As the petition to overhaul Natural England continues to garner more and more signatures, I thought I'd use this update to review our progress to date, to examine the influence we have had both on public awareness and official policy, and to consider how best to roll out the next stage of the campaign.
Unsettling Natural England....
Back in the autumn of 2018, I noticed increasing interest from the media as support for the petition grew. The campaign had previously focused on saving one bird, the iconic Raven, from the bloodied hands of Natural England and I had already had some press coverage at a local level from those counties affected by the potential culling of this species. But now, with my revelations that Natural England had been issuing licences to kill more than sixty five other species too - many of conservation concern - the campaign really began to take off. Soon we had 100,000 signatures demanding an end to the killing and the media were clearly amazed at the remarkable amount of support.
By the close of 2018, Natural England themselves were becoming unsettled, even alarmed, by the level of public outrage, and calls for a thorough examination and investigation into their activities were being widely shared across social media.
Natural England issued some dreary statements in a halfhearted effort to head off the criticism but several national newspapers (with some notable exceptions...) had run with the story and highlighted the horrific slaughter of our wildlife at the hands of England's nature watchdog, an organisation ironically tasked with protecting nature in our country.
With all this publicity, the campaign began to fly.
Special thanks must go to The Independent and their excellent journalist Jane Dalton, who wrote an extensive and thorough article which was the first to focus on the whole sorry saga of Natural England's callous kill licences.
A high profile piece in The Times and another article in The Mail added to the momentum and we also gained international coverage from as far afield as the USA, Latin America and Europe. Natural England's shameful and shocking activities were making news around the world.
A clear picture beginning to emerge, of carnage in our countryside (and towns)...
In addition to my own freedom of information requests through which I gleaned some of the shocking statistics, a number of my blog readers also sent me data resulting from their enquiries too, and so we began to form a clearer picture of both the secrecy behind Natural England's operations and the chilling extent of their kill licences.
I began to highlight some of the data on my blog, revealing exclusively just how abhorrent the whole nasty affair really was. The shooting of thousands of birds was being approved by the agency that was supposed to be looking after our wildlife.
The figures beggared belief - the agency approved the shooting of several thousand red-listed Herring Gulls, thousands of migratory Brent Geese, hundreds of Coots and even the extermination of songbirds.
Discussions with Natural England
In February 2019, a full page feature in The Guardian alerted yet more people to our campaign and the plight of our wildlife.
In the wake of all the publicity, Natural England's operations director James Diamond offered to meet with me to discuss, privately, the concerns of the huge number of people who were now backing our call to overhaul the agency.
I shared with him these concerns and several matters of contention, and the result of those discussions was an assurance from Mr Diamond that Natural England would publish full details of all licences that the agency issued annually, beginning before the close of 2019.
This promise was a major success and proof that people power really does work and we await the implementation of this policy by the end of the year.....
But, impressive as this result was, it was nowhere near enough to satisfy the demands of those supporting the petition, whose patience was running out.
I called on Natural England to consult more widely during the decision making processes, allowing the public to have a say in whether or not licence applications were granted, especially in those cases where bird culling was planned in public spaces such as parks. People wanted the opportunity to oppose plans for bird culls which they often considered vile and unnecessary. When, for example, I revealed that Natural England had approved the culling of harmless Coots in a public park, people were both shocked and outraged. We had all largely been unaware of the mass slaughter taking place under our noses in our towns and countryside under licences issued by Natural England who, it turns out, operate quite secretly, some might say furtively, as they go about their business from behind closed doors.
James Diamond later told me that in principle he had no problem with the public having an opportunity to object to licence applications in certain situations, though there remains no obligation for licence holders, even those whose carry out bird culling in public spaces, to involve the public in any way at all.
Licence applications, even those which could result in the slaughter of thousands of birds, are decided by Natural England's office staff, who appear to dish out the lethal licences with gusto. Very few licence applications are refused and the monitoring of active licences is woefully inadequate, meaning that the potential for irresponsible action is huge. It is practically impossible to know whether the terms of the licences are being adhered to.
Shockingly inadequate monitoring
The system is a shambles, so much so that nobody really knows how many birds are being shot or even what species are being killed. As I discovered whilst examining a licence that Natural England had granted to shoot Herring Gulls, the licensee was so ignorant that he didn't seem to know the difference between species and so might have been gleefully shooting birds regardless of whether they were covered by the licence or not. Not that this worrying state of affairs seemed to matter much to Natural England, as they had no hesitation in renewing his licence without fuss.
Supporters feel 'let down' by RSPB - and cancel membership in protest
The public have been shocked and disturbed by the figures emerging from the secretive lethal licensing system, many have contacted their MPs, some of whom said they were sympathetic with the aims of the petition but offered little practical support. Even more have called on the RSPB for advice but they were generally very disappointed by the society's wishy-washy response. Most of those who contacted the RSPB, many of them long standing supporters of the society, received a standard banal reply with little or no sign that the nation's 'protector' of birds was really very bothered by the kill licences. The apparent lack of interest shown by the RSPB resulted in a number of people cancelling their membership and the lack of action from the RSPB has worried supporters of the petition; the organisation that many had turned to for reassurance seemed to be something of a wet rag when it came to any criticism of Natural England. The hope that the RSPB might be key to bringing about change proved to be woefully misplaced.
So, now in the Autumn of 2019, thousands of our birds are potentially still being killed under our noses, without our consent and with precious little monitoring.
Our campaign has influenced policy and created widespread awareness
Currently the petition is at 353,000 signatures.
Undoubtedly our campaign has already influenced policy, being a catalyst for some of the shake-ups we have seen in the whole sorry licensing system. Wild Justice, whose recent, and well publicised, legal challenge forced Natural England into an uncomfortable corner, acknowledged that our campaign (albeit with its different objectives) has helped pile pressure on Natural England to listen and react.
Perhaps the most successful aspect of our campaign to date is the fact that a general public, previously unaware of the officially sanctioned mass slaughter of our wild birds - is now fully aware. And not only aware but furious and demanding change.
Plans for the future
So what of the campaign's plans for the future? Well they are likely to include a peaceful demonstration to gain still more public awareness. We might also hand in our petition, especially if we can reach our goal of half a million signatures. The demo is tentatively penciled in for spring 2020, I'd be very happy to hear from anyone who might have an interest in attending. It might take place in London or perhaps near to one of Natural England's regional offices responsible for overseeing the licences.
But for now, my thanks to you all for your continued support.
Licences issued by Natural England between 2014 and 2018 granted permission for nearly 2,000 eggs to be taken from Mute Swan nests and destroyed by oiling or pricking.
Mute Swans face many man-made threats to their survival in the UK, including poisoning through absorption of residual lead from fishing, hooks and nylon line left by irresponsible anglers and general pollution of our waterways. This has led to the much loved and iconic species finding its way on to the amber list of conservation concern.
But in spite of the majestic Mute Swan's protected status, it seems that hundreds of their eggs are being destroyed under licences issued by decision makers at Natural England, who also allowed a small number of the birds to be shot as they posed a threat to air safety.
Licences issued between 2014 and 2018 granted permission for nearly 2,000 eggs to be taken from Mute Swan nests and destroyed by oiling or pricking.
Reasons given for this disturbing practice included 'preventing serious damage to growing timber' and 'to preserve flora and fauna'.
Wiltshire: worst place to be a Swan
Wiltshire seems to be the worst county in England in which to be a Mute Swan. Licence applications from that county alone won the approval of Natural England to 'take or destroy' 1,500 Mute Swan eggs over a three year period.
Greater London: Swan eggs destroyed to 'preserve public safety'
Though Wiltshire was the worst offender, a single licence holder in Greater London was officially permitted by Natural England to destroy 100 eggs in order to 'preserve public safety'.
Aside from the seriously questionable decision to destroy the eggs of an amber listed species, this mistreatment of such a beloved and treasured bird is incredibly sad, and perhaps yet another metaphor for the crass and clumsy attitude of the human race towards nature.
Time to close down the Natural England killing machine?
With actions like this being sanctioned by Natural England, the ethics and judgement of the government's 'nature agency' continue to be a great cause for concern, and with the horrific and hugely controversial badger cull now being rolled out across wide swathes of the country, we must ask again: is it time to close down the Natural England killing machine?
Natural England approved the shooting of more than 400 Moorhens and the destruction of 4,225 Moorhen eggs under licences they issued between 2014 and 2019.
The figure is likely to be even higher as I have been careful to avoid duplicate licences, nest destruction and various other anomalies from the data they sent me.
Threat to Public Health?
Justification for killing the birds and destroying their eggs include (in Natural England's opinion) the threat they pose to public health and safety, falconry and aviculture, and to prevent serious damage to crops, vegetables or fruit......
These latest revelations are just more examples that I've pulled from Natural England's disturbing licensing statistics and follow the posts I've written about Herring Gulls, Coots and many many more species that have been targeted for destruction by the agency.
Though Moorhens are not currently considered a vulnerable species, the bird faces a series of threats that include everything from over zealous hunting to the perils of pollution and environmental destruction. With Natural England adding to the pressure by issuing licences for the birds' destruction, it surely won't take long before we see the Moorhen joining the ever growing ranks of red and amber listed species of conservation concern.
More accountability urgently needed....
As I have been saying since I started the campaign to overhaul and examine the agency, it is imperative that Natural England becomes accountable to the public. There needs to be much more transparency throughout the licensing system and a much greater public influence over licensing decisions.
The feedback I receive from concerned members of the public shows overwhelmingly that they would not support culling of birds in public spaces such as parks, and would strongly oppose licences being granted should they be given the opportunity to object.
Natural England promise to publish details of all licences issued - starting this year
Natural England's Operations Director, James Diamond, has assured me that all licences issued in the previous year will be published openly for public scrutiny within the following twelve months, starting before the end of 2019, and then annually.
However, I want to see much more transparency. While it's great that we will be able to examine all licences the agency has already issued (together with every detail associated with those licences), our goal is that the public must have more influence over the actual decision making, in particular with regard to those licence applications relating to bird control in public spaces.
It should be our right to protect our birds from those who might not be acting in the best interest of our native wildlife.
Petition at 351,000 Signatures - next goal half a million!
The petition is at 351,000 signatures and we are now looking towards the next goal of half a million. Please keep sharing.
And thank you for your support.
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