RSPB accused of ‘suppressing’ Peak District bird data showing dramatic increases across all species
[Curlew nest on managed moorland]
In March 2019 the Ecologist magazine carried an article based on interviews with two people in the RSPB, their chairman, Kevin Cox, and their Senior Site Conservation Policy Officer, Isobel Mercer.
[Isobel Mercer, Senior Policy Officer at the RSPB]
In this interview they went out of their way to criticise what was happening in the Peak District Moors. Grouse shooting in the Peak District was, “One of the main reasons for wildlife decline in the uplands”, specifically citing the National Park, stating that, “Lapwing, dunlin and snipe are declining in the Peak District faster than elsewhere.”
The RSPB's solution to the problem they claimed existed, was unsurprising. They should be given more public money to improve the monitoring of wildlife within the Park. As it happened there was no need for tax-payers money to be spent. By a happy coincidence, even as Mr Cox spoke, a Peak District wide breeding bird survey was taking place.
This independent survey was organised under the auspices of Moors For the Future (M4F), an organisation with which the RSPB has cordial relations.
[Sarah Fowler, CEO of PDNPA, presenting the findings of the bird survey]
It involved moors belonging to every sort of owner, and every type of use and management style. It was funded by a range of partners, including the owners and tenants of grouse moors.
The involvement of such people was unusual, but almost the only time the conservation industry engages directly with grouse moor interests is when they are asking for money.
[Presentation of the project partners for the survey]
It is fair to say that some within the grouse shooting community were apprehensive that they might regret taking part. When the identity of the contractors employed to do the surveying was announced, and they were praised by the leading lights from the anti-shooting lobby, it looked as though they might be right to worry.
The results were launched in October 2019. They were remarkable. They showed that the wader populations of the Peak District's grouse moors were far better than RSPB had said. Far from declining faster than elsewhere, as the RSPB's chairman had claimed, they were increasing.
[RSPB Chair, Kevin Cox, pictured on his guest blog for Mark Avery's website]
Birds of Prey, which were supposed to be absent, were not only widely distributed, they were increasing in line with national trends. Some of the grouse moor counts were particularly impressive. Merlin, for example, only bred on keepered moors. At last, something that everyone could celebrate.
[Data showing significant increases in most bird species within the Peak District]
The warm glow did not last long. Within a few days, M4F withdrew the results from their website and instructed all the participants not to use any of the data until it had been checked. Attempts were made to find out precisely what the problem was, and who had alleged there was a problem in the first place. The responses were cryptic. It was something to do with the data analysis. What? We can't say because we are in dispute with the people who carried out the survey.
By spring, 6 months after the findings went into limbo, no one outside M4F, the RSPB and NE, knew exactly what the problem was or who had raised the problem. Eventually a freedom information (FOI) request elicited a response from NE which was clearly designed to say nothing, but did contain the fact that the original concerns which put the report into limbo were raised by a NE employee.
Another FOI seeking all the papers referred to in the first response, finally threw some light on what was going on. A short version of the problem is that it was alleged that some pairs of curlew had been double counted, because when the second of the two counts required took place, the marks on the map were closer together than the protocol allowed and might indicate one, instead of the two recorded.
Two other things were of interest. First, the identity of one of the people brought in to review the data was redacted. Why redact the identity of your independent consultant? According to NE it is because he is a private individual.
[Who could possibly have been the unknown individual wanting to suppress this data?]
We are all private individuals. This one happens to have volunteered to insinuate himself, free of charge, into a situation where being able to demonstrate an absence of any interest in the outcome is of the highest importance. Why this person volunteered remains unclear. It may be evidence of an elevated dedication to the service of good causes.
It might equally be that he doesn't like grouse shooters and is keen to fix the results. Who is to know? But what is obvious is that the entirely unnecessary redaction of his identity would only inflame suspicions that the whole shambles is to stop the good news getting anywhere near the public.
The email from which the name is redacted is hardly reassuring. It is from M4F to NE and reads;
“I have spoken to xxx this morning and he is reviewing the data for us, hopefully by the end of the week. I checked with legal yesterday and they've said it's fine as long as xxx is clear that he is acting as an independent consultant and will regard outcomes as strictly confidential”.
It may be entirely innocent and in the best interest of those excluded from any involvement in this process. But you don't have to be paranoid to think that if you need to check the person's involvement with 'Legal', then bind them to strict confidentiality, and finally conceal their identity, there may be something going on that they would rather no one knew about.
The other minor discovery relates to who raised the issue in the first place. Natural England were happy to say it was them. But it wasn't. The emails include one from the Peak Park to NE which includes the following;
“I had a meeting with XXX, the new Senior Conservation Manager for RSPB in the East Midlands. He informed me that there is a question being raised by the conservation NGO's over the methodology of the survey. They believe the numbers are higher than their records and think they have identified double counting”.
So, the RSPB raised it, but blamed everybody else, and NE claimed it was them, when it was the RSPB. Rarely has there been such a united effort by the conservation industry to stamp on good news. There must have been a frantic search for long grass to kick the beastly thing into.
To say that this is unusual is an understatement. There may have been other surveys where the entire thing was thrown into perpetual limbo but if you can find one let us know, we can't.
Nor can anyone come up with a rational explanation for why the rest of the data, the majority of it, that relating to raptors and other important species, which is not in dispute, remains frozen and unusable, nearly a year later.
[Over 80 bird species were recorded in the data as present in the Peak District]
For anyone outside the closed circle involved in this debacle, it's anyone's guess, if the allegation is true. But even if it is, and the surveyors have double counted the curlews, it is still a lot of curlews. If you divide the number of curlew pairs by two, there is still a big increase, when away from the grouse moors numbers are dropping like a stone.
The greatest mystery is why it is a mystery. What was wrong with telling everyone what the problem was immediately it arose? Why not involve everyone in the discussions and the resolution of the problem? Why freeze the whole thing when most of it was undisputed?
Whilst all this was going on, a consortium from the conservation NGO's, led by RSPB, involving M4F, Derbyshire Wildlife Trust (DWT), Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust (SRWT) and others, had been successful in a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). The consortium, presumably, includes the conservation NGO's, who, according to RSPB, complained about the survey in the first place.
The project is called Upland Skies and was worth £637,000, and is based primarily on the idea that that there were virtually no raptors in the Dark Peak section of the Peak District and that this was the result of game keepers killing them, whenever they appeared.
For the avoidance of any doubt the application contains statements drawn from a 2006 RSPB publication, Peak Malpractice, such as “Populations of some protected birds are in drastic decline” and the application further states that since then the situation has worsened.
The application for nearly two thirds of a million pounds does have stated outputs. Here they are;
Reach 100,000 people;
Deliver inspirational BoP education to 3000 children (750 school children per annum);
Citizen science volunteers 2000 new data sets;
Over 60 people will volunteer as BoP champions;
Generate an increase in wildlife crime reports to the police hotline;
Reach 94,000 people on social media. (4,000 web page hits and 90,000 across Facebook);
Employ new project delivery team. 2 Outreach officers (FT) 1 Project Manager (.8FT) and
1 Project Administrator (.2FT).
Not a single extra bird of any sort for over £600,000. Even the outputs are a joke. Ninety percent of people reached will be via Facebook, another 4000 are no more than a hit on a web page.
Far from reducing wildlife crime, the plan seems to be to increase it. Is this really the best use that could be made of this huge sum of money? Anyone reading this, could come up with a better plan, including most radical of all, more birds, in a couple of hours.
Furthermore, there are genuine concerns about what was proposed. It seemed ridiculous and counter-productive that the entire consortium contained not a single private land owner or representative of the community whose behaviour it said it was seeking to address.
This was yet another example of the same NGO's being given money to do things to, and not with, local people. It is also concerning that the children of, for example, an entirely innocent game keeper, who had never lifted a finger to harm a raptor, would have to sit there while someone told them and their class mates that Dad was responsible for wiping out birds of prey in the Peak District. What consideration had been given to the consequences of that for the children concerned?
To make matters worse, the 60 Bird of Prey Champions would form a vigilante force spying on any members of the local community they might suspect of wildlife crime.
The lives of many of the front line workers in the Peak District moors are already made almost unlivable by covert surveillance, criminal damage, threatening behaviour, litter, fly tipping, disposable BBQs, campfires, wildfires, uncontrolled dogs and aggressive visitors who deliberately flout the countryside code. The prospect of 60 vigilantes adding to the chaos, with the stated objective, not of decreasing crime, but reporting more of it, can only fill any reasonable person with a mixture of dread and amazement.
[Masked vigilante forces continue to harass front line moorland workers]
The board of HLF had also had concerns about the divisive and confrontational nature of the bid and put conditions on the grant. Their letter contained the instruction that if they were to obtain the full grant at the conclusion of the development phase (for which they would receive £113K) they would have to, “Develop detailed proposals based on best practice that delivers a sensitive programme of proactive engagement with landowners, estate managers, land agents and people who may be impacting on the Birds of Prey in the Dark Peak”. Altogether, a very sensible and reassuring position.
To date nothing has happened. The job of dealing with the landowners, estate managers and land agents has gone to M4F. That is the same M4F who are sitting on the results of the Breeding Bird Survey.
[From the Moors for the Future website]
The survey that shows that birds of prey are well distributed across the Peak District and are increasing in line with national trends. The survey whose results cannot see the light of day because they have been kicked into the long grass by the M4F, RSPB and the other conservation organisations. That is the same RSPB and other conservation organisations who are getting a huge slice of lottery money because there are ‘no birds of prey in the Peak District.’
To claim in a document intended to extract over £600k from HLF, that the situation was actually worse than in 2006, seems questionable and it would be very surprising if they didn't know that was the case.
After all at a Derbyshire Wildlife Trust meeting on 6 August 2020, attended by the RSPB, 86% of the attendees confirmed they had clearly seen more birds of prey recently in the Peak District. Funny the difference between what they say to each other in private compared to what the say publicly.
In the application they specifically cite the absence of successful peregrine nests as their principal evidence. The spring of 2020 was the covid-19 lockdown breeding season. Very early on the RSPB made public statements that gamekeepers would use the period of restricted access to massacre birds of prey.
No walkers and no climbers and less of everybody in the wilder places, and with little covert surveillance, bad would get worse. The moorland community suspected that this was a self-fulfilling prophecy and braced themselves for some lurid allegations. But they also suspected that the absence of relentless disturbance, might allow birds of prey to do better than usual.
It transpired that the community were right. There were plenty of allegations of raptor persecutions, in the RSPB press release in June, including four suspected cases in the Peak District, all of which got national publicity. What no one was told was that peregrines, the bird singled out as the reason why Upland Skies was justified and a prime target for the imagined massacre, found Lockdown suited them perfectly. Far from there being none in the Dark Peak, because they were massacred, there were six successful peregrine nests.
At least two of these were close to normally busy footpaths and all were far less disturbed than in a normal year.
Then in July a lammergeier or bearded vulture turned up. The young vulture, only the second of the species to become so tragically lost as to turn up in Britain, decided to settle on the National Trust's Howden Moor, which happens to be leased as a grouse moor. Naturally, despite it being the most sensitive time for moorland birds trying to rear their chicks, all hell broke loose. Birdwatchers from all over the country raced to get a glimpse of the poor vulture. When dawn broke the bird looked down from its crag at a sea of glittering telephoto lenses, telescopes and anoraks. When it took flight several of the excited on lookers claimed later that they had been close to fainting.
The Twitter storm that erupted as the bird drifted from view, did not limit itself to the strange joy derived from seeing a tragically lost young bird in a beautiful place, it majored on the danger the bird was in on a National Trust grouse moor, and the probability that it would be killed by evil gamekeepers who had already wiped out every other raptor.
Senior staff of both DWT and SRWT, both members of the partnership receiving the HLF funding, led the charge, but the good old RSPB could not let the opportunity for a good kick go begging, and informed the world that the lammergeier deciding to settle on Howden moor, was like a turkey opting to spend Christmas in a butchers shop.
In 2014, at the time when, according to RSPB, DWT and SRWT, the raptor numbers in the Peak District were in free fall as a result of being massacred by game keepers, the then CEO of the Peak Park wrote an article in the Derbyshire Magazine about a visit he made to Howden Moor, the place singled out for attack by RSPB and its excitable allies. “I had the privilege of joining Peak District Birds Initiative field worker Jamie Horner on a moor. We walked out on a hot August evening, deep into the heather, and sat on a ridge overlooking a broad expanse of moor owned by the National Trust and run by pioneering moorland conservationist Geoff Eyre. For an hour we watched buzzard, merlin, kestrels and peregrines. We speculated that the peregrines may have come from the successful eyrie on a nearby moor owned by the National Trust, where just a few weeks before a nest of chicks fledged. High over the ridge in front of us, the unmistakeable shape and colour of a male hen harrier appeared.”
He then goes on to describe how a pair of harriers were raising their chicks on the grouse moor and concludes with, “Great credit goes to Geoff Eyre and the National Trust, on whose moor such wildlife flourishes.”
So where are we? Tragically, even further apart than usual. The RSPB and its chairman are very clear that the situation in the Peak District is awful. According to their chairman, “Lapwing, dunlin and snipe are declining faster in the Peak District than elsewhere”.
According to their application for Lottery money, “In the Dark Peak woodlands and moors, populations of some protected birds are in dramatic decline and this part of the Peak District National Park is becoming a no-go zone for some of Britain's most cherished wildlife”. All this is a result of, “Illegal persecution and inappropriate moorland management”.
According to the Breeding Bird Survey, “Significant long term increases in breeding wader populations (lapwing, golden plover,curlew and snipe) contrast with national-scale declines” and “Increasing sightings of ravens and raptors (buzzard, peregrine and kestrel) largely reflect national recovery from historically low levels”. They further point out that the Peak supports nationally important populations of short-eared owl and merlin and up to 2% of the nations ring ouzels.
The consortium in pursuit of HLF funds says that Howden Moor is a butchers shop for raptors. The then CEO of the Peak Park says, on the evidence of his own eyes, that it deserves great credit for its flourishing wildlife. They can't all be right.
The RSPB says that grouse moor management has caused a biodiversity catastrophe and obtains a huge grant as a result. The grouse moor community says they are wrong, and their moors are rich in waders and have birds of prey hunting over them.
An independent survey takes place and finds that the moorland community are right and RSPB is wrong.
The RSPB promptly complains about an element of the survey, and the results are immediately withdrawn. The community being attacked is told not to mention the survey and obeys.
When the arrival of a rare bird creates a media opportunity, members of the consortium use it to gratuitously attack a moor, singled out for its success as a wildlife haven, rather than a chance to proactively engage in a sensitive way.
The recipients of the grant, having been told clearly and in writing to deliver,“ a sensitive programme of proactive engagement with landowners, estate managers, land agents and people who may be impacting on the Birds of Prey in the Dark Peak”, choose to do nothing of the sort. They have had two heaven sent opportunities to begin such a programme. When the survey was launched and when the vulture turned up on a grouse moor. What could have been better. Instead of doing what they what they were reasonably instructed to do, they are doing their best to strangle any good news and are taking every opportunity to dish out random abuse directed straight between the eyes of the people they were told to engage with sensitively and proactively.
Surely anyone can accept that all of this is simply an extraordinary coincidence. It is just happenstance that the people about to get over half a million pounds on the basis that there are no birds of prey in the Peak District, are the same people who are involved in keeping a report in silent limbo, that shows that there are plenty of birds of prey in the Peak District.
It must surely be just bad luck that having been told, as a specific and unequivocal condition of the grant, that they had to engage positively and sensitively with a specific Peak District community, the partners decided to exclude them, ignore them and gratuitously abuse them.
The partners will obviously have a perfectly straight forward explanation. It will be interesting to hear. But until then anyone, even a little bit cynical, might think that these extraordinary circumstances are linked.