RSPB still not opposed to shooting birds

Yesterday The Times jumped the gun (or made an attempt to wind up its shooting readership) by stating that the RSPB was set to announce a change in its century-old ‘neutral’ stance on ‘gamebird’ shooting. We wrote a post (see – RSPB to drop ‘neutrality’ on gamebird shooting? It seems unlikely…) in which we reasoned that based on previous statements from the likes of Kevin Cox (Chair of RSPB Council) and Martin Harper (RSPB Global Conservation Director) this didn’t seem likely (sadly), and that the RSPB (which stands for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, of course) doesn’t really extend ‘protection’ to birds like pheasants, partridges, wildfowl and grouse.

It turns out that we were correct. There is no change to the policy, and in his statement to yesterday’s AGM (printed in full here) Kevin Cox made sure to reassure the so-called ‘shooting community’ by saying that, “At the outset I want to stress that this review was not about the ethics of shooting, on which the RSPB remains neutral. Rather, it is about the environmental impact of the most intensive forms of gamebird shooting“. 

In fact, Kevin (who as we said yesterday is a very decent man) even went on to say that “Land well managed for shooting can have considerable wildlife benefits, for example by providing habitat that can benefit species other than gamebirds. We have common ground with many who run these shoots and already work together in partnership projects to improve the conservation prospects of threatened species and habitats.  We want this collaboration to continue.

This may seem unfair to the good folk at the RSPB (and the RSPB does some fantastic work on its reserves etc) but as a life-long birder my immediate reaction is that the shooting industry will be celebrating today. Its members will carry on killing pheasants, partridges, and grouse as before – but now with the added giggle of being able to say that they have common ground with the UK’s self-described ‘largest conservation charity’.

Imagine for a moment just where that puts those of us who are sickened by the slaughter of birds by the shooting industry, sickened by the widespread trapping and snaring of native predators as practiced by the shooting industry, and sickened by the destruction of badger setts by the shooting industry. Those of us who are distressed and disturbed by shoots next to our homes (see for example Common Decency Seven Years On), fed-up of seeing ever more tracts of woodlands turned into shooting galleries, and angered by the intransigence of an industry that is underpinned by wildlife crime, refuses to give up lead shot (see – Shooting industry plumbs new depths), and is suppressing upland raptor populations across the UK.

It puts us in a position where we don’t look to the RSPB to help and support us. The Hunt Saboteurs and League Against Cruel Sports perhaps provide homes for people like us now (yes, we know what we did there…)

 

But back to Kevin’s statement. Is there anything in here that might lead us to think that the grip of ‘neutrality on shooting’ laid down in the 1904 Charter might be loosened even slightly as per The Times article? No.

The RSPB says that “we believe that new laws backed up by tougher enforcement will be needed to end the illegal killing of birds of prey, to end the use of lead ammunition and to end vegetation burning on peatlands. These practices are entirely incompatible with the imperative to address the climate and ecological emergency and there are perfectly practical alternatives.” In other words, shooting can carry on (‘perfectly practical alternatives‘), as long as it changes. But how will that ‘change’ happen? Shooting has shown no interest in changing so far, and new laws don’t appear out of thin air – they have to be campaigned for, fought for, made a priority in Parliament, and then voted for by MPs. How likely does that seem whilst we have a charity willing to collaborate with shooting and a government which, while not dismantling environmental laws as enthusiastically as the US, is pushing ahead with weakening environmental standards and building regulations, tearing down ancient woodland and nature reserves for its new train, supports the badger cull, and gave a free pass to hunts and shoots to break the ‘Rule of Six’ Covid-19 restrictions that the rest of us are subject to?

The RSPB also says that “we believe that all intensive gamebird shooting should be regulated to reduce the negative environmental impacts“. The highlighting is the RSPB’s own, and is important as the UK’s ‘largest conservation charity’ is keen to make a distinction between killing birds on a ‘walked up’ grouse shoot and killing birds on ‘driven’ grouse shoots. We’ve said many times why on principle we don’t support licencing grouse shoots (see – Grouse Moors | Licencing Slaughter) but licencing might at least represent a step forward in the immediate future? Not at all. Bewilderingly the RSPB says that they “will provide an annual assessment of progress and review our position within five years“. Another five years of the grouse shooting industry killing birds of prey, torching the uplands, and wiping out hares, mustelids, foxes, and corvids before the RSPB will write another review…

On the unregulated release of millions of pheasants and partridges, the RSPB (irony alert) talks tough. Here the RSPB are “keen to work with public bodies and the shooting sector” and rather than another five years will only give them eighteen months. So just this shooting ‘season’ and the next – which equates to perhaps 100 million non-native birds being released with unknown ecological consequences for target practice – before they call “for a reductionif significant progress is not secured“. What that significant progress needs to look like exactly they don’t say, but in our opinion it’s so unlikely they’ll get it that if the RSPB does somehow secure significant progress in a year and a half after decades of intransigence, denial, and obfuscation by the shooting industry (who release these birds because it makes them a lot of money) we will issue a public apology while walking naked through the corridors of Sandy.

 

In Kevin’s ‘Conclusion‘ he says that “Many shooters recognise that things aren’t right and are keen to end environmentally damaging activities. They clearly see that intensity of management from some shoots has created an uncertain future for the industry because of growing public concern about the consequences of their actions“. Indeed. Their industry is a national disgrace and is alienating increasing numbers of the public who are sick of the death, the dumping of dead birds, the so-called ‘predator control’ by their hired hands, the burning of uplands, the refusal to hand over wildlife criminals, the ‘wilful blindness’ and arrogance. Shooting knows this because the pressure coming from what they routinely tag as ‘extremist’ groups, websites and social media has been picked up local and national mainstream media (see – North Yorkshire ‘black hole for raptors’ says Yorkshire Post). Channel 4 News even recently aired a major item looking at grouse shooting (see – Channel 4 News exposes ‘wilful blindness’ of grouse shooters) which made its position extremely clear. Shooting is in a deservedly uncomfortable spotlight of their own making.

Time to go in hard then? Not for the RSPB. The RSPB wants “these people to be allies at the forefront of change and we are ready to work with them to bring it about“. We all want bullies to change, but since when has offering to stand alongside them while they carry on beating up their victims ever brought that change about?

In his concluding statement, Kevin Cox also acknowledges that “There will be those who dismiss our findings out of hand“. He was presumably thinking about those well-known voices who enjoy killing birds and relentlessly attack the RSPB for being anti-shooting – and not those of us who enjoy watching birds and are finding ourselves increasingly attacking the RSPB for not being anti-shooting enough. But if like us you simply can’t separate birds into ‘good to shoot’ and ‘good to protect’ then this review just looks like another drift towards supporting shooting and impossible to support.

Undoubtedly that’s not how the RSPB will see things, but it’s difficult to see what progress the RSPB has made here. This review was a year in the making and apparently ‘involved many strands of work‘. Yet nothing they’ve written is new or groundbreaking. We all know what’s going on out there. There is no sense of urgency, of admonishment, of disgust at the waste of so many lives sacrificed for ‘sport’. This statement reads like something put out by a government department rather than an organisation that we’re constantly assured is stuffed to the gills with people passionate about nature and wildlife. Comments online are calling it ‘underwhelming’…they’re being polite.

 

We get that being a ‘keyboard warrior’ is a whole lot easier than sitting in meetings with people whose whole way of life centres on killing wildlife, but ethics matter to us even if it’s not a consideration for the RSPB. And if Kevin reads this, can we assure him that writing posts like this is not fun. We don’t enjoy it and it’s not in any way meant to be a personal attack. But we need to be honest. And honestly speaking, while we need the RSPB we’re just not sure anymore that we need this RSPB.

We may be alone in reacting like this (though going by social media we doubt it). Many people visiting this site will have been members of the RSPB for decades, enjoy their reserves, admire their staff, and willingly support the superb Investigations Team with monthly donations (exactly like us, then). Unlike us they may see no problem at all with a charity that was set up to protect birds being keen to work with an industry that exists to kill birds. Our stubborn insistence on wanting to see all birds protected, native predators allowed to survive in our depleted countryside without dying in snares and spring traps, our birds of prey safe, and the macho culture of killing replaced with something kinder and more respectful may seem utopian and ridiculous.

We believe, though, that a better world is not only something to be wished for but is achievable. And shooting wildlife for fun has no place in that world.

 

{EDIT 12 Oct 2020: It looks vanishingly unlikely that we will be walking naked through the hallowed halls of the RSPB’s HQ any time soon, as almost immediately after Kevin Cox’s statement went live the very people that the RSPB want to team up with rejected everything the charity just said! The shooting lobbyists BASC slapped away the overly generous olive branch offered to them, and their 10th Oct tweet says that the RSPB risked driving a divide between itself and rural Britain is quoted in The Guardian. “No one in shooting wants to see environmentally damaging practices,” said chief executive Ian Bell. “The RSPB needs to acknowledge that, rather than damaging its relationship with a key conservation community.”

Yes, BASC perhaps don’t represent the ‘ordinary’ shooter that the RSPB believes it can reach out to (the ones who the RSPB perhaps think of as ‘sensible’ and who don’t believe in the artificial non-existent divisions between ‘town and country’ that lobbyist organisations try to rally their supporters around), but we’re simply left shaking our heads that after being derided in the media by shooting for decades the RSPB has reached out to these self-important clowns and expected something different…Einstein’s definition of insanity and ‘expecting different results’ comes to mind.]