Podcast uploaded: Mark Avery | The Common Pheasant

Uploaded to Lush Player June 2019: Mark Avery | The Common Pheasant

A short while back, Dr Mark Avery (friend, colleague, renowned conservationist, author, blogger, and pragmatist) gave me a heads-up about an article he’d written for the prestigious monthly journal British Birds. It was on the pheasant, that utterly familiar but non-native bird released in staggering numbers every year by the shooting industry. It would be called: “The Common Pheasant – its status in the UK and the potential impacts of an abundant non-native”.

Would I like to do a podcast? Do bears etc etc…especially bears that are passionately opposed to the slaughter of wildlife for fun by an industry that patently doesn’t give a damn about the consequences (my words, not Mark’s who is actually quite relaxed about some forms of rough shooting).

Understandably, the resulting interview was embargoed until the magazine had been printed and gone out to subscribers. And that has now happened.

But why the fuss about pheasants? They’re common enough, they’re not under threat, they’re really not especially noteworthy. That’s an interesting question because it suggests we’ve become so normalised to the casual killing of millions of virtually tame birds that we’ve almost stopped questioning it. At least that’s possibly what the shooting industry hopes…

Here’s the intro I wrote for the finished podcast:

“Pheasants. Most birdwatchers or birders barely glance at pheasants anymore they’ve become so ubiquitous, and while non-birders may not know a mallard from a Mandarin, a Kite from a Kestrel, a Blackcap from a Black-throated Diver, the chances are very high that they’ll know what a pheasant is.

Pheasants are everywhere, walking around fields or lying dead by the side of the road, painted on signs and cards or hanging by the throat in shop windows. Remarkably though, pheasants aren’t native to the UK, they’re introduced. Their original range was predominantly China and western Asia – they’re only here, and here in staggering numbers, because some people like to shoot them.

Every year the shooting industry releases vast numbers of pheasants into the countryside. No one is exactly sure how many, or how many survive the so-called shooting season. No scientifically robust studies have been done to properly understand their impact on the environment, their impact on native wildlife which has to compete for scarce food resources, their impact on populations of predators that also kill or scavenge pheasants – the very predators, of course, that that the very same shooting industry claims they need to control to protect their…pheasants.

I spoke with renowned conservationist, author and birder Dr Mark Avery on the publication of a lengthy article he’s written for the prestigious monthly journal British Birds titled ‘The Common Pheasant – its status in the UK and the potential impacts of an abundant non-native’. In our discussion we covered a wide range of the issues that Mark raised in his article – from pheasant ecology to predators, lead shot and Lyme’s Disease and just how many pheasants there are in the UK (answer: no-one really knows…).

Mark’s articlecan be found in the July 2019 issue of British Birds, the monthly journal for all keen birdwatchers. ‘BB’ as its affectionately known has an excellent website which you can find at britishbirds.co.uk. Mark’s equally excellent website, which includes his must-read blog is at markavery.info – he is also a founder member and director of Wild Justice, which, in a neat knot that ties this particular package together, recently took Natural England to court over the General Licence, which – illegally as it turned out – allowed for the ‘control’ of some bird species – including those that gamekeepers and the shooting industry claim threaten their…pheasants.”

Congratulations Wild Justice

A few weeks ago I interviewed Dr Mark Avery (one of the founders of the then newly-launched Wild Justice) about the group’s legal challenge to the General Licence – a barely-there ‘soft-touch’ piece of virtual paper that allows the slaughter of huge numbers of birds (often to support shooting interests) without regulation, monitoring or data collection.

The podcast is here and gives more background information to the challenge.

Last night Wild Justice posted the following:

Wild Justice’s first legal case has been a challenge of the General Licences.

Yesterday afternoon (23 April), nearly 10 weeks after Wild Justice launched a challenge to the legality of the 2019 General Licences (on 13 February), Natural England announced that it was revoking the 2019 General Licences 04/05/06 on Thursday (25 April) after deciding to do so at its Board meeting of 15 April.

After nearly four decades of unlawful casual killing of millions, tens of millions, of birds, sanctioned by a succession of government statutory conservation agencies over the years, the current system has been shown to be unlawful by the tiny and fledgling wildlife organisation, Wild Justice.

We haven’t changed the law, we have merely shown that the current system of licensing of killing of certain species of birds, developed and administered by a statutory wildlife agency, is unlawful now and presumably has been for decades.

The full statement is on the Wild Justice website, and comment from Mark (plus the howls of outrage from shooters – some of whom admit to not even reading what the challenge was or how Natural England responded!) is on his widely-read blog here.

Lunch with Mark Avery

I headed across the country from my base in Wiltshire yesterday morning to interview Dr Mark Avery, one of the Directors of the recently-launched Wild Justice.

A visibly non-stressed Mark Avery ponders another tricky question? Possibly, though probably not…

If you’ve not heard of Wild Justice (how about we just call it WJ for the next few paragraphs), it’s a not-for-profit company launched by Mark, Chris Packham, and Ruth Tingay in February this year, with the aim of ‘taking legal cases on behalf of wildlife against public bodies where they are failing to protect species and/or habitats’. Legal action will be funded by public donations and crowdfunding appeals.

On Friday last week (15th March) the WJ team launched their first appeal to raise funds to challenge the casual killing of birds under the abysmal piece of (to quote Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations RSPB Scotland in this podcast from last month) ‘light touch’ legislation known as the General Licence.

And it’s all going rather well!

When I left home at 08:30 the appeal (which needs to collect the rather chunky sum of £36,000!) had raised around £20,000 – in little more than a weekend! By the time I got to Mark at about midday that figure had jumped to more than £26,000 – thanks to an anonymous donation of £5000! (And no, Mark doesn’t know who the mystery benefactor is but to whoever he/she is he says thanks…and actually so do I because along with 900 or so other folk who’ve chipped in everything from a fiver upwards I really want this challenge to go ahead, and a donation like that makes it even more likely to happen).

Incidentally, by that evening it had jumped again….

Anyhow, the upshot of all this generosity is that I found Mark in a more relaxed mood than might have been the case had WJ launched to a subdued mumbling rather than an undeniably positive whooping. Which is fair enough when you put your conservation cred on the line like he, Ruth, and Chris had just done.

I always enjoy having a good chat with Mark by the way, especially when the pressures of Hen Harrier Day, a book launch, a legal challenge to brood meddling etc are essentially off his shoulders. We both know that he is a lot smarter than me (which he’s kind enough not to point out) but that’s never stopped the conversation from flowing.

As a pre-amble to the ‘serious’ interview stuff, we headed out into his back garden. Mark (and you’ll know this if you’ve spent any time with him) has a mischievous sense of humour (put him in a room with Ruth Tingay and it all turns a bit sixth-form rather quickly) and a few mild indiscretions were shared over a rather nice bottle of red (is there anyone Mark doesn’t know from decades spent in conservation? I’ve not found his limits yet.). Even the weather had perked up enough to tempt out a couple of Brimstones, while Red Kites circled slowly overhead. It was a very good morning.

We covered a fair bit of ground (including potential book ideas, Tengmalm’s Owls [have I told you my Spurn Obs/Barry Spence story? Grrr], local ornithology, pragmatism vs dogmatism vs life experiences [the wine may have influenced that a little]) before heading in for a vegan lunch with homemade bread. Very tasty, thanks for making the effort Mark.

Then, on to a pot of coffee and the interview.

Now while I don’t kid myself that my style of interviewing is all that much different to anyone else’s (though the RSPB’s Jeff Knott did say on Twitter that I was ‘unique in air quotes’ recently which may or may not be a good thing), I am always interested in learning the backstory, asking for the information that’s not on the individual’s/organisation’s website (rather than just repeating what a quick Google search would tell us all anyway).

So, I started by asking Mark whether I was correct in thinking that the idea for WJ had developed during the collation of the superb (you’ve not downloaded it yet? Seriously, you must) A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife which Mark, Ruth, and Chris had all been heavily involved in writing.

Was I right*? Well, I’ll be editing the recording today and if you’re interested you can find out soon. I’ll post the link here and in the column to the right.

In the meantime if you’d like to help Wild Justice challenge the casual killing of birds head on over to CrowdJustice.

*Okay, let’s be upfront – the answer is sort of…

Dr Mark Avery and Wild Justice

On Monday 18th I’ll be heading to a meeting with Dr Mark Avery to record a podcast about Wild Justice.

Now if you normally thinkred grouse, inglorious, sodden 570, blog, avuncular with razor sharp mind etc‘ when you hear Mark’s name, but not Wild Justice that’s possibly because you haven’t heard about it yet (though if you’re reading this chances are high that you have, besides which the UK’s shooters seem to be doing their best to give WJ as much free publicity as they could possibly need for which I’m sure WJ are very grateful).

Just in case the cheers/wailing of the nation’s wildlife enthusiasts/wildlife criminals hasn’t reached you yet, Wild Justice is a not-for-profit company launched by Mark, Chris Packham, and Ruth Tingay on the 13th of February this year, with the aim of ‘taking legal cases on behalf of wildlife against public bodies where they are failing to protect species and/or habitats’. Legal action will be funded by public donations and crowdfunding appeals.

This powerhouse trio have been conservationists for decades but have become ever-more vocal on issues around wildlife crime and the law, and all three have come out swinging .

To quote from the Wild Justice website:

“It’s a shame that we have to do this but we have little confidence that statutory bodies are fulfilling their functions properly. We aim to hold their feet to the fire in court”. – Mark Avery

Wild Justice provides an opportunity for ordinary citizens to fight back on behalf of wildlife, collectively helping us to challenge poor decisions or flawed policies that threaten to harm our wildlife.” – Ruth Tingay

The message is clear…if you are breaking the law, if the law is weak, if the law is flawed – we are coming for you.” – Chris Packham

Wild Justice have just this week launched their first legal challenge, and it’s a magnificent first case to bring – they are challenging the casual killing of birds under the abysmal piece of (to quote Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations RSPB Scotland in this podcast from last month) ‘light touch’ legislation known as the General Licence.

The General Licence is one of the most ridiculous excuses for getting around proper legislation that actually protects wildlife (think the Wildlife and Countryside Act for example) currently on the statute books. While I’m loathe to even hint at contradicting Ian Thomson, I think he was being slightly politic to describe the General Licence as ‘light touch’ – it’s more of a ‘hands off, do what you like, here’s your excuse, they’re just crows and pigeons nobody cares about them’ wink and a nod piece of virtual paper that is metaphorically wielded by far too many people who simply call everything they don’t like ‘vermin’ and can’t be bothered to try and live alongside the wildlife we’ve inevitably moved in on top of. Other opinions are available etc, but that’s mine…

And while Wild Justice uses far more temperate language (as befits two remarkable scientists and an equally remarkable conservationist who are planning to challenge a government agency), they (again) come out swinging.

To quote WJ’s crowdfunding page:

“The statutory agency Natural England allows the unlimited killing of a wide variety of bird species under a series of ‘General Licences’ which are published at the start of each year. Birds such as Carrion Crows, Rooks, Magpies, Woodpigeons, Jackdaws, Jays and Ring-necked Parakeets can be killed without applying for a licence, without having to justify why the action is necessary, without having to explain why alternative non-lethal measures such as scaring or proofing are ineffective or impracticable, and without having to report on how many birds are killed. All a person needs to do to ‘qualify’ to kill unlimited numbers of these birds is to claim to have read and understood the relevant General Licence.

Wild Justice believes this system is unlawful despite the fact that it has been in existence for decades and has ‘authorised’ the casual killing of millions of birds. We contend that it is the licensing authority’s (Natural England’s) legal responsibility to satisfy itself that killing these birds is an appropriate last resort. However, in the General Licences issued on 1 January 2019 Natural England ducks its responsibility and instead places the decision-making completely in the hands of the General Licence user. “

I always enjoy talking with/interviewing Mark, though I do find the experience somewhat daunting if I’m honest. He’s just so darn smart…bring your ‘A game’ or stay at home!

And he’s remarkably good at getting me to buy his books too (that’s my tenner in the image above) – which, to be honest, isn’t that much of a hardship as he’s not written a bad one yet…

So, as things stand I’ll record the interview Monday and have it online by Wednesday at the latest. In the meantime if you’d like to support the crowdfunding (which just a day after it opened has reached a remarkable £11,754 as of 10:20am Saturday 16th) here’s that link again

And if you’d like to read something really erudite about this challenge, have a look at the wonderful Patrick Barkham‘s piece in The Guardian from yesterday.