Thursday, 29 May 2014

Killing robins - mischievous reporting or lazy journalism?

by Andrew Gilruth - @AndrewGilruth

Birds are protected by law. In England and Wales there is only one organisation that can give you permission to disturb our wild bird populations – Natural England. Whether you operate an airport with birds on the airstrip or a hospital kitchen with birds in the ventilation shaft you can’t act without their permission. They do this by issuing licences. There are two broad types:

Case by case licences: If there is a high level of risk of harming the conservation of a species they will seek detailed evidence on a case by case basis. As you would expect, this can take time, visits, and plenty of old fashioned form filling.

More general licences: If the species is abundant and widespread and the action is unlikely to pose any risk to a population (and you have a justifiable situation on your hands) Natural England lets you act quickly under a less bureaucratic system of simplified licences – however you must act responsibly.

It feels right that they have chosen a flexible licensing approach.  If wood pigeons are causing serious damage to a farmer’s crop and if their management is unlikely to pose any risk to their population – why not give him the freedom to act before it’s too late? If the same farmer’s free range chickens were being taken by buzzards – Natural England would only issue a license based on individual basis – requiring more detailed evidence.

Central to this twin licence approach is regularly reviewing which species fall in which category. Natural England take this seriously and have, in past reviews, elegantly moved species from one list to another as the conservation status changes. Where does the robin come in all this? Well during the most recent consultation one of the questions asked by Natural England should robins be moved to the quicker general licence approach? This is sensible question, since:

a) They were only suggesting nest and egg removal (ie no robins to be killed)
b) Only on health grounds

If those that wish to disturb a nest could do so quickly (before a clutch of eggs are laid) the robin will attempt to nest again elsewhere and the risk to human health reduced.

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) supported the idea since it is apparent that its aim is to enhance the protection of robins while also preventing a human health risk. The robin population is going up and if there were future conservation concerns for the robin Natural England could always move the robin back to the slower more detailed licensing system.

In the past week a number of newspapers and journals (including Birdwatch) have published wilfully misleading reports on the GWCT’s response to the consultation.  The GWCT urges national media to check their facts on robins! As does Rob Cooke, Director, Natural England here.

The GWCT are not advocating ‘killing robins’ as the reports suggests or have a vested interest in seeing this becoming a legal activity.  Our interest was solely in the belief that this would enhance their future protection and congratulate Natural England for looking carefully at the practical options.

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  1. Please expand on your suggestion that reducing the monitoring of nest removal by moving Robins to the General Licence 'enhances their protection'. I think most will be puzzled by this suggestion as under current GL conditions it would mean that no individual or organisation would have to report the nest removal to NE (if i understand the process correctly). The concern here is that by appearing to reduce the level of protection afforded to Robins, Pied Wagtails and Starlings (the latter a species in serious decline that you chose to avoid mentioning in your blog) it changes the perception of that protection. It also makes it much easier for organisations to justify (or provide the excuse) removing nests in situations that do not present a health risk when dealing with complaints or enquiries from the general public. Given the low number of licences applied for for such removals on health grounds why is there a need for change? GWCT have applied this same 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' argument across several other of the consultation suggested changes such as the removal of Jays, Rooks and Jackdaws from the GL.

  2. Alan, many thanks. Good point. Conservation is enhanced through taking earlier action. If the nest is removed promptly the robin will re-build another elsewhere for that clutch. If permission takes longer the eggs may have been laid so they could be lost too. A conservation loss.

  3. Your response is over-simplistic and doesn't bear up to scrutiny. You take no account of the impact on the adults involved and their physical condition as a result of building a second nest and how this might impact on brood productivity. Nor does your answer cover those pairs for which the attempt may be a 2nd brood later in he season and delayed laying May result in factors that reduce productivity such as reduced food ability or seasonal weather changes. Whatever the rights and wrongs of removing nests to claim that it will enhance the conservation status of any of the species involved is laughable from an organisation claiming to base it's policies on evidence-based science.