Thursday, 23 May 2013

'Natural' England II

I think the conclusions and comments of the review of the decision to issue licences carried out by senior members of Natural England is well worth a read so I have copied it in its entirety here. The highlights are mine.

"Buzzards are clearly predating on pheasants at the shoots and the Applicant has employed a range of non-lethal methods to tackle this problem. In the Adviser’s view, the evidence, in respect to the and shoots (but not is sufficient to merit a licence permitting nest destruction and lethal control of a small
number of buzzards.
In my review, I have highlighted several concerns regarding the evidence presented in support of the application for a licence for these shoots, particularly in respect to serious damage and the implementation of legal non-lethal methods.
It is difficult to objectively and accurately measure the level of predation damage due to buzzards. We can, however, use shooting returns as an indicator of the potential extent of predation, if it is assumed for the purpose of this exercise that changes are due to predation and not other factors (which is at least plausible for some shoots). While there is evidence that returns have declined at certain the shoots, including return levels (even at the latter) are not exceptionally low for any of the shoots run by the Applicant (except at compared to available shooting industry figures, and it is likely that a large number of other shooting enterprises operate with comparable returns rates. I am not, therefore, satisfied that the return rates reported for and (35% and 38% in 2012-13 respectively) amount to sufficient evidence of serious damage caused by predation (for the reasons set out in the assessment).
A further potential consequence of accepting a return rate of 35-38% as evidence of serious damage, in the absence of other compelling evidence, is that it sets a low benchmark and creates an expectation that future applications will be dealt with in the same way.
Since 2010 and the implementation of additional non-lethal measures shoot returns have consistently improved at two shoots, and but have continued to decline sharply at the shoot where habitat measures have still yet to be implemented. This suggests there may be genuine benefits to be accrued from implementation of non-lethal measures, and it is possible that these may not yet be fully realised at and shoots for the reasons given above.
In light of these concerns, on balance it is my assessment that the evidence in this case insufficient to justify a licence to undertake lethal control of adult buzzards.
While I do not support the issue of a licence to permit lethal control, I do think there is merit in exploring the benefits of destroying nests in the vicinity of release pens to displace breeding buzzards away from where pheasants are being released (an option recommended by the Adviser for one of the shoots). Although the efficacy of this approach is untested, it is logical that physically displacing focus of the breeding pair’s activity, or preventing them from breeding, will reduce the risk or intensity of predation.
This technique also requires a licence. As it would have a lesser impact on the protected species, a licence would, in my view, be justified on the basis of the evidence provided in support of this application (NB the level of evidence required to justify a licence is normally commensurate with the impact of a proposed activity on the protected species).
Furthermore, if nest destruction proves unsuccessful then the consequences for the protected species will be modest.
This approach is consistent with Natural England’s stepwise approach to conflict resolution which favours the option with least impact on a protected species, moving to other measures with greater impacts only if the lesser impact option fails or is judged unlikely to succeed.
The nest destruction option was recommended by the Adviser for the shoot, where two pairs of buzzards normally nest in the wood where pheasants are released. It was not recommended for the shoot as no nest locations have been identified. I recommend, however, that a licence is issued to permit nest destruction at this location if a nest is identified (on accessible land) in the vicinity of the release site (a suitable maximum distance may be up to 500-1000 m from the release pens). Nest destruction licences should (as recommended by the Adviser) include an appropriate time limitation to avoid the risk of harming chicks (and be conditioned to ensure adults are not harmed).
Further Comments
There is a paucity of information on the impacts of buzzard (and other raptor) predation on the economics of pheasant shooting and also of the benefits of remedial measures (both lawful and licensed). In the absence of this information is difficult to judge the merits of individual applications as applicants will find it challenging to provide definitive evidence of damage. It is also difficult to make reliable predictions regarding the likely success of different remedial measures, which has implications for the evaluation of non-lethal measures and for the choice of appropriate licensed control strategy.
If a licence is issued permitting nest destruction then it is recommended that this is monitored to obtain as much useful information as possible as it is now not expected that this technique will be investigated in Defra’s buzzard research programme. "

To me this summary clearly highlights the evidence did not support the issuing of licences but the licences were issued in line with the final paragraph as part of a blinkered belief that nest destruction is an acceptable practice that could be used in future if evidence of success is forthcoming. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that DEFRA and Natural England expect to need licensed control strategies in the future and that the unfortunate Buzzards who chose to nest in these particular locations will be the first of many to have their breeding attempts destroyed in order to support an unsustainable business.

'Natural' England

I'm not sure I know where to start.  Last year I wrote a fair amount, starting with this, about DEFRA's proposals to trial various techniques to control Buzzards around Pheasant release pens. I was horrified by the suggestions that they might destroy nests and capture wild Buzzards perhaps to be passed off to falconers and permanently held in captivity. The plans, as I'm sure you know, never went ahead. Through social media and the eventual tacit support of several prominent organisations including the RSPB, DEFRA caved in to public pressure and cancelled the trials.

To be met this morning with news that licences had been issued for the destruction of Buzzard nests in order to prevent predation of Pheasant poults initially left me feeling impotent, it had all been for nothing. Quickly followed by anger, did DEFRA and Benyon et al really think they could get away with it? How could this be justified? After spending a while furiously tweeting my fury, I stopped and began to read the documents published under a Freedom of Information Act request by the RSPB and linked to on Martin Harper's blog today.

Reading the actual applications and the evidence provided by the applicants as well as the review undertaken by Natural England's Director of Regulation Janette Ward, a process currently being described as detailed and rigorous I can't help but stare in disbelief at the complete lack of real evidence to support either application nor the lack of any detailed survey work to establish whether the anecdotal claims of the applicants stand up to scrutiny.

Misguided, incompetent, under political pressure from above, I don't know which if any is applicable in this case but the decision to issue licences simply does not appear logical or defensible when the information is reviewed properly. I could write reams but let us just consider a few points.

1. Evidence - Look at the diary entries provided as evidence of a reduction in shooting returns. Notice anything? Look at the 'Birds in Pen' and 'Birds on Shoot' columns, all nice round numbers, in other words estimates. So the evidence for a reduction in shot numbers is based on estimates rather than hard evidence. I wonder, were the same shooters involved in the same conditions, given the appalling weather conditions in the summer of 2013 how much of the bag reduction could be attributed to less favourable conditions in which to shoot or for gundogs to retrieve birds etc?

One applicant provided 35 corpses that they attributed to buzzard or sparrowhawk predation. Of the 35 analysed only five showed signs of avian predation. So 84% of the evidence provided in this instance was wrong, yet licences were still issued by Natural England.

2. Return Rates
The information in italics is lifted from Natural England's report on the licence application " The latest advice from the GWCT suggests that returns around the 35% mark are reasonable and to be expected." - the return rates for this applicant 2011-12 34.5% and 2012-13 37.3% so despite this claimed serious predation by Buzzards the return rates during shoots are reasonable and to be expected based on GWCT advice, yet licences were still issued. The originator of the NE report posted lots of graphs (though all the actual content was redacted) which highlight that at the same time as Buzzards have increased return rates have decreased. No doubt many other changes havce occurred over the same period and drawing a corroletaion between two sets of data and simply basing a decision on that without further investigation displays a remarkable ignorance of good science.

According to the report summary NE considered the evidence as follows: "The quantity and quality of information and evidence provided for this case by the applicant provides comprehensive support for the application. The information recorded by the applicant appears to be thorough, systematic and accurate for this type of case". Personally I consider the evidence provided as scant, anecdotal based on estimates and opinion rather than sound surveying.

3. Release Sites
NE visits concluded "The recommended layout for the release pen is one third open area, one third ground cover and one third shrubs and trees. Few of the release sites visited conformed with this" yet they issued the licences.
"The recommended woodland thinning and provision of brash piles has yet to be carried out" yet they issued the liceneces.
"Reflective tape – This was tried in 2011 but the applicant used red and white barrier tape instead of single sided reflective tape, due to availability of the latter. The cost of single sided reflective tape is also considerable, especially when compared with barrier tape. His concerns were the time taken for the installation of tape, the unattractive appearance of the woodland for other users (resulting in complaints) and the interference with the pheasants when they fly in and out of the pens. The use of tape may have contributed to the increased returns seen on some shoots in 2011-12 but this measure was not used to same degree in 2012-13 due to cost, time and the complaints received. It is therefore difficult to evaluate its effectiveness in reducing predation."  

DEFRA's overarching policy and advice which NE should follow states they will issue licences "where all other reasonable non-lethal solutions have been tried and shown to be ineffective" given the above statements in NE's own report they have issued licences in direct conflict with this advice.

It is clear in my mind that Natural England are failing or unable due to interference to discharge their responsibilities in relation to the adequate review of licence applications. They have fallen far short of the standards we should expect. It is clear that The Environment Secretary needs to stop this mess before it goes any further and make a public statement that no further licences will be issued to destroy the nests, capture and remove or kill protected birds of prey.

Once again I'd urge everyone contact your MP, write to the Environment Secretary or Richard Benyon MP Minister of the Natural Environment, they need to understand that we will not tolerate this abuse of our natural heritage in order to protect the profits of business.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Lesser Grey Shrike

After working yesterday and nearly drowning under a tsunami of local rare, I'm looking forward to this week and trying to catch back some of what I've missed as well as getting out and about at Newbiggin to see if anything is lingering there.

To be honest I was so fired up last night post-work that I slipped out for a couple of hours but the mist was dropping back in and I failed to find much apart from a couple of Wheatears on land. Off Spital outfall a smart drake Long-tailed Duck was a late surprise and a single Whimbrel flew north.

This morning then ADMc and I headed up to Holy Island, slipping over the causeway ahead of the incoming tide. Opting to search for yesterday's adult Lesser Grey Shrike at Chare Ends, we walked north and after a few minutes found another birder who had just been watching a male Red-backed Shrike. This was re-located a little further down the wall and then a minute or two later ADMc picked up the LGS a field over roaming the fence line.

We continued towards the Straight Lonnen, and fortuitously so did the LGS. We spent the next 30 minutes watching it down to 30m as it ranged along the fence line feeding on caterpillars. It didn't disappoint! The only disappointment was that I'd left the phone in the car so we headed off into the village and then the car.

We gave a reported Wood Warbler a few minutes but couldn't manage more than an acredula looking Willow Warbler. By late morning we drifted off to the Vicar's Garden where the Icterine Warbler had been seen a few hours earlier. Camera-toting individuals at the gate hadn't seen it as we arrived but within five minutes it popped up at the bottom end of the garden and there was just time to shout "Icky" before it flew up and landed in one of the sycamores nearer the house and sat on show for several minutes, long enough to get in the scope and three of us to get a look.  It flew again into the boundary sycamores and was picked up again as we walked back this time with a Garden Warbler.

A second spell with the shrike resulted in some iphonescoping (see above), another male Red-backed Shrike and reports from various observers that when cobbled together suggested at least 10 of the latter could be present across the island! We also added Lesser Whitethroat and Redstart on or near the Straight Lonnen, before heading off around mid-afternoon. 

We didn't scrape the surface today, passed the Snook with no time to stop and the excavations remained a pipe dream.No doubt there is still more to be found on the island and with small wader numbers looking good, the opportunities almost outweigh the time available. I may yet be back before the week is out.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Bully Bunting

The 'white' Reed Bunting that I first saw 7th April at Woodhorn Flashes (though it appears to have been seen by others earlier) is still hanging around the north end of the church pool. It is a male as it was singing this morning and spent a fair amount of time chasing a normal male Reed Bunting around it's territory. This individual was described as a 'partial-albino -type' in the bird club bulletin but I think it is leucistic rather than albinistic if I understand the definitions of each correctly due to the eye colour.

Reed Bunting, partially leucistic

Monday, 13 May 2013

Grasshopper Warbler

They're not rare, though I managed to go the whole of 2012 without seeing or hearing one in Northumberland, but they can be hugely frustrating. I'm sure I'm not alone in having spent many unsuccessful hours listening to reeling birds without catching even the faintest glimpse of the bird itself.

This year is turning out to be a reasonable year for 'groppers' around Newbiggin, I've now had three individuals that have ranged from brief glimpses of a rodent-like non-singing individual in thick grass and low bramble in April, through a reeling individual on the Ash Lagoons that I simply failed to locate visually a few days ago to a showy individual this morning east of the pools that offered good views from a few metres away as it reeled mid-morning.

Grasshopper Warbler (Iphone/Meopix & Meopta S2 scope)

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Through the Looking Glass

Since I have little to say on the blog right now feel free to check out a piece I have just had published on-line by Birdwatch, entitled Through the Looking Glass it takes a birders eye view of the new Google Glass technology and how it might impact how we bird. It can be read here.