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Armchair Travel with Naturetrek
Armchair Travel with Naturetrek

Episode 4 · 2 years ago

30 Years at the RSPB, with Senior Conservation Officer Dr Tim Melling

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Tour Leader Dr Tim Melling reveals some of the key conservation projects he worked on during his career, including grouse shooting, wind farms, preventing destructive developments and protecting Twite and Ring Ouzel in the Peak District.

Welcome to another Nate Creek podcast, where we bring wildlife to you in your living room. In this episode, thirty years at the RSPB, tour leader to melling talks about his career as a senior conservation officer and I'm your host, Sarah Frost, Nature Tex Marketing Manager, normally based in the head office in Chawton, but this podcast is once again brought to you from lockdown in Alton. Hello and welcome to another of our podcasts. Now preventing the illegal persecution of birds, halting environmentally damaging building developments, working with farmers to improve habitat for wildlife and climbing up steep crags in the peak district to protect ring ousels. It's safe to say that working as a senior conservation officer for the RSPB isn't your standard office job, but this is indeed what tour leader Dr Tim Melling has done with his career. Tim has been a leader of Nature Trectorers for twenty years, guiding our groups in far front corners of the group, from the Arctic to the Antarctic and a hundred places in between. So if any nature trek travelers are listening, the chances are that you've been on a tour with Tim at some point and he's joining us today from lockdown at his home in the peak district. Hello Tim, how are you welcome? I'm very well. Thank you, Sarah. Now, Tim, can you give us an overview of your role at the RSPB? You had a long career there, didn't you? I did. I started in the late s and I worked until May last year, which was over thirteen years working there, always in the north of England. I've never worked anywhere over the north of England my entire life. I started off doing press and media work there and then latterly moved into more pure conservation work and I suppose my job was mainly about trying to protect important sites for wildlife against damaging developments. When I first started I remember being told Oh, while you concentrate on sites that have got protection, and I was thinking, well, why do you need that? You know, if sites have got protection, what? Why do you need to get involved with those? Because they're protected, aren't they? And then, as I learn more about it, I found that even the most highly protected sites in Britain, you know that with with European level protection, British protection none of them are sacrosancts. All of them leave loop poles for developments to take place if it's for social and economic reasons. But the trouble is is that the developers are always trying to push that as far as they can get and to make sure that that they get the development to go ahead. But once a development goes ahead and you've lowered the bar and allowed a damaging thing to take place, that then sets a precedent for future developments because people say, oh well, you let him build his nuclear power station next...

...to that tripless I, why can't we do it here? And it's difficult to come up with an argument not to when one's already been allowed. So that's what I did. I was trying to stop the most damaging development and trying to broker deals for wildlife to make sure that it was taken into account with other developments, to make sure that it minimize damaged or was compensateated right. So clearly what many would regard as a crucial role and a very worthwhile career indeed. And I suppose it might be hard for you to pick one thing, but what was the main challenge you faced when trying to accomplish all of that. I mean partly was the was the government, really, because whichever government's in, they always see the economy as being much more important than wildlife and if there's any kind of playoff between jobs and birds, the birds are always seem to lose out. And so that that that was so every single time. It was an uphill struggle and the most of the designations were handed out more than twenty years to go and the government decided that these were actually quite restrictive because it meant that, yeah, it made it difficult for them to do damaging developments in places that have been designated as a triple Si, and so they really weren't keen on designating new ones. But I managed, through dogged determination and were working with others, to get the West Pennim moorsed in Lancashire designated as a new triple si about for four years ago. And what idea. What happened was when the European level protections were were handed out, they what they concentrated on the sites that had were best for birds, but then just ignored the rest so that they weren't designating too much. But then when something called less acs came out special areas of conservation, which was areas that were of international importance for the habitats and for the species that were involved. Now that the government agencies were rather lazy because they have to do lots of concert consultations with land owners before they designate their land. And if the land was already designated for birds, it was much easier just to designate it for its habitats as well and and take that box. And what we found was that the West Pennar Moors in Lancashire were far, far superior in terms of habitat quality than the than the South Pennaem Moors, which was a an internationally designated site. And yet the West Penlan was had no designations whatsoever. And because it was upland and windy, you know, all the wind farm developers wanted to sort of a chunk wind turbines on top when you know most of it was pristine blanket Bob with four or five meters of peat and and rare birds like merlins and dumlins and twice nesting there. So anyway,...

...with dogged determination, I managed to get that designated. So now it is protected and I know that I've played a major pass in that. Well, well done you, and you just mentioned wind farms and wind turbine so I expect they were a huge issue for you during that time. Where they were they a big problem for birds. There were a big issue from mystery. Yeah, I was, because I worked right from the beginnings of wind turbines, when nobody did even heard of them, right through their heyday, and most people thought that birds would fly into them. And so that's what most people's general version to them with birds was. I mean many people didn't want one in their backyard. So they used to contact our SPD and say, Oh, well, the skylarks and all sorts of things, you should be objecting to it. But what they found out was that by and large, birds don't fly into wind turbines in the same way that they don't fly into brick walls or telegraph that's what most people think, isn't it? Pople? Most people think is, yeah, Swan is going to fly into a wind turbine and get here and yeah, that's that's what you sometimes perhaps if you mainly and that's what you only really remember, you hear about in the news. It is, but but so that the occasionally they do fly into wind turbines, but usually when the weather's really bad, light, when it's pouring down with rain and birds can't see the well, or when it's foggy. But most of the time they're okay with it. And you mentioned Swan's. Well, big birds like swans and more susceptible to death by wind turbines for a couple of reasons. One is that they are less maneuverable. So if, in a foggy situation, a swan was flying and all of the sudden that notice with wind turbine blades in front of it, it would have very it would have great difficulty and avoiding it and doing a u turn, whereas something like a swallow could easily turn. But the other one is that there is actually a lot of empty space between the blades and I always think that if you stood next to a wind turbine with a boocket full of the cricket bawls and started throwing your cricket balls through the Wind Turbine Blades, you would probably get through most of the book it without actually hitting a blade because it would be going in the fresh air in between the blades. But if you tried the same thing with the javelin because the javelin takes much longer from start to finish to get through the blades. You know, one javelin and it would be clattering on the blades. So for that same reason, swans are much more likely to get hit because they're slower flying and longer than that something like a swallow or a small bird, and also because swans are big, they're slow breeding and so you can have more of a population impact. But by and large most winter binds are not a problem for collision but they are a problem for displacement. Birds don't like to breed up, but some...

...birds don't like to breed and and and rest when you've got great big wind turbines turning nearby. Some birds are more skittish than others. But this saw a wind farm can have a sterilization effect up to about half a mile. So if you start building them on the edge of protected areas, what it can do is sterilize an area of more and for the for the for the Dune Lane and the golden clovers and things like that that it was designated for. So again we were trying to get wind farms moved away to areas where they weren't going to cause a problem with displacement or with collision as well. And I was actually involved with one off Black Pool, of bold places. Most people think of black pool as a sort of a cheesy seaside resort, but off black pool there is an area called shell flat which is a shallow shoal of SAM and out there. We didn't realize at the time because there's nobody goes out there, but there were. It was the most important site in Britain. In England for common sculpters. There were about thirty thousand common sklters wintering on the shelf lat and this was one of the areas that the government of license for a huge ninety turbine wind farm. And common sklters are one of the most hysterical ducks you know. It doesn't hardly any good photographs of them because nobody can get near to them. Even that stee they're always flying off. Went there and and so wind turbines would scare them, but all the associated helicopter and boat traffic for met repair and maintenance would also see off those birds. So again we thought that and won because it was that was such an important site for common sculters. there. Wow. Well, that's fantastic and and we hear a lot about problems that birds have with wind turbines. We also hear a huge amount about the legal persecution of particularly birds of prey, and was that in issue in your area and something that you worked on quite heavily as well? Yeah, that was a massive issue, Sarah. It was, but it's so difficult to to actually convict. I once found a trap that was baited with a live pigeon to catch gosshawks and again we never got a conviction out of that. And one of my colleagues actually videoed somebody shooting a Hen Harrier on an RSPB reserve that was next to a gross more and a then we didn't get a conviction because this chat was wearing a ski mask and he flatly denied it was him and said it was somebody else dressed like him and we couldn't prove it because there was a he had a ski mask on and he got off Scott Free. So so we had to try and find some other way of demonstrating because they were in denial. But the shooting fraternity said, Oh, this never, never, no, doesn't occur. You know how many convictions of you had, but when we know that we can actually video somebody killing it and not get a conviction,...

...we know and they know how difficult this is. so we approached it another way in the peak district because peregrins and Gosshawks are hated by gamekeepers because they grouse. There's no two ways about it. The grouse the pheasants now, but they have traditional nesting areas and what we were finding was that these birds of prey were disappearing from the peak district. So we weren't actually finding a smoking gun, we weren't finding dead bodies, we were just noticing that the birds were disappearing. So now the peak district has its divided into two. We call it the dark peak and the white peak. The dark peak is the peopland areas was with the grouse was on it, and the white peak is the limestone areas. Now both of these have populations of Goth folks and Peregrins, but we noticed that the dark peak population was plummeting downwards and the white peak population was going upwards at the same time. Yet there were only a few miles apart. So what we did was we, and when I say that these birds simply disappeared. If somebody went along there and shot birds on our cold February, mid midweek, wet to day when nobody else was about, and managed to shoot peregrins and Gosshawks, they wouldn't occupy that territory. So we looked at the occupation of territories compared with how the the nearness of the proximity to grouse Moors, and what we found was that a territory of either a Gosshawk or a peregrine, for both species, was only half as likely to be occupied if it was near a grouse more so. So that was the first thing that there was no logical explanation for other than persecution. But when a territory does become occupied, what we were finding was that the next would suddenly disappear or that, you know, the contents would all the nest would fail. And we also looked at the statistics of that and we found that, if so, for the half of the nest that did continue on grouse was for gospels, they were only those nest were only half as likely to fledge any young compared with the ones away from the grouse was and for peregrines. It was a staggering three times more likely there. So that's, you know, there was no with a large logical explanation. You can't blame diseases or, you know, natural predation, not when these areas, you know, only five miles apart there. And so also we looked at the convictions, sorry that the absolutely converned evidence of bird persecution. So a shot bird, of poison bird, a trap bird, where there was a hundred percent no doubt that this had been done by humans. And we plotted those geographically and then we looked, as a surrogate for grouse shooting, we looked at the intensity of grouse Moore Burns, because gamekeepers burn more's...

...for grous there, and we've found that that the intensity of grossmore burning and the number of persecutions of these birds was absolutely correlated. So basically, the more grows Moore management was, the more persecution incident there were. And at the same time we were showing that there are a fewer birds there and they were having greater poor success on the gross mores. So that was a, you know, a really neat piece of world. We got it published as well. It was in the journal British birds and and you know. But that really really showed that just the underlying nature of what is going on here, with the illegal persecution of ever anything that is detrimental to grouse. It's absolutely astonishing to me what a battle this has been for you and and continues to be for other people working in your sector and still today. And forgive me for asking such an obvious question, but it's a question that so many people, I'm sure I'll be wanting to know is why is it so difficult to actually get the persecution? Is it purely because even when you hear of cases when there seems to be such damning evidence and the people still get off Scot free? Is it because people clearly just don't care enough about the wildlife and even when they do get persecuted, the punishment seems to be so limited and so you know it's just equivalent slap on the wrist? If no, it's it's a really good question in that set. But just imagine if I was up in the big district with my camera and I saw a gamekeeper and I could take his picture and then if I saw him shooter, say a Hen Harry or out there. I mean I could probably photograph the Dead Hen Harrier, I could photograph the Gamekeeper, but to actually get the shut the shot of him shooting with an identifiable photograph and that going down, because I thought he could claim that somebody else had shot it and it was already there. But Moreover, he would go over and retrieve it and that bird would then vanish, so there is no evidence, and then he would say, well, I was a bit closer to you. You know it was a crow. You're blind, you don't know what you're looking at and you know, and he's right in the reason to court in the land. That would convictive if you haven't got the body because he's got rid of it. And that that that is why the game for it shooting industry don't like satellite transmitters because what these are showing is that a satellite transmitter on the back of a paragram of Gospelk an area. Will you know, it works perfectly well for years and then the bird wanders onto a grouse more and then all of a sudden it just miraculously stopped working. And basically what happens is somebody illegally kills a bird of bray finds it's got a transmitter on and then has to, you know, smash it up and get, you know, damp destroy it. But what that's it shows where the last transmission was and if that was...

...on a ground more and we're finding that that is time and again what is happening. So yeah, but that this is why it is so difficult. But even that isn't enough to convict somebody. Even if all the hen harryers that have been satellite tags stopped working on the more, there is still not enough evidence there to prosecute a gamekeeper because, you know, nobody's actually caught him. It could be that those tags are just stopped working. It is it's a real nightmare of a job to get a conviction. Why? And do you think this may be difficult for you to say, but do you think that, with pressure from call servation groups, the business of Garciasing may be become a thing of the past, or at least a decrease? I think it will. It may get licensing, it may be licensed, it may be be even outlawed, but I think that things will come and not not just because of the collateral illegal persecution of birds of prey, which does go on on grice mores, then maybe the odd gross more out there that isn't got. By and large, you know that the whole that the whole industry is and is based on removal of birds of prey. But the other thing that they do is they burn the blanket bog and the deep peat up there. Now farmers were banned from burning stubbles just for air health and pollution reasons many, many decades ago, but for some reason that the gamekeepers are allowed to carry on burning the Moors. And you know, I see this thick poll of pollution on burning days. It happens time and again and and all that burning and it's completely unnecessary and it's bad for climate change as well, because what that is doing is basically releasing all the carbon dioxide that has been taken out of there by the spike of mosques. It's, you know, it's reversing of the climate change benefits. So you know, even for no other reason, they should stop burning the Moors, even if they carried on grace shooting. But and if they can't clean up their act and they shown that no, not even moves in that direction, then you know, I think that the the you know that the time is up really fair, driven grace shooting. Well, let's watch your space then, perhaps. But Tim tell us a bit more about the the other conservation of other bird species that you've worked with. I know that you've worked with twight. Have a you and wing use also touch right. Yeah, twit is an interesting one. Twice is a little dull brown bird like a linnet. Seriously need of a PR champion. It's most people have never heard of it, but it's got a more it's got that. I think that the most restricted distribution of any bird in England. So it only breeds in a tiny little area not...

...far from where I am at the moment in the south pound lines and north peak district. And Yeah, there's probably about a hundred pairs left in this area. And it's one of very few birds that feeds entirely on on seeds. Most seed eating birds like shaffages and sparrows will turn to an insect diet when they're feeding their chicks because they've got lots of protein. But twy doesn't. It carries on feeding just on seeds. So and the only nests something Moreland. So it needs an abundant supply of seeds next to next to the Moors and traditionally this has been hay meadows. But two things have been happening. One is Hay meadows are a real rarity now as silage is taken over, because silage can get two or three cuts the air off. You see these great big toothplace colored plastic bales in the fields and that means that it's all wrapped up long before that the seed is even set. So there's just no food available. It's really bad for Col use and skylocks and all other things as well. But the other thing that happens with that hey is that they're cutting earlier and earlier. So quite often when the birds are still feeding their youngsters on the seeds, the farmers quickly cut because they don't want the rain to come and ends up getting bailed and again there's no food and the babies are starving there. So we've been working with farmers in the areas, in the favored areas where twice still are to ensure that they carry on. Well, we've been getting grants so that it pays them to carry on managing in traditional areas and also to try and turn a few of these silage meadows back into the traditional hair meadows, which actually look nicer as well, and so much feder for wildlife. As I said, it is better a bumblebees, butterflies, skylarts, curl us, lapwings, in all the birds that like the upland fringes. It's good for so and you're right, I did work on Ring Gooseles as well. Ring goosels was a different tissue. Ring Goosele is the up and counterpart of black birds and their nest in the peak district, again not far from where I am now, and they but they're a very shy bird, much more skittish than black bird, and they're like to nest on peaks. And there's one great big long millstone grit edge in the peak district and it's several miles long. It's called standage edge and it's also happens to be the most popular climbing crag in Britain. People come from all over England to come and climb on stanage edge. It's so famous, you know, so long. There's many of them and when the weather's good and when there's lots of climbers there, the birds just cannot get a looking you know, there's nowhere that they can get that hasn't got climbers on. But when the weather's bad they stay away and then the birds start nesting and then what we can do is we can put restrictions up to keep climbers away once the birds have started nesting. But the climbers won't keep off and let the birds nest. And the first place that was a battle that we never ever one. But if the birds can't get on the crags, which is the nest behind heather and Bilberry, actually on the cliffs, but if they...

...can't nest there, they tend to nest in the bracken beds below the cliffs. Now you think that that would probably be okay because you know people aren't wandering in there, but the trouble is is there isn't much cover from above and when a bird nests in there, the climbers tend to have picnics and leave food scraps and that then attracts crows and Jackdoors and then when they're flying over they spot theiring measles and nesting and go and predate the nest. They to the the eggs, they the chicks and so invariably ring Gooseles that nest in the bracken beds fail. So and what we used to do was used to find these bracken nests and we used to get a big blanket of bracken litter and we would put it over the tops of these ring goozles like a roof, and I remember one female was so confiding. She sat so tightly on her nest that she didn't fly off when we put this blanket of things over the top of the nest so that she had a roof over us or of the crows couldn't see her and and we walked away and she was still incubating and she went on to raise two more broods from that that nest that, yeah, I think it was ten chicks into I was so pleased with that. So that was just one little side. But the main thing was negotiating, yeah, with the climbers to make sure that they restrictions were in place and that they didn't climb when we had a ringusle ness and and talking of climbers, thinking about it's the position that we're in right now and the country is still in lockdown. We have a coronavirus outbreak. Do you think this may actually have a positive effect from the breeding populations of ringers or at the moments, considering that there's going to be fewer climbers and tourists there now, it will undoubtedly. I remember back in the footmouth year when nobody was allowed in the countryside. That was when we realized that that stand a Jedge. It that the the number of ring goose ors on there more than doubled in foot mouth here because there was nobody disturbing them, they could carry on Nesting, and that that was the cat list that made us realize that something needed to be done, because you know, when we have twenty pairs of Ring Googles, I think along standard hedge, where normally it's sort of three or four. So but yeah, I do think for ring goose all that all these closures will have probably done, it's a world of God brilliant. Was One positive thing, one of the several wildlife points of things that I've been reading about recently then that could benefit them. So just to go back to Twite, which she mentions talks about a few minutes ago, many twits gets colorings. And have there been any major ringing recoveries from these birds that you know of? I as because I remember reading about birds that showed up in Sussex that had been ringed in the northwesternwhere. Yeah, what we found is so this this tiny population of twite that are in the pennines, about...

...a hundred pairs. All of them go across to the East Coast and and winter from about spurn point all the way down to East Anglia and one or two getting around as far as Sussex. But basically they fly by eastwards to the East Coast. Now twice also winter on the Lancashire Coast and it it's much closer than just to drop down to the rib estuary and winter there and there are wintering twite there. But what we've found with ringing studies it they play a kind of musical chairs all the Lancashire Birds from the north of Scotland and they come down here for the winter and all our birds move across to the east coast sort of. Yeah, just like musical chairs really and yeah, which I think is absolutely fascinating. But the other thing that we found is that it is historically twice. Did Not used to my grade. They used to spend the entire year around the pennines. But what they use they used to winter in fallow and and arable fields there. But because when in the days before tractors, people used to have to keep horses to sort of you know, work the farm and to pull machinery and things. So they then had to grow olds for the horses and we didn't have the you know, the transport infrastructure, so people had to grow food. So there was always arable in the UPLANDS, even though it wasn't very successful arable and then. But now, with mechanization and modernization, is that the uplands now specializes in sheep grazing and arable just does not exist in the UPLANDS. So they've got nowhere to spend the winter to so now they have to migrate down to the the salt marshes on the coast where they feed on it's called Salicornia seed Blights, annual see blight that grows on pioneer salt marshes. But the very picky they don't like it in the like. It's to be in a sheltered spot because if it's out on the open flats, all the seeds get blown out and so out over there and there's nothing to do to feed on. So the needs in a sheltered spot to keep them going throughout the winter and and it's global warming affecting their breeding numbers in northern England. It's a difficult one. Almost certainly it will be doing and we're noticing that things like ring it well, touch twice is certainly getting rarer in our areas but it's still doing slightly better in Scotland. Things like ring goose als are disappearing from the south of England. You know that hanging by a thread in places like Dartmoor. I think they disappeared from Shropshire now. So I guess things do seem to be retreating northwards and we've noticed that Merlin's as well seem to be moving higher up the hill. The lower ones are there, but which all suggest global warming. But you know, I haven't got the evidence to sort of...

...a point that we haven't done the research to say, Oh, yes, that's definitely why merlins are moving and Tim was it just birds that you were working with while you're at the RSPD, or did you get involved with projects that involved of the wildlife as well? I've always got involved with whatever I used to feel with the best thing to fight the development with I actually found that plants were a really good one because with with the plants and the habitats are there in just say that somebody wanted to build a wind farm on a more it was. If you're arguing plants, you can just say, well, this is blanket bog, this is blanket bog vegetation. You're damaging it by by putting wind turbines on it, whereas with the birds they can say our well, you've only got one pair of Golden Plover here and if we were to sort of create a little scrape over here, then the golden plovers could move there. And you know, it's much easier to negotiate a way. So so I often found that I relied on my knowledge of botany for my battles and it was you know, I found that I was more successful arguing with plants and I was with birds. But sometimes I said I would argue with whatever was needed. There was once when there was a wind farm cable that was coming from one of the offshore wind founds in the Irish Sea and they had to get the cable a shore and they needed to put it through an intertidal area of mudflats and then salt marshes and and it was difficult to argue against and from a bird point of view, because they said that if we do it during the summer, not all the wintering birds, that this is important for what we here. So what we'll do? It is will start in May or we'll do it we'll get it all finished by September. But the salt marsh that they wanted to plow up and dig this cable through happened to be the only English site, the only extant English side, for a really rare moth called the belted beauty that was on this tiny piece of salt marsh and we said that no, you can't play Russian roulette with the only site for this moth in England. You're going to have to do something else. And they were saying, well, you know, there's this, there's a substation, this is that, you know it's got to come through here. So what we made them do was something called directional drilling for about a mile that went under the Salt Myce so that nobody went on the salt marsh, nobody tramples on it, and they could pull this cable through underneath without actually damaging that thing on top. So we seem like a, you know, a reasonable way, because I don't think the moss would have minded if a cable went underneath their salt marsh, but they certainly wouldn't have liked it if they'd have got the diggers doubt and churned up the salt marsh to bury a Kaye there. So yeah, that was a little victory and that was for moths. Was the one that I won that one on. Well, just listening to your passionate knowledge for the conservation of our wildlife, no matter how small, certainly shines through. And of course this is why, alongside a career at the RSPV, you've worked as a tour leader,...

...if a day check, for over twenty years and I know to us are on pause at the moment. What have you got lined up for next year? I know you're off to Antarctica. I'm terribly jealous, but where else can our guests join you? That's right, I've got I've got a good year next year, sir, actually, because I think I've hopefully got friends Josef land, which is a pioneer trip. There a great trip to can chat, the Far East of Siberia, which I've laid before. And, as you say, I'm Tarctica, which coincides with the eclipse down there as well, so we're hoping to see the the total solar eclips whilst going seeing all the the penguins and the albatrosses and the icebergs. So yeah, let's just folke coronavirus disappears and then we can get on with our lives again. Oh well, I'm optimistic about that. And yes, as a cruise leader and dissertation fanatic, there certainly destinations that are high on my list as well. and well, Tim, that's been a fascinating insights into a long and important career that you've had at the RSPB. If people wish to join you on a tour, they can go to your profile page on our website, the link to which is displayed on the screen now. And thank you so much for joining us. It's been great to catch up. That's great. Thank you, Sarah. Listen to more of our podcast. Just go to our podcast web page at www dot nature trek cool at UK forward slash podcast. Thanks for listening.

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