Meeting Reports for 2018

The Nightjar and other woodland species in Thetford Forest. Speaker Greg Conway (BTO.) 18th January 2018.

Reporter: Sue Gale

Nightjar, Tree Pipit, Firecrest and Goshawk: These four species, although very different, are all ones we associate with the Brecks, and Thetford Forest in particular. In an evening packed with interest and information we learned about the research that has been carried out on these species by the BTO over some ten years. Thetford Forest, created in the 1920s, is a designated Special Protection Area (SPA) for Nightjar, and also for Woodlark and Stone Curlew. It consists mainly of Scots and Corsican Pines, with some areas of mixed woodland. As a managed forest, there are trees of all ages, and there are always areas of clear fell, where native vegetation thrives.
Nightjar numbers in the UK have recovered recently to about the same as in the 1970s, but the breeding range has reduced. Worse, in Thetford Forest even the numbers have been declining, so it has been important to try and identify the reasons. There is no evidence that increased predation might be the cause, so research has concentrated on habitat use and availability of food. Nightjars like to feed on large moths, and may take beetles, but they need to forage in areas where larger insects are found. Detailed accounts of their movements have been obtained using tracking devices. This requires an initial identification of nest sites, so that mist nets can be used close by to catch and tag the birds. They need to be re-caught to obtain the data. Much has been learned:- Nest sites are in areas recently felled, although they may be in deep bracken; Foraging sites are some 2-5km distant from the nest sites, and birds will cover this distance at least a couple of times a night; Grassland of some kind, including agricultural areas, is necessary for foraging, not just areas with heather cover, as had previously been thought; The availability and proximity of foraging habitat is therefore of primary importance.
A second series of investigations into movements of unpaired males have found that nightjars can fly for quite long distances when exploring an area or searching for food. This has extended to mapping of migration routes and timings. Nightjars do not seem to over-winter in the area of West Africa that had originally been expected. They fly south using a direct route, crossing the Mediterranean and later the Sahara in single leaps. Similarly they hop over tropical rainforest to reach scrubby grasslands. They do, however, make use of stopovers to rest and feed before undertaking these long flights. Returning in spring they tend to take a longer route, much further west, that avoids the big flights over desert and sea. The big lesson here is that the stopover sites are crucially important and work to protect suitable habitat here is vital.
Tree Pipits, now red listed as Birds of Conservation Concern, are also declining in numbers in England, although they fare a bit better in Scotland and other upland areas. Investigations have also involved tagging birds from the forest to follow their migration routes. Birds from Norfolk have been found to mostly use a very westerly route, stopping over in Portugal, following the coastline, and then wintering in the very west of Africa. There is no sign of particular problems with this migration route, but the plan now is to do the same investigation with Scottish tree pipits to see if this may explain why they are doing better than the English ones.
Firecrests, you will be glad to know, are on the increase. They are our second smallest bird and insectivorous. Their life is very short, with an average life expectancy of less than one year, but they are extremely productive. They may produce two broods a year, with 7-10 eggs per nest. Breeding birds may leave from mid August, but they tend to be replaced by wintering birds arriving from the continent. In both seasons the range is expanding, probably due to our less severe winters. In Thetford Forest the numbers are not actually increasing, which is why Greg and colleagues have been studying them. It seems that they like to nest in Douglas Firs, but don’t like Scots Pine. Ivy, Box and Yew are also favoured, but Firecrests will breed in any suitable trees, even just a couple of Leylandii. Ringing studies have found that small numbers of breeders may now overwinter here, but whichever strategy they choose only some 10% survive until the next summer.
Goshawk was the last species discussed. The Brecks are a regional stronghold, and there is even a nest camera which can be viewed at High Lodge Visitor Centre. It seems they mostly eat Grey Squirrels (half of their diet) and corvids, Wood Pigeons and a few rabbits. Game birds don’t figure large in this diet, in spite of the Goshawk’s reputation. Young birds have been tracked and are found to travel quite widely, for example North to Sandringham or into the Wensum Valley. They may nest in the forest, but they seem to hunt over farmland or the edge of the forest. They will settle or roost on any tree, hedgerow or shelter belt.
This was an evening packed with information, and left many of us keen to get involved. Many thanks to Greg for a brilliant summary.


Driven Grouse Shooting – our part in its demise : Speaker Mark Avery 15th February 2018

Reporters Keith Walker & Alwyn Jackson with editorial comment from Alan Hughes


Mark Avery was introduced as a scientist by training and naturalist by inclination. He worked for the RSPB for 25 years including 13 years as Conservation Director. He went freelance in April 2011 He is a member of various Wildlife Organisations and is a keen supporter of the Labour Party.

His talk about Red Grouse was unusual in that he brought no slides and simply engaged the audience. Whilst it was a very serious topic it was delivered with a light handed touch with some levity, but this did not detract from his message.

The presentation was split into two halves. The first part was scene setting and not opioniated. It was explained that since the early 1800’s a sporting pursuit had developed where Red Grouse where shot for sport and game. Therefore it could be argued that this was a tradition.

The Red Grouse live and breed in the UK principally in Scotland and Northern England and reside in Moorland. Their diet is heather and they particularly favour the young shoots. Landowners manage the habitat by burning off older heather to encourage the new growth. Other steps are taken by the landowners and employees to encourage healthy and abundant numbers of Grouse to support the annual cull.

Parties of guns pay huge sums to kill grouse and pay c £75 per bird shot. Nevertheless the bird remains the property of the landowner who also sells off dead birds for c £4 per bird for human consumption. The land tends to be owned by landed gentry and, because of the income generated, is very valuable. Some of the Grouse Moors are also owned by utilities such as Water Companies. Value of the land will be driven up by the yield of birds per season.

The Red Grouse are ground based and beaters will be employed to drive in a line, flushing the birds towards the waiting guns. A party of eight can kill c 3000 birds in a day. It is estimated that 500,000 Red Grouse will be shot in the UK in an average year.

Great efforts are taken by the Landowners to minimise predation which has led to a dramatic reduction in raptors in the Moorlands, particularly Hen Harriers who are believed to take young Grouse. The population of other mammals is also managed so numbers of creatures such as foxes and stoats have reduced draconially. There is also an issue with Mountain Hares, who can pass on disease to the young Grouse and Hare numbers have been decimated by eradication.

In theory birds have protection from The Protection of Bird Act 1954, but this is extremely difficult to police and there are many instances of illegal killing of raptors by shooting and poisoning. In England there is no vicarious liability so blind eyes can be turned.

It is now believed that there is only c7 breeding pairs of Hen Harriers in England which is between 1-2% of numbers that can be supported. There should be c300 pairs nesting in the English Uplands. Numbers are similarly reduced in Scotland. Anecdotal evidence following tagging shows raptors mysteriously disappearing.

Defra have recently launched the Hen Harrier Recovery Plan which has not been well received by Mark or the RSPB.

In the second half of the presentation Mark came off the fence and firmly expressed his opposition to Driven Grouse Shooting.

He suggested that Slavery and the No Votes for Women were traditions which were eradicated as we saw the light and Grouse Shooting was another tradition that needed to be eliminated. He also suggested that if any one came up with a business model for Grouse Shooting today it would be totally ridiculed.

As well as the ethical issues and the need to preserve wildlife there were economic ones with the damage to the environment from the burning of heather, the pollution costs from the management of the land,and the higher flood risks created by adverse land management.

Mark organised a petition called Ban Driven Grouse Shooting which was signed by 123077 people which precipitated a debate in parliament. Sadly the number of MPs at that stage who were prepared to speak in his support were totally outnumbered by MPs who support the landed gentry. He does however regard this debate as a major step in raising public awareness.

Mark believes that continual pressure will move this issue up the political agenda and banning driven shooting will receive more support from ordinary MPs due to public outcry. There are currently two further petitions which he asks members to support.

The first is from Ed Hutchings and is to regulate Grouse Shooting –

The second is from Gavin Gamble and is to ban Grouse Shooting

In Scotland the SDP are proposing the introduction of Licensing in 2018 and whilst Mark favours a total ban he believes any increase in control in England would be welcome.

The evening closed with a lively robust Question & Answer session, where Mark dealt with the issues in a forthright manner.

Editor’s note: Despite vigorous campaigning by conservation groups and by individuals such as Mark, as well as many of us signing the two petitions listed, the response from DEFRA so far has, to my mind, been disappointing:-
“Grouse shooting is a legitimate activity providing economic benefits, investment in remote areas and benefits for wildlife and habitat conservation. The Government has no plans to introduce licensing.
The Government has no plans to license grouse moors nor to introduce vicarious liability in England for offences related to wildlife crime. The introduction of such new regulation would require evidence that it will be effective. We are not aware of compelling evidence that the introduction of such provisions would have a significant deterrent effect on those who persecute wildlife. We will continue to monitor the situation in Scotland and to consider whether this approach is necessary and proportionate to assist in tackling wildlife crime in England.
The Government appreciates that many people have strongly held views on grouse shooting. The Government also recognises that shooting activities bring many benefits to the rural economy and the environment, in particular wildlife and habitat conservation. The Government therefore continues to support shooting, recognising it is vital that wildlife and habitats are respected and protected and we ensure a sustainable, mutually beneficial relationship between shooting and conservation.
With regard to birds of prey, like all wild birds they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The current legislation and guidance balances competing social, economic and environmental interests, while protecting the conservation status and welfare of the relevant bird of prey species. Some species of birds of prey need specific protection because their low numbers indicate that their populations are struggling.
The Government takes the decline in the hen harrier population in England very seriously and is committed to securing its future. In January 2016 we published the Hen Harrier Action Plan to increase the English hen harrier population. It contains six actions that individually can bring benefits for hen harriers, but when combined underpin each other and have the potential to deliver positive outcomes.
The Action Plan was developed with senior representatives from organisations including Natural England, the Moorland Association, the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, National Parks England and formerly the RSPB. These organisations, led by Natural England, will monitor activities and report annually on progress to the Defra Uplands Stakeholder Forum and the UK Tasking and Co-ordinating group for Wildlife Crime.
Raptors, like all wild birds, are afforded protection from illegal killing by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. However, the Government is concerned that there are still individuals who continue to commit these crimes.
As a result, the Government has identified the illegal persecution of raptors as a wildlife crime priority. Each wildlife crime priority has a delivery group to consider what action should be taken, and develop a plan to prevent crime, gather intelligence on offences and enforce against it. The Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group is made up of representatives from Government and non-government organisations working together to help preserve and protect the six UK priority raptor species (goshawk, red kite, golden eagle, hen harrier, peregrine falcon and white tailed eagle).
Additionally, the National Wildlife Crime Unit, which is part-funded by Defra, provides valuable intelligence and operational support to police forces in tackling wildlife crimes, including raptor persecution. There are strong penalties in place to punish those committing offences against birds of prey and other wildlife. “

If any interested birders have not yet signed these two petitions, there is still every reason to do so – if a petition reaches 100,000 signatories, the Government is obliged to consider this issue again for a parliamentary debate.

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