20 Aug 2010

Magpies and their Defence by Mark Avery RSPB Conservation Director and my horror of visiting the RSPB Belfast Harbour Reserve for the first time in a few months.

Magpie Pica pica

A friend, who knows of my dislike of Magpies, recently sent me a cutting from the Daily Telegraph of a letter sent to the Editor by Mark Avery the RSPB conservation director. The letter is as follows.
Shooting Corvids Will Not Reverse Songbird Decline
SIR – John Hatch (Letters, August 2) asked how much the RSPB spends on researching the causes of bird declines, as compared to conserving birds of prey.
We spend £4million a year on species research and monitoring, a substantial proportion of which is dedicated to understanding the causes of decline and testing measures to help these species.
A smaller sum of money is also spent on tackling crimes against birds of prey, as well as redressing the impact of the persecution of these beautiful birds by reintroducing them to areas where they have been driven to extinction.
This is money we wouldn’t need to spend if those who persist in persecuting these birds put their prejudices to one side, acted in the public good and stopped the killing.
Unfortunately, scientific research doesn’t come cheap, but it does help us deliver reliable results for threatened birds. There is robust independent evidence, for instance, that shooting corvids will not reverse the decline in farmland songbirds, as Mr Hatch contends. That can only be achieved by providing the right food sources and nesting habitats in our farmed countryside.
That is why, in England alone, we spend £1.7 million a year on advising and encouraging farmers to put wildlife-friendly measures in place on their land. Farmland birds need farmers, and we want to give them as much support as we can to help them reverse the declines of skylarks, yellowhammers and other threatened countryside songbirds.
Dr Mark Avery
Director of Conservation, RSPB
Sandy, Bedfordshire

Well I totally and utterly disagree with this. Infact it makes my blood boil. I would love to know what this robust independent evidence is. As far as I am aware there are a number of independent studies on Magpie predation from all over Europe and the greater percentage of them suggest that Magpie predation of young birds is a serious problem. Even Evidence from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s farm at Loddington, Leicestershire, where research was carried out to establish the impact of predators on songbirds, found that at keepered sites where the Magpie population was controlled, songbirds thrived. One of the birds that thrived was the Spotted Flycatcher. Infact the bird was in decline in the study area and with the Magpie control this was reversed. This important fact has received next-to-no publicity, yet Spotted Flycatcher’s seemingly inexorable demise has been extensively talked up and blamed on a range of intangible factors, from global warming to habitat changes in Africa – across which the bird winters in a huge arc within which no other species has shown, thus far, a comparable decline in far-flung European breeding grounds due to ‘problems in Africa’. Yet the RSPB seem to think there isn't any persuasive evidence that magpie predation is a conservation issue. Even though research from the Czech republic regarding the predation of nests close to Magpie nests had a detrimental effect on the surrounding nests . [Miroslav Salek. Folia Zool. – 53(1): 57-64 (2004)] There was a five year study done in Northern Germany suggesting that upto a 100% of young and eggs of some species were taken were taken in a specific 25 acre site. I mean it ain't rocket science. In the UK there are about 650,000 breeding pairs and they have a clutch of between 5-7 eggs so potentially 4.5 million mouths to feed. Now what does a Magpie feed on? Well they feed on invertebrates, especially beetles, fruits, seeds, small birds, nestlings and eggs. Magpies tend to be born around the 1st May and it takes them 24-30 days to fledge. So approximately for the month of May all other bird species close to Magpie nests are greatly at risk with their 4.5 million mouths to feed each day.

Close to me there is a shooting estate where Magpies and Hooded Crows are controlled on a regular basis with the use of Larsen traps and any nest building destroyed and the result is palpable. In late May this year young birds were everywhere. I just don't understand why the RSPB does not recognise the problem that Magpies at medium to high densities are a detriment to countryside songbirds and then quite happy to publish a letter such as the one above which in my opinion is also prejudicial. And as for the redressing the impact of the persecution of these birds of prey by reintroducing them to areas where they have been driven to extinction. What a load of bollocks. The RSPB has claimed to reintroduce the Red Kite to Northern Ireland under the flimsiest of evidence that they ever existed here in any number. It is just a publicity seeking act to try and draw more members in.

Last week I went to the RSPB Belfast Harbour Reserve on two occasions. This was the first time in about three months. Well all I can say is Mike Clarke (Boss of RSPB) James Robinson (Boss of RSPB in Northern Ireland), Mark Avery( see above), Gregory Woulahan(Reserves Manager ) and Chris Sturgeon(RSPB Belfast Harbour Reserve) should all be utterly ashamed of themselves. It is a shadow of its former self.

Views from the RSPB Belfast Harbour Hide showing weeds

Views from the RSPB Belfast Harbour Hide showing weeds

Views from the RSPB Belfast Harbour Central Hide showing weeds
I first of all went on Wednesday and I have to say it nearly brought me to tears. Infact I came back on the saturday and sat in the central hide for three hours and talked to birders who came in. The overwhelming response was that they all thought that the reserve was now being grossly mismanaged. The water levels have not been controlled. One birder told me that for quite a while it had been totally dry. The RSPB spent a fortune on having a predator proof fence and that for the last two years a fox has been living on the inside of the fence. There were even it's footprints directly outside the hide.

Fox Footprints on RSPB Belfast Harbour Reserve

There seems to have been no effort to control the margins of the reserve in the last 18 months. The scirpus is taking over the weeds are totally out of control. Why have the RSPB spent ten years spending loads of money on getting a reserve into tip top condition to just let it slide. I cannot believe how apathetic they are. I had high hopes that when James Robinson took over as Director in Northern Ireland that things would improve in the period of instability after they had sacked the previous warden but obviously not. If dramatic action is not taken the reserve will be taken over by the reeds and the scirpus in the next two to three years.

After spending time in the central hide I went to the main hide where encouragingly there were quite a few visitors. However each one was interrogated as they entered as to whether they were members. The volunteers seemed to have no knowledge at all. I was just embarrassed by the answers they were giving to questions being asked. Why not get volunteers in on a saturday that actually know a wee bit about bird identification. They were unable to identify a snipe right in front of the hide for one couple. This is no way to enthuse the next generation of birders.

There are a couple of maps on the wall, which when the previous warden was working there were always filled with interesting information regarding migration etc. However in a fit of pique when they sacked him it was all scrubbed out. Has any information been replaced not at all.

Map in RSPB Belfast Harbour Hide unfilled in for 18 months due to apathy

Sadly I suspect that this reserve is in terminal decline.

UPDATE 1: This year there was a 90% breeding failure of Terns on the Tern Islands. No doubt due to not having any water around the islands which allows the foxes within the reserve to predate the young. In past years the previous warden always made sure there was water during the breeding season. There was also no safety islands next to the islands. So when the rain eventually filled the reserve again they had no place to go if they fell off the island.

UPDATE 2: Mark Avery is now leaving the RSPB in April 2011and from what I have heard one of the reasons is he found that Mike Clarke the replacement head of the RSPB an imbecile. That strangely doesn't surprise me.

UPDATE 3 A friend went to the hide a few days (25.1.2011) ago and was told the tern colony failure was due to lack of food. Well all I can say is utter lies. The tern colony at Groomsport further up Belfast Harbour didn't fail. The terns at the reserve are opportunist feeders in Belfast harbour as seen in the study by the RSPB NI Directors wife Lorraine Chivers "Courtship feeding and food provisioning of chicks by Common Terns Sterna hirundo at Belfast Harbour Lagoon " The failure was due to mismanagement of the water levels.

UPDATE 4 I was talking to a lovely lady at the BTO Film Festival on Saturday 5th March and she had visited the hide a week previously. It was her first visit. She didn't see a great deal. WHY you may ask. Well there were two foxes right out in front of the hide. This is in a reserve surrounded by a predator proof fence that cost in the region of £35,000. So it has been now two years since any effort has been made to control the foxes within the reserve. So I guess yet again there will be a failure to have any success with the Lapwing that breed on the reserve and if water levels aren't managed the Terns will also fail. Why do the RSPB in Northern Ireland tweet about conservation when they cannot put it into practice.

UPDATE 5 Two Days until Mark Avery leaves the RSPB. I wonder whether he has left any legacy I doubt it. The RSPB is more interested in gaining new members than on the ground conservation. RSPB Northern Ireland is still in chaos. The Belfast Harbour Reserve needs a new and committed warden who actually knows what he is doing. There is enormous disquiet at Belvoir about his abilities. Aodhan the PR and Media Exec was facing a disciplinary and jumped before he was pushed. So no more twitter comments from him. There are people off on stress and my friend who works there says the atmosphere is poisonous.


belfast cabby said...

Sorry to hear about the reserve was thinking of taking my little boy there but may leave it for a while

Peregrine's Bird Blog said...

Hi Belfast Cabby. Do take your son he will be interested in what he sees.

Timothy Belmont said...

It's ages since I have visited the Harbour Reserve; shocking to hear the state it's in. As one who knows little about these matters, I simply cannot fathom how and why it has come to this.

Still, I must pay it a visit soon and perhaps even take a snap or two for my blog!

Anonymous said...

I wondered how long it would be before you mentioned the reserve. It looks really shabby at the moment viewing the birds has become harder and harder and I have never seen the warden away from the computer in the hide.
Well done for having the oomph to say something about it.

Peregrine's Bird Blog said...

As far as I am aware the RSPB used a pest controller by the name of Mr Black to shoot foxes on the reserve or ones that had been caught in the humane trap.

If you have evidence that foxes were drowned on the reserve I would definately go to the police or RSPCA as that would have been breaking the law, I suspect you do not and are peddling petty unfounded rumour and from the ISP address not for the first time.

DorsetDipper said...

some comments on scrapes here ...


so might be a plan rather than neglect

Amanda said...

What a shame to hear the reserve is being neglected. (Did the terns nest this year?) Anthony worked so hard to improve the site. I can't believe the Industrial Tribunal decided the RSPB were within their rights to sack him. How's he doing these days?

naranjavill said...

I was looking in google for footprints of foxes and I happened to find yours in the Image search.
what kind of fox print is that ?
is it an orange-fox?
I'm asking this because we live in the Arabian gulf and i happened to find the exact same tracks in our farm.