This issue has now been resolved. It is business as usual for the campaign!
Sincere thanks to all who contacted Change.org about this.
Updates are now being emailed to supporters.
Doesn't it sometimes feel as though our efforts to do good - 'the right thing' - are thwarted along the way...?
It's with a weary heart that I write to tell you all about a setback with our campaign....
As many of you will know, I've been running a petition challenging Natural England's shocking licensing system which is responsible for the slaughter of thousands and thousands of our wild birds.
As the petition reaches a huge landmark figure of 350,000 signatures and we head on towards the dizzying figure of half a million, gremlins at Change.org, the platform hosting the petition, and one of our main tools in spreading awareness of the campaign, have put a great big spanner in the works, stifling debate and discussion by apparently disabling our important email updates.
Discussion and debate silenced...
A few days ago, many supporters alerted me after they suddenly stopped receiving their regular email updates about the campaign. I had just revealed (via my blog) some truly shocking data relating to licences the Natural England had issued, approving the taking of baby birds from nests and the killing of songbirds for scientific research.
As always I was keen to inform petition supporters of this latest news and so I issued an update via Change.org as usual. This time, as the news began to go viral across social media, the Change.org emails were not sent.
I tried several times but no emails were sent out.
The updates, which keep people informed of latest developments surrounding the campaign, are normally emailed automatically by Change to every supporter who has chosen to receive them. With 350,000 supporters, this meant that potentially hundreds of thousands of people regularly received the latest news about the petition and a cause which they loyally and eagerly support.
So the updates have been highly effective as a way of keeping supporters 'in the loop'.
Along with social and mainstream media, the petition updates also spread awareness and have even contributed to some useful dialogue that I have had with Natural England themselves.
While updates are (currently at least) still appearing on the Change.org website itself, the fact that tens of thousands of interested parties are not receiving the emails means that the lively discussion and debate we have come to expect following each update has been effectively silenced.
Supporters becoming suspicious...
Now, I'm not saying there is anything sinister afoot (though others are) but the whole situation is disturbing.
We have put our trust in one of the largest petitioning platforms in the world, thinking that we could rely on a dependable service.
Now, at a critical point for the campaign, Change.org has let us down badly.
350,000 people, many of whom have made direct payments to Change.org, really deserve better than this.
Some have suggested to me that the whole affair smacks of 'outside interference', or even 'censorship'. I don't believe this to be the case, but we do need Change.org to respond with a reasonable explanation....
Change.org response unsatisfactory and unhelpful
I have of course contacted Change.org but the responses I have received from them regarding this problem have been entirely unsatisfactory and really quite patronising.
Change.org's ironically named 'Help Center' wrote to me apparently suggesting - ludicrously - that each one of the petition's 350,000 supporters must have a problem with their individual accounts (yes, all of them!). They told me that they had found "no reason why the updates would not be sent. If the supporters are not receiving them," I was told, "it´s probably something related to each individual account, therefore, every supporter who experiences this should approach us individually."
But prior to this, I alerted a contact I have at Change's UK office about the problem and he later told me he'd 'cleared it' (thereby acknowledging that there was indeed an 'issue').
But it wasn't cleared. The emails were still not sent out. And he is now mysteriously out of the office 'until May 1st'.
I have also contacted Change.org's CEO, Ben Rattray together with a number of other high profile people within the company but I have yet to receive so much as an acknowledgement from any of them....
In the meantime I really need to reach out to as many supporters as I can - and for this I need a huge effort from everyone who has signed the petition.
Call to action - and the fight goes on.
So, tens of thousands of people, who relied on the Change email updates, are being kept in the dark about developments with the campaign. This is very worrying, and as I have no way to contact them, I'd ask everyone to share this message widely to try to alert as many supporters as we can to the problem. I'm using social media to inform people but it's clearly impossible to reach everyone.
The campaign has been hugely successful in spreading awareness of a serious matter of public interest but the restrictions imposed (knowingly or unknowingly) by Change.org on the petition threaten to derail the whole campaign.
We won't let this happen of course, and though I am a little jaded from this latest setback, the fight goes on.
The petition is only a part (albeit an important part) of the campaign and I will continue to highlight the plight of our wildlife at the hands of Natural England, regardless.
In addition to sharing this, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org, quoting the petition url:-
to register your dissatisfaction at not receiving email updates.
Meanwhile, thank you all for your continued support.
Natural England Approved Removal of 175 Blind Nestlings And Killing Of Songbirds - For Scientific Research
Natural England approved the trapping and killing of Willow Warbler, Dunnock, Coal Tit, Wren, Starling, Blackcap, Goldfinch, Chiffchaff and Long Tailed Tit in the name of 'science, research and education'.
The agency also permitted the removal of 175 baby birds from nests in the wild, under a single licence application.
I now have the results of the latest Freedom Of Information requests from Natural England, the ones relating to two more example licences that I'd asked them about.
Each licence allowed for a number of species of wild birds to be captured and killed in the name of science, research and education. Blue Tits and several other small native birds, including Goldfinch, Chiffchaff and Wren were among the species affected. Some of the birds are classified as amber and red listed, being of conservation concern.
Make of the following information what you will, for now I'll just report the facts. Some might well question Natural England's wisdom in approving licences to kill even small numbers of endangered species for scientific research purposes.
Killing Songbirds For Research Into Sperm Production....
The first licence was issued to researchers who wanted to trap and kill birds in order to (quote) "understand the energetic costs of making sperm of different sizes and designs in passerine birds".
In 2016 Natural England granted the licence in which they approved the trapping and killing of male birds. Any female birds captured were to be released, assuming they could be correctly identified whilst still alive.
Natural England granted permission for several species of small wild birds to be trapped and killed under this licence including Willow Warbler, Dunnock, Coal Tit, Wren, Starling, Blackcap, Goldfinch, Chiffchaff and Long Tailed Tit.
Among them, as mentioned earlier, are a number of amber and red listed species of conservation concern.
The applicant, who cited his '40 years of ornithological scientific research', asked to take two males of each species, except for the finch species of which he said he required six.
In an email to the applicant Natural England said "This licence allows birds to be taken using mist nets and cage traps. Up to a total of 40 males of the species listed in this licence may be killed. All females and any males that are not required for this research should be released at the point of capture. In addition to the species listed above, the Nuthatch (Sitta europaea) may be taken and up to two males of this species may be killed."
They added "Birds may be taken from publically-owned sites in [location witheld] provided that written permission has been obtained in advance."
(Note the questionable spelling of the word 'publicly', more about this later.)
An earlier email asked "Could he [the applicant] also include something on the application about how the trapped birds will be killed."
Natural England have not sent me the applicant's response to this question, so we don't know how exactly the birds were killed.
Natural England approved the 'taking of nestlings before they are able to see'
The second licence, issued in 2018, was a renewal of an earlier licence and permitted the taking of a larger number of birds, specifically nestlings.
I believe this licensee to be associated with a well-known university.
In Natural England's 'technical assessment' sheet relating to this particular renewal, it appears that the decision to issue this licence was made by just one person at Natural England, and that the assessment was carried out by telephone. The decision maker at Natural England was asked as part of the process, "Have you consulted with any colleagues (e.g. SSP or other specialists) in NE on this case?" The answer: "No", although a further note suggests that "the application has been previously assessed by [name witheld] (NE Ornithologist), who has agreed to consent the research."
Anyway, the licence was approved and it permitted the taking of 25 birds each of seven species, these being Blue Tits, Crows, Jays, Magpies, Coal Tits, Great Tits and Jackdaws. The aim of the research in this case was "to investigate the development of memory for food locations, and other aspects of memory"
The assessment of the project reveals that it would involve "taking of nestlings before they are able to see and hand raising them in captivity and the use of birds in experiemnts to judge 'congnitive' abilities of different species."
(I quote this directly from Natural England's assessment, complete with spelling mistakes).
Careless spelling mistakes suggests lack of attention to detail....
Speaking of 'congnitive' abilities, in the technical assessment sheet once again we can see there are some glaring spelling mistakes and I am bound to ask whether the person who prepared the technical assessment report is sufficiently educated to be carrying out this duty. At the very least it might reflect a worrying lack of attention to detail, which one hopes is not typical of the rest of the licensing system....though I fear that it may be.
On the licence itself, Natural England stipulated that "If birds are to be released after the experiments have been completed, all birds will be examined and if considered fit will be released at the site of capture provided they do not pose a disease risk. Any that cannot be released must be humanely destroyed."
The applicant submitted a 'nil' return for an earlier version of this licence, suggesting presumably that no action had been taken in the period 2016-18. Whether anyone from Natural England checked this is open to question, after all the agency's operations director, James Diamond, told me directly that they rely on the 'good practice' of licensees to provide accurate return information.
Nevertheless the applicant asked for a renewal of the same licence 'with alterations', details of which were removed prior to the information being sent to me by Natural England.
So there we are, the latest results of the FOI requests.
Removal of blind baby birds and the killing of songbirds for scientific research.
Please feel free to leave your comments below, I'd be interested if you think this action is justified in the name of science and education - or whether, like me, you feel uncomfortable that wild birds are being used in this way.
Our petition calling for more transparency and independent monitoring of Natural England is now at c.350,000 signatures. I'd love to get to our next goal of half a million.
So, please keep sharing.
"A Significant Public Health And Safety Risk" Says Natural England As It Justifies Its Decision To Kill Red-Listed Herring Gulls
*Environment Agency is linked to decision, claiming that 'excessive gull numbers' are 'undesirable'
*Licence holder is a 'bird control business' - but doesn't seem to know one species from another.
*Hundreds and hundreds of birds killed - and applicant refers to them all as 'seagulls'
So finally, after many people contacted their MPs (thank you!) and after I submitted a complaint to the ICO, Natural England responded to my Freedom Of Information request relating to the example Herring Gull kill licence.
I've been wading through the documents they sent me and trying to make sense of what still seems to be utterly senseless killing.
This licence was just one of many that the agency issued to kill red-listed Herring Gulls (and as we now know dozens of other species too).
I wanted to know the reasons behind the decision to grant these kill licences. That's how this particular FOI request came about.
Though there is a bit of an overload of information, I'd ask you to please bear with me, both now as I provide an initial overview, and later as I examine the details of this and other licences further.
"Public health and safety risk" - Natural England's answer? Shoot the birds.
In 2015, Natural England prepared a 'Technical Assessment' of this particular application to kill Herring Gulls (and additionally Black Headed Gulls which were also on the same licence application).
This licence was a renewal, permission having been granted for the applicant to kill Herring Gulls since at least 2010, a year after the species was red listed as being of critical conservation concern.
Natural England approved the killing to take place at "a number of landfill sites in Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset and Hampshire", where according to the application, scaring and other methods of control had not been considered effective enough.
They issued the following judgement as part of their assessment.
"The presence of gulls, which scavenge on waste food at the landfill sites, creates not just a public health [risk] (transfer of disease, especially via droppings, on and off site) but also creates a public safety risk for operatives working on the sites, including the obscuring of the vision of drivers when gulls take flight in large numbers immediately ahead of site vehicles."
They decided that the answer to this 'problem' was to shoot the birds.
Among the licensing criteria that Natural England include in their assessment is a question: "Is there clear evidence that the species in question is causing or is likely to cause serious damage?" to which they have answered 'yes'. This seems to me to be a highly contentious response.
In its conclusion and justification for issuing the licence, Natural England state that "The HG [Herring Gulls] and BHG [Black Headed Gulls] on these landfill sites present a significant public health....and public safety risk...The EA [Environment Agency] has made representations to the landfill site owners / operators about excessive gull numbers, which the EA consider could breach the terms of the operating licence."
They add, "The licensed shooting of a limited number of gulls, as an enhancement to existing scaring techniques clearly reduces the numbers of adults and juveniles frequenting the landfill site..."
Is the Environment Agency behind disturbing plan to kill the gulls?
And that brings me to perhaps one of the most illuminating pieces of information that has emerged so far; in the case of this example licence at least, the Environment Agency seems to be the driving force behind the whole sorry situation. Yes, the Environment Agency, whose original 'vision', was that they "...want people to have peace of mind, knowing that they live in a clean and safe environment, rich in wildlife and natural diversity - one they can enjoy to the full, but feel motivated to care for".
Rich in wildlife and natural diversity? But presumably that doesn't include Gulls then?
The Environment Agency is, like Natural England, a non-departmental government body, sponsored by DEFRA. So it's not surprising that the two bodies might work closely together.
But that in itself suggests the absence of an independent free-thinking outlook.
The presence of a large number of gulls is 'undesirable' - Environment Agency
The documents sent to me by Natural England include copies of the licence, renewals and various notes and returns.
The notes (of which there are many), state (as I mentioned earlier) that "The EA [Environment Agency] has made representations to the landfill site owners / operators about excessive gull numbers". What constitutes 'excessive' and who decides the figure?
They also state that "Environment Agency staff carry out spot-checks on the landfill sites and consider the presence of [a] large number of gulls undesirable...."
Licence holder is a 'bird control business' - who doesn't know one gull from another...
The actual application for this Herring Gull kill licence (and the subsequent renewals of the licence) is apparently linked to one individual man, described by Natural England as someone 'who runs a bird control business'. He has the contract to kill the gulls at a number of landfill sites in the South West. But he doesn't appear to know much about birds...
In a letter he wrote to Natural England in 2014, he referred to 'seagulls' three times and also to 'Lesser Black Headed Gulls' As we know there is no such thing as a 'seagull', let alone the, hitherto unknown, Lesser Black Headed Gull... all of which illustrates that the person pulling the trigger is very unprofessional and ignorant. Who knows whether he did in fact shoot the actual species for which permission had been granted or just hundreds of random 'seagulls'?
And shouldn't Natural England have picked up on this huge error?
"Help in the future would be larger culling numbers..." says licence holder
In 2013, the same licence holder wrote to Natural England and said "we have to keep the site management and the Environment Agency happy but stay within your licence. Help in the future would be larger culling numbers or speed to increase licence conditions". He added that "to help us through the most active periods this year we spent more time culling corvids." Nice people....
Of course Natural England has withheld any information that might identify him.
At least they thought they had..... I seem to have found a clear reference to his identity within the documents that they sent me - which, considering that Natural England is always so vociferous about the need to protect an applicant's privacy, shows a shocking lack of attention to detail and illustrates that the agency doesn't actually protect the applicant's identity very well at all. I won't be so bold as to disclose the applicant's identity here, he is after all only the person contracted by the companies that run the landfill sites.
But although we don't need to know the identity of the person who carries out the actual killing, especially when it is an individual, we have every right, in my opinion, to know who is asking for the lethal control of our birds, whether it be local authorities or, as in this case, the companies responsible for running landfill sites. And quite why the Environment Agency has so much sway in the whole process is very questionable.
The public must be allowed a voice, every bit as loud as that of the EA.
Is Natural England's famous 'five point test' just guff?
This licence of course is just one of very many that the agency issues to kill Herring Gulls - and, as we know, dozens of other species of our native birds too.
The red-listed status doesn't seem to mean very much when Natural England is making decisions. Though they are keen to tell me, often, all about their 'five point test' when assessing applications to kill birds, it might appear to some of us that the test really isn't very robust given the shockingly high numbers of birds killed.
Independent monitoring body urgently needed
So, these are my first impressions of the information. I'm sure most of you will be just as frustrated and angry as I am that all this information does is to underline the fact that Natural England, and quite probably other government agencies too, are not acting in our best interests.
We need to have a say in the licensing decisions.
And to know that those carrying out any actions under licences are competent.
There needs, urgently, to be a totally independent body established to oversee Natural England's shambolic licensing system, and we need full transparency over each and every licence - without having to chase overdue FOI requests.
If you haven't already signed the petition, please do so, CLICK HERE
Natural England has failed to respond to a Freedom of Information request, regarding the shooting of Herring Gulls - in spite of being legally obliged to do so.
I submitted the request, relating to an individual licence, as part of my enquiries into the agency's licensing system, having been advised to do so by Natural England's Operations Director, James Diamond.
The licence in question, issued to an applicant in Devon, permitted the shooting of 100 red-listed Herring Gulls and was just one example of many that were approved by the agency.
In fact the total number of Herring Gulls killed under similar licences might potentially be several thousand.
Herring Gulls are a declining, red-listed species of serious conservation concern, so I was interested to discover the reasons behind Natural England's decision to allow the shooting of thousands of these birds.
Information Requested Following Advice From Natural England Operations Director
Mr Diamond informed me that this information would have to be obtained through a FOI request, and so I selected a typical individual licence from the agency's data and asked very specifically, as advised by Mr Diamond, for details of the original application together with Natural England's technical assessment.
I made it clear that I would like to know the precise reasons provided by the applicant explaining why they felt it was necessary to kill Herring Gulls, together with Natural England's response to the applicant and details of the process via which the agency arrived at their decision to approve lethal control of this red listed species.
I also requested return figures if they were available, detailing the numbers of birds finally killed under this individual licence.
That was on 5th July.
On 6th July I received an acknowledgement from a paralegal at Natural England confirming the following:-
"Thank you for your request for the information detailed in your email below, which we received on 5th July 2019.
We are dealing with your request under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.
Your request is being considered and we will send out our response within the legal deadline of 20 working days which is 6th August 2019. If, for any reason, we are unable to meet the deadline we will keep you fully informed of the reasons for this."
Today is 7th August.
The legal deadline has passed.
I have not heard from Natural England and so they have failed in their legal responsibility to either provide the information requested or to keep me 'fully informed' of any reasons for not meeting the legal deadline.
There may be three reasons for this failure to comply with their legal obligations.
It may be because they have information that they prefer to hide.
It may be because they don't even know the reasons behind the decision themselves.
Or it may be that they are simply so disorganised that they don't have a clue what they are doing.
Whatever the reason, this is a massive failure on their part to comply with their legal responsibility.
Such blatant disregard for the law is shocking.
Where do we go from here? Anybody's guess.
But one thing has been made very clear indeed:
Natural England are definitely not fit for purpose.
This is a short story I published on Medium.com a few days ago.
A stream of consciousness, but one that might well betray my innermost thoughts and fears......
The world was coming to an end.
Few people had noticed.
There were some who waved banners outside government buildings, others who marched and held aloft placards depicting trees, and even some who went on television, looking very concerned and worried, who spoke of emergency measures.
None of them mattered very much. Because the world was ending anyway.
The ones who knew the truth had sensed it long ago. Now these few were staring up at the sky, into the infinite unknown, where hope might just spring eternal, where life might remain beautiful as it once had been here, though it was too late for this world.
Some people stood looking out to sea, studying the outlines of the giant skeletal remains of wind turbines. If ever there were a testament to mankind’s folly, this was it. Insanity takes the form of many things but this was the work of hysteria, brought about through the ramblings of deranged minds. And a thirst for money. But money could not save this world after all, even though many people had invested heavily in lunacy.
“The Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness and confusion of mind,” promised the Bible. And it had come to pass.
Now that every animal species was extinct, apart from a few insects and still fewer mammals that had adapted to the toxic concrete wilderness that mankind had created, people still could not believe that this was the end. Flights of fancy had replaced sanity. Compassion had been twisted, thought distorted, and deluded humans had killed all the birds. Yet even now politicians spoke of critical new policies and even now hypocrites brushed their teeth with bamboo toothbrushes before getting in to their cars to go to work. Work which meant nothing but provided a reason for being.
The world could go on for a while. Humans were, after all, used to failing health; they accepted taking drugs that would temporarily make them feel as though they were better. Researchers, backed by big business and fuelled by a futile desire to live forever, continued to seek a cure for all manner of disease. An obsession with keeping carefully chosen people alive as the world around them died.
But it wouldn’t be long now. There would be no life, no light. There would be no cure for dying. There would be no anything.
Only peace. The peace that some of us sought in life would finally come to every living, sentient being. And the book of life on earth would be closed, never to be read again.
Humankind would be forgotten.
Done, dusted and gone.
And what of the universe? Well, the universe would sigh.
And carry on.
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