RSPB consultation on gamebird shooting: Wild Justice response and our thoughts

Recently the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (the RSPB, once the UK’s only wildlife charity focussed entirely on birds, but now promoting itself as the organisation that gives nature a home – so the Royal Society for the Protection of Biodiversity perhaps?) held a consultation on so-called ‘gamebird shooting’ – the use of – er, birds as target practice. They drew up seven draft principles, ostensibly to help those consulted to determine whether/how the RSPB should review its policy on game bird shooting and associated land management.

Before any of us who loathe the organised and profit-driven slaughter of birds across the UK get too excited, there was a precondition to whatever might emerge from the consultations. Martin Harper (the RSPB’s Global Conservation Director who praised the role of managed shoots in protecting wildlife in 2015) quoted the charities Royal Charter in a blog at the tail end of last year (“The Society shall take no part in the question of the killing of game birds and legitimate sport of that character except when such practices have an impact on the Objects”) and concluded that whatever form a review would take, “…this essentially means that we are neutral on shooting unless conservation issues arise.”

Whatever policy changes the RSPB implements it’s highly unlikely therefore that it will campaign or come out against killing birds for ‘sport’. Which will continue to be an enormous problem for those of us who would really like ‘our’ bird charity to protect all birds rather than some birds. Given that is not a position the RSPB will be adopting any time soon (no matter how many wildlife crimes shooting commits, no matter how many snares, cages, and traps it uses to ‘manage’ biodiversity, no matter how it limits nature to homes along lines that strictly benefits itself, no matter how petulant shooting’s attacks on the RSPB itself are), what exactly are they preparing to think about?

The seven draft principles are as follows:

  • Draft Principle 1: Shooting must not adversely affect the population of any native species targeted for shooting.
  • Draft Principle 2: Effective measures should be in place to ensure that shooting operates within the law and those not complying with the law must lose their permission to shoot.
  • Draft Principle 3: Management must not adversely affect the population of any native species in order to increase the shootable surplus of gamebirds and it should be underpinned by transparent reporting of the number of animals killed.
  • Draft Principle 4: Species in favourable conservation status, killed for the purposes of maintaining or enhancing the activity of gamebird shooting, should be managed in accordance with best practice guidance.
  • Draft Principle 5: Land used for gamebird hunting should be managed in a manner that protects and enhances the natural habitats and ecosystem services it supports.
  • Draft Principle 6: Some practices associated with shooting need to be assessed for their environmental impacts and, if necessary, to be better regulated or stopped.
  • Draft Principle 7: Mechanisms should be developed and implemented to ensure that gamebird hunting, across all parts of the UK, is carried out in accordance with these principles

As noted above this list does not include campaigning against shooting in any way whatsoever.

We weren’t asked to contribute our thoughts to the initial consultation (though senior figures in the RSPB are well aware of them from personal discussions we’ve had and for example from this October 2018 podcast with RSPB Chair Kevin Cox in which we discuss ethics and predator control amongst other topics). But issues such as a distinction being made of ‘native’ species (which effectively hangs out to dry non-native pheasants and red-legged partridges), what ‘natural habitats’ might or might not include (will these new principles apply to farmland which is regularly shot over?), the acceptance of predator control for “enhancing the activity of gamebird shooting”, and the absence in the ‘principles’ of anything that suggests heeding modern science on ethics or animal sentience, would all be problematic. And given that it was pressure from RSPB members (and largely those absolutely fed up with wildlife being blasted out of the sky for fun) that has led to a policy review, we’re confident that many other people will find them problematic (if not downright disappointing) as well.

We weren’t asked for our thoughts, as we said, but Wild Justice (which has ‘been set up to fight for wildlife‘ and of course numbers a former RSPB Conservation Director amongst its three founders) was. They have published a detailed response to the seven draft principles.

It’s a long read but well worth taking the time to have a look at because as you would expect it is insightful, expert and thorough. It doesn’t overly involve itself with issues like the sentience or intelligence of the wildlife that shooting uses and discards, but does acknowledge a “serious ethical question…should native wildlife be killed simply to increase the availability of another species to be killed by recreational shooters?“, and suggests (as we and many others have) that the RSPB needs to bite the metaphorical bullet and “develop a much clearer public position on animal welfare issues“. We would add that along those same lines, the RSPB should avoid using the terminology of the shooting industry (which we’ve discussed here): its language deliberately categorising some species as ‘game’, talk of ‘bags’ rather than individuals, and its various euphemisms to try to soften and distract from the killing it routinely undertakes.

The RSPB does of course do a fine job: its reserves (though tiny compared with the area of land managed for killing birds) look after vital habitats; it is involved in critically-important conservation projects here in the UK and across the globe; and its staff (at least many of the ones we’ve met) love birds and want to do whatever they can to protect them. However, it is hamstrung by an insistence on adhering to a Royal Charter written over a hundred years ago. Times (and society) have changed, and with so much debate taking place about a fairer, more nature-friendly world post-Covid-19 there has probably never been a better time (or more acceptable reason) to change tack.

A charter could be re-written if enough members demanded it, but could the RSPB ever be persuaded to really change its policies on shooting instead of tinkering with a few details while maintaining its ‘neutrality’ (a position shooting has always gleefully used to bash the RSPB should the organisation dare to question an industry that kills tens of millions of birds and mammals EVERY YEAR and which is underpinned by widespread wildlife crime)?

It’s doubtful, especially given the terms of its ‘new’ interactions with the shooting industry. Where that leaves those amongst the pro-wildlife public who want to see a firm stance taken against shooting is hard to say. Do we continue to fund an organisation that protects some birds and some habitats while leaving others to the gun, which has an incredibly hard-working investigations team that ironically exists almost entirely to protect birds from the shooting industry, and which gives the unfortunate impression that its members’ views are no more important to it than the opinions of critics and non-members who castigate the RSPB on social media day in day out? The truth is that of course the charity is vital and much-needed. Without it our wildlife would be in even greater trouble than it already is. Probably no organisation on the planet does everything that every member wants anyway. But wouldn’t it be wonderful (ground-breaking even) if our pre-eminent bird charity made a decision that on principle it would fight to protect all birds – regardless of their conservation status – from now on?

Revive’s ‘circle of death’

There are more firmly anti-shooting alternatives to the RSPB of course. Scotland’s Revive coalition recently published a manifesto that “sets out policies that we believe the next Scottish Parliament should address if it is serious about tackling climate change, land reform, social justice, protecting Scotland’s wildlife and biodiversity“. A ‘circle of death’ graphic makes it clear what Revive thinks is wrong with grouse shooting (while Wild Justice is not anti-shooting per se, it’s worth pointing out that For the avoidance of doubt, Wild Justice believes that driven grouse shooting should be banned” as well).

The League Against Cruel Sports stands proudly as an anti-shooting organisation of course, with pages detailing the truth about the shooting industry’s war on wildlife. The Hunt Saboteurs, while being better known for sabbing fox hunts, are also anti-shooting. On a more local level there are numerous grassroots organisations and campaign groups taking on shooting. A well-known example would be Ban Bloodsports on Yorkshire’s Moors, which “seeks a regional resource that promotes biodiversity and teaches younger generations the importance of nature conservation”.