The RSPB is missing the target in its war on gamekeepers, says Adrian Blackmore.
The RSPB is well known for making unsubstantiated accusations, seemingly unconcerned that its claims cannot always be backed up with firm evidence. Much is made of the fact that every year rare birds of prey are being slaughtered, and that it is gamekeepers and those linked to sporting estates that are to blame for these heinous crimes. Last autumn was no exception. Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB’s Director of Conservation, claimed that persecution, associated with land managed for driven grouse shooting, remained the main reason for the hundreds of missing pairs of hen harriers, and that the persecution of all birds of prey remained devastatingly common. If land managers are becoming increasingly tired of hearing these accusations, then it would appear that so too are Defra and Natural England. The RSPB must have been mortified that neither organisation chose to endorse its press release containing these claims, and it was forced to go to the Ramblers Association for a supportive comment instead.
On what, one might ask, does Dr Avery base his claims? In 2009, Natural England and the RSPB found that illegal persecution played no part in the breeding failures of hen harriers, the low figure of only six successful nesting pairs being entirely due to natural causes. In 2008, the RSPB’s Birdcrime report also showed that there were no confirmed cases of persecution against the species and there were no cases of illegal persecution in 2010 either. So although claims of widespread illegal persecution and the perilous state of a species may be a good way to attract donations, the actual problem is that no one can make hen harriers settle and breed – as the RSPB has itself found on its upland reserve at Geltsdale. There, no hen harriers have bred for the last four years. Heaven forbid that anyone should suggest that that is due to illegal acts! The charity’s challenge to moorland owners and managers to allow hen harriers to settle and breed may prove to be too much of an obstacle even for its own employees.
While incidents of illegal persecution against birds of prey still do unfortunately take place, they are thankfully nothing like as common as they were in the past; neither are they as common as those against non-raptor species. Of the 268 reported incidents involving the shooting and destruction of birds of prey in the UK in 2009, only 38 could later be confirmed. The figures are not available for crimes against non-raptor species in 2009, for the simple fact that the RSPB decided to stop keeping records for this type of crime. But it is known that between 2004 and 2008 there was a 480 per cent increase in reported crimes against non birds of prey, and with a staggering 152 confirmed cases in 2008. That is indeed a devastating amount, but this is an area in which the RSPB appears to be unconcerned – possibly because even its relentless PR department would find it difficult to stress that gamekeepers and others associated with game bird interests were responsible.
It should also be pointed out that in 2009, there were a total of 74 charges relating to wild bird related prosecutions, 51 of which were proven. Only five of those involved birds of prey, including barn owls, and all were to do with their illegal possession, not their destruction. Unsurprisingly, none of those involved were associated with either upland or lowland shoots. So just what is the RSPB’s fixation on birds of prey persecution all about? Anyone could be forgiven for thinking that they were under threat, when in fact the populations of all but one are now at now at the highest levels since records began, in some cases to the maximum that the habitat can support. The only species in decline is the kestrel, which is still the third most common bird of prey in the UK. Interestingly, the RSPB does not campaign on this concern, possibly because at least part of the reason for its decline is intra-guild predation. This is something to which hen harriers have also been found to be susceptible, with an eagle owl recently caught on CCTV attacking a nesting female. Had it not been for the CCTV coverage, one cannot help wondering whether there would have been another reason given for the nest failing, and there are no guesses as to what that would have been.
The problem with the RSPB is that it abhors the idea of acknowledging the good that gamekeepers do, and the enormous number of conservation success stories from privately owned land that is managed for shooting. Instead it is those very people that do most to conserve our treasured wildlife that the RSPB takes such delight in attacking. When it comes to the uplands, the RSPB wants these to be recognised as special places and managed to make a difference for the environment, the public, and for the livelihoods of those that live and work there. Even they must realise that this is exactly what is being achieved on moorland that is managed for grouse shooting, where strict predator control and habitat management benefits many forms of wildlife and biodiversity, and where remote rural economies are being helped through employment and the income that is generated from shooting.
Without sound management, densities of most moorland birds suffer, and that is exactly what has happened at Geltsdale. The North Pennine Moors Special Protection Area Breeding Bird Survey 2005-07 produced for Natural England revealed that the reserve had a lower than average density of all important birds compared to the other 16 Sites of Scientific Interest surveyed – the majority of which are managed grouse moors. It had the lowest density of lapwing, and for golden plover, curlew, black grouse, snipe and redshank it was only just above last place. If you want to see these species, then go no further than neighbouring grouse moors, where gamekeepers carry out the legal control of generalist predators such as foxes and crows and patchwork burning of heather to provide cover and food that benefits not only grouse, but also many other species of ground nesting birds.
Although the RSPB does reluctantly carry out predator control, this is not the case on all its reserves, and too often it is just a token effort despite the existence of a mass of scientific evidence that shows how important it is. Research just published in British Wildlife reveals how the RSPB’s failure to carry out predator control on its Elmley reserve has resulted in lapwing being unable to fledge a biologically sustainable number of chicks. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s recently completed nine-year Upland Predation Experiment has also shown that the control of common predators significantly improves by more than three times the breeding success of curlew, lapwing and golden plover – all of which are species of conservation concern.
Given the considerable benefits to wildlife and biodiversity that are being achieved by private landowners and their managers, it is extraordinary that the RSPB seems hell bent on going out of its way to alienate those very people from whom they could do with getting help from, and with whom they have claimed to want to work. But maybe that is just yet another of their unsubstantiated claims. The fact is that it is not landowners or gamekeepers that need the RSPB, it is the quite the opposite, and not surprisingly there are many that will no longer have anything to do with the organisation. This is without doubt a serious loss to the RSPB, and one for which they have only themselves to blame. ν