Reports, with Bird Lists, of our Meetings, Walks and Outings

Fighting for Birds from Hen Harriers to Passenger Pigeons
by Mark Avery

Date: Thursday 17 September 2015 at 19:30


The opening meeting of our 2015/16 season was attended by 62 people – the highest September figure in the last 10 years.

In a break with tradition Mark Avery gave a talk, without the use of slides, on some of his areas of special interest.

Mark is a widely acclaimed speaker, author and activist on conservation issues, particularly those involving protection of birds and their habitats.  Further details of Mark and his CV can be found near the bottom of this report.

The first half of the talk was an eclectic ramble through his background, the UK swift population, his book Behind the Binoculars (interviews of birdwatchers) and culminated in an analysis of the demise of the Passenger Pigeon, once the most populous bird on earth.  It is estimated that between 5 and 10 billion of these birds lived in the eastern USA in the nineteenth century. The Passenger Pigeon became extinct somewhere around 1pm on 1st September 1914 when Martha, the sole remaining bird, died in Cincinnati zoo.

Mark’s Message from Martha was that this extraordinary extinction was brought about entirely by man and we should never allow this to happen again.  The Passenger Pigeon was shot for food, for sport and to feed pigs.   Mark recited accounts from the 1850s of people watching flocks of up to one billion birds filling the sky from horizon to horizon, without break, for hour after hour.

The second half of the talk was very much focused on the issues surrounding the illegal persecution of the Hen Harrier, particularly those living in upland moors where Red Grouse shooting is such a major industry.  Mark outlined the structure and functioning of the Red Grouse driven shoots and how the intensive management of the upland moors, in favour of Red Grouse breeding, results in grouse populations many many times the population which would be sustainable in any unmanaged natural environment.

The legal management includes the elimination of predators such as foxes, crows, magpies etc. and the draining of the moors to favour heather growth. The systematic burning of patches of heather is used to produce a variety of different levels of maturity of heather across the moors as adult grouse need heather shoots for food and mature heather for cover. Grit piles are provided which include pharmacological compounds to prevent disease.

Unfortunately management methods can also include the illegal killing, or disruption of nesting, of raptors including Hen Harriers and Peregrine Falcons.

Estimates of potential population versus actual population of Hen Harriers show that there should be about 2,800 pairs of Hen Harriers in the UK and there are actually about 800 pairs.  Figures for England are even more dramatic, theory suggests 330 pairs where the actual is somewhere between 4 and 10 pairs.

Trials have shown that if you protect predators, especially Hen Harriers, their numbers rise but that the number of Red Grouse remains level only if they are not shot.

The economic arguments are complex; grouse shooting contributes about £130 million a year to the upland economy and helps to maintain a viable upland population.

The economic downside of the management of the moors for the exclusive benefit of grouse is that it leads to economic and environment costs, by reducing water quality, increasing the risk of flooding and reducing the amount of carbon captured by the peat uplands.

All this is detailed in Mark's book Inglorious. Mark believes that no compromise is possible, either we protect birds of prey and restrict grouse moor management, or grouse shooting continues as is and we accept the loss of raptors, especially Hen Harriers.

Mark Avery sees a ban on driven grouse shooting as the best solution but given the lukewarm response from the UK Government and Defra to his e-petition, this seems to be a forlorn hope.  Ban driven grouse shooting e-petition

Mark's talk gave us a fascinating insight into the politics of conservation versus the exploitation of our countryside.

In addition, we learned about the Maidenhead, Marlow and Cookham Swift Group's local project to have Swift nest boxes in place in the Maidenhead, Marlow and Cookham area ready for next summer’s migration.

Click here for our news of the swift group's previous activities.

Click here for details on setting up Swift nest boxes

These links are here to help you find additional information. External websites linked to from this page are not specifically endorsed by the RSPB or the local group.

Peter Gaines reported several interesting birds in our area:

  • Dinton Pastures – Snipe, Common Sandpiper, Bittern, Redstart, Spotted Flycatcher, Green Sandpiper
  • Dorney Wetlands – 7 Cetti’s Warblers, 2 Little Egrets, 29 Chiffchaff, 15 Yellow Wagtails, Wheatear
  • Little Marlow – Osprey, Spotted Flycatcher
  • Pinkneys Green and Cookham – Hobby
  • Staines Moor – Wryneck, Barbed Warbler
  • Bracknell ( Fujitsu building) – Peregrines
----- Original Programme Information -----

Fighting for Birds from Hen Harriers to Passenger Pigeons

Photo of Mark AveryMark Avery is one of the foremost speakers, writers and bloggers on nature conservation, especially that of birds in the UK.  He is a scientist by training and a naturalist by inclination. He writes about and comments on environmental issues which include a monthly column entitled "The political birder" in Birdwatching magazine.

Mark worked for the RSPB for 25 years until standing down in April 2011 to go freelance. He was the RSPB's Conservation Director for nearly 13 years

His book Fighting for Birds covers his 25 years with the RSPB.  Fighting for Birds is a very apt title to describe his passion and dedication to conservation of the environment in order to protect birds.  Chris Packham wrote “If you have an interest in saving species and protecting their habitat this is a must read.  It is a triumph”.  (April 2012)

His second book is A Messsage from Martha – On 1st September 1914 the last Passenger Pigeon, called Martha, died in Cincinnati Zoo. It was inconceivable that this species could become extinct. The Passenger Pigeon lived in the forests of North America and It was the commonest bird on earth with flocks that blackened the sky and one reported flock took six days to pass overhead.  Why did the Passenger Pigeon go extinct and what lessons can we learn from Martha a century later? Perhaps we should all remember the saying that ‘the only thing to be learnt from history is that people don’t learn from history’.

Mark will be selling his books at the meeting.

In addition to his continued lobbying and challenging of authorities who have influence over natural environments, habitat protection and policies to protect species, Mark’s current project is to support and drive through the initiative to protect the Hen Harrier.  No doubt he will have views on the “You forgot about the birds” project headed up by Sir Ian Botham and supported by the gun lobby and, it seems, the Mail on Sunday newspaper.

His talk on 17th September titled Fighting for Birds from the Hen Harrier to the Passenger Pigeon, includes details of all three parts of his story. Fighting for Birds, Message from Martha and Save the Hen Harrier.

Photo is © Copyright Mark Avery.