major result which no doubt would not have happened without our petition.
"It Was A Mistake To Remove The Figures..."
Mr Diamond was keen to point out that Natural England did used to publish licence information routinely in the past but assured me that 'hardly anyone looked', so the practice was stopped. "It was a mistake to remove the figures" he says, "because we have nothing to hide".
He maintains that publishing the figures will, however, 'divert staff from working in other important areas', although my own opinion would be that this information is key to gaining public trust in the agency's activities and, as such, is an essential part of their work.
Unfortunately however, Natural England have absolutely no plans to disclose the names of applicants, nor to publish licences ahead of time for public scrutiny. I suggested this would be a good idea, in the same way that planning applications are published prior to being granted. There appears to be no flexibility over this decision, "We need to protect peoples' right to privacy and confidentiality", Mr Diamond insisted.
A System That Relies Too Heavily On Honesty...?
Mr Diamond explained a five point system which those applying for a licence have to satisfy before one is issued. The applicant has to assure Natural England staff that they have tried every other method of dealing with a bird problem before a licence will be granted.
My opinion, which I shared with Mr Diamond, is that relying so heavily on the honesty of an applicant does of course leave the system open to misuse...
And while he loyally defended his team against any criticism of their decisions in granting licences, Mr Diamond admits that the agency relies heavily on the 'good practice' of applicants in fulfilling their obligation to file returns in which they are supposed to detail the final outcome of the licence, including the number of birds killed. I asked him if there should be a fine imposed for those applicants who failed to provide this information but, alas, there are no plans to impose such a penalty. I think this might be a mistake as it appears to leave this part of the system open to misconduct. Defending that decision, Mr Diamond assured me that an applicant who failed to file a report would not be granted any future licence.
The Problem Of Netting....
On a side note, I asked about the recent epidemic of netting that has been appearing on trees, hedgerows and, notably, on the Norfolk coast in recent days and weeks. Although Norfolk council said that Natural England approved the use of netting, Mr Diamond strongly rejects this. "We have no power to approve the use of netting," he said, "we only offered advice, and we have no power to ask them to remove the netting either".
It seems that there is no official authority that oversees the use of netting in this way, something which needs to be addressed urgently, though this is currently not within the scope of our petition.
So, in summing up, I have asked Mr Diamond for some more detailed figures relating to licences issued for two species, House Sparrows and Coots, both of which appear in the Freedom of Information data in high numbers. I'll have that information in the next three weeks or so and will report back.
Meanwhile I think we can justifiably pat ourselves on the back for the progress we have made - and plough on with seeking more openness and transparency from Natural England, it is a public agency after all.
I'm keeping in contact with Mr Diamond and will update further in due course.
Bixteth Street Gardens - How A Tiny Oasis Of Nature Became A Symbol Of All That Is Wrong With Our World
A much loved urban park, bulldozed into oblivion.
Wildlife slaughtered. Trees felled.
A community left devastated.
And a city council that didn't care.
Welcome to Liverpool in 2019.
Imagine a wonderful oasis in the middle of a bustling city. A place where residents and office workers could grab a few moments away from the stresses of the day and enjoy the calm tranquility of a slice of the country in the centre of town. Where they could sit under the mature trees, delight in watching the antics of squirrels and rabbits, birds feeding their young in Spring, bees busily collecting pollen from all the flowers. Where at dusk, if they were lucky, they might catch a glimpse of the local bats, flitting from tree to tree.
Now imagine it gone.
This is the nightmare that happened at Bixteth Street Gardens, a haven for wildlife and nature in the centre of the city of Liverpool, before an utterly callous city council gave the go-ahead to send in the bulldozers and decimate the peoples' favourite inner city park, destroying it completely and forever.
Residents campaigned tirelessly and bravely to save their park from the developers after the council decided that it would replace this precious green space with office blocks and apartments, in spite of the many empty commercial and residential spaces that have become a dubious trademark of the city in recent years.
In the end, the fight to save Bixteth Street Gardens became ever more desperate as locals found themselves locked in a battle with property developers and the Mayor of Liverpool himself, whose apparent disregard for the wishes of the people has left locals deeply shocked, angry and filled with despair, as some of the hundreds of posts on social media reflect...
"I am so so sad about this. We tried, but it seems it was too little too late. Absolutely gutted."
"I cannot bear that this city which I call home is doing this..."
"Hang you're head in shame Liverpool city council"
No doubt karma will catch up with those responsible for allowing this appalling desecration to take place. But nothing will bring back the wildlife and ecosystem that survived and flourished here, against the odds, until the day that it was driven out by the developers. Locals could only watch helplessly as the wildlife fled in terror from the onslaught of the bulldozers.
There was nowhere for it to go.
It just went.
A sad final post on the Save Bixteth Street Gardens Facebook page sums up the defeated mood of the locals who fought so bravely to save their park, "we cannot fight the will of the Mayor or the incumbent council employees, sadly the system is not designed for the people that it purports to serve."
This is 2019. We are more environmentally aware than ever before. We are told to recycle, to stop using plastic, to urgently protect wildlife habitat. We applaud schemes to plant trees and we continue to berate countries that kill endangered species.
But we live in hypocritical times.
Our own government flaunts its phony green credentials while carrying out mass culling of our treasured wildlife. 'Illegal' fox hunting flourishes in the countryside, and a city council destroys a people's park.
Liverpool is a proud and wonderful city.
But what has happened at Bixteth Street Gardens will forever be a stain on its character.
Shame on the council that let this happen.
I just wanted to post an update here on the blog regarding yesterday's debacle!
First of all, huge thanks to everyone who has contacted me with messages of support following yesterday's events.
I have been totally overwhelmed by the goodwill and encouragement I've received.
Crewe meeting cancelled
As you may know, I was supposed to meet with Natural England's Director of Operations, James Diamond, yesterday afternoon, to discuss our petition.
But as I was about to board a train to their Crewe offices for the meeting, I received an email from Mr Diamond suggesting that he would not be able to make the planned appointment due to his train being delayed.
I asked if he thought his train might be moving any time soon; I was happy to wait for him at Crewe. This was, after all, going to be a very important meeting, not least because 284,000 people, who have signed the petition, were anxious to hear the outcome.
But Mr Diamond seemed resigned to a no-show and asked if we could reschedule. (As it turned out, I was later informed that the delay to Mr Diamond's train was only likely to have been around forty minutes, though it is entirely possible that this information was not available to him at the time).
Feeling deflated and disappointed (not to mention cold and fed up!), I returned home, having wasted my time - and thinking how lucky it was that I hadn't boarded the train prior to getting news of the cancellation. I'm sure Crewe can be lovely in April.... but without a meeting to attend, there would be little reason for me to be there on a cold, wet Wednesday.
So anyway, late this afternoon I received an email from Mr Diamond's office informing me that he would be available again next week for a rescheduled meeting if that would be convenient for me.
I have replied, respectfully asking whether Mr Diamond could kindly meet me closer to my home town on this occasion, pointing out that I don't want to risk wasting more of my time.
As an alternative, I have also suggested a video meeting, something I put forward yesterday and to which Mr Diamond seemed agreeable. I mentioned that such a call via Skype could also be recorded for the benefit of the people who have signed the petition.
So, let's see what transpires.
A bit of respect please, Natural England...
Throughout this whole campaign, I hope I have been considerate and proper when dealing with Natural England, in spite of the fact that often my enquiries have been met with stony silences or weak replies.
I intend to remain polite and well mannered - but in return I expect to be treated courteously.
And if I may speak on behalf of the 284,000 concerned people supporting the petition... well, Mr Diamond, I think we are all deserving of your respect.
Meanwhile I've received countless messages of support across social media, via email and through the many comments posted at Change.
I can't respond personally to everyone but please know that I have read, and continue to read, every message.
And your support is inspiring.
And appreciated more than words can express.
I'll keep you posted...
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