The Forest of Bowland regularly finds itself on the front line of intense efforts to reconcile the pressures of landuse, practically the intensive management of moorland to support the driven grouse shooting industry, with the need to conserve the areas rich and important wildlife populations. In this blog, Jim Wardill, the RSPB's Director for North England, highlights the role we expect Natural England to take - focusing on the pressures on Bowland's important colony of breeding lesser-black backed gulls.

What is the role of our statutory agencies? This question is often asked by those who care about our wildlife and the special places it lives. The view of a recent House of Lords Committee said that Natural England “should champion England’s natural environment, and must have the authority, resources and capacity to deliver its general purpose, while working alongside farmers, landowners and NGOs”. It called for the Government to increase Natural England’s funding as a matter of urgency and to restore its media and public relations abilities to give it the independence it requires to do its job properly.

These concerns echo our own. In recent years, the RSPB has become increasingly worried that Natural England has not been making good use of its regulatory powers to address a range of issues; from continuing damage to protected wildlife sites, to bird of prey persecution, often putting economic and social considerations ahead of its role in championing the natural environment. (See here and here)

The Bowland Fells in Lancashire is a place where we feel that Natural England could make more use of their statutory duties to nature. This area of outstanding natural beauty has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area partly for the hen harriers that should be there (but now aren’t) and partly for the important number of lesser black-backed gulls that breed there.

In the past, permission to cull large numbers of lesser black-backed gulls was granted to protect water quality, but now there are no concerns about water quality so culls are carried out only to support grouse shooting interests.  The result? A massive decline in this threatened species from a peak of 25,000 pairs in 1981 to a low of around 5,000 in 2010.

It is our view that our statutory agency should be able to look after these special sites and maintain the species and habitats that gave them their special status in the first place..

The situation is complicated. Natural England have been attempting to tackle the historical culling consent granted to the Abbeystead Estate. As part of a 2016 Memorandum of Understanding, the estate voluntarily agreed not to cull gulls using these previously agreed consents (although they remain in place). Natural England reciprocated by granting a one-year consent to Abbeystead, but also to Bleasdale, with limited culling on the Bowland Fells. There has never been a satisfactory explanation to justify this consent.

Then in 2017, Natural England took another retrograde step by producing a draft agreement that, once signed, would give consent for the unlimited killing of gulls outside of a number of sanctuary areas through to March 2021.  Once again, no justification was given for this consent.

To make matters worse, ahead of this agreement being signed between NE and the Estates, RSPB staff discovered Abbeystead gamekeepers culling gulls inside one of the proposed sanctuary areas, those areas that were supposed to be exempt from future culls. Natural England launched an investigation into this but have still to report their findings.  Therefore, the precise legal position of the 2017 culling remains unclear.

While the history here is complicated, what Natural England needs to do as both champion of the natural environment and regulator is clear.  It needs to put special places (and the reason they are so special) first. All other considerations must be secondary.

For the gulls, this can be achieved by revoking the existing unlimited historic consents and not issuing any new ones to cull gulls.  We want Natural England to ensure the gull colony is left undisturbed and allowed to recover to its historic size of 20-25,000 pairs.  The gulls have already shown this will work: while the wholesale culling was temporarily abated, the colony rebounded to 10,500 pairs in 2017.

Natural England needs the resource and the independence from Government to ensure it is a champion for the natural environment in Bowland Fells and beyond. It needs to be once again seen as a force for good for the country’s wild places and the people that care for them.

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