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.....
"Perhaps the killing of these birds is justified - maybe House Sparrows viciously attack people? Perhaps Coots are dangerous; maybe their shy and bashful demeanor masks a terrible and menacing behaviour?........put our minds at rest over why Natural England considers it appropriate to permit hundreds and hundreds of them to be (in agency parlance) 'lethally controlled'....."
It has been a long road since I first set up a petition calling for an investigation into the activities of the Government's Nature Agency Natural England.
More than 320,000 people have so far lent their support to our campaign which calls, not only for increased protection for our birds, but also for more transparency of Natural England's licencing system and much more rigorous monitoring of the licences that they issue.
So far the petition has resulted in the agency agreeing to publish, annually, full details of all licences issued - a major success. But it's just a first step. The campaign has raised some serious concerns over the agency's activities.
As the petition gained support, I began to research Natural England's licencing system in more depth. It wasn't easy, requiring a freedom of information request to obtain even basic data.
Among the truly mind boggling statistics that my research uncovered were those outlining the number of House Sparrows and Coots that the agency had permitted to be shot. It baffled me that these harmless and much loved birds could ever pose any kind of a threat; so why, I wondered, had Natural England issued licences to kill these two birds (and many others) in significant numbers?
Promised Data Delayed as Chaos Takes Over The Agency
It was one of the specific questions I raised when I had discussions last month with Natural England's Director of Operations, James Diamond. He promised to get back to me with the exact numbers of Sparrows and Coots killed and the reason why permissions had been given for lethal control of hundreds and hundreds of these gentle and entirely harmless birds.
That was more than a month ago.
Since then I've been informed that every single member of staff is now busy dealing with the fallout caused by the sudden withdrawal of three general licences after a legal challenge over these licences threw the agency into complete disarray. The result being that the information I've been promised will be delayed.
"Right now I have asked the team to pause everything except general licensing work," Mr Diamond told me a few days ago, "we will respond to your questions on house sparrows and coots as I undertook when we spoke."
But the chaotic state of Natural England is not our problem, it is theirs. So I am distinctly unimpressed that, after a month, we are still waiting for some important data that really should have been readily available. And if this data is not readily available then why not?
Providing such straightforward information should not present a challenge for a government department whose job it is to issue and monitor the licences. And yet it seems to be proving difficult for them, which is very worrying indeed. Because if the Director of Operations himself cannot locate and provide the details after a whole month, then one begins to wonder if the system really works. It looks to an outsider as though Natural England is a sinking ship, managed by an overworked and/or bungling crew.
Are House Sparrows And Coots A Threat To The Public? We Need To Know...
The requested information is very important. It might shed light on the rationale behind Natural England's decisions to officially permit the killing of hundreds of Sparrows and hundreds of Coots. I chose to highlight these species because they are representative of the birds that are being killed. These are not controversial species. They clearly don't pose a threat to aircraft safety or public health. These are innocuous species that were once among the most familiar birds in the country but seem to be rapidly disappearing from our towns and countryside. Perhaps the killing of these birds is justified - maybe House Sparrows viciously attack people? Perhaps Coots are dangerous; maybe their shy and bashful demeanor masks a terrible and menacing behaviour?
All I want is for Mr Diamond to put our minds at rest over why Natural England considers it appropriate to permit hundreds and hundreds of them to be (in agency parlance) 'lethally controlled'.
Eyebrows Raised At Delay...
I was happy that Natural England were willing to talk. They seemed at last to be open to discussion and I was hopeful of working with them and being able to express the concerns of the British public over the agency's managing of our wildlife.
But for now we just wait.
Questions might be raised if the data is not forthcoming soon.
Eyebrows are already being raised at the very fact that, a month after they were promised (no matter how busy agency staff may be), some fairly straightforward licencing statistics remain unavailable.....
Latest: Natural England May Be Stripped Of Ability To Issue Bird Kill Licences - But Is This Good News?
Quick update for you.
According to The Telegraph and The Mail this morning, Michael Gove might be shaking things up at Natural England by stripping the agency of its powers over bird kill licences, transferring the task instead to Defra - which might not be the best outcome....
Although this development seems to be in the wake of the publicity following the Wild Justice challenge, I feel sure that our petition, currently at 316,000 signatures, will have had a huge bearing on the government's decision to rethink the whole sorry state of the licencing system.
As for the merits of handing the responsibility to Defra, well we can only hope that, if it happens, then a thorough review of all the licences will also take place at the same time. I'll certainly keep pushing for changes that will offer more protection to our declining bird species, whoever is in charge.
On another matter, there was a short-lived backlash affecting our campaign, resulting from the recent media coverage following the revoking of three general licences. I had people contacting me, some of them apparently having signed our petition, complaining that this was not the outcome they wanted.
I just want to make it clear that the revoking of the general licences was not a result of our campaign, which is concerned quite specifically with licences issued to kill protected species. We have brought 65+ species under the umbrella of the petition which is aimed at making the licencing system both more transparent and more accountable. We'd ideally like to see red and amber listed birds offered much more protection, while making the whole process less open to misuse and with better monitoring of licences.
I'm happy to see extra protection for all birds but our petition is not connected with the Wild Justice campaign which concerned only those birds covered by general licences (Crows, Magpies etc.).
That said, clearly the influence from both of our campaigns, though unrelated, will have been putting pressure on the agency to make changes across the board. As Wild Justice's Dr Mark Avery pointed out to me a little while ago "we are sure that our legal case, and your blogging generally, will be pushing Natural England into a corner on licensing"
Okay, so onward!
Once we know what the government intends to do I will no doubt update further!
"The 'pest' controllers who 'managed' the Passenger Pigeon into oblivion at the turn of the 20th century, seem to still be actively going about their business today...."
We tend to think of conservation as a modern day invention, blaming previous generations for not really caring about wildlife and assuming that they didn't have much awareness of the need to protect threatened species. Indeed we often blame them for remorselessly hunting species to extinction - which they did in some cases - just as they still do today.....
Now, in the 21st century, we claim (with a degree of smugness) that we are the ones who know better, the ones that can 'save the planet', the generation that really truly cares about the imminent demise of the rare animals that managed somehow to survive the apparently callous attitudes of our ancestors.
But it's wrong thinking on two counts.
Because in 2019, not only do we destroy wildlife habitat at a terrifying pace, we also still hunt animals voraciously to the very brink of extinction. We are not necessarily the enlightened modern society that we proudly declare to be, because in fact many of our Victorian ancestors were just as pro-active in trying to conserve wildlife in their day as we are today.
I've discovered that more than a hundred years ago, the public were all too aware of the damage human beings were wreaking on other species - and people were doing everything they could to deal with the problem, desperately seeking solutions to everything from uncontrolled hunting to over-fishing and habitat destruction.
In fact they cared then just as much as we do now.
In other words, shockingly, nothing has changed.
Persecuted as 'pests', now lost to the world forever.
Take this question asked by a US newspaper way back in 1874.
"Is our race the butcher race of the world? ...Slaughtering animals, birds and fishes from pure wantonness." (Morning Union, 31 July 1874)
Clearly shocked by the extermination of wild creatures, the same newspaper went on to report that "Salmon have been destroyed in the rivers, whales in the seas. A war of extermination is now being waged against seals."
On the day that the Morning Union newspaper wrote that piece, nearly 150 years ago, several species were on the verge of extinction, including the bird that was once perhaps the most numerous on the whole planet, the Passenger Pigeon.
Persecuted and 'controlled' as a 'pest', the eventual fate of the Passenger Pigeon was an alarm call to the world.
A great many people tried to stop the slaughter of this beautiful bird, but the killing went on. Shot for food and sport, and due to its unwarranted reputation as an agricultural pest.
By the early 20th century, the world was finally waking up to a gut wrenching truth.
An article appeared in a Chicago newspaper in the spring of 1910, entitled "A Disgrace To The American Nation".
Chicago Livestock World described a country clinging to a forlorn hope that it might not be too late to save the iconic bird that had once filled the skies of America.
These beautiful birds had been so numerous that they were treated as 'pests' and it was beginning to dawn on people that this had been a terrible mistake. The American Ornithologists Union, in desperation, offered 1,000 Dollars to anyone in the country who could locate the active nest of a Passenger Pigeon, the hope being to save the species. "It is confidently expected," they wrote, "that a few isolated colonies of these birds are still left".
Alas, as we now know, the once ubiquitous bird was by then already extinct.
No more were ever found alive.
Persecuted as 'pests', now lost to the world forever.
The story of this once common species is one of the most tragic in the history of extinctions and a shameful example of human failing. This beautiful pigeon had been persecuted for decades.
No species is a 'pest'...
The whole sorry saga still rings loudly today, as arguments rage about whether this or that species is a 'pest'.
From Magpies to Feral Pigeons, Grey Squirrels to Mountain Hares, we hear the arrogant people who defend extermination, patronisingly explaining to us why the 'pests' need to be destroyed.
No species is a pest. Let's be clear on that. It's not open to debate.
Some creatures might be an obstacle to human progress, that doesn't mean they are a pest.
Really we have learnt nothing. Today in the UK, laws are passed enabling those, with a whim to kill, the legal right to exterminate any number of troublesome species. Creatures whose populations number considerably less than that of the Passenger Pigeon.
Make no mistake, at the hands of the wrong humans, no creature is safe from extinction.
Heavy fines for "malicious and foolish persons who shoot birds", United States, 1903
And, as I have long suspected, we have not progressed in our attitudes to legal protection for wildlife.
In 1903, again way more than a hundred years ago, we find announcements in the newspapers, particularly in the USA, warning of heavy fines for "malicious and foolish persons who shoot birds". (Kingston Daily Freeman, 29 July 1903)
The tide was changing and you might think that debate over the rights and wrongs of killing wildlife would have long been consigned to history.
Yet here we are in 2019, and the newspapers here in the UK are full of arguments for and against the right to shoot birds. Really? Have we progressed at all? It seems that every generation has its "malicious and foolish persons" only now they are apparently officially tolerated, even encouraged, by skewed laws that favour those who claim to 'control' and 'manage' wildlife.
The 'pest' controllers who 'managed' the Passenger Pigeon into oblivion at the turn of the 20th century, seem to still be actively going about their business today.
Masquerading their blood lust in clothes of virtue....
It is kind of depressing to discover that the situation hasn't significantly changed. Two groups of people exist within society, those who have compassion for all the creatures inhabiting this tiny planet and those who, in one way or another, seek to kill them. Perhaps another group of people has entered the equation now, those who simply don't care.
But, while we must remember the honorable efforts of those of our ancestors who tried to protect threatened species, perhaps the ones which should concern us most of all now are the very same "malicious and foolish persons" that thwarted true conservationists' efforts all those years ago, and still do to this day, masquerading their blood lust in clothes of virtue and excusing their immorality with a sanctimonious claim that they care about our wildlife.
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