Today I had a long and helpful chat with James Diamond, the Director of Operations for Natural England.
I believe it's always good to talk - which is why I have been keen to arrange this discussion as part of our campaign to examine and potentially overhaul Natural England's licencing system.
Mr Diamond is an affable chap, and we had what really appeared to be an open conversation.
I'm happy to say we have made some progress.
Some Good News!
And a significant result which has come about because of our campaign.
Later this year, Natural England will begin to publish figures on their website which will detail the number of licences issued by the agency, including those issued to kill birds. The first set of figures, will be published sometime in 2019 (Mr Diamond couldn't provide an exact date but assures me it will be this year).
This will detail the licences issued for 2018. The figures will include the numbers of each species for which licences have been granted and the reasons why the licence was approved. The information will be available for all to see and peruse. This development will mark the start of an annual public reporting of licencing figures from the agency.
This is a major result which no doubt would not have happened without our petition.
"It Was A Mistake To Remove The Figures..."
Mr Diamond was keen to point out that Natural England did used to publish licence information routinely in the past but assured me that 'hardly anyone looked', so the practice was stopped. "It was a mistake to remove the figures" he says, "because we have nothing to hide".
He maintains that publishing the figures will, however, 'divert staff from working in other important areas', although my own opinion would be that this information is key to gaining public trust in the agency's activities and, as such, is an essential part of their work.
Unfortunately however, Natural England have absolutely no plans to disclose the names of applicants, nor to publish licences ahead of time for public scrutiny. I suggested this would be a good idea, in the same way that planning applications are published prior to being granted. There appears to be no flexibility over this decision, "We need to protect peoples' right to privacy and confidentiality", Mr Diamond insisted.
A System That Relies Too Heavily On Honesty...?
Mr Diamond explained a five point system which those applying for a licence have to satisfy before one is issued. The applicant has to assure Natural England staff that they have tried every other method of dealing with a bird problem before a licence will be granted.
My opinion, which I shared with Mr Diamond, is that relying so heavily on the honesty of an applicant does of course leave the system open to misuse...
And while he loyally defended his team against any criticism of their decisions in granting licences, Mr Diamond admits that the agency relies heavily on the 'good practice' of applicants in fulfilling their obligation to file returns in which they are supposed to detail the final outcome of the licence, including the number of birds killed. I asked him if there should be a fine imposed for those applicants who failed to provide this information but, alas, there are no plans to impose such a penalty. I think this might be a mistake as it appears to leave this part of the system open to misconduct. Defending that decision, Mr Diamond assured me that an applicant who failed to file a report would not be granted any future licence.
The Problem Of Netting....
On a side note, I asked about the recent epidemic of netting that has been appearing on trees, hedgerows and, notably, on the Norfolk coast in recent days and weeks. Although Norfolk council said that Natural England approved the use of netting, Mr Diamond strongly rejects this. "We have no power to approve the use of netting," he said, "we only offered advice, and we have no power to ask them to remove the netting either".
It seems that there is no official authority that oversees the use of netting in this way, something which needs to be addressed urgently, though this is currently not within the scope of our petition.
So, in summing up, I have asked Mr Diamond for some more detailed figures relating to licences issued for two species, House Sparrows and Coots, both of which appear in the Freedom of Information data in high numbers. I'll have that information in the next three weeks or so and will report back.
Meanwhile I think we can justifiably pat ourselves on the back for the progress we have made - and plough on with seeking more openness and transparency from Natural England, it is a public agency after all.
I'm keeping in contact with Mr Diamond and will update further in due course.
Bixteth Street Gardens - How A Tiny Oasis Of Nature Became A Symbol Of All That Is Wrong With Our World
A much loved urban park, bulldozed into oblivion.
Wildlife slaughtered. Trees felled.
A community left devastated.
And a city council that didn't care.
Welcome to Liverpool in 2019.
Imagine a wonderful oasis in the middle of a bustling city. A place where residents and office workers could grab a few moments away from the stresses of the day and enjoy the calm tranquility of a slice of the country in the centre of town. Where they could sit under the mature trees, delight in watching the antics of squirrels and rabbits, birds feeding their young in Spring, bees busily collecting pollen from all the flowers. Where at dusk, if they were lucky, they might catch a glimpse of the local bats, flitting from tree to tree.
Now imagine it gone.
This is the nightmare that happened at Bixteth Street Gardens, a haven for wildlife and nature in the centre of the city of Liverpool, before an utterly callous city council gave the go-ahead to send in the bulldozers and decimate the peoples' favourite inner city park, destroying it completely and forever.
Residents campaigned tirelessly and bravely to save their park from the developers after the council decided that it would replace this precious green space with office blocks and apartments, in spite of the many empty commercial and residential spaces that have become a dubious trademark of the city in recent years.
In the end, the fight to save Bixteth Street Gardens became ever more desperate as locals found themselves locked in a battle with property developers and the Mayor of Liverpool himself, whose apparent disregard for the wishes of the people has left locals deeply shocked, angry and filled with despair, as some of the hundreds of posts on social media reflect...
"I am so so sad about this. We tried, but it seems it was too little too late. Absolutely gutted."
"I cannot bear that this city which I call home is doing this..."
"Hang you're head in shame Liverpool city council"
No doubt karma will catch up with those responsible for allowing this appalling desecration to take place. But nothing will bring back the wildlife and ecosystem that survived and flourished here, against the odds, until the day that it was driven out by the developers. Locals could only watch helplessly as the wildlife fled in terror from the onslaught of the bulldozers.
There was nowhere for it to go.
It just went.
A sad final post on the Save Bixteth Street Gardens Facebook page sums up the defeated mood of the locals who fought so bravely to save their park, "we cannot fight the will of the Mayor or the incumbent council employees, sadly the system is not designed for the people that it purports to serve."
This is 2019. We are more environmentally aware than ever before. We are told to recycle, to stop using plastic, to urgently protect wildlife habitat. We applaud schemes to plant trees and we continue to berate countries that kill endangered species.
But we live in hypocritical times.
Our own government flaunts its phony green credentials while carrying out mass culling of our treasured wildlife. 'Illegal' fox hunting flourishes in the countryside, and a city council destroys a people's park.
Liverpool is a proud and wonderful city.
But what has happened at Bixteth Street Gardens will forever be a stain on its character.
Shame on the council that let this happen.
I just wanted to post an update here on the blog regarding yesterday's debacle!
First of all, huge thanks to everyone who has contacted me with messages of support following yesterday's events.
I have been totally overwhelmed by the goodwill and encouragement I've received.
Crewe meeting cancelled
As you may know, I was supposed to meet with Natural England's Director of Operations, James Diamond, yesterday afternoon, to discuss our petition.
But as I was about to board a train to their Crewe offices for the meeting, I received an email from Mr Diamond suggesting that he would not be able to make the planned appointment due to his train being delayed.
I asked if he thought his train might be moving any time soon; I was happy to wait for him at Crewe. This was, after all, going to be a very important meeting, not least because 284,000 people, who have signed the petition, were anxious to hear the outcome.
But Mr Diamond seemed resigned to a no-show and asked if we could reschedule. (As it turned out, I was later informed that the delay to Mr Diamond's train was only likely to have been around forty minutes, though it is entirely possible that this information was not available to him at the time).
Feeling deflated and disappointed (not to mention cold and fed up!), I returned home, having wasted my time - and thinking how lucky it was that I hadn't boarded the train prior to getting news of the cancellation. I'm sure Crewe can be lovely in April.... but without a meeting to attend, there would be little reason for me to be there on a cold, wet Wednesday.
So anyway, late this afternoon I received an email from Mr Diamond's office informing me that he would be available again next week for a rescheduled meeting if that would be convenient for me.
I have replied, respectfully asking whether Mr Diamond could kindly meet me closer to my home town on this occasion, pointing out that I don't want to risk wasting more of my time.
As an alternative, I have also suggested a video meeting, something I put forward yesterday and to which Mr Diamond seemed agreeable. I mentioned that such a call via Skype could also be recorded for the benefit of the people who have signed the petition.
So, let's see what transpires.
A bit of respect please, Natural England...
Throughout this whole campaign, I hope I have been considerate and proper when dealing with Natural England, in spite of the fact that often my enquiries have been met with stony silences or weak replies.
I intend to remain polite and well mannered - but in return I expect to be treated courteously.
And if I may speak on behalf of the 284,000 concerned people supporting the petition... well, Mr Diamond, I think we are all deserving of your respect.
Meanwhile I've received countless messages of support across social media, via email and through the many comments posted at Change.
I can't respond personally to everyone but please know that I have read, and continue to read, every message.
And your support is inspiring.
And appreciated more than words can express.
I'll keep you posted...
Just thought I'd let you know what's happening with the petition and keep you all up to date.
Wild Justice: A Mixed Blessing
You may have seen that Wild Justice, the Chris Packham/Mark Avery/Ruth Tingay initiative, is planning a legal challenge against Natural England, calling for more regulation and better monitoring of the licencing system.
It appears to be good news until you realise that they are only focusing on birds covered by the 'general licence', that means just 10 species.
But our petition is to save more than 65 species of native birds from being needlessly killed through licences issued by Natural England, and many of these species are in steep population decline.
I asked Wild Justice if they would consider including these species under the umbrella of their legal challenge - but I'm afraid they declined.
That seemed a shame to me. A missed opportunity. We have more than 250,000 supporters and harnessing the power of our heavyweight petition, combined with the efforts of Wild Justice, might have proven too much for the government to ignore.
Their action, though commendable in its own right, has distracted somewhat from our own work, the media coverage of the Wild Justice news has unfortunately led many people to think that their legal challenge tackles the issues we have been campaigning about, that is to say the protection of all our birds from legalised killing. This is not the case.
Another unfortunate side-effect of the high profile Wild Justice legal challenge is that the media coverage of their work has been, to some extent, at the expense of our own campaign.
The fact is that Wild Justice are fighting for just ten species. We are fighting for all birds and for a complete overhaul of the licencing system, in particular to make it more transparent.
However, we will keep pushing for change at Natural England, as will Wild Justice - albeit each pursuing slightly different angles.
Another Bland Statement From Natural England
In other news, I had an 'anonymous' email from Natural England, anonymous in the sense that nobody had put their name to it..... hardly surprising as it was a blatant 'copy and paste' job, merely a standard blurb about how carefully they assess licence applications and that they only approve lethal control when all other avenues have been exhausted. The usual guff.
I'm supposed to be hearing directly from Defra soon, though one wonders if that email from Natural England is all we can expect.
No doubt I will reply to them and ask for a more intelligent response to our petition.
All in all, it's been a challenging and frustrating couple of weeks! But I'm fighting on in spite of the apparent setbacks. I haven't been able to get any further media coverage (partly due to the media interest in Wild Justice), but we are fast approaching 300,000 signatures so that should make the press sit up and take an interest again.
Thanks to all of you for your continued support, please keep sharing the petition, Spring is in the air and the birds are counting on us to speak up for them!
"We now have proof that wind farms DO affect mammals living nearby.
Humans are mammals. It's not rocket science....."
I'm known for my opposition to wind farms, I believe that it is unethical to hoodwink a well meaning public into thinking that the energy produced by wind turbines is green and clean. It is neither.
My main arguments against wind energy, apart from it being inefficient and intermittent, have always been that vast wind farms create catastrophic environmental damage in both manufacture and installation - and cause havoc to ecosystems and wildlife habitat.
Wind Turbine Syndrome - ridiculed by the industry
But I was always less convinced about the much repeated claim that wind turbines cause health problems in humans. The phenomenon popularly known as 'wind turbine syndrome' relates primarily to the effects of infra-sound on humans who live in close proximity to turbines. It is often described as a 'psychosomatic' disorder, suggesting that it might be all in the sufferer's mind, and dismissed by the wind industry as being a largely fabricated illness - though that is to be expected, the mammoth public relations machine behind the big wind companies is very good at ridiculing its critics - I know this from personal experience.
So when it comes to such controversial matters as wind turbine syndrome, the wind industry PR machine goes into full throttle, dismissing the claims as nonsense. They imply that the people complaining are a bit odd and prone to hysteria, calling the condition a classic case of a 'communicated disease', in other words an imagined illness that is transmitted to others through rumour alone.
Court rules in favour of sufferers...
Last week a Scottish court decided in favour of a couple whose lives have been ruined by the menace of nearby turbines. Andrew and Rosemary Milne found themselves living in the shadow of three turbines, each in excess of 260 feet in height. The couple had moved to their Scottish home before the turbines were built and say that they never had any chance to object to the installation because they were not notified during the planning process, even though the turbines would clearly have an impact on their property. The court heard from the couple that noise from the giant machines affected their sleep and their enjoyment of their home, both indoors and outside, to the point that it drove them to keep pursuing some means of stopping the noise which they described as sounding "like never ending jets landing." Mrs Milne said that she became more upset and emotional as time went on due to the impact from the turbines on her peace of mind and quality of life.
The court agreed with Mr and Mrs Milne and imposed an order which means that the turbines must be muffled to cause less stress for the couple.
There have been other similar cases during the past few years in which people have won the right to have nearby wind farms silenced.
In Devon, at the opposite end of the UK to Mr and Mrs Milne, residents last week complained to the local council that noise levels from their neighbouring wind farm were not being monitored as they should be. And it is a story that is repeated across the UK - and globally.
NHS: "it is plausible that noise generated by wind turbines can affect people"
The wind companies wield a huge amount of power and influence in contrast to the tiny communities affected by their developments. Nevertheless around the world people continue to fight their own battles against the big industrial companies whose wind farms, they say, are ruining their lives.
The wind industry would have us all believe that these people are trivial, maintaining that the noise from wind farms is no worse than 'general background noise' and as such is harmless.
They are bolstered by a body of research into the subject, much of which comes to the vague conclusion that the noise emanating from wind farms is probably acceptable. One wonders if some of the studies were commissioned by energy companies and wind farm developers themselves such is the inherent denial of a problem, but there are those who disagree.
A famous study into wind turbine syndrome by Dr Nina Pierpoint back in 2009 was widely criticised for using a weak study design, though as pioneering research it received a great deal of publicity. However, despite being skeptical of Dr Pierpoint's findings, the British NHS (National Health Service) concluded that "it is physically and biologically plausible that low frequency noise generated by wind turbines can affect people".
Planning consent for 800 wind farms in England alone
Now many will argue that the problem is overblown due to the fact that wind farms are sited in remote places, out of the way of human habitation. That may be the general case for now but some countries, including Scotland, Wales and Ireland, seem hell bent on covering every available inch with turbines in pursuit of 'green' energy targets, so it won't be long before more and more of us are living in their flickering shadow. There is already pending planning consent for nearly 800 wind farms in England alone, a potential nightmare and one that any incoming Labour government has worryingly vowed to embrace wholeheartedly.
High levels of stress hormones in land dwelling mammals living near turbines
So, given that studies so far have been dismissive, I decided to change tack slightly and do a little research into the effects on animals - specifically mammals - that live in the vicinity of wind farms. And I was more than a little surprised by what I found.
In contrast to the research carried out in connection to wind turbine syndrome in humans, many studies have shown that wild animals are adversely affected by living in close proximity to wind farms. And I'm not talking about the huge numbers of birds and bats that we know are killed by the things. Studies show that ground dwelling mammals are severely impacted too.
For example badgers. A 2013 study found that those living within 1km of a wind farm had levels of the hormone cortisol 264% higher than badgers living in other areas away from turbines. High levels of cortisol signifies that the badgers were physiologically stressed and the increased levels of cortisol would likely affect their immune system, leaving them open to infection and disease. Even when monitored over a period of time, the levels remained high suggesting that the badgers do not get used to living with wind farms and remain permanently affected.
That's badgers. It might as well be any other mammal. A similar Polish study last year, focusing on rodents, came largely to the same conclusions. Voles living in the shadow of wind farms were highly stressed. Voles living near the wind turbines had high levels of stress inducing corticosterone, although oddly Field Mice in the same area showed no such increase, merely proving the desperate need for more research.
As I've often said, perhaps there should be more research before more turbines....
The Polish report concluded that more attention should be given to the effects of wind farms upon wildlife.
So we now have proof that wind farms DO affect mammals living nearby.
Humans are mammals. It's not rocket science.....
"Wind farms will spread like a virus over the land"
Perhaps, with last week's court ruling in favour of the Scottish victims of wind energy, the tide is turning.
It needs to. Because by the time we are all surrounded by industrial wind farms, we might all be living with the headache - and worse - of wind turbine syndrome.
Before anybody accuses me of buying into conspiracy theories or spreading panic, let me assure you that I am acting alone. I am not influenced by any organisation, industry or individual, nor am I beholden to any particular theory or ideology. I am just evaluating and interpreting facts. I believe that the wind industry is not necessarily acting in the best interests of people or nature. The expansion of wind energy is merely going to make a few people a great deal of money through employing a clever green marketing gimmick and exploiting the current trend for environmental awareness.
It is likely that, in spite of any incriminating evidence, wind farms will spread like a virus over the land.
But that doesn't mean that we are all complicit.
For those of us who speak out against the industry can at least have a clear conscience when the inevitable happens.....
250,000 People Demand Investigation Into Bird Kill Licences - Time For The Government To Sit Up And Listen....
Well, quite a landmark today!
Our petition, calling for an investigation into the licencing activities of Natural England, has reached a quarter of a million signatures!
I'm currently awaiting an official response to our campaign from Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), I'm due to hear from them within the next two weeks. This interaction is being facilitated by a highly respected MP who is sympathetic to the campaign.
Meanwhile I'm hoping that the enormous level of public support for the petition will be picked up once again by the media, raising the profile of the issue further and increasing the pressure on the government to respond and act positively (for a change...)
There has been little official government recognition of the petition up to this point but it seems unlikely that they can ignore such an extraordinarily high level of public concern.
I'll update further when I have a response from Defra and hopefully we will have some more media coverage in the meantime.
Please keep sharing the petition, we didn't dare dream of this level of support - but bolstered by this landmark figure, we are aiming ever higher.
Next goal is 300,000, we can do it.
SIGN/SHARE PETITION HERE
I found myself in the garden at 5 o'clock this morning after one of our dogs decided they had to answer the call of nature. This particular dog can't be trusted to go out alone, having the urge as she does to tunnel underneath the decking and then get stuck. So she has to be accompanied which isn't always welcome in the middle on the night... but such are the joys of owning a dog.
The dog ambled around the garden in the dim light of early dawn, not in any hurry despite the morning chill.
I stood in minimal clothing, wishing I'd put on my dressing gown, shivering and listening to a solitary blackbird singing from a nearby roof top. My early morning contemplation led me to conjecture that this plaintiff call of the blackbird was all that remained of the dawn chorus. In my youth, should I be awake before the sun, I would sometimes open the window and lie in bed listening to the excited cacophony of birds as the dawn broke.
Now, standing in the back garden staring up at the dark blue sky, I realised with some sadness that this earnest recital was all that was left of what was once a spectacular celebration of the new day.
Two more blackbirds did eventually join the solo performer and a few minutes later I heard a more distant pair of sparrows.
But that was it. A production full of hope but slightly underwhelming.
As I waited for the dog to wander in, I recalled the days when the dawn chorus was really something to experience. A hullabaloo of bird song, made up of a dozen species or more, each singing with gusto in happy anticipation of another day.
Regretfully, I currently reside in suburbia, where birds are few and the desire to find joy in nature is sadly lacking in many of the suburbanites, but I wonder if other parts of the country and indeed other parts of the world still ring with the absolute joy and wonder of the spectacular daily jamboree that is the dawn chorus?
So I have decided to ask you.
It's not a scientific survey, just a quick question to see if, as I hope, the dawn chorus is still alive and well elsewhere.
It's all anonymous but you can add a comment after the post if you like.
I'll publish the results in due course.
More than 200,000 principled people have so far signed our petition to stop Natural England from issuing licences to wipe out our precious birds!
We had an enormous boost to start off March, with a whopping 80,000 new supporters.
So, with the huge outpouring of compassion from so many amazing people, one might have thought that Natural England and their parent body Defra would want to address the concerns of the people they are supposed to serve.
There's been no engagement from Natural England since the early days of the petition. Even after some major newspaper coverage in recent weeks, they have been remarkably quiet, aside from issuing two feeble statements containing their usual waffle and banal 'explanations' in an attempt to justify the officially endorsed slaughter of birds.
In issuing these statements, they wildly underestimate the intelligence of the public. And I'm becoming increasingly irritated by their impertinence and lack of respect.
Extraordinary Level Of Secrecy
Natural England are the people behind the despicable slaughter of badgers, the planned 'invasive species' cull (squirrels, Muntjac deer, Canada Geese et al) and of course the abhorrent and methodical eradication of our wild birds. Make no mistake, left unchallenged they will, without doubt, wreak havoc on the much loved wildlife in this country.
Natural England displays not only a callous disregard for strong public feeling, but also an extraordinary level of secrecy in their working practice. Underfunded they may be, understaffed perhaps, but there's no excuse for total ignorance.
Their foolish refusal to engage with the public shows that they are not fit for purpose and that a complete overhaul is essential if we want to preserve and protect what is left of our fast disappearing wildlife.
Lack Of Empathy, Compassion And Understanding
Yet in spite of the ineptitude and the cruelty that Natural England show, it's their apparent lack of empathy, compassion and understanding that saddens me the most. Indeed my initial anger quickly turned to frustration and then to a deep sadness at the realisation that within a few short years the wonderful nature that once surrounded me in my younger days will likely be gone. The discovery of the beautiful and magical creatures that entranced me as a child, and throughout my life, will not be there to delight future generations. Why on earth should a single government agency have so much control over the natural heritage that belongs to us all?
Should we choose not to challenge the cold hearted civil servants that push pens in the offices of Natural England and Defra, then for the next generation and beyond there will be no wide-eyed discovery of nature, no magic. And without that awareness of nature, surely there can be no sensitivity towards other life.
And no kindness.
It is happening already as we begin to lose that vital connection with our natural world.
For me that is heartbreaking. And that is why I am fighting on behalf of the fast diminishing wildlife in this country and the people who treasure it.
Without it we are destitute.
I abhor Natural England's lack of decency. I challenge their decisions.
And I, together with 200,000+ others, want change.
Striving For Change
Rest assured I will not be giving up on this. Please know that I am busy behind the scenes, working on getting the campaign in front of influential people, striving for change and demanding an end to Natural England's horrible disregard for England's wildlife.
Join me please. Sign the petition. Share it far and wide.
Natural England may not want to acknowledge us, but this level of public protest should have them quaking in their boots.
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