Honest is the Best Policy

You will have to excuse me, but I’m going to talk about the RSPB again. With only a fixed number of columns a year I’m sure I’ve already filled my quota of RSPB ranting many times over, but I just could not let this go without highlighting yet another example of the utter hypocrisy from this organisation.

Before I start, I should really make things clear. I am not fundamentally opposed to the RSPB, in fact, in many areas I believe that it does an awful lot of good things. There are, however, a few people at the helm of this organisation who seem to be steering it in the wrong direction. The chief concern of the RSPB should be the preservation of wildlife; sadly, the captains of the good ship seem more concerned with making money and increasing the number of members.

Having such a strategy naturally creates conflicts of interest. There are simply not that many confirmed twitchers in the country, so in getting a million members it had to pick people off the street. These people might know nothing about birds, nature or conservation, they just want to give their hard-earned cash to a cause they believed was doing good. So the RSPB concocted a marketing strategy that spun half-truths to potential members to the effect that other people, like gamekeepers and farmers, were responsible for killing birds and could cause a serious decline in threatened species. It told them that the RSPB was the saviour of wildlife and would never harm any animals.

The marketing worked and the RSPB got a lot of members. Members who believed, because they were told, that killing birds was wrong. But as we all know, it isn’t a good conservation strategy if you cannot control other species – it’s a bit like having a legal system without prisons, it simply wouldn’t work.

Greylag goose eggs were oiled, to prevent them hatching, by the RSPB under the licence system

Greylag goose eggs were oiled, to prevent them hatching, by the RSPB under the licence system

As the RSPB couldn’t exactly practice what it preached, what did it do? Did it explain to the members the importance of management for conservation? No. It carried on the marketing line while controlling birds in secret, hoping its members would never find out. Those in control believed their hype so much that they started to use it to attack gamekeepers, but now the truth has came back to bite them.

You may recall that last year the RSPB were the main force behind the government’s u-turn on the buzzard predation study. To recap, the study was to look into the effect of buzzard predation on pheasant poults using non-lethal methods. Under no circumstances would a single buzzard be harmed in the process of the study. That was not enough for the RSPB, which used all its might to launch an all-out attack on DEFRA, and even personal attacks on the minister Richard Benyon. The government relented and the study was scrapped. The RSPB was delighted.

The whole matter concerned the use of licenses to control buzzards. The RSPB will tell you that buzzards are protected, but this is only partly true. The truth is that all birds are protected. Some have open seasons, a few are on the general licence and all others, from robins to eagles, are protected 365 days a year and cannot even be intentionally disturbed, let alone killed, without a specific license.

Imagine you have a problem bird that is causing you an economic loss. You’ve have tried every possible legal method to get rid of it from your area and it still just won’t go. You’re losing money fast, so what can you do? If you’re in England, you can apply to Natural England (NE) for a licence to kill it. If you have ticked all the boxes and NE agree, they will issue you with a licence to kill that specific bird. Simple as that.

Problem cormorants are regularly controlled by fisheries managers

Problem cormorants are regularly controlled by fisheries managers

This is exactly what some gamekeepers have done to control problem buzzards around their release pens. Knowing that the RSPB would make a huge public fuss, NE refused the licences and suggested the aforementioned study to keep everyone happy. After the study was cancelled, thanks in no small part to pressure from the RSPB, NE had to make a choice. As the keepers had valid legal reasons to apply for the licences the matter could have gone to court, and been won. NE knew this, so to save time and money, it issued the licences. When the RSPB found out it got very wound up again. This time though, there was nothing that it could do; the licence had been issued. So, it decided to attack the system itself, claiming that it was unfit for purpose.

The major hypocrisy here is that the RSPB uses those very licenses to kill hundreds of birds every year on its own reserves. I know this, because I used the Freedom of Information Act to find out how many. The numbers were staggering, including oiling over 300 graylag goose eggs, shooting numerous herring gulls, destroying eggs of 250 Barnacle geese and even oiling the eggs of a black swan.

I’m sure these licences were all issued for good conservation reasons; I have no issue with that. What I can’t understand is how the RSPB can criticise a system that it uses itself. Of course, it will argue that pheasants are for commercial gain, but this is not always the case, as not every shoot is commercial. Buzzards also share the same legal protection as cormorants, but the RSPB doesn’t blow a gasket every time a licence is issued to a commercial fishery. Furthermore, I would also argue that, as the RSPB has a commercial arm raking in £20m every year, mainly through shops on its reserves, there too is an element of commerciality in its operations.

This must have ruffled a few feathers at the HQ in Sandy because recently, head of conservation Martin Harper wrote a blog post admitting that they killed bird and oiled eggs, before I even made the details public. Good. It’s about time the RSPB admitted this publically. Killing birds is part of active conservation; it is not a dirty little secret. Now we’ve all established some species need to be controlled for the greater good, why should there be one set of rules for the RSPB and another for shooting?

Whether for commercial gain or not, persistent and problematic predation on game can be a reason to apply for a control license

Whether for commercial gain or not, persistent and problematic predation on game can be a reason to apply for a control license

David Taylor

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