So, as we approach Christmas and look forward to the beginning of a new year, I have some good news from Natural England.
Let me first start by thanking Natural England's outgoing operations director James Diamond, with whom I had an open and informative dialogue.
I found James to be helpful, and I have conveyed my thanks and appreciation to him for the assistance and advice he has provided during 2019, as we discussed the aims of our petition and various issues surrounding the agency's controversial wildlife licensing system.
Our initial dialogue resulted in a pledge, on behalf of Natural England, to publish details of licences the agency had issued (during the previous year) and to make the publication of all wildlife licensing data an annual declaration.
Statistics will be published in January, and then annually from March
The incoming director of operations, David Slater, has now been in touch with me, with details of when that licence data will be released.
Due to the election, the publication of the statistics was delayed slightly - but I now have an assurance that [fanfare!] it will be published and available for public inspection in early January, 2020.
Moreover, Mr Slater has confirmed to me that "we will make sure we publish our annual stats at the end of March each year from now on".
The stats will be freely available for public perusal and scrutiny and should include details of every individual and class licence Natural England has issued, including the number of each species affected and the reasons for approving the licences.
Natural England ready to address public concerns....
Receiving official confirmation of this is a major development and a sure sign that Natural England have acknowledged our campaign and are addressing our concerns over the agency's accountability and responsibility to the public.
There's a way to go yet, but I think this is a very good start.
Less secrecy leading to more public awareness....
It is clear that through our campaign and petition, the British public have demonstrated a real desire to be part of licensing processes and to be kept aware of decisions made by Natural England which affect the treasured wildlife of our country.
Decisions which cannot be kept secret any more.
I have been greatly encouraged by Mr Slater's assurance that he is happy to discuss facts and figures with me and that he is "keen to be as transparent as possible on our wildlife licensing work going forward".
I am hopeful.
And it's not a bad note on which to start 2020, is it?
Whatever your political stance, it's something of a relief that the election is (finally) over.
Whilst working towards a complete review of Natural England's licensing system, I have been determined to keep the campaign apolitical, for me politics should play no part in the appreciation and conservation of wildlife. I use the term conservation carefully, I don't refer to the organised management of our wildlife and countryside but the personal responsibility each and every one of us has to protect whatever life we are fortunate enough to encounter in our own small piece of the planet.
I am lucky enough to live in a place where wildlife is abundant. It wasn't always the case. Until recently I was firmly stuck in suburbia, like many of us this was out of practical necessity, it was where the work was. But even there in the concrete jungle I did my best to conserve what little wildlife managed to survive. In the hostile urban environment, there were few birds and little hope for the long term survival of the last remaining hedgehogs and foxes that once co-existed with the human population. A huge increase in motor vehicles, and fads such as plastic grass and concrete gardens, has resulted in the demise of a vast number of species. A recent frenzied obsession with clean lines and sterile environments has led to contempt for trees that once provided food and shelter for urban wildlife and there has developed a disturbing intolerance of wildlife.
In the hostile places that our towns and cities have become, still there exist many wonderful people who help struggling wildlife. Good people who feel obligated to offer help to a wounded pigeon, a hedgehog wandering too close to a road, even a snail on the pavement. It's a life, every bit as fragile as the life each of us leads in this perilous world, and to offer kindness when the opportunity is there is simply 'the right thing' to do.
Now, I am blessed to live in the countryside. Wildlife abounds and it is wonderful. But I'm still very aware that the future survival of birds and animals in this once green and pleasant land is threatened. Mostly by human activity but also a shocking disregard for nature that really is irrational given that we are a part of the natural web of life - and rely on it for our own survival.
So, anyway, my point I suppose is that this concern for the environment - and most of all our obligation to be kind to other creatures (and each other) - transcends political bias. It has to be entirely detached from politics.
Keeping politics out of conservation
Which is why I have not allowed the campaign to be influenced by political opinion, though many (very many) have tried to use the aims of the campaign for political ends. While I appreciate the support of people across all political beliefs, this campaign is not about the politics of one party or another. It is about the individual responsibility each and every one of us has to each and every creature with which we share the world.
Of course changing the law does often require political intervention, and I am very aware of the need to engage with politicians - as I have been doing - regardless of their politics. I have sometimes had to negotiate with those whose ideologies I find difficult to comprehend - but it is necessary to do this in order to bring about change in the law. I have been somewhat disheartened and frustrated that there are many people who have sought to hijack my concerns about wildlife persecution to justify their political agendas. Caring about nature and wildlife is not political, it is an individual responsibility that we should all have, to be kind and compassionate, regardless - and in spite of - politics.
A better deal for wildlife - whoever is running the country
Whichever political party had won this very strange election, I would have been required to work with them for the benefit of the country's wildlife. And now that we finally have a result, the campaign goes on.
I know that there will be those vociferous in their disappointment at the result of this election, just as there will be many others who are rejoicing.
I have my own political opinions but I don't share them, they are not a part of the campaign and never have been - and I won't rant on about the conservatives or labour because really it doesn't matter one jot to the birds does it?
In the wider, natural world it is irrelevant. My job is to negotiate a better deal for wildlife, whoever is running the country.
I hope we can leave politics behind us now and get on with the job of overhauling the licensing system so that it is transparent, accountable and ultimately more compassionate.
Individual responsibility in challenging unkindness
It is about individual responsibility.
It is the job of each of us to be kind and compassionate. If we see injustice or unkindness then we should challenge it. Take a stance.
Of course we might disagree with political opinion, but instead of complaining we should campaign for change, be willing to sit down and talk with those who have a different opinion, find common ground and try to work towards a goal.
Be civil. Be human. And most of all be kind.
Because your actions reflect what is in your heart.
Please continue to share the petition! You can find it HERE
"The horrors of Natural England's activities are now well known at home and abroad. Indeed my blog has registered interest from more than 170 countries, with readers from every conceivable part of the world. We are one planet, what we do here in Britain naturally has consequences for the global ecosystem, so it is not surprising that alarm bells are ringing far and wide as Natural England casually carry on issuing kill licences in the face of public consternation."
As we approach the end of another year, I thought it was a good time to take a quick look back at some of the things we have discovered about Natural England's (now notorious) approach to managing the country's wildlife and to review just how far we have come with our campaign aimed at overhauling the agency's licensing system.
Delay in publishing licence data...
In particular, it has become clear that we need to keep pressure on Natural England to honour the assurance they made to me, during our discussions earlier this year, in which they promised to publish (by the end of 2019) full details of each and every licence issued in the previous twelve months (2018), moreover vowing to make this an annual declaration that would be freely available to the general public.
Fulfilling this commitment has been delayed due to the general election....though I have asked for confirmation that it will be available immediately following the election.
More on this in a moment.
Natural England - the biggest threat to England's wildlife?
In February I broke the news that Natural England had sanctioned the killing of more than 70,000 birds spanning more than 65 species over a four year period. I was terribly shocked by this discovery (which came through freedom of information requests, as the data is otherwise hidden from the public), and there was a huge and furious reaction from the public who had never imagined such widespread culling and destruction was being carried out by the very people we all assumed would be protecting England's natural heritage. It became clear that the government's own nature watchdog was sanctioning the slaughter of thousands and thousands of native wild birds - apparently without any adequate monitoring or public consultation - and in secret.
March 2019: petition reaches 250,000 signatures
By March the petition I had started with the aim of overhauling the whole of Natural England's licensing system, had realised a quarter of a million signatures, illustrating just how strongly the public felt over the slaughter of the country's wildlife - which was being carried out without their permission - or knowledge.
After I openly complained that Natural England appeared to be smug and unwilling to engage with the public, in spite of the widespread concerns over their activities, I was surprised but pleased to find myself invited to meet with the agency's operations director, James Diamond, to discuss the matter.
In April I finally had the opportunity to discuss the issue with Mr Diamond and we made some progress. Indeed discussion is imperative to progress; it's all too easy to complain and criticise without any attempt to see another's viewpoint and so I felt it was important to talk - and listen.
So it was that as a direct result of dialogue arising from our campaign, Natural England agreed to publish full and complete details of every licence they issue. This information would be available for public scrutiny and would not only include figures for birds but also any other creatures for which the agency had granted lethal control licences. Though the retrospective data would essentially be a year old by the time it was published, this was still a major breakthrough.
Certainly it was an unprecedented result - but (as I said to Mr Diamond at the time), the public still wanted much more transparency from Natural England. For example a voice in licensing decisions and an opportunity to oppose culling of wildlife in public places such as parks for example. With this in mind, I continued to promote the campaign calling for an overhauling of the whole licensing system, and I have maintained dialogue with Natural England in order to express the serious misgivings of the public and the widespread skepticism arising from the agency's less than transparent activities.
More shock revelations - and international condemnation of Natural England
Throughout the summer, I revealed more statistics from Natural England's covert licensing data; the agency's role in killing endangered Herring Gulls, their approval to cull Coots in public parks and the slaughter of migratory Brent Geese. Then came the unbelievable news (again discovered through a freedom of information request) that Natural England had sanctioned the removal of baby songbirds from nests for use in scientific research. It felt as though the 'government's adviser for the natural environment' was nothing more than a vast official killing machine, responsible for decimating our wildlife.
In September I broke the news that the agency had approved the destruction of 200 Mute Swan eggs, 400 Moorhens and 4000 Moorhen eggs. And then I revealed that they had also approved the destruction of several thousand Mallard eggs too, a story that captured media attention, not only in the UK but around the world. The Mallard is such a recognisable and well loved bird that this news proved almost the last straw for those whose tolerance of Natural England was already wearing very thin.
Publication of licence data - postponed....
A couple of weeks ago I had a communication from Natural England advising me that, due to the upcoming general election, they would not now be able to publish the promised licensing data as soon as they had intended. This was because of guidance issued to civil servants and public bodies with respect to communication activities during the pre-election period. They have assured me that all the information is collated and ready so I have asked them to confirm that it will still be published prior to the end of the year. They have yet to respond. My hope is that they will do the right thing and so I am calling on Natural England to publish the promised licensing data, without delay, immediately following the general election.
This would show their commitment to restoring confidence in their work. Lord knows they need to do this if they have any hope of salvaging their integrity among vast swathes of the public....
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