RSPB to drop ‘neutrality’ on gamebird shooting? It seems unlikely…

There’s been no official announcement, but according to an article in today’s Times titled “Game shooters fear for their sport as RSPB chiefs take aim“, the RSPB is apparently preparing “to end its neutrality on the sport by demanding reforms to protect native wildlife“.

The neutrality in question is enshrined in the charity’s Constitution via its antiquated Royal Charter of November 1904. The Charter says that “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”. According to the RSPB, the terms of their Royal Charter “make it clear that we maintain a neutral position with regards to legitimate field sports. We’re rigorous in maintaining this neutrality. We’re a conservation organisation and become involved in shooting issues only where a scientifically proven conservation problem can be identified.”

Since 1904 the shooting industry has expanded out of all recognition of course. It is underpinned by wildlife crime (see eg ‘While we were in lockdown, the wildlife criminals were out in force‘), it is the reason why our uplands are set on fire every year (the RSPB came out very strongly against rotational burning of the uplands by the grouse shooting industry in the last few weeks – see RSPB calls for a ban on peatland burning: why?), and there has been a growing awareness of the legal but morally and ethically indefensible widescale trapping and snaring of native predators (no-one knows just how many animals are killed, because there is no legal requirement for gamekeepers to keep count).

On top of that, it’s been widely recognised that releasing around 60 million (non-native) Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges into our already nature-depleted environment (and the UK is very nature-depleted, see State of Nature 2019) without any form of ecological assessment could be causing havoc: as the Times article says, “Only about a third of the 47 million pheasants and 10 million red-legged partridges released are shot and retrieved and the remainder become food for scavengers such as foxes, crows and rats, boosting their numbers. They in turn prey on threatened species such as curlews and lapwings“.

While we’d argue with the dismissive word ‘only’ when it’s used to describe some 20 million birds being killed for fun, we’d agree with the rest of the statement. As would Wild Justice who recently launched a judicial review into these releases, describing them as an ‘ecological assault’. Wild justice’s action essentially says that Defra (the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs) could be in breach of the EU Habitats Directive (which ensures the conservation of a wide range of rare, threatened or endemic animal and plant species) by allowing the releases without taking into account the ecological impact these (non-native) birds could have on protected sites.

To add to shooting’s paranoia, the RSPB published its latest Birdcrime report recently with the headline ‘The law has failed our birds of prey‘ and tagged it with the byline, ‘self-regulation from within the grouse shooting community has failed‘. In a number of carefully worded sub-sections the RSPB outlined just by how much the law has failed, and what needs to change…


Does all this mean that there is a change in the RSPB’s Consitution on the way? Sadly, not necessarily.

The charity launched a review into its shooting policy earlier this year saying, “There is growing concern about the environmental impact of intensive forms of gamebird shooting and associated land management practices. Environmental concerns include the ongoing illegal persecution of birds of prey such as hen harriers on some sporting estates; the ecological impact of high numbers of gamebirds released into the countryside, increasing the density of predators such as foxes and weasels; the mass culling of mountain hares in some parts of our uplands; the use of lead ammunition; and the impact of burning peatlands and medicating wild animals for sport shooting. In response to evidence about the scale of the environmental impact and growing public concern, including from our membership, the RSPB Council has agreed to review our policy on gamebird shooting and associated land management.”

At around the same time though, 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 and concluded that whatever form a review would take “…this essentially means that we are neutral on shooting unless conservation issues arise.”


Besides which, we’ve been here before. Dr Mark Avery (a former RSPB Conservation Director of course) wrote a post for his hugely influential blog almost exactly a year ago titled “RSPB prepares to shift position on gamebird shooting“. Mark was referencing the 2019 AGM, where Kevin Cox, the Chair of Council, is quoted as saying. “In response to the evidence about the scale of the environmental impact and growing public concern, including from our membership, the RSPB’s Council has agreed to review our policy on game bird shooting and associated land management.”  

Kevin, who is a decent and very thoughtful man (listen to an interview by Charlie Moores with Kevin from Oct 2018 here), went on to say though that, “This is an emotive and sometimes controversial subject but we want to use our scientific rigour to develop a set of conservation tests for management practices associated with game bird shooting.  We will use these to guide the RSPB’s conservation policy, practice and communications, consistent with the ongoing climate and ecological emergency, respectful of our charitable objectives and maintaining the confidence and support of our members“. Which essentially echoes Martin Harper, and does not mean that the Constitution was about to be changed – just that the RSPB’s conservation policies might be reshaped in light of a review into ‘gamebird’ shooting.


So what is The Times up to with this article? They may have inside knowledge that the RSPB is about to ‘take aim’ at shooting, but that’s doubtful. Perhaps the article is really intended to inflame the passions of its pro-shoot readership ahead of the RSPB’s Online AGM which ‘coincidentally’ takes place today and has as its second Agenda item “Matters arising from the minutes – Review of game bird shooting and associated land management”? A pre-emptive strike to get the Bothams of the world waving their shotguns in advance of any discussions?

None of us will know what is put forward/debated/suggested/implemented at the AGM until later this afternoon. Obviously we live in hope that the RSPB will come out strongly against shooting and extend its ‘protection’ to all birds – but if it does move in that direction at all it probably won’t be for ethical or moral reasons or because Pheasants and Red Grouse are birds and are therefore as worthy of protection as Hen Harriers and Cirl Buntings, it will be because of the conservation impact that shooting may or may not be having on protected species. That still wouldn’t mean an abandonment of ‘neutrality’, though, more a change in policy in it how it deals with the shooting industry and perhaps a parallel call for stronger legislation.

At this point we’re just speculating like everyone else, though, and we will just have to wait and see…