Part of our democratic tradition is the right to protest and the freedom of expression. Charities have a rich and long history of influencing change in policy, law, attitudes and behaviour - the RSPB's own campaigning roots date back to our origins in 1889 and the ultimately successful campaign against the use of feathers in the hat trade while we also fought a decade long battle to ban the use of DDTs - a class of pesticides that was harmful to birds of prey.
I have been involved in a number of campaigns which resulted in changes in the law: to improve the management of our finest wildlife sites (Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000), protect the marine environment (Marine and Coastal Access Act, 2008) and set legally binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Climate Change Act 2008). Each of these landmark achievements were hard fought and were the culmination of many years of campaigning and each required manifesto commitments before legislative reform was secured.
Since 2011, there has been a formal way of securing parliamentary profile with the Number 10 petition system established to enable parliamentary debate for petitions attracting more than 100,000 signatures. 39 petitions have secured such a debate and the latest took place today as a result of Mark Avery's campaign to ban driven grouse shooting. As most readers of this blog will know, the RSPB believes that a licensing system for driven grouse shooting should be introduced as an effective way of improving our uplands. In the run up to the debate, we shared our knowledge of the environmental consequences of driven grouse shooting.
My colleague, Jeff Knott, witnessed the debate and sent me this rapid assessment...
"There was lots of interest and a ticketing system had to be introduced because so many people came to listen: about 50 individuals which was approximately twice the capacity of the room. Equally, there was lots of interest from MPs with about 50 MPs attending at least part, with a majority speaking.
Overall, it was an interesting debate with a variety of contributions from MPs, varied in subject, opinion and quality. There was lots of agreement that biodiversity conservation is a major imperative. That is clearly good news! Yet, there were also various references to hen harriers doing better on driven grouse moors than off them. This simply isn't true. Several MPs said hen harriers are increasing. While they have increased from a historical low 100 years ago, the UK population declined between the last two national surveys. And clearly, it will be interesting to see what this year's survey says.
It was questioned why there are no hen harriers on RSPB reserves. There are! In 2015, RSPB nature reserves across the UK provided a home to over 60 pairs of hen harriers in 2015, about 10% of the UK population. And this year, one of the three pairs that successfully nested in England was on our Geltsdale reserve.
There was lots of support for greater enforcement of laws to prevent illegal killing of birds of prey, but this was short on detail. It was striking that the only real argument against licensing was that it would be bureaucratic. Indeed several MPs stated it was an option. This is easily solvable and we'd be very happy to work with parliamentarians to develop a streamlined system.
Clearly, there is huge interest in this subject, both from the public and from MPs, so it is vital that the Government sets out how it will enable further debate leading to action and real change."
While there will be some that will be downhearted that the parliamentary debate did not lead to an immediate commitment for legislative reform, I think that it would be a mistake to ignore the voices of more than 100,000 people wanting reform. The public anger about ongoing persecution of birds of prey and the state of our uplands will only grow unless action is taken. And, the RSPB will continue to make the case for reform both in England and in Scotland, where licensing will be considered through a similar petitioning process.
Change may take time, but it will come.
Glad to hear that bi-laterals are either underway, or now being contemplated. Hope these include Defra, NE, H&OT, GWCT, MA and all other interested parties. This is a far more constructive, albeit belated, move than our premature, unilateral withdrawal from the government-sponsored, painstakingly-negotiated, multi-agency Joint Hen Harrier Action Plan earlier this year. And equally glad that there is now recognition that it is necessary to be in the fold, rather than hitching our Charity’s star, however tenuously, to an unrealistic, ill thought-out, divisive, politically-motivated campaign.
I should add that I thought it was pretty nifty footwork to manage to get Society representation and profile in the evidence session and debate at all, given that our Charity supported neither petition. Great shame about the amount of flak directed at our Society as a consequence – contrary to the widely held belief, there is such a thing as bad publicity.
As Mike Whitehouse points out, but for different reasons, our Charity was part of the problem at the debate. Sharing the earlier lead-in platform with a petitioner whose petition we did not support, while promoting a vague and undeveloped plan that has no support from either government or other stakeholders, was naïve in the extreme, and opened the Charity up to unnecessary but justified criticism. For those who are unaware of parliamentary tradition, debates in the HoC are often characterised by their adversarial nature. This was not a Select Committee session (which can themselves be pretty robust affairs too). For good or ill, this is the British way. Just watch Prime Minister’s Questions if you remain unconvinced.
Good luck with changing the ‘government-of-the-day’s’ clear and unambiguous intention to follow their chosen course of action by pursuing the issue through the mechanism of the Joint Hen Harrier Action Plan. I’m not a betting man, but I suspect that the current administration may be the ‘government-of-the-day’ for many, many days yet…..
For those asking, my reference to 'wearing a pair of harriers' is about those managing moorland for driven grouse shooting 'allowing' hen harriers to settle on their land to hopefully breed in 2017.
A settled and 'skydancing' harrier does not automatically mean a breeding pair. There are other factors outside persecution. 2016 was not an easy year for breeding harriers (I understand the official figures are yet to be announced) - there were displaying harriers in the spring but, notwithstanding existing legal methods (gas guns) deployed to prevent them settling alongside illegal persecution, there were few successful nests to start with this year. Even with eggs in nests, in some cases, the male stops provisioning the female and in other cases, wet cold spring weather put the birds off with foxes and stoats predated nests or taking adults off nests or during roosting (see archive robyorke.co.uk/.../Skye-harrier-nest-predation-report.pdf)
It beyond argument that well managed grouse moors attract harriers - it's not just numbers of grouse chicks in spring, it is also the provision of a mosaic of habitat for nesting and hunting provided by a judicious burning/cutting regime of the heather (no self-respecting gamekeeper or warden would burn the peat itself - that would destroy the very habit source for harrier and grouse).
More grouse moors can host harriers. It can be done. But 200 breeding pairs in England 'just like that' is unrealistic. Over-tightening regulation on how land management is undertaken may reduce the habitat suitable for both prey species (voles/pipits) and climate change must be factored in how heather beetle can destroy heather and yes, overzealous harrier protection cannot be ignored. Those wishing to rewild all prime heather moorlands are may not really be that interested in managed habitat for harrier, whinchat, ring ousel www.rspb.org.uk/.../saving-the-elusive-ring-ouzel.aspx etc - albeit other wildlife will colonise scrubby hills.
There must trust. Let harriers breed ('keepers wear a pair of harriers'), then, if more semi-colonial harriers settle on the same moor, enable the Action Plan to be piloted without throwing hurdles in the way. The natural science is done twitter.com/.../793487258384994304 - we humans just can't face the social science - something we can all be braver to do, for us and the wildlife.
In order to facilitate a proper debate I thought I would put down my concerns about the RSPB following this weeks debate in parliament. I hope my observations are taken constructively.
1. The RSPB were part of the problem at the recent parliamentary debate. Misquoted, used as examples of poor management on RSPB estates, hidden behind and used as a punch bag when needed.
2. The RSPB did not support either motion being debated, debate is a misnomer in this context, but it was in the thick of the action, giving evidence etc.
3. How many of the 123,000 signatories to the e petition do the RSPB think were RSPB members?
4. The RSPB does not and has not asked its membership its views on this key issue. It should. Does it have any mechanism to seek views from its membership – it should in this day and age.
5. The RSPB did not support, in any meaningful way, the e petition from Rob Sheldon, to ban lead ammunition even though the RSPB “is a science based entity”. I am not a scientist but I do not eat lead. Paint, petrol and lead piping – not much evidence here is there!
6. The notion that the RSPB represents non shooting interests in a way which we all support is not the case and should not be taken as an assumption going forward.
7. The RSPB and its staff and volunteers do fantastic work in very many areas which is both commendable and highly laudable and in a way that I fully support.Sadly they are let down, in my view, by their management’s response in representing the views of its membership on the travails of the shooting industry.
8. The RSPB are major landowners and as such receive massive government funding and subsidies, (from ordinary taxpayers). Are you compromised?
9. If I were a red grouse I would think that the last person to shoot me would be the Patron of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Are you compromised?
10. The law of the land, passed by parliament, yes the same one that ridiculed the RSPB, says that it is illegal to shoot, poison or trap raptors. If the shooting industry voluntarily decided to abide by the law there would be very many more raptors flying around the uplands of this country and I for one would be happy. The Langholm review shows that this would mean a serious reduction in red grouse numbers which would have a major detrimental impact on the red grouse shooting industry. How does the RSPB expect to lend its influence to ensure that the shooting industry operates fully within the current law? If it did I think most of the objectors and our objections would be satisfied.
Thanks for the range of comments. I think that Mike is right that it would make sense for bilateral exchanges to be undertaken privately. And yes, I shall offer further reflections soon. Suffice to say, that any civil society organisation interested in changing the world doesn't stop working influencing policy/legislation/attitudes or behaviour, just because the government of the day makes a statement on a particular subject. Indeed, it is certainly not in keeping with the RSPB's rich tradition/history of campaigning for change. Our foremothers who campaigned against use of plumage in the hat trade or Peter Conder who led the RSPB's campaign to ban DDT would not have been successful if they stopped campaigning the first time they were rebuffed by government.
Good point Mike Whitehouse.
So Martin, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs stated that:
• the Government have no plans to introduce licensing
• the Government have no intention of banning driven grouse shooting, but have every intention of bringing to justice those who break the law
• the Government absolutely believes that the (hen harrier action) plan remains the best way to safeguard the hen harrier in England
How does our Charity intend to proceed following this clear and unambiguous statement of governmental intent?
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