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Long-term (1989 to date) Italian resident, originally from UK, I'm an ex-teacher, passionate naturalist and environmentalist who works as a wildlife tour-guide and translator.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

My limbic system battles it out with my frontal lobes in the General Licences fiasco.

News about English Nature’s (EN) decision towithdraw the various General Licences (GLs) regulating the killing of various wild bird species came minutes after I’d posted a tweet of the picture you see of three Carrion Crows hung on a barbed wire fence next to a public footpath and adjacent to the public open access land on Poyntington Down in Dorset, a place I like to wander about when I’m in UK and imagine what it would have been like to have been Gabriel Oak in Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. It’s mostly sheep pasture and shooting with open grassland interspersed with patches of game cover with release pens in summer and the asphalt of the surrounding roads is splattered with the victims of collisions between pheasants and vehicles. I grew up ‘mooching’ (in the British sense) around the Green Belt of NE London in the 1970s and can remember seeing the occasional keeper’s gibbet there and on trips to Norfolk but I thought it was a habit that had died out, partly through the shame of those practicing it and partly from a desire not to attract attention and comment. Such behaviour is unhelpful, boastful and counterproductive.

One reason for maintaining the GLs as they were as I see it (with lax controls on the numerical control of a handful of problematic species with optimal conservation statuses or alien species) was that it set clear water between what used to be considered “pest” species (the old Schedule 2 species of the1967 Protection of Birds Act, a list later thankfully much reduced in subsequent revisions) such as Carrion Crow (CC), Magpie (MP) or Wood Pigeon (WP) and those that were decidedly not, such as all raptors and owls. What the elimination of GLs for “pest” species might do now (depending on how the new licences emerge) is lump these species in with other sometimes problematic species for which specific licences had to be applied for, such as Common Buzzard (CB), Tawny Owl (TO) and Raven (RA), all of which sometimes cause well-documented problems to certain legal economic activities and for which EN provides licences, generally with great parsimony. Why should CB, TO and RA now be treated any differently by EN when compared to CC, MP or WP when someone applies for a licence, with each case being treated on its merits? De facto, via this action, willingly or unwillingly, EN have abolished the “Premier League” of pest species with a low burden of proof on the need to control them, all of which are doing very well numerically.

I groaned inwardly when I saw NE’s announcement, knowing that it would set off a major diplomatic incident within an already divided nature conservation community with all sorts of bad behaviour on display. I wasn’t wrong. I steered clear of the various shooting and gamekeeping groups I follow on Facebook. Someone can only take so many misplaced apostrophes, so much bad grammar and spelling, so much freely-vented spleen and cut-n-paste copies of Chris Packham’s address. These groups are usually full of common sense, insight and interesting observations but I did follow the discussion in more refined forums.

By way of background, I struggled (and eventually failed) to obtain licences for corvid control in Grey Partridge projects I was working on in Italy in the late 1990s precisely for the same reasons that EN withdrew the UK’s GLs twenty years later, perhaps only a month or two prior to a Brexit that would see the UK no longer (necessarily) bound by the Birds’ Directive that was cited by Italy’s Istituto Nazionale per la Fauna Selvatica (now the Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale) the ecological equivalent of EN in Italy and the body that withdrew (in fact re-wrote it out of existence) my Italian licence after one season.

Re. NE’s announcement and the timing. It couldn’t really have been any worse, could it? 30 years of living in Italy has made me a proficient student of dietrologia, literally the study of what’s behind (‘dietro’) things. This is a haven for conspiracy theorists but I’m not one of those, usually. Was it really a coincidence that NE’s announcement came on TonyJuniper’s (TJ) first day?

Juniper’s appointment as Chair of Natural England by Michael Gove was met with cheers and incredulity from most people in the nature conservation community and gasps of horror from the establishment. What a welcoming present, eh? I wonder who decided that? And precisely at the time when people involved in legal predator control require those licences … and that includes the RSPB and probably other conservation bodies too, not just gamekeepers and farmers. Through no fault of his own TJ now finds himself with a mountain to climb at least as far as the groups that were cynical or displeased at his appointment, and that includes some of the most powerful lobby groups in Britain. It would be interesting to know who took the decision to withdraw the General Licences and why they chose to do so now when the plaintiffs had sought a revision to be in place for 2020?  “Sir Humphrey, was it you!?”

Re. ‘The plaintiffs’. Wild Justice Org. I find this a difficult section to write. I get the impression that the three main actors, Mark Avery (MA), Chris Packham (CP) and Ruth Tingay (RT) were surprised at the turn of events and have all sought to distance themselves somewhat from the plume of the fallout that their “victory” has left in its wake although their most recent statements suggest they are doubling down on their position. I struggle with that and they should feel free to deny that if I have misinterpreted them. 

MA says (in his blog): “The Natural England decision to revoke the long-standing General Licences came out of the blue”. That’s as maybe but ultimately, and for whatever reason it was Wild Justice’s challenge of the GLs that set the chain of events in motion. CP (who has been on the receiving end of brutal death threats , which is a scandal in itself) says (quite rightly) in a tweet:

“Can I please ask why campaigning against 1) the illegal killing of raptors 2) illegal fox hunting 3) pesticides which are human carcinogens 4) poor animal husbandry and 5) a scientifically invalid badger cull makes me an ‘enemy’ of the countryside ? Just plain weird.”

… but in the end it was the revocation of the GLs that Chris facilitated via Wild Justice that really set things off when the “fire risk” was already very high following #ExtinctionRebellion’s highly successful show of strength in London around Easter.

So let’s look at the positions of a couple of individuals who are not at the forefront of the battles on either side but who perhaps find themselves in a difficult position. One is Mary Colwell (MC), the author of the lovely Curlew Moon said (in various articles):

“You couldn't have chosen a worse time to revoke the general license than this week really.”
“We completely welcome a general license review, it needs tightening and more rigour, but to time it with the peak start of laying is really terrible. It's caught us all by surprise.”
“Crows eat both the eggs and the young of curlews. Their eggs are quite large so they don't take them away but they intimidate the birds off the nest, smash the eggs up and eat them in situ.”
“If we had time to prepare, people could have applied for individual licenses, no one would have minded if it happened at a different time of year.”
“Curlews don't often re-lay if they lose a clutch. So we have lost a season and that's bad news for birds in such trouble.”

Nothing to quarrel with there from me. All facts. All true. No “opinion”. And Mary has an unimpeachable pedigree having walked 500 miles to raise money and awareness for the Curlew and, like me, has no interest in practicing field sports as far as I am aware.

Then there is Owen Williams (OW), a fantastically talented artist who probably knows as much about the Woodcock as anyone in Britain but is closer, politically, to the field sports wing of this argument and knows which end of a shotgun and a fishing rod to hold:

OW (on Facebook): “ There was one point in our debate that gave me a great insight into why we had such opposing views on the killing of one bird to save another. I had pointed out to Mark the killing of crows on grouse moors not only increased fledging success of curlew, lapwing and golden plover from 23% to 64%, but it wasn’t having a detrimental effect on the population status of crows. His reply was very revealing.

MA ‘Owen- 10,000 murders a year would make no difference to the human population (not if (it) was measured the way we measure bird populations) but I doubt you would say it was OK, Have a think about why you wouldn’t’.

OW: “I suddenly understood the nature of the gulf between us. He was asking me to accept a level of equivalence of a bird death and a human death. (My italics). I was looking at the subject of predator control objectively from a science perspective and he was introducing the highly subjective angle of how we should view birds.

“This made me realise why, however much we objectively point out scientific facts that the killing of predators on grouse moors gives threatened species like curlew and lapwing a fighting chance to avoid national extinction he still can’t accept the valuable work that keepers do for our biodiversity at no cost to the public purse. He is conflicted (my italics) between his instincts as a bird lover and his training as a scientist – preservationist v conservationist.

“What is frustrating is that Avery and Packham are accepted by the media and the British public as scientists. The public believes that what they say is pure and objective. In reality their views start with their high subjective view that a bird’s death has a high level of equivalence with a human death, they then go onto to dress their argument up with a coat of distorted science that enables them to tell the public and our policy makers such lies as our grouse moors are ‘Dead Burned and Barren’ when anyone with a pair of boots and the desire for a good walk would see that this was far from the truth.

My debates on the subject of grouse moors elsewhere on social media threw up a comment that professional ecologists now use the word "MAMBA" (miles and miles of bugger all) to describe our moors. If professional ecologist, despite their training to be objective, have bought the REVIVES ‘Dead Burned and Barren’ slogan, as promoted by their media representatives Packham and Avery, then we have to be very worried. Science and our policy-making has become infected with subjectivity and a lot is at risk if we allow this to continue.

Again I thank Mark Avery for revealing why the arguing of our science informed position has, thus far, had little effect.”

And here the dissonance between the brain’s limbic system and its frontal lobes is laid bare. Just to refresh your memory: the brain’s "primitive" limbic system regulates our emotions and controls various aspects such as anger, fear, anxiety, empathy, satisfaction and happiness while the "higher" frontal lobes (among other things) deal with cognitive functioning and deductions and exert a control over our behaviour and impulses.

Intellectually, however, many people in this argument seem to be finding themselves at odds with their deeper (limbic) selves. Conflicted. Our limbic systems are telling us that "killing crows" is ‘wrong’ and that we shouldn’t be doing it, while our frontal lobes, presented with the data, as set out by OW or MC or the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust are telling us that “killing crows” (as a short-hand, my shorthand for the past and, to a lesser extent, the present style of land management across much of the uplands with good populations of rare breeding waders such as Curlew, Lapwing, and Golden Plover, Black Grouse, Capercaillie, Twite, Ring Ouzel and even Merlin) is precisely what we should be doing (and what, for example, the RSPB are/were doing on many of their reserves) if we want to avoid their imminent extinction in Britain and Ireland.

Although I am not interested in practicing field sports myself I think I have my limbic system well under control as far as this question is concerned. Some might say I am “emotionally blunted”. Whatever the case, Britain’s uplands and river valleys with breeding waders are the product of at least (an arbitrary, post-Industrial Revolution) 250 years of a social and economic system, that whether you view it as “just” or not, was what it was and is what it is. If you change it, modify it or abolish it, you will change, modify and in some cases "abolish" the flora and fauna associated with it.

I often imagine Cirl Buntings in Britain in a "Just William" haze with Spitfires in the sky, skinny kids running about and jam for tea. Why? Because they were widespread right up into the northern Midlands until the 1940s at a time of spring-sown cereals, a lack of herbicides, plenty of hedges and generalised predator control when the Spitfire represented the zenith of technological achievement. In an era of autumn cereals, Roundup® and the Tesla®, the RSPB is turning cartwheels to maintain and increase numbers of this beautiful bird (including the finding, collection, hatching and rearing in captivity under licence of first clutches for later release). Our populations of Curlew, Lapwing, and Golden Plover, Black Grouse, Capercaillie, Twite, Ring Ouzel and even (ground-nesting) Merlin are a product of their time and place. Of grouse moors and watermeadows, deerstalking and gamekeepers, ‘drowners’, ‘aftermath’ and Lammas. If we want to keep them and abolish many traditional land management systems then we are also going to have to ‘turn some cartwheels’ and that involves modified forms of many of these practices including generalist predator control. Abolishing (say) driven grouse shooting without a very good back-up plan risks knock-on effects that many can see. MA, CP and RT all know this. If they don’t they should. But do their financial supporters at Wild Justice? Perhaps not.  Perhaps they choose not to? Perhaps they do but their own limbic systems (or desire to ‘belong’) override coherence with their frontal lobes? Perhaps they think that it’s a price worth paying, “a mere detail” in a much larger political struggle? (I am very aware here that there are modern practices on British grouse moors such as medication via grit and shortened burn cycles that the GWCT researched, developed and now recommend so spare me the 'whataboutery').

We hear a lot about rewilding of vast tracts of upland Britain. There are some successful proponents too, such as the Knepp Castle Estate which lies in that felicitous band close to London within which a farm shop might charge £15 - £20 for a kilo of  organic pork sausages from uproariously happy range-reared pigs but what would re-wilding do to the UK’s populations of Curlew, Lapwing, and Golden Plover, Black Grouse, Capercaillie, Twite, Ring Ouzel, all a product of their time and place in history - human, geological and climatic? Rewilding is often put forward as a panacea to the problems caused by both excessive sheep grazing and grouse moors in the uplands. I live in an area where involuntary rewilding has taken place since the Second World War.  Let’s look at that process and what it has entailed, the pluses and minuses on the biodiversity front.

Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy’s most north-eastern Region covers 8,000 km2. It borders Slovenia in the east, the Adriatic in the south, the Italian Region of Veneto in the west and Austria’s Carinthia Region in the north. It’s roughly 50% plains and low hills below 250m and 50% “uplands” (tetrads with some points above about 400m above sea level. The geology of the latter is often harsh. There are plenty of peaks above 2000m in the Julian and Carnic Alps. It's fairly rich by Italian standards but not atypical of Italy as a whole in the 21st century. According to Franco Musi in Foreste, Uomo, Economia nel Friuli Venezia Giulia (1990) in 1945 the Region had 800  km2 of forest - 10% - not far off what the UK has today (13%). Today that figure is approaching 50% “forest” cover, 4,000 km2, (ISTAT) that includes the heavy (often Hazel and Green Alder) scrub and secondary woodland that has developed since World War Two!

What could have produced such a dramatic change in the landscape in 75 years and what have the ecological effects been? One reason has been the switch from firewood to more convenient sources of home heating such as diesel or methane but the main cause has been rural depopulation and abandonment of marginal areas. Just taking a local mountain municipality at random, Preone in the Carnic Alps, famous for its late Triassic fossils, the population peaked at 947 people a century ago  but is now fewer than 240 (2017, 25% of its peak) and dropping 3-5 (2-3%) per year. People emigrated from poor, isolated villages to the cities, in Italy or abroad, in search of employment and an easier life, leaving the elderly and the less able “at home” to fend for themselves. But there is a second factor too.

According to Guy Shrubsole in his new book “Who Owns England” (and there is no reason to doubt him) more than half of Britain’s land (if I have the figures right) is owned by just 25,000 families. The Italian system is very different. Not only were sharecroppers and tenants GIVEN the land they were farming or renting on the large estates during the process of  Italian was unification (1815 – 1871) but most of Italy also applies the Napoleonic Code system of inheritance that sees one's estate (including land) divided between all the children at the death of the (final) owner, usually the farmer's wife. This has caused massive fragmentation of land-holdings and indeed it is not uncommon to find 6 or more co-owners of indivisible fragments of land of around 3000 square metres more than half of whom may prove untraceable or are now living in Argentina, Australia or the USA. This means it is virtually impossible to put together a viable land holding for any economic operations other than subsistence (firewood and vegetable plots).

Enough of the socioeconomic effects. What have the ecological effects of this extraordinary and spontaneous rewilding been? Well there are certainly pluses. Brown Bear, Grey Wolf and Lynx are all recolonists in NE Italy, albeit in small numbers. Red Deer and Roe Deer have increased too, although before the predators returned so it will be interesting to watch what happens. The Golden Jackal is colonizing Central Europe from the Balkans and other mesopredators such as Beech Marten, Badger, Red Fox, Raven and Wildcat all seem to be doing well, especially since rabies was eliminated through a large EU-funded vaccination programme. But what about the larger picture and that list of species I mentioned earlier?

Curlew, Lapwing, and Golden Plover, Black Grouse, Capercaillie, Twite, Ring Ouzel.

Well Curlew is a regular non-breeding visitor, Lapwing breeds in agricultural areas, Golden Plover is a regular but rare non-breeding visitor while Twite is a vagrant, but Black Grouse, Capercaillie and Ring Ouzel, all breed in the uplands of Friuli as do Rock Partridge, Hazel Grouse and Ptarmigan as well as Corncrake, Water Pipit, Snowfinch and Golden Eagle. All the latter ten species have been seriously impacted by this spontaneous “rewilding” (among other factors, including climate) either due to direct loss of open habitats (Black Grouse, Rock Partridge, Ptarmigan, Corncrake, Water Pipit, Ring Ouzel, Snowfinch and Golden Eagle) or (in the case of Capercaillie and Hazel Grouse) because the structure of their preferred habitat of light, open woodland has been adversely influenced by succession, or they have been affected by the increase in mesopredators that abandonment and depopulation have allowed.

Birds being negatively affected by this abandonment has not proved the only downside to this spontaneous ‘rewilding’. Other biodiversity and landscape diversity (a good proxy measure of biodiversity) has suffered too, particularly insects and plants as hay-meadows and high altitude grazing land have been allowed to scrub over while stands of pest-prone Norway Spruce have been planted on marginal land. Forest fires – rare when the Alps were intensively managed - have increased massively this century as the dense, scrubby stands become like tinder in dry summers and – more –recently – the final weeks of winter.

What has this got to do with the (hopefully temporary) withdrawal of the General Licences? Lots. The General Licences fiasco slots in as another battle in the ongoing "war" against driven grouse shooting (DGS) and the plans (and the philosophy behind the plans) for the use of “marginal” areas of Britain by people who by and large do not live in those areas are idealistic but will have both positive and negative effects upon biodiversity. I am going to make a confession. It’s like owning up to (say), voting for Brexit: I voted for the parliamentary debate to discuss the ban on DGS promoted by MA, CP and RT. I now think I was wrong. I think these points are best set out in a bullet list:
  • On consideration I no longer think that a ban on DGS would be good for biodiversity;
  • My experience in Italy suggests that large scale rewilding will have major impacts on biodiversity, many of which will be negative for species favoured by ‘traditional’ forms of land and wildlife management, and not just birds but plants and smaller organisms as well;
  • I think that “rewilding” as it stands takes little account of what established communities will do (economically) should it take place;          
  • I think that the rescinding of the GLs is very bad for avian biodiversity whether this was Wild Justice's initial aim or not;
  • I do not believe that removing the distinction between the species previously covered by the GLs and those covered by special licences is good for biodiversity. 
I also believe that MA, CP and RT (both individually over time and together in Wild Justice) ... and now the other extreme, let's call them the "shootists" ... have harnessed social media in such as way as to worsen the already polarized state of British nature conservation that - frankly – has stunned a substantial proportion of the remaining very knowledgeable and fairly conservative centre into what seems to me to a sort of sickened and fearful silence. This polarization of the debate is something which is occurring across the political discussion in the anglophone world and is something that saddens and worries me. There are many far worse enemies of biodiversity in Britain than the people who manage some of its private land in a “traditional” fashion that incorporates legal predator control. I don’t have to name them here. Nor will I but it includes the "agents" of intensive agriculture that lobby for the use of their own products in it. Often many of "them" are not people or companies at all but “policies” decided at various levels. Suffice to say there are 25,000 companies and organizations with offices in Brussels alone, let alone those in the capitals of Europe. We need to maintain an alliance across the spectrum of the millions of people in Britain who hold biodiversity (in some form or another) at the centre of their value systems. I believe Wild Justice is not helping that process. I am disgusted by the way CP, MA, RT and Wild Justice have found themselves on the end of death threats and intimidation but I also abhor the way in which the entire argument has been actively politicized and subject to ‘ramping up’ in social and traditional media by both sides. We are all diminished by it, the silent centre included. 

I shall probably lose some “friends” and “followers” over this post, but I won’t remain silent. Aristotle (in his Nicomachean Ethics) (effectively) said that In medio virtus stat” – that “virtue lies (somewhere) in the middle” (and not at the extremes). Aristotle was also (probably) the first true scientific naturalist and as such his position is good enough for me.

Thankfully I will be away showing a group around Istria this week so don’t expect much discussion or many replies from me. At least we will have something to chatter about without recourse to the dreaded  and divisive “B-word” at all!

A Curlew egg predated by a corvid, Nidderdale, April 2019 
(via the Nidderdale Moorland Group on Facebook)


  1. what a superb and balanced article this is,it should be sspread across the media.

  2. Interesting take, and well written. Have you considered that re-wilding on a large enough scale will allow for maintenance of sustainable populations of species reliant on uplands (above the moorland line) whilst reducing the effects of habitat fragmentation that have caused the losses of many species from our British countryside?

    1. This ('the tree line') is currently at or above about 500m in UK and rising rapidly with warming. That inevitably incrementally restricts the land available. The birds will need human-maintained sub-climaxes below this level. Local extinctions are becoming commoner in the Alps too as sites shrink with rising treelines (eg Capercaillie & Dotterel).

  3. As a professional conservation and sustainability advisor who is also involved in fieldsports I indeed find myself in the middle of the debate. I'd like to think that that was in the 'virtuous' area, but my thoughts are massively conflicted. At least learning about the conflict between my limbic centre and frontal lobe now helps me to rationalise why I feel that way.

    Your observations of re-wilding via land abandonment, and its subsequent effects on various species, are exactly what any scientist would predict. The species that favour the emerging and then climax vegetation will be in the ascendency, whilst those that rely on land management by humans to maintain a sub-climax vegetation community for some particular purpose (whether that's food production, woodfuel or grouse shooting) will start to decline.

    The key question, and incidentally one that I would have loved to have asked MA and Ian Coghill (ex-GWCT Chairman) at a CLA Game Fair debate on species population management in about 2013/4, is: so exactly who is is that should decide how the contryside is managed, which species populations should be conserved/enhanced and where, and how many of which particular species should be controlled so that scarcer numbers of other species can survive? Again, I think the answer can only be 'somewhere in the middle'.

    On the subject of the sudden withdrawal of the GLs, I think that whilst being technically correct, Wild Justice was perhaps somewhat naive (I'm sure some people might say 'calculated') in launching their legal case at the time of year that they did. In my view NE didn't really have any alternative but to suspend the GLs immediately once they realised that the case had been proven - one can't say "I'm sorry Officer, I know that my car tyre is bald and illegal, but could we just wait until next year so that I can fix it?" Launching after the critical nesting period for ground-nesting birds might then have allowed for some more reasoned debate, rather than leaving those of us in the middle who consider these matters seriously from all perspectives at least feeling able to comment without the risk of vitriol from either side.

    1. I am a bit busy at the mo. but I will come back to your comment and give you my thoughts late next wekk.

  4. A really well thought out and presented argument, which deserves to be seen by a wider audience. Just to say I have almost given up farming on my farm, with only a Natural England stewardship requirement to graze with cattle keeping them on the land (tb potentially a threat). In this time with less short grass, more trees I have "lost" both my waders and ground nesting birds including skylarks, as crow, foxes, buzzards, badgers and ticks have flourished in an area with no commercial releases of game birds.
    I have always thought that the current re-wilding plan as abandonment and expensive for both the tax payer and consumer, well said early in the piece, and the reason both the wilding works and the NE Italian region has changed is the lack of people both living and visiting, lets not forget that as Kepp castle is private land they can control access, whereas wider Dartmoor cannot. Add open access, increased fire risk, rural depopulation and you have just a problem for iconic species and habitats. If Moorland and their species, not just red grouse, are going to be saved we need predator and deer control and I cannot see HM Govt forking out for that.