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Time for the truth about predators by Robin Page

Rural Matters

Article written by 07 March 2015

It’s no use pandering to people’s sensitivities if we want to know the truth about life in rural Britain

One of the biggest problems our wildlife and countryside faces at the moment is the lack of honesty and transparency shown by many politically correct conservationists, politicians and media people. All I can hope is that during 2015 the truth begins to emerge and various pundits start telling the urban majority how things are in rural Britain, not how they imagine or would like them to be. That is why I am so proud of the CRT – it tries to talk about wildlife and rural reality, not Tinsel and Countryside fantasy.

Take the situation regarding two of Britain’s most iconic and beautiful birds, the lapwing and the curlew.

A few weeks ago I went down to the CRT’s fantastic Turnastone Court Farm in the Golden Valley of Herefordshire to talk to our tenants and our advisers – yes, we talk about our problems and seek advice. Just a few years ago curlews and lapwings were breeding on the farm; over recent years both have disappeared.

Caroline Hanks, a local farm conservation adviser who helps us, was very clear: “Robin,” she said, “you should be able to get them back, but not while you have so many predators. You could and should do something about the foxes, crows and magpies, and the mink are being seen too along the River Dore, but there is nothing you can do about the buzzards and the badgers – they are protected.” This situation was confirmed by our Herefordshire wildlife monitor Vivien Geen: too many predators.

Please note that our two advisers are independent conservationists, not linked to the fundraising marketing mantras of anybody. So, we have a problem: curlews and lapwings are in big trouble, but they are ground-nesting birds. Their nests, eggs and young are consequently vulnerable and over the last 40 years their numbers have plummeted as predator populations have rocketed. We have a problem and we are still working on it.

Fast forward now from this serious meeting in Herefordshire to an RSPB Press release on November 20, 2014. A press release boasting breeding success on certain RSPB reserves with breeding lapwings, claiming that the recent fall in numbers “is due to changes in agricultural land use”. Martin Harper, the RSPB director of conservation, adds: “It gives us hope that this engaging species [the lapwing] may in time be able to turn a corner as a nesting bird in lowland England, especially if land managers can be encouraged to get the most from wildlife-friendly farming payments.” Not a mention anywhere of predation by foxes, crows and buzzards. In other words, in my view, it’s nonsense. Incidentally, my farm is already in the top farming environmental scheme and there is no help as far as I am aware for predator control. Without it I will never get lapwings back.

In 2007, similar claims were made by the RSPB about the decline of lapwing and redshank in the Norfolk Broads area, but at the Trust’s Berney Marshes reserve, they crowed, lapwing, redshank, and snipe had bucked the trend and increased by 392 per cent, 486 per cent, and 300 per cent respectively. On investigation it transpired that the main reason the trend had been bucked was predator control, with the help of top-of-the-range rifles with “night sights” (giving night vision), which accounted for 40 foxes in the first year.

Consequently, when I read the November press release, I again smelt a rat – in addition to the rats that have currently taken up residence in our roof. Yet the press release was regurgitated as fact by numerous papers and magazines. On BBC East’s local programme, an RSPB warden was singing praises to the lapwing’s success from the location of Strumpshaw Fen – sorry BBC East, I don’t think lapwings breed at Strumpshaw Fen. Now the RSPB has told me that yes, at most of the reserves mentioned, predator control does take place (crows and foxes), while at one reserve a “predator exclusion fence” is used, which is totally beyond the finances of most farmers. Grahame Madge, the RSPB spokesman, went on to say that “the Look East interview was held at Strumpshaw Fen for convenience,” and “the success of lapwing this year is a combination of good habitat management, which includes predator control.” What? Sorry, predator control is species management, not “habitat management”. How many legs has a horse got if you call the tail a leg? Answer four – you may call the tail a leg but it is still in reality a tail.

The RSPB may call predator control “habitat management” for marketing reasons, but it is not. It is species management.

Please RSPB, tell the public and your members how things really are. People are not stupid and they want facts not fiction. If you want a proper public debate on Britain’s predation crisis, along with the overpopulation crisis, the two biggest issues facing wildlife and the countryside, when and where do you want it?

A friend recently attended an RSPB meeting to give an illustrated talk. At the start of the meeting, the members were told: “There has been another attack on the RSPB by Robin Page.” That in itself is sad – evidently criticism is seen as an “attack”, not as an attempt to get honesty and transparency. Another claim often made about me is that “he shoots”. Sorry to disappoint, I do not shoot, but welcome the habitat some shooters create for the benefit of a wide range of wildlife.

Honesty and transparency ought to be part of the ethos of the RSPB and other conservation organisations. They should be telling us quite openly what adverse impact some predators may be having on some vulnerable species of wildlife. For instance, I am told that badgers have a real impact on the numbers of hedgehogs, dormice and bumblebees. Natural England and the RSPB, is this true?

I am told that in some areas red kites and buzzards are hitting skylarks, leverets (young brown hares) and the chicks and ducklings of free-range fowl. Is this true?

After my recent reference to two car stickers, one wanting to save the badger and the next one concerned for bumble bees, I received an interesting letter from Jim Dowling, a farmer from Frome. Recently he attended a talk by the conservation officer of the Somerset and Wiltshire branch of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

Jim writes: “She admitted to a questioner that badgers were significant predators of bumblebee nests, yet when I asked her if they were doing any research or surveys in the culling areas on bumblebee populations, she replied that it was too controversial to do so. This poses a number of questions: What is controversial about obtaining accurate information? Do conservation bodies fear upsetting contributors to their organisations? Do they fear upsetting other conservation organisations? I believe the badger culling in the West Country provides an ideal opportunity to find out what effect a reduced badger population has on bumblebees as well as hedgehogs and ground-nesting birds.”

I agree completely, so why aren’t Defra, Natural England, the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts carrying out that important research?

With thanks to Robin Page

Robin Page’s qualifications for writing in The Daily Telegraph about the British countryside are simple, and not based on a piece of paper with “environmental studies” written on it.

He lives next door to the house where he was born, on the small family farm in Cambridgeshire where his father farmed for more than 50 years, and where he now farms, in the village where he went to school and in the parish where he intends to be buried – at the base of a hedge in his favourite meadow. He will be buried next to his lurcher, “Bramble”, who died in 1999, but he hopes his last gasp is some way off as he believes that those who rule us need a rural irritant.

Thanks are also extended to, The Telegraph. You can see the full page here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/journalists/robin-page/#

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