Wednesday 28 December 2011

New blog gone

UPDATE 25/10/12: Yes, I started a new blog, new job... that was over a year ago now, things change, and now I'm back to doing what I love - freelance writing on all things shooting and countryside, with a bit of photography and videomaking thrown in.

So ignore the crossed-through links and stuff below as that's all out of date. Maybe, just maybe, I will start posting the odd thing here again. Drop in from time to time and see what's going on.

And if you want to get in touch, all the usual contact details on this page will reach me. That's for email, and telephone 07836 350652. I've been trying to add a voicemail widgetty thing here too, but since tinkering with the template it's vanished. So good old email or phone it is then, for now at least.


If you enjoyed reading this blog, then check out my new blog on Wordpress - you'll find it at The new blog is a little different - less about me and my opinions, and more about stories I'm working on for various Blaze Publishing magazines. Hope to see you there!

Sunday 10 July 2011

Ferret faking it!

Ok, I give up. That jill is no more pregnant than I am. She's a big faker. She showed all the signs, she even put on a load of weight. But the time has passed and now she's getting slimmer again. Maybe she was after the extra rations, maybe she fancied a bit of peace and quiet on her own, or maybe she just enjoys the limelight. But pregnant she isn't! I'll leave the webcam on for a while, just in case. Then I'll think about what to point it at next. The vegetable patch perhaps - at least the potatoes are actually producing something!

Sunday 19 June 2011

Gundogs in slow motion

I've been playing about with the Casio EX FH20 today, filming the dogs at 210fps - this is the result. More practice needed, but the results are promising, and it's fascinating to see how they move.

Saturday 18 June 2011

Ferret birthcam - a web first!

Eat your heart out, Springwatch. In a groundbreaking web first we bring you... FERRET BIRTH CAM! A totally Kate Humble free zone, guaranteed.

Here, live on the web, watch this jill give birth. Maybe. In a couple of weeks' time. We hope.

She was mated (we think) on Saturday 21 May by Emma's albino rescue hob. So by normal calculations that should make the kits due on 2 July.

Click on the image above to watch the live stream (hopefully, if I've set it up right. If it's not working, drop me a line and I'll try to sort it out).

Friday 10 June 2011

Clay Shooting Classic 2011

Tuesday 31 May 2011

A turning point for conservation?

I take my hat off to Chris Packham. His taste in music may be suspect; his taste in dog breeds even worse. But... he has achieved the impossible. He has dared to challenge the high priests of conservation and produce a programme - broadcast on the BBC no less - that gets right to the heart of the problem.

Watch it here. Do it now, before it drops off iPlayer. Really - whatever you were planning to do tonight, drop it, and watch this instead. This is history being made. A turning point for conservation. We will look back at this programme and say "That's when the tide turned".

Of course, as a shooter, I'm delighted that he used the example of the grey partridge to illustrate a successful conservation project - particularly that he highlighted the excellent work of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, and Dick Potts. Good grief, he even managed to mention game shooting in a positive light.

But this programme goes much deeper than that. It's an honest look at the reasons behind the catastrophic decline in birds, mammals, insects and wild plants in the UK during my lifetime.

There's no finger pointing and name calling. Just honest interviews with farmers who say, simply, I can't afford to farm wildlife, I have to make a living.

And, crucially, Packham exposes the nonsense of flagship single-species conservation projects run by organisations like the RSPB. Projects that may be great for drumming up political support, funds and membership, but don't tackle the root of the problem.

As an aside, it's ironic to see the RSPB taking corn buntings from the nest, hand-rearing them and then releasing them elsewhere, bragging about the fabulous conservation benefits to this threatened species. When the very idea of doing the exact same thing with hen harriers makes their blood boil with fake rage at the shooting estates that would love to work with them on such a project.

Anyway, back to the point. I have enjoyed watching the pragmatic Packham bite his tongue when soppy Kate Humble makes some infantile comment about cute n fluffy wildlife. Last night's Springwatch was a case in point - a pair of buzzards (don't they just eat worms?) had rounded up a bevy of rabbits, voles, moorhen chicks and, yes, an ickle fluffy duckling, for their young. Humble seemed close to tears; Packham just shrugged as if to say 'What do you expect?'

Now Packham has established himself as one of TV's leading conservation experts, he has the clout to say what he believes. And God bless 'im, that's exactly what he's gone and done.

I do hope I'm right, and this marks the start of a new era in conservation thinking, where we focus on the real issues, and doing something about them, rather than leaving it to organisations like the RSPB to exploit the subject for their own political and financial gain.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Use and abuse of badgers

Like statistics, cute-looking animals are a gift to anyone with a political axe to grind.

You can use them to prove any point you like - they won't answer back, or worse still go running to the papers complaining about being used to score political points (always a risk if a politician invokes nurses, or single mothers, or etc, to support an argument).

I've often thought it would be fascinating to study the way the foxhunting debate polarised into a Left vs Right argument, with the welfare of the fox trampled underfoot in the rush to trade insults about privileged toffs and unwashed lentil-munchers.

Sadly I don't have the time, or the government funding, to do that sort of research myself. But... today I discovered that there's a scientist doing exactly that, only with the badger/bTB 'debate'.

I have my elder daughter Emma to thank for the tip-off. As part of her veterinary studies, she attended a lecture by Dr Angela Cassidy, from the University of East Anglia, on the media coverage of the Badger 'controversy' in the UK press.

You can download a pdf of one of Dr Cassidy's earlier talks here (This link may show the document in preview form, if I've got it right). It makes fascinating reading.

She appears to find that the badger issue polarises people into rural vs. urban, left-wing vs. right-wing. Discussion tends to focus on culling rather than disease and its control. There is strong evidence of lobbying creating coverage in the media at key moments, such as in the lead-up to the General Election. And new scientific evidence tends to cause arguments about the science itself - the protagonists entrench their positions and argue about the validity of the science, rather than taking the opportunity to reconsider the best course of action.

There's also an interesting section on the use of imagery by different groups - cute n cuddly badgers by one side, vicious snarly badgers by the other. And she looks at the presentation of the badger as 'good' and 'bad' by groups with different perspectives over the years, going back through Tommy Brock and his ilk to the days long before badgers were associated with disease.

It's hard not to find yourself drawn in, even reading Dr Cassidy's work, and ask yourself "Is she pro or anti?" That's kind of beside the point. Her work is a valuable insight into the way something that should be a straightforward, practical debate gets hijacked, and becomes the focus for a much deeper disagreement between groups with opposing agendas; and the media tricks both sides resort to in their attempt to win the day... while the cattle, the farmers, and the badgers, continue to suffer.

This isn't the first time animals have been used this way, and it certainly won't be the last. We would do well to understand the phenomenon.

Saturday 21 May 2011

Just popping out for a spot of woodland management. I may be some time...

How does this sound? Your own sporting estate in miniature - 13½ acres of mixed woodland tucked away in lovely countryside near the Suffolk coast.

Through the gates and up the private drive is a timber-framed, barn style house, hand built in oak and sweet chestnut, with solid oak floors, inglenook fireplace with log-burner, and a Rayburn cooker.

It's 'off grid' - electricity comes from a generator, and water via a hand-operated pump from a borehole, although there's planning permission for a wind pump.

There are no public rights of way, and it comes with full sporting rights. If you tire of walking round your own patch, there are 200 acres of Woodland Trust woodland opposite.

Nearby is a pub and farm with a cafe, and there's a bus stop serving local villages - Framlingham is 3 miles away, and Snape 6 miles.

The sale particulars say that the property must be used for woodland maintenance (I imagine that's part of the planning permission), and it comes with all the tools required for the job, including a tractor, grass cutter and mini digger.

All this is on offer for a mere £315,000 - it's enough to make you think about jacking it all in and going off to live in the woods!

PS If you're seriously interested, drop me a line and I'll pass on the vendors' contact details.

Sunday 1 May 2011

Nice lens, shame about the focus

I went out again today with that Canon 300mm 2.8 L. It's been gradually dawning on me that something isn't right - and I think I've worked out what.

Quite simply, it doesn't focus where you think it does. This photo of a rabbit was what settled it for me. I know I focused on the rabbit's eye; the little red light blinked on it, it looked totally sharp in the viewfinder - but when I looked at the image on the camera's preview screen, the rabbit wasn't sharp, as you can see clearly in the cropped-in version below. Darn!

OK, I thought, camera shake - I was using a monopod, but it was only 1/125th of a second. But hang on, look at the leaves a foot in front of the rabbit: sharp as you like.

So I did an experiment - all very scientific, using the fence around our newly-dug vegetable patch. Sure enough, at a range of 10 yards, the actual focus is about 6ins in front of where you think it is - the point where you've actually focused, and where it looks sharp in the viewfinder.

It's not really practical to 'aim off', so I'm going to have to investigate this further. The effect is identical with the lens on my 20D, and my 70-200 lens behaves impeccably on both camera bodies, so the lens itself is chief suspect at the moment. Comments and suggestions from more experienced photographers will be most welcome!

UPDATE 1: Hmm, bit of googling and I'm already discovering there's more to this than meets the eye - and maybe there was a reason why the 550D was about a quarter the price of the 5D Mk II I really wanted.

UPDATE 2: Thanks to the readers who've offered helpful suggestions in the comments. I tried a more scientific test, downloading a test sheet here,  and photographing it following the instructions. The results suggest the camera is fine - I got accurate results with a Sigma 70-200mm 2.8, and a Canon 50mm 1.8 - but the 200mm lens is showing a significant degree of what I now know is called "front focus". The focus point for all three photos below was at "0" - these are cropped in to show the result.

Canon 50mm 1.8

Sigma 70-200 2.8

Canon 300mm 2.8

Saturday 30 April 2011

What a manky fox!

Typical! I manage to get within snapping distance of a fox, it stands there posing for me - and look at it, the manky thing!

Still, I managed a few shots of crows, magpies etc as well, so not an entirely wasted afternoon.

Friday 29 April 2011

Phwoar, look at the size of that!

I've borrowed this lovely 300mm f/2.8 Canon L lens for the weekend - what a beauty! It's had a bit of a battering over its life, but the glass is still as lovely as ever, and focusing is smooth and fast.

I stuck it on my 550D and went in search of wildlife. Saw a roe doe creeping through the trees, but she didn't want to play.

Then a few young rabbits... and a couple of older ones, including this one that appears to have had myxy, and an ear full of fleas.

And then I thought, what the heck, I'll see if I can call up a fox. Within seconds of squeaking there was a brown flash in the undergrowth, just 20 yards away. He sat checking me out from behind a tree for a few seconds, didn't like what he saw, and scarpered.

And all I got was this shot of where he was a second earlier - you can just see him (circled) sneaking off through the trees. Better luck next time perhaps!

Cameras banned from Olympics... no they're not... er...

Did you apply for tickets to see the shooting at the London 2012 Olympics? If you get lucky, it seems you will be able to take a camera - just a small one, mind. Without a flash. And don't think you'll cover the price of your ticket by flogging pictures to the shooting magazines.

The media office of LOCOG, the organising committee for the games, has been leading Amateur Photographer magazine a merry dance over their 'guidelines', first telling them that even compact cameras with powerful zoom lenses would be banned, then retracting it and blaming one of their PR team for making a mistake: "She got confused. She is not a camera expert."

The latest official statement is that the guidelines are still under discussion, but "Like many other large sporting events and previous Games, one possibility is that there may be restrictions around spectators using large (in size) lenses and tripods, simply because of the impact this can have on the viewing experience for other spectators sitting close by."

There has also been a suggestion that flash photography may be banned at certain events, including shooting.

As for making any money from selling photos from the event, sports photographer Bob Martin, who is head of photography for London 2012, said: "Ticket conditions will say that pictures cannot be used commercially – that's no different to any other sporting event."

Thursday 28 April 2011

Three ways to lose your shotgun certificate

The fastest way to lose your Firearm or Shotgun Certificate is to threaten someone with a gun. The police really, really don't like that. Quite right too. There are plenty of things wrong with our firearms legislation in the UK, but on the plus side, it does ensure that legitimate firearms are in the hands of law-abiding, sober, sensible people who aren't prone to robbing banks or turning violent at the drop of a hat.

The second fastest way to lose your guns is to let the police think you've threatened someone with a gun. That (in my humble opinion) is where Kevin Hunter went wrong. A dog walker complained when Kevin told them to clear off private land. Police got the impression he'd used his gun in a threatening manner (listening to Kevin I don't think he did) and hey presto, guns gone.

Now there's a third way. Become a victim of violence or threatened violence, and the police will kindly relieve you of your guns so you won't be tempted to use them in self defence. That's what happened to Tracy St Clair Pearce, when some... er, what's the PC term for pikeys nowadays? Let's call them 'travellers'... when some travellers threatened to cut her throat, exposed themselves to her, threw rocks, etc. Did she grab her shotgun? No, she told them to clear off, and called the cops. Who took 35 minutes to show up, then treated her as the criminal. And a couple of days later they barge into her house at 3.15 in the morning demanding the keys to her gun cabinet or they'll rip it off the wall.

Perhaps there's more to this story than meets the eye, but the way it's being reported, it's not doing the police any favours. Minority Report seems just around the corner.

I don't advocate the licensing of firearms for self defence. Some people do, and they're entitled to their opinion; to me it sounds a bit too Wild West. But there's a covenant between the state and the citizen. We agree to give up our right to defend ourselves with lethal force, on the understanding that the state will protect us. In the case of Miss St Claire Pearce, the police not only failed miserably, they're now trying to justify their actions with a stream of PC twaddle.

The Mud in the Blood blog has some strong words on the subject, and I'm sure some of my American readers will be flabbergasted too.

Whatever your views, it's worth remembering what we have become, if you want to keep your certificates.

Sunday 10 April 2011

Blooded - the movie

If you hunt, shoot or fish, you must watch Blooded, a new movie out on DVD, on Filmflex, or online via iTunes or LoveFilm.

Not only that, get all your non-hunting/shooting/fishing friends to watch it too.

Blooded is not a soppy propaganda film about countrysports. It's a gritty, powerful drama about a group of deer stalkers on the Isle of Mull who are targeted by the nastiest type of animal rights extremists. The film is presented as a 'documentary' about a (fictional) event in 2005. The producers have gone to a lot of trouble to create an alternative reality, so you begin to wonder if the film might actually be based on real events. The main character is clearly based on pro-hunting figurehead Otis Ferry, and the film-makers set up a fake animal rights website for the Real Animal League, which appears to have duped a good few real antis.

Is it pro or anti fieldsports? The producers say neither. It's a film about extremism, they say - the things people do when people feel so strongly about an issue that they stop debating and start fighting.

But there's no doubt who is portrayed more sympathetically in this film. The stalkers are real, three-dimensional people who have thought deeply about their relationship with the deer they kill and eat. The antis, by contrast, are anonymous, impersonal figures hidden behind balaclavas, who will stop at nothing to achieve their aims.

Shooters will enjoy looking for the rare technical errors - a rifle missing its bolt in one shot, a supposedly experienced shot resting the rifle barrel directly on a rock. But these don't detract from the experience.

Even if you didn't care about the subject, it's a gripping story well told. Blooded deserves a place alongside cult classics such as The Wicker Man.

Countryside Alliance Race Day

Racing has never really been my thing, but if you're going to try something new you might as well do it in style - and thanks to the lovely folk at the Countryside Alliance I had a great time as their guest at their Countryside Race Day at Ascot today.

We had a splendid view of the course from a box in the grandstand. First event of the day was the Masters' Race for Repeal - a charity race with proceeds going towards the campaigning work of the Countryside Alliance, as well as the vital work of the Hunt Benevolent Fund.

In addition to the racing, there was a parade of hounds, and loads of attractions from terrier racing to a 'petting zoo' for the kids (and some of the older ones too).

The sun shone all day long, and the hospitality flowed. Why can't fundraising always be such good fun?

Wednesday 30 March 2011

The RSPB, harriers and persecution

Oh how lovely! The RSPB are running Hen Harrier Safaris in Bowland. Go and watch the fabulous 'skydancers', explore the United Utilities Bowland estate with a local expert, who can reveal the fascinating wildlife and heritage that is hidden within this rugged and spectacular landscape.

While you're there, you might like to ask about the appalling story of persecution behind this little jaunt. Not persecution of the harriers (although goodness knows how they will react to being treated as a fundraising spectacle). No, I'm talking about the persecution of loyal raptor workers who for years have devoted a large chunk of their lives to protecting these special birds.For an insight into the nastiness that's gone on behind the scenes, see the Raptor Politics blog here.

The raptor workers' treatment at the hands of Natural England and the RSPB has been shoddy, to say the least. They've been pushed aside like a golden eagle in the way of a windfarm, in fact.

Saturday 5 March 2011

Wildlife crime - the police perspective

I was invited by South Yorkshire Police to take part in Operation Dunlin, a major offensive against wildlife crime across the South Yorkshire area, overnight on Thursday 3rd-Friday 4th March.

It was a fascinating insight into the nature of wildlife crime (at least in that area), the way police tackle it, and the problems they face. I'll write up the night's events separately, but here's a short audio interview with Superintendent David Hartley (pictured above), wildlife lead for South Yorkshire Police, and Silver Commander for the operation.

He talks about the nature of wildlife crime in his area (mostly lamping with dogs on farmland), his relationship with local gamekeepers (valuable eyes and ears, and an important part of the rural community), the incidence of bird of prey persecution (virtually nil, except one case where a farmer, not a gamekeeper, was convicted of placing a poisoned carcase), and the use of the Hunting Act (irrelevant as regards foxhunting, but can be a useful tool against poachers lamping with dogs).

Wednesday 2 March 2011

BASC welcomes "sensible and functional" WANE Bill

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), has commended the Scottish Parliament for passing sensible and functional legislation aimed at protecting Scotland’s wildlife.

Under the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Bill outdated game licences have been abolished, archaic poaching laws have been reformed and the practice of catching up game birds for breeding stock has been legally recognised.

Vicarious liability, which will make the perpetrators of persistent raptor persecution accountable for the actions of their employees, is a measured and targeted approach to addressing wildlife crime.

Snaring remains a legal practice in spite of an attempt to ban it. However further regulations have been brought in to ensure best practice. These include the use of tags and record keeping, as well as training and accreditation.

Several amendments which would have restricted shooting by introducing the power to remove shooting rights have been defeated. A proposal to transfer some police powers to other agencies, such as the Scottish SPCA, was withdrawn.

BASC Scotland’s Nicolle Upton said: “BASC Scotland has been working tirelessly to ensure that this legislation would benefit shooting and gamekeeping. Unreasonable proposals to restrict deer stalking were dealt with at the consultation stage and the Bill as introduced was welcomed by shooters. The Bill has been a useful vehicle which has given MSPs the opportunity to see land management activities such as snaring in practice and to be briefed in depth on how the countryside actually works. As a result we have achieved something both sensible and workable."

Avery's swansong is another 'irresponsible scaremongering' attack on shooting

The outgoing Conservation Director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds stands accused of "irresponsible scaremongering" on the eve of the final stage hearing of the Wildlife and Natural Environment (WANE) Bill in the Scottish Parliament.

In a carefully timed and deviously worded press release, embargoed for 00:01am on Wednesday 2 March 2010, the RSPB calls for a "vicarious liability" clause to be built into the WANE Bill, making landowners responsible for any illegal killing of birds of prey on their land.

In the absence of hard evidence of illegal killing by gamekeepers, the release instead relies on inference and innuendo, suggesting that England's grouse moors could support 323 pairs of hen harriers. In a staggeringly unscientific leap of logic, they surmise that the 'missing' harriers must have been killed by gamekeepers.

Applying the same logic to lowland farms, suburban gardens or RSPB reserves could see farmers, householders and RSPB wardens accused of wholesale slaughter of tree sparrows, song thrushes and... hen harriers.

The RSPB release makes much of the discredited and flawed JNCC report. But it makes no mention of the serious work being undertaken to resolve the harrier grouse conflict - instead they disingenuously imply that the diversionary feeding study at Langholm is the only way forward.

At a time when raptor workers, conservationists, gamekeepers and shooters agree that working together provides the best hope for hen harriers, the monolithic RSPB political lobbying machine is increasingly out of step with progressive conservationists, and insists on pursuing its outdated war on landownership.

Insiders hope that this latest attack is the swansong of outgoing RSPB Conservation Director Mark Avery, due to retire in April. For years Avery has made overtures to shooting, suggesting he is keen to work with the industry, while using the RSPB's media department to condemn gamekeepers and shooting estates for all the hen harrier's problems in the UK.  "Avery has singlehandedly undermined progress on harriers for years," said one. "Perhaps once he's gone we can really begin to get somewhere."

The RSPB release also ignores the fact that more than 200 Scottish estates have condemned out of hand, any and all illegal poisoning of birds of prey (list here). Among other significant facts glossed over is that ALL the major shooting and landowning organisations have unequivocally condemned illegal killing - including the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (Scotland), the Scottish Countryside Alliance, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, the Scottish Estates Business Group and the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association.

Here is the text of the RSPB release:

media release

Embargo: no publication or broadcast before:
00:01am on Wednesday 2 March 2010


The newly released results of the 2010 hen harrier survey have revealed a 20 per cent decline in the bird's UK population in the last six years. The hen harrier, one of our most spectacular birds of prey, is also the species most affected by illegal persecution, a fact reinforced by a recent review - the hen harrier framework - which concluded that illegal killing is the biggest single factor affecting the species, and that it is having a dramatic impact on the population in core parts of the hen harrier's range in northern England and Scotland.

The latest results complement the findings of a 2008 survey which found that only five pairs of hen harriers nested successfully on high-intensity 'driven' grouse moors in Scotland and England, despite the fact that sufficient habitat exists for 500 pairs.

The 2010 hen harrier survey recorded an estimated 646 pairs of hen harrier nesting in the UK and the Isle of Man. This is down from an estimated 806 pairs in 2004.

Dr Mark Avery is the RSPB's Director of Conservation. He said: "The hen harrier is one of our most wonderful birds of prey, but it also the species most threatened by illegal persecution. Every year hen harriers are targeted on grouse moors across the UK and it is clear that this onslaught is having a significant impact on our population. We believe that gamekeepers are killing them illegally - under pressure from their land-owning masters.

"The 2010 hen harrier survey backs up the findings of the government-commissioned hen harrier framework, which reported that persecution was the principal factor limiting this bird of prey's UK population.

"Last year over 210,000 people signed up to our bird of prey campaign demanding an end to the illegal killing of birds of prey. With such a strong voice demanding change, it is deplorable that some within the grouse moor community continue to break the law and deny people the chance to see such a magnificent bird."

With almost 500 pairs, Scotland has the vast majority of the UK hen harrier population. But here the decline has been even greater, falling over 21 per cent from an estimated 633 pairs in 2004. The survey recorded little change in England as the population rose from 11 pairs in 2004 to 12 last year. Estimates suggest there is potential for at least 323 pairs of hen harrier in England, so a dozen pairs represents less than four per cent of the potential, with illegal persecution being blamed for this huge difference. The hen harrier remains on the verge of extinction as a breeding species in England.

In Scotland, the Wildlife and Natural Environment Bill, which is currently being debated, provides a great opportunity to take new steps to try and help save hen harriers. One option being looked at is making landowners legally responsible for the actions of their gamekeepers.

Later this week, the meeting of the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime meeting will be addressed by Richard Benyon, Minister for the Natural Environment and Fisheries.

Dr Mark Avery added: "We trust that the minister will agree with us that these results show that it's time to take decisive action in the struggle to protect threatened birds of prey.

"Although more than 70 per cent of people convicted of bird of prey persecution in the last 20 years have been gamekeepers, in reality its often landowners who effectively force their employees to break the law. We believe that making landowners legally accountable for bird of prey crimes in Scotland and England is a vital step in the road to reducing persecution."

Wales, where there are no grouse moors and very little recorded persecution of harriers, recorded a substantial increase, rising from 43 pairs in 2004 to 57 last year.

Paul Irving, of the North England Raptor Forum, said: "As ever we are utterly appalled at the continuing tiny proportion of the potential harrier population found on moorland managed for grouse shooting. We believe this not only shows an utter contempt for this wonderful bird, but also it shows complete disregard for the law by game managers. That we have so far failed to change this reflects badly on us all.

Dr Sian Whitehead, Countryside Council for Wales's Senior Ornithologist said "I am encouraged by the ongoing recovery in the Welsh hen harrier population, but we must not become complacent. Declines in the breeding population during the 1980s and early 1990s could be attributed, in part, to persecution, and it is encouraging that the situation has now changed. We must continue to ensure that the Welsh hen harrier is adequately protected, and the habitat for them managed appropriately, so that this iconic species of the Welsh uplands can continue to thrive."

The 2010 hen harrier survey was funded by RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural England and the Countryside Council for Wales. Additional support was provided by NIEA and many members of bird of prey study groups.


Monday 28 February 2011

How not to get shot by the police

Never mind a spot of rain, or the labrador stealing your sandwiches, this could really spoil your day's shooting.

There you are minding your own business, enjoying a bit of peace and quiet in the countryside, watching that flock of pigeons crossing the far side of the field and hoping they'll swing towards your decoys... when a dark blue and yellow helicopter comes low across the hedge.

It swings towards you, and you think "Damn, that's going to put the pigeons off for a bit." It hovers over you, and through the godforsaken racket of the rotor blades, you hear the Voice of God: "Put down your weapon..."

That's the point where you start to get the hump. What the hell? Who do they think they are? Why should I throw my valuable gun in the dirt? I'm not bothering anyone, this is perfectly legal, etc.

All of which are perfectly reasonable things to think... but could get you shot, or at the very least escalate what I've learned is a "low profile stop" into the much more shouty, gunpointy "high profile" version.

I spent Friday at Leicestershire Police HQ, with their Tactical Firearms Unit who - despite appearances - are a very decent, polite bunch of men and women who would like to get on better with the local shooting community. Actually a lot of them are very much part of the local shooting community - PC884 Graham Priestnall, for instance, is a keen shooting man who likes nothing better on his day off than to wander through the fields with his shotgun.

Two years ago, he and his colleagues decided they were spending too much time and taxpayers' money bothering people who were shooting legally, and looked at ways of improving the situation. They came up with the not-so-snappily titled VNSE - Voluntary Notification of Shooting Events.

Bascially, they ask shooters to let them know where and when they plan to go shooting. There's a dedicated telephone number and an email address, and the process takes only a few minutes - just the outline details of name, shooting location, mobile phone number, and the reg no of the vehicle you'll be using. The information goes into a diary which can be accessed by the Operations control staff if need be - if, for example, someone phones in with the classic line "There's a man with a gun, and he's acting a bit suspicious".

It sounds perfectly reasonable and sensible doesn't it. Even more so after I - and around 35 shooters from the Leicestershire area - had gone through a mock training exercise where we were put in the place of the Operations room staff.

We listened to a typical 999 call from a genuinely concerned member of the public, then voted on the best action to take. Then in came another 999 call from the same caller. This time the 'suspicious looking character' was lurking at the back of a school. A check on the now complete reg no of his 'tatty white van' showed it belonged to a man with a history of violence, and previous access to illegal firearms.

Our lecture hall full of dyed-in-the-wool shooters voted as one: send in the Armed Response Unit. I think if there had been a button for the Army, Navy and Air Force, they'd have pressed that one.

And yet... it turned out our man had borrowed his mate's van because his Land Rover was in for service. He was a professional pest controller, doing a spot of work. And since he was nearby, his wife asked if he could pick the kids up after school.

The scenario was carefully designed to show us how difficult it is for the police to get it right; how the information is always incomplete and often misleading; and how they can't just ignore what could turn into a serious threat to the public.

To help push the message home, we were treated to a firepower demonstration at the Tactical Firearms Unit's splendid indoor range, where officers fired their standard weapons - the Glock 9mm pistol, H&K G3 5.56mm carbine, baton rounds and Taser.

Then we went outside to watch their "legitimate shooter" subjected to a "low profile stop" - which is where I began this post.

As I drove back down the M1 through interminable miles of traffic cones and 50mph average speed limits, I turned all this over in my head. Do I think a voluntary notification system is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

Well, I'm still in two minds. On one hand, Leicestershire's scheme has led to an 80% reduction in legitimate shooters being subject to the kind of shock-and-awe interruption that we witnessed. It's hard to argue with figures like that. The scheme is operated by people who are fully in favour of shooting sports, and they're doing it for the right reasons. In many ways, it is just a more efficient version of what goes on up and down the country already, with keepers calling their local police to let them know they'll be lamping or deer culling or whatever. (As an aside, the police helicopter pilot pictured above told me whenever he's out in a rural area at night, he can usually see 5 or 6 people out lamping at any one time - he clearly knows what he's looking at, and with the gyro-stabilised TI camera on that thing, he could read your number plate before you even knew he was there!)

And yet, could this be the thin end of the wedge? That concern was clearly on the minds of some in the room. This year it's voluntary, next year it's 'best practice', the year after... well, if you're not going to follow best practice, should we really be renewing your FAC?

That's certainly not what's behind the Leicestershire scheme. Graham and his colleagues set up the scheme for the right reasons, and they're pleased with the results so far. They're keen to listen to shooters' concerns, and improve the scheme where they can. When I tried to explain my "thin end of the wedge" worries, they looked at me somewhat blankly, like they thought I was being a bit paranoid. I, in turn, wondered if they, living in something of a bubble, were being a little naive.

As for the title of this post, what did I learn about how not to get shot? Simple really. Don't act like you might be about to shoot at them.

To a firearms officer, it's all about 'threats', 'compliance' and 'control'. They've been sent out to deal with someone who probably isn't , but might be, a homicidal nutter. That's a threat - to them, and to the public at large.

The helicopter hovering over you can't engage in a detailed conversation about the legalities of pigeon shooting. Neither can the armed officers standing by their vehicles 300 yards away. You can barely hear each other. If you're holding a gun, or they can't see your hands, you're still a threat.

Put the gun down slowly and carefully. You can break it or open the bolt if you wish - just take care not to look like you're pointing it at anyone. Step away from it, and go where you're told, with your arms out so that you're clearly not hiding another gun under your clothing.

They're not going to shoot you for failing to comply with an instruction. But by being cooperative you help them get their job done with the least risk to all concerned - you included. Once they are satisfied that the situation is safe and under control, then you can give them a lecture about your rights to enjoy your sport peacefully. Just remember, they've heard it all before, and like as not they're shooters just like you!

Monday 21 February 2011

Woodspring's Young Shots day

What a great day Woodspring Pigeon Shooting and Wildfowling Club laid on for young shots yesterday! The club's Rob Collins explains in the video above what it's all about - but essentially they provided a hands-on introduction to the world of fieldsports for a group of 40 youngsters, most of whom had no direct experience of shooting or the countryside.

And how they loved it! It was great to see girls and boys getting down on their knees to set nets, pick up ferrets, handling dead rabbits, firing airguns, bows and shotguns, inspecting traps, blowing duck and goose calls... One father commented that he's spent a fortune on XBox games to keep his son amused - but this was the first day he hadn't heard "I'm bored Dad!"

And the whole day helped raised funds for a local children's hospice. Well done to Woodspring, and all those who supported them.

And while I was there, I took the chance of a masterclass in duck and goose calling with Stuart Hill of Bridgwater Bay Wildfowlers:

After watching my rather hopeless efforts, Rob offered me a bit more advice about the finer points of "Talking Duck":

Saturday 19 February 2011

Threats and hate mail for working with shooters

It seems there are some people in the birding community who cannot abide the idea of birders and shooters working together - and are prepared to break the law to torpedo progress.

Chrissie Harper, who runs an owl rescue and gratefully accepted donations from shooters to buy some much needed hospital boxes (story here and here), has now received threats and hate mail.

An anonymous letter sent to Chrissie says that "shooters are walking tall because of you", and on the back the threatening message "the world is a dangerous place".

Let's hope the raptor community are as quick to condemn this vile behaviour as they are to condemn alleged cases of raptor persecution.

Friday 18 February 2011

Gamekeeper thrilled to see harriers on his moor

I was pleased to see this comment from a keeper on the excellent 'Working for Grouse' blog: "To suggest that harrier persecution is part and parcel of upland keepering is misleading, and only the most foolish would consider harming birds of prey to boost grouse numbers."

It's an interesting post, which supports my own view that the scale of the problem is often exaggerated for political and fundraising purposes.

Thursday 17 February 2011

RSPB grudgingly admits: predator control helps threatened birds

Fascinating, this latest RSPB press release (which at the time of writing hasn't made it onto their media website).

Instead of the headline-grabbing whizz-bang style which the RSPB's media department is capable of, it's almost like they're trying to bore you to sleep before you get to the nitty-gritty.

What the release actually says is that predator control works. Upland waders such as lapwing and curlew are affected by predation. And they do better on grouse moors, where predators such as crows and foxes are controlled.


UPDATE 17 Feb: The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust were quick to pick up on the point. They've issued the following press release:

Game scientists welcomes RSPB study showing influence of predators on wader declines. 

The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) welcomes the recent RSPB study which explores the causes of population change in upland waders.

Professor Nick Sotherton, director of research with the GWCT said, “We welcome this RSPB study as it reinforces the message that predator control on grouse moors benefits declining species of birds, especially where crows are removed.  It would be very sad if we lost a significant fraction of our bird life through want of necessary wildlife management. The evidence from our research is that such losses are not inevitable and the North Pennines, which is almost entirely managed for grouse shooting and hosts high concentrations of waders, stands as a testament to the difference game management can make to conservation in the uplands.
“However, contrary to the views of the RSPB study, we also found that golden plover breed best on grouse moors and that survival rates are lower away from grouse moors. Indeed our study at Otterburn found that 75% of golden plovers produced young on keepered plots compared to just 18 per cent where predators were not removed.”

 This latest study adds to the weight of evidence that has already emerged from the results of the 9-year Upland Predation Research project carried  out by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust at Otterburn in Northumberland. The Trust’s findings, which were published in the scientific publication, The Journal of Applied Ecology identified for the first time that the control of common predators such as crows and foxes  significantly improves, by more than three times, the breeding success of curlew, lapwing and golden plover – all species of conservation concern.  Professor Sotherton said, “It is gratifying that the RSPB’s latest work confirms the Trust’s findings and further proves that securing the future of these vulnerable birds is within our grasp.”

Wednesday 16 February 2011

JNCC harrier report 'out of date and misleading'

Shooting, keepering and landowning organisations in Scotland have issued a strongly worded attack on the JNCC's February 2011 report 'A conservation framework for Hen Harriers in the UK'. The text of the press release follows:


Five organisations at the forefront of conservation of the Scottish countryside have branded a new report* on Hen Harriers as out of date and misleading. The British Association for Conservation and Shooting (Scotland), the Scottish Countryside Alliance, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, the Scottish Estates Business Group and the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association have written to the Minister for Environment setting out their concerns about the report, due to be published this week.

The report, coordinated by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), looks into the conservation status of Hen Harriers, but only up to 2004. It concludes that persecution was the main factor limiting the growth of the Harrier population, but serious scientific flaws have been identified which undermine its conclusion and the five organisations recommended that it should not be published until those flaws had been corrected. Regrettably, although SNH has recognised discrepancies in the report they have not been corrected.

SNH has also acknowledged that the report will need to be revised almost as soon as it is published to address these flaws and limitations and to bring in new data.

Contrary to the impression given in this outdated report of a Hen Harrier population still being constrained by persecution, there has only been one confirmed incident of Hen Harrier persecution between 2004 and 2009** indicating that efforts to tackle that problem are now being effective. In parts of the country where Hen Harriers are not doing so well, there is evidence for a range of other reasons, such as predation by foxes and limitations on food supply, that have not been properly considered in the report. In other areas there is no likelihood of human persecution yet Harriers are still not thriving.

A spokesman for the five organisations said: "Publication of this report has been pushed through to allow its consideration under the Wildlife and Natural Environment Bill. It is essential that MSPs deal only with scientifically proven facts.

"Our organisations are all committed to tackling any issues of wildlife crime robustly, and for the Government and SNH to now promote the use of misleading science can only undermine the goodwill that has been generated by joint projects in recent years. However, we do welcome the firm recommendation from SNH that a proper dispute resolution process is set up in Scotland to address this difficult issue. We do regret that organisations we work in partnership with in the sector were unwilling to let SNH reflect our concerns publicly."

* A conservation framework for Hen Harriers in the UK (JNCC February 2011)
**The illegal killing of birds of prey in Scotland in 2009 (RSPB)


UPDATE 17 Feb: SNH press and PR manager Calum Macfarlane contacted me with a 'balancing' comment from SNH:

Professor Des Thompson, SNH principal adviser on biodiversity, said: "The hen harrier framework report is based on sound, recognised scientific principles and the most up-to-date data available. The report is based on information from the RSPB wildlife crime investigations database, in which incidents are recorded as either 'confirmed' or 'probable' persecution.

"There will be more detailed data available within the next two years, particularly from a hen harrier survey carried out in 2010 which is currently being collated. This will add detail to the picture, but it's clear from the reliable and recognised statistics available now that persecution of hen harriers is a serious problem."


UPDATE 17 Feb: ...and now the GWCT Scotland tries to put the issue in perspective, with a release that calls for 'conflict resolution', together with an acknowledgement that other factors besides 'persecution' (eagles, food, predation) might just be having an effect on harriers:

Scotland’s harriers in good conservation status
but more work needed to resolve conflicts

GAME & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s (GWCT) review of the newly released Hen Harrier Framework has highlighted that, while Scotland’s harriers were nationally in favourable conservation status in 2004, distribution in some areas is poor.

The Trust also identifies that the scientific approach taken in this species framework needs further revision and the conservation approach for this species should be one of conflict resolution.

GWCT welcomed SNH’s recent offer to review the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) Hen Harrier Conservation Framework and although the review secured helpful revisions to the framework, GWCT’s scientists remain concerned about a number of themes.

The Trust feels that the broader moorland conservation requirements have not been balanced with raptor conservation, as is required in European law. We welcome SNH’s proposal of a prompt review of the framework and want to work with all the organisations involved to achieve a better distributed and resilient hen harrier population in the UK alongside grouse moor management, a valuable economic and conservation land use.

Areas of concern:
1.       We are pleased to see that on the basis of the criteria selected by SNH and the report’s authors, Scotland’s hen harrier population was nationally in favourable conservation status in 2004. However two of the three criteria used to assess conservation status, at the level of individual Natural Heritage Zones, are flawed. The result is that no matter how high or low the harrier population size surveyed in 2004, application of the criteria would always have found that half the sites failed and half passed each test. This not a robust approach to assessing long term conservation status. It also remains a matter of concern that the framework has been published in the year following a national survey of harriers but without using these data.
2.       The study reveals harriers are not evenly distributed across Scottish regions in relation to suitable habitat. Persecution is the focus for possible explanations of this distribution. Although we acknowledge the effects of persecution in some regions, more could have been done to explain the relative contributions of the many other factors affecting harriers, in particular golden eagle-harrier interactions, food supply and predation by foxes on nesting harriers.
3.       The accuracy of the population estimates could have been improved by not assuming a standard occupancy rate in suitable habitat and using a finer scale habitat map; an earlier report revealed that the extent of land suitable for harriers in Scotland (at the fine scale) may be 26% (rather than 42-50% in the model). At that scale the potential population size may be 931 harriers, well below the published 1467-1790.
4.       The report acknowledges that the complex interactions affecting harriers are already being explored by the UK’s hen harrier grouse management conflict resolution processes. The GWCT feels that this framework should have drawn more on these. Central to sustainable harrier conservation is the balance between maintaining heather moors, healthy food supplies and low fox predation pressure for harriers while allowing red grouse shooting to thrive and deliver these harrier requirements. These issues are recognised in the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project and Environment Council attempts to resolve the real conflict between hen harrier conservation and red grouse management.