British fight for bird habitat

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2000:

LONDON––English Nature, entrusted with protecting endangered species in England, has hung hundreds of hawk silhouettes over 80 third-floor windows at its headquarters, hoping to deter smaller birds from swooping into the “trees” they see reflected in the glass.

Protected species including firecrests, robins, blue tits, blackbirds, kingfishers, and a pallas’s warbler had all recently been killed there. The pallas’s warbler, native to Siberia, was a species so rare it had never previously been seen by any of the 250-member English Nature staff.

“It’s not the shape that matters,” spokesperson Sue Ellis told Jonathan Theobald and Paul Brown of The Guardian. “It has more to do with breaking up the reflective surface. The building is going to look very odd, but it will give the public some idea of what we are trying to do. One of the messages we’d like to send out is the need for better-designed buildings.”

Reflective glass is only one of many major habitat hazards for birds, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds told media on March 29. The RSPB warned that 25 of Britain’s 287 most important bird breeding and wintering habitats are jeopardized by intensive farming, new housing, and industrial development.

The data was produced as part of a Birdlife International survey which claimed that two-thirds of the 515 most critical bird habitats in Europe are at risk, and that 93% of the 3,619 “important bird areas” it identified in 51 nations are “threatened to some degree,” chiefly by agriculture. The data was released a week after European Farms Commissioner Franz Fischler agreed, according to British Agriculture Minister Nick Brown, “that we should continue, for this year, our existing practice for measuring field margins. If hedges and other margins were acceptable last year,” Brown assured farmers, “there should be no problem this year.”

Brown’s announcement appeared to temporarily resolve an apparent direct conflict between orders to EU member nations issued in February by the European Court of Auditors on the one hand, and EU environment commissioner Margot Wallstrom and EU regional policy commissioner Michel Barner on the other, with birds caught in the crunch.

First the European Court of Auditors ordered EU member states to reduce alleged fraud in subsidy payments to farmers which are based on land use, by discontinuing payments for land occupied by hedgerows more than two meters wide. This would discourage farmers from claiming for the purpose of collecting a subsidy that land left idle or used as woodlot is “hedgerow.”

However, the RSPB and BirdWatch Ireland both warned, it would also encourage British farmers to thin or destroy ancient hedgerows which have become prime bird habitat. Relatively few such hedgerows remain in continental Europe, as result of mechanized warfare and––in the east––forced collectivization, but many British and Irish hedgerows have stood where they are since Roman times.

The European Commission then complicated the issue by warning Britain that it could lose up to $332 million in economic development grants if it further delays implementing the 1979 Wild Birds Directive and the 1992 Habitats Directive––which, among other things, call for protecting hedgerows and old growth. All other EU members received similar warnings.

Maintaining hedgerows is one of the key requirements for preserving bird populations identified by the RSPB, which reportedly plans to show off a variety of bird-friendly farming methods at a 420-acre working farm that it recently acquired as a teaching-and-research facility. The farm is six miles west of Cambridge, U.K.

However, the RSPB is not eager to save all birds. Daily Telegraph environment editor Charles Clover disclosed on April 11 that the RSPB is again killing crows and foxes at a reserve it maintains at Abernethy on Speyside, to protect the last 15 resident capercaillie hens. Only about 1,000 capercaillie remain in the world, and the Abernethy flock did not produce young in 1999.

The RSPB had suspended killing crows and foxes for several years to see whether predators were actually an important factor in the decline of capercaillie. In fact, capercaillie did as poorly on private estates where predator-killing continued. Conflicts with agricultural practices turned out to be the major inhibitions on capercaillie recovery, but––reluctant to change methods ––farmers and gamekeepers heavily pressured the RSPB to kill crows and foxes anyway.

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.