The RSPB has been accused of “extraordinary hypocrisy” after admitting it has killed gulls, crows, magpies and other birds under licence on its reserves.
The bird charity has vigorously opposed the licensed control of birds by gamekeepers, and has campaigned to curtail the terms of the General Licences that permit keepers and farmers to control pests such as crows and pigeons. Now it transpires the organisation has secretly been using the very same licensing system to kill birds for its own conservation purposes.
The admission came in response to a Freedom of Information request that was made by the Countryside Alliance, and appeared on the blog of RSPB conservation director Martin Harper – who just three weeks earlier had described his “anger” at the news that Natural England had issued a licence to a small shoot to destroy four buzzard nests to protect pheasants.
Harper admitted that in 2011/12 the charity obtained licences from Natural England to kill three adult lesser black-backed gulls and destroy 76 large gull nests, and also killed 292 carrion crows and 11 magpies under the General Licence system.
The charity also said it oiled, to prevent hatching, 73 greylag goose eggs and more than 25 canada goose eggs, and destroyed 195 barnacle goose eggs. The Countryside Alliance also discovered through its FoI request that the charity obtained a licence in 2011 to destroy the eggs of black swans.
Tim Bonner of the Countryside Alliance said the RSPB’s use of the licence system “looks extraordinarily hypocritical in light of its recent comments about other licence applications. If the licence system is correct when used by the RSPB, then it must also be correct when used by other applicants.”
He added: “In recent weeks the RSPB has been highly critical of licences issued by Natural England to destroy the nests of buzzards and cull gulls. They used highly emotive language to decry these activities, but now we find out that they have been carrying out exactly the same sort of actions.”
The RSPB opposed a cull of up to 475 breeding pairs of herring gulls and 552 breeding pairs of lesser black-backed gulls at BAE System’s Warton aerodrome, saying it was “extremely concerned.” Martin Harper told The Guardian newspaper: “This sets a very worrying precedent.” Yet lesser black-backed gulls were among the birds Harper admitted the RSPB had killed.
When Natural England licensed a small shoot to destroy four buzzard nests to protect its pheasant poults, the RSPB was outraged. Harper wrote: “Most people would prefer to see buzzards soaring in the sky. They are big, majestic creatures in the wild and we don’t have many of them in the UK: they are England’s eagle.”
But in his later blog he claimed: “The licensing system for permitting disturbance or control of wildlife exists for particular problems and we believe it is legitimate to make small-scale interventions for conservation, or as the law allows.”
Harper attempted to justify the RSPB’s duplicity, writing: “Occasionally, we also have to control certain bird species under licence on some of our reserves, but only after all possible management has been done but failed to provide all the conservation needs for those species of concern.
“In most cases, this is to recover the numbers of threatened wild birds: for example, we remove certain predators to aid the recovery of ground-nesting bird populations. We always favour approaches such as habitat management and predator exclusion techniques – but, as a last resort, killing may sometimes be necessary.”
The RSPB has sent out mixed messages on predators for years, leading to criticism that the charity is in denial over the true nature of the problem. The endangered capercaillie is known to suffer significant losses due to crows, foxes and pine martens at the RSPB’s reserve at Abernethy in Scotland, yet it consistently talks down the problem and focuses instead on collisions with deer fences.
The RSPB’s website acknowledges that domestic cats kill (it says ‘catch’) 275 million “prey items” a year, of which 55 million are birds, but insists “most of them would have died anyway”. Yet it used poisoned fish baits to kill off feral cats on Ascension Island to protect frigate birds.
On predator control, the website says: “The RSPB does not object to gamekeepers and farmers undertaking legal control when it is necessary to prevent serious damage to agriculture or as part of gamebird management.” Yet it objected in the strongest terms to the legal control of four buzzard nests, authorised by Natural England for exactly that purpose.
The charity’s website also states: “Birds of prey are protected because their populations are relatively small and are vulnerable to persecution.” The charity shows no sign of changing its line now that buzzard numbers have risen around ten-fold since the 1990s and the population can no longer be described as “relatively small” or “vulnerable”.
Yet the RSPB is not averse to trapping, shooting and even poisoning birds and animals when it suits. Even before the latest admission of killings, it was widely known that the RSPB poisoned gulls on Fidra and the Isle of May under licence during the 1980s, and as recently as 1993 was granted a licence by SNH to poison herring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls with alphachloralose and Secanol at Inchmickery, although in the event only nest and egg destruction was used.
More recently, in 2011, the bird charity spent more than £1million to drop 80 tonnes of brodifacoum rat poison by helicopter on the remote South Pacific Henderson Island, with the aim of killing off introduced rats to protect the Henderson petrel.