Today I heard from the Operations Director at Natural England, regarding my enquiries about Herring Gull licences.
I had strongly recommended that lethal control licensing for this species be suspended in the light of revelations that numbers of the birds have plummeted dramatically.
My hope was that the agency would acknowledge the obvious plight of the species and refuse to grant any further kill licences.
But while hope springs eternal, what I received was what I expected, a less than clear response to a relatively simple question.
'Likely Review Of Gull Licensing' - But When?
As is usual with the carefully crafted replies one receives from Natural England, there are quite a lot of words that don't say very much. But, as I've also come to note, where there might be a potential change of policy this is hinted at (though never confirmed in black and white....)
So, I honed in on a statement that gives me some hope.
With regard to the future issuing of licences to kill Herring Gulls, they say:
"it seems likely we will need to review again our approach to gull licensing, both individual and class licences...."
The problem is that this 'review' is not imminent.
Currently they tell me they are involved in supporting a seabird census - which will no doubt show a continued decline in the population of the beleaguered Herring Gull. Only after that census has been carried out and evaluated might there be any change in policy.
That could be too late for the Herring Gull.
The Herring Gull was removed from the general licencing scheme in April when those licences where legally challenged by Wild Justice. However, this move only affected the licences permitting destruction of Herring Gull eggs and nests (not the lethal control of the gulls themselves, which was granted only under individual licences - licences which, as I revealed, have been issued in very high numbers).
While this extra protection for the birds' nests and eggs was welcome, it was much too little and too late. Herring Gull numbers had steadily fallen over a number of years while the general licence was in effect. And that is my fear over the potential 'review' hinted at by the agency. We need action to ensure the survival of the species now - not after some census that will only prove what we already know.
Meaningless Words Or Commitment To Change?
In their latest response, the agency tell me that:
"Natural England will now be developing a class licence for control of herring and lesser black backed gull nests and eggs ahead of 2020. This will allow action to be taken where justified, but will operate under tighter restrictions and reporting requirements that General Licences. Control of birds will only be permitted through individual licences."
This unfortunately suggests no significant change to the current system at all.
They assure me that they "will very carefully consider the conservation status of the species in our licensing decisions."
Meanwhile, as I write, it is still possible to apply for a licence to kill Herring Gulls and I have not been told of any more stringent conditions that must be met in obtaining such a licence. So currently Herring Gulls are still being killed in potentially high numbers - and the only way to find out just how many is to use a freedom of information request. This is entirely unsatisfactory as I have said many times before.
The Promise: To Publish Details Of All Licences In Full This Year
The agency's Director of Operations, James Diamond, gave me his word, back in April, that the agency would be publishing in full all details of every licence they issued during the previous twelve months 'sometime this year' (and from then on, annually), so we will be able to see the full extent of the culls before too long.
It's all very frustrating. But it looks like I can only work with Natural England on their terms, restrictive and narrow as they are.
I will continue to keep an open dialogue with them, after all this in itself is something fairly unique, as I hear all the time from others who haven't been able to engage with them on any level at all.
In addition, the agency has said that, within the next two days, they will be providing me with information about an example licence that I asked about, one that they issued granting permission for the applicant to kill 100 Herring Gulls in Devon. While it will make 'interesting' reading, to my mind it will be well nigh impossible for them to justify a cull of these birds.
I will continue to report back and keep you updated.
Today I have asked Natural England if they will consider suspending the issuing of licences to kill Herring Gulls.
"It would be prudent to suspend the issuing of further licences"
The population of this iconic species has been in free-fall for several years, its numbers having dropped by up to 82% across the UK and Ireland according to some estimates.
With this in mind, I have asked the Operations Director at Natural England if the agency would consider an urgent rethink over the lethal control of the species - and a suspension in granting licences to kill the birds.
I have suggested that "In the light of these statistics, I feel that it would be prudent to suspend the issuing of further licences to kill Herring Gulls..."
Hysteria in the press
There have been some irresponsible, over the top, media reports in recent weeks which have encouraged the already widespread and unwarranted disdain for the birds and my fear is that Natural England, and their counterparts in other countries of the UK, might respond to this hysteria by caving in to demand from local councils and others by issuing kill licences - when in fact educating the public, along with a more intelligent approach by local authorities, would be more appropriate.
Any problems perceived to be caused by Herring Gulls are more likely to be due to littering by members of the public, mismanagement by local councils and a general lack of understanding about the behaviour of this once treasured species.
Massive Numbers Of Herring Gulls Targeted
I recently reported that Natural England granted permission to kill 7000 Herring Gulls over a period of just two years. I have asked them for an explanation of these licences and I'm due to hear from them regarding this matter within the next few days.
Meanwhile I feel it is critically important to ensure that no further lethal control licences are granted to kill this species, at least until such time as a thorough re-assessment of the population has been undertaken and verified by an independent body.
I'll update further when I have a response from Natural England.
Herring Gulls are down 82%, European Shag down 51%, Razorbills down 55%. The list goes on....
* The world's biggest offshore wind farm is just a few miles away.
* Isn't there a conspicuous connection?
The Isle Of Man wildlife charity Manx Birdlife has reported a shocking 40% decline in the populations of many species of sea birds around the island's coast.
The worrying figures emerged following a comprehensive census that took place over two years. Whatever the reason for the sharp decline of the birds, it illustrates that something has gone very wrong.
I've noted with interest that this unprecedented drop in populations, of several of the island's maritime species, coincides with the proliferation of wind farms in the Irish Sea - something which has worried me during the past few years, as I have witnessed the frenzied development of the wind industry in the waters off the western coasts of England and Wales.
World's Biggest Offshore Wind Farm just a few miles away....
We know that offshore turbines kill birds and bats, though it is almost impossible to estimate the number of casualties because there are no retrievable carcasses to count at sea....
It is also highly likely that wind farms adversely affect many marine mammals.
The world's largest offshore wind farm is now in operation off the Cumbrian coast at Walney, just 40 miles or so from the Isle of Man, and, with the news that nearby bird populations are in free-fall, we must seriously ask whether the huge turbines might be killing more birds than we ever anticipated.
The Isle of Man study was, ironically, partly supported by the Walney Extension Offshore Wind Farm Project. How paradoxical would it be to find that the project itself, with its giant 640 feet turbines, was responsible for the plummeting numbers of sea birds.
The report is full of depressing statistics. Herring Gulls are down 82%, European Shag down 51%, Razorbills down 55%. The list goes on.
Marine Protected Areas "may not necessarily be major barrier to new projects..."
I've been increasingly concerned at the feverish pace of industrial offshore wind farm development in this country and especially in the Irish Sea. Such a high density of turbines in a confined area - an area renowned for its wildlife - has been watched with dismay by many environmentalists, especially since large parts of the sea have been designated Marine Protected Areas (MPA's), supposedly limiting the scale of industrial development in precious areas that provide important habitat for so many species.
Alas, development has been allowed in vast parts of the sea that fall just outside the protected zones - and there have even been hints that the MPA's themselves may not be off limit for future wind farm expansion. Last year, a report carried out for the Welsh government suggested that "this protection may not necessarily be a major barrier to new projects" - which sounds shockingly irresponsible to me.
Isle of Man plans might seriously threaten birds' survival
Though the Isle Of Man currently has none of its own offshore wind farms, their government is reportedly close to approving industrial wind development off the island's coast as early as next year. Such plans might seriously threaten the survival of species already struggling to cope with the industrialisation of their habitat.
Wind energy companies might flaunt their green ideologies for all to see - but their industry nevertheless hides a grim reality. Their 'green' energy kills wildlife.
Money Vs Wildlife...
Speaking about the alarming drop in bird populations, managing director of Manx Birdlife, Neil Morris, suggested that "there are a number of causes for these declines and the solutions, such as protecting nesting sites, restoring food chains and mitigating climate change, will be challenging.”
It will be interesting to see whether more research will be carried out into just how many birds are being killed by the Irish Sea wind farms. My hunch is that many people would rather keep that information under their hats. So much money invested in offshore wind means that bad publicity would be very unwelcome and it is common for critics of the industry to be ridiculed.
It seems likely that vast swathes of our coastal seas are likely to be further industrialised by the wind giants - even if it is at the expense of wildlife.
7000 Herring Gulls condemned to death in two years
"...if this level of lethal control continues.......then the public will want an explanation as to why Natural England allowed - and facilitated - the demise of another iconic species...."
7000 Herring Gulls condemned to death in two years
In the course of my ongoing research into Natural England's bird kill licences, I've uncovered some truly shocking statistics....
Including the fact that in just two years, between 2017 and the first few months of 2019, the agency issued licences to kill more than 7000 Herring Gulls.
The population of this beautiful bird has collapsed in the UK in recent years. The very survival of the Herring Gull is threatened to such a degree that the iconic bird is classified as being of primary conservation concern, and has been included on the ever growing Red List of species at risk since 2009.
We have known about the rapid population decline of the Herring Gull for more than ten years, yet it has been earmarked for widespread extermination by Natural England, the government sponsored body tasked with 'protecting biodiversity'.
Is Natural England itself the biggest threat to the survival of this red listed bird?
The figure of 7000 Herring Gulls, for which Natural England has issued kill licences, represents 5% of the entire UK's breeding population of this beautiful species.
And this total does not even include licences that Natural England issued for removal of Herring Gull eggs or nests, nor does it include licences issued to control the birds in order to protect another species. The agency's onslaught against this much misunderstood bird has been relentless.
Based on their own data, Natural England's actions appear to present a direct threat to the species' very survival in the UK.
Baffling decisions of bizarre licensing system
So what is the reason that the agency considered it appropriate and acceptable to sanction the potentially devastating cull of 7000 Herring Gulls?
As part of my dialogue with Natural England, I have asked them for an explanation of just one of their Herring Gull licences, issued to an applicant in Devon, which permitted the shooting of 100 birds on the grounds of 'preserving public health'. I requested both the precise reason for lethal control in this instance and the final number of birds killed. Using this as an example, I hope to discover the 'logic' behind the agency's baffling decision to officially support the shooting of 7000 red listed birds. I'm currently waiting for the results of this request
Bizarrely, Natural England's own Operations Director has himself had to submit a Freedom of Information request, on my behalf, to obtain this fairly basic information from within his own department which, some might say, speaks volumes about the secretive way in which Natural England conducts its affairs. The fact that he put in a FOI request to access the data might be a delay tactic or it might just prove that Natural England's system is woefully inadequate.
Public must have more involvement in licensing decisions
One piece of information that the agency will be unlikely to divulge is the identity of the applicant, even if that applicant happens to be a local council or other public body. This I find unacceptable. If a public body applies for a licence to kill so many protected birds then the public have a right to know. And (should they wish to) a right to object. Making these details available for public perusal continues to be one of the main aims of our petition.
And there is at least a glimmer of hope that change is in the air.
Recently, in the course of some correspondence I had with Natural England, their Operations Director hinted at the possibility that in future they might not be opposed to public involvement in decisions where bird culling was being proposed in public areas, such as parks. Notices might be posted to alert the visiting public about a planned cull. In such cases, the applicant's details would be made public, together with their motivation for requesting a lethal control licence. Any interested members of the public would then be able to offer an opinion or an objection. And this, to my mind, is essential in order to maintain a democratic and balanced approach to protecting wildlife. Wildlife, which it must be said, does not belong to Natural England or any other organisation.
The public must be allowed to have an opinion.
Our campaign is pushing for this more democratic approach to licensing. The consensus of opinion is that the public would overwhelmingly resist lethal control and would rather work with authorities to find alternative solutions in situations where birds are causing a perceived or actual problem.
Slow progress - but it is progress....
I've said it before, and it's worth repeating, that I am indeed thankful for having ongoing dialogue with the agency, and in particular I value the assistance I am receiving from their Operations Director, James Diamond. I wish progress were swifter but I do believe that, at least within the restraints under which he is working, Mr Diamond is willing to listen and to consider changes in policy, changes that will instill much needed public confidence in the role of Natural England.
But change is needed - as the Herring Gull saga all too clearly illustrates.
Natural England: facilitating the demise of an iconic species?
Meanwhile I await the results of my enquiry into the Herring Gull licence, and we can only speculate just how much of a role Natural England has played in the decline of this beautiful creature. What is certain is that if this level of lethal control continues, then the wonderful sight of the Herring Gull soaring above the coastline of England could become a distant memory.
And the public will want an explanation as to why Natural England allowed - and facilitated - the demise of another iconic species.
Ongoing Dialogue With Natural England Brings Glimmer Of Hope Amid Calls For More Public Consultation Over Bird Kill Licences.
The recent piece I wrote about the Coots being killed in a public park caused a great deal of anger and generated a huge amount of feedback, not one single person supported the action, which had been defended by Natural England who issued the licence for lethal control, due to the birds fouling in public areas.
Many people told me that they want more consultation in these situations, such as notices informing the public of any plans to kill birds in public spaces so that they could have an opportunity to oppose the action and find alternatives to lethal control.
'Seek Views And Engagement Of Local Public....'
So I put this to the Operations Director at Natural England, James Diamond, suggesting that an interested public should have some involvement in the decision making process, especially when lethal control licences are considered for public spaces, like parks for example.
I have been encouraged by his response.
The official line hasn't changed, he reiterated that "public consultation on every individual licence application is very unlikely to happen" .....but I am really heartened by what he went on to say....
"If a public body was planning action in a public park it may be good practice for them to seek the views and engagement of the local public to help manage and understand the issue."
I see this as very significant.
I feel, intuitively, that we are making progress. Publicly, Natural England has not changed its stance that applications must remain confidential. However this acknowledgement that public opinion should be heard does speak of changes afoot, albeit behind the scenes.
There are already some occasions where the agency requires applicants to consult the public and other interested parties as part of a licence application.
I believe that this stipulation to include public consultation as a condition of an application may now be implemented in more cases due to pressure from our campaign. This may not be openly acknowledged by the agency yet - but I hope that the annual publication of all the licences that they issue (another success brought about by our petition) will in future reflect a drop in the number of lethal control licences that they have issued, due to more public consultation during the licencing process.
A Question About Herring Gulls...
On another note, I have asked for a breakdown of a further example licence which approved the killing of 100 Herring Gulls, a red listed species in severe population decline. In the past couple of years alone, the agency has issued licences for the lethal control of thousands of Herring Gulls so I want to know why. They have promised to get back to me on that one and I'll update you all further when I hear from them.
I was prompted to ask about this particular example after watching a nest of Herring Gulls high on a rooftop in Liverpool last weekend. We had a 'bird's eye' view from the roof terrace of a hotel in the city centre where we were guests at a very blustery wedding. On the opposite rooftop to where we stood, two Herring Gulls were looking after their chicks in a nest that perched precariously at the base of a steep slope. The devotion of the parents was a beautiful thing to witness. But as I watched them, I was painfully aware of the fragility of their existence. Always at risk of being swept away, not only by the weather but also by the intolerance of some people who might want to remove the birds and their nests. It is not acceptable that licences have been officially approved and issued to kill thousands of them.
The sight of these beautiful birds struggling to survive, in a world that has become ever more hostile towards them, made me even more determined to fight for their increased protection.
So, on behalf of the Coots, the Herring Gulls and the dozens of other species at risk of officially approved lethal control - thank you again for your loyal support in striving for a more compassionate and tolerant approach to nature.
Please keep sharing the petition!
We really are making a difference.
* We have an assurance that details of every licence will now be published in full, annually.
* We have an acknowledgement that public bodies should seek the views and engagement of the local public when planning action "to help manage and understand the issue".
* We have constructive ongoing dialogue with Natural England.
* We have a voice.
And we are making change happen, of this I feel sure.
Natural England approved the licences - and defended their decision.
Public outraged and demand more involvement in decision making.
As part of my ongoing research into the activities of Natural England, earlier this week I revealed on my blog that the government sponsored agency had issued licences to cull Coots in a park due to fear that their droppings could pose a risk to public health and safety.
I had asked Natural England for an explanation of one of their typical 'lethal control' licences and I selected Coots as an example because they are a harmless bird, but also one that appears on Natural England's 'kill list' in huge numbers.
At first the agency denied that Coots were killed at all ("unless a bird is injured"), so I sent them an example of a kill licence taken from their own data. I received an apology, saying that they had 'overlooked' that licence (though it was only one of many Coot kill licences that they had issued) but it was their 'explanation' that caused so much consternation among readers of my blog, who were furious.
Widespread Condemnation Of The Cull
There was an outpouring of condemnation from readers, and rightly so. Coots are inoffensive birds and people are outraged that they are being killed for such an apparently spurious reason.
Natural England justified their decision to grant the licence by saying "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 areas)."
But that didn't sit well with my readers who expected more decency from a government agency apparently tasked with protecting nature.
Indeed, one reader suggested that those in charge of such decisions might be "educated beyond the bounds of common sense".
Whether or not that is the case, one has to wonder at the logic behind culling birds for defecating in a public park. Many people pointed out that human visitors to the park, which is believed to be in Norfolk, pose a greater 'risk' to public health than bird poop might. "I wonder how much litter / trash / dog waste was left by those members of the public?" asked one, "Coots do not leave rubbish lying around..." added another.
Public Want More Involvement In Decision Making
A number of people have suggested that, in cases like this, notices should be displayed prior to a cull taking place, to alert the public and importantly to allow any objections to be raised, very similar to the process involved in planning applications, where public notices are obligatory prior to a final decision being made. One reader said it would be a "great idea to put up notices regarding impending culls. There's far too much secrecy in things like this, and a public that's kept in the dark has no chance to voice an opinion."
This is something I raised with Natural England's Director of Operations, James Diamond, during our discussions in April. I maintained that it would be in everybody's interest, not least that of the wildlife, that where possible, details of an application should be published ahead of a licence being granted (including the applicant's name, especially when this is a local council or other public body). He was adamant that no such plan would be considered. "we must protect peoples' right to privacy and confidentiality" he told me. In spite of this, he was very keen to point out that there is "no culture of secrecy" behind the doors of the agency. This seems to be a contradiction. The very fact that currently the only way to obtain licence data is to apply through a Freedom of Information request alludes to a culture that isn't exactly transparent.
More Transparency Would Not Deter Genuine Applications
This refusal to make public the details of applications prior to them being granted remains a major focus of our petition, now at 330,000 signatures. I believe that publishing the details of applicants will have two main benefits. It will allow a concerned public to offer an opinion on whether the licence should be issued (and to put forward any objections). It will also deter any applications from those who might not be acting in the best interests of the wildlife or the public... having their names published should not deter honest applicants with a genuine reason to request a licence.
And surely the public have a right to object. They would not, for example, have agreed to the killing of Coots in a public park.
Questions Over So Many Licences
So far, as a direct result of our campaigning, Natural England have promised to publish details of every single licence that they issue annually - but only after the licences have already been issued.
So there is much work still to do.
I think we had all hoped that Natural England would be issuing lethal control licences only when absolutely necessary and in cases where there really was no possible alternative. Their approval of shooting Coots for defecating in a park proves that this is not the case. And it raises so many questions about the other 5,000 or so licences that the agency issues every year.
We are losing our native birds at an alarming rate - and the agency set up to "to protect England’s nature" seems to be complicit in their decline.
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.
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