The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) recently announced that Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, a well-known shooter, would become its Patron (taking over from his grandfather the Duke of Edinburgh, a man who’s total kill or ‘bag’ was described in The Indpendent as long ago as 1996 as “stretching over continents” and running into “mind-boggling numbers”).
It seems an odd match (perhaps not as odd as Philip’s involvement, but he was given the role long before today’s focus on shooting and the damage and harm it causes).
On the one hand we have the BTO, a transparent “organisation founded in 1932 for the study of birds in the British Isles” with an unimpeachable reputation for its science and data collection. It has charted the ups and downs (more often downs) of bird populations over decades. They are partners in BirdTrack (which allows birdwatchers to “view the latest trends, and contribute data to BTO science“), published the BIrd Atlases (which set the gold standard for data collection methodology and interpretation), and are noted for their rigorous unbiased data analysis, saying on their website that “we deliver science that is impartial, impactful and relevant, informing the management of the natural world“. (And while the BTO is demonstrably ‘impartial’, according to their ‘impactful and relevant‘ science the population of the Hen Harrier, for example, is throttled by persecution on grouse moors – grouse moors like the one that William took his seven year old son George to this year to watch the slaughter of grouse at first hand.)
There is good evidence showing that, although the Hen Harrier has been protected under UK law since 1961, many are still unlawfully killed or disturbed in efforts to protect the economic viability of driven shooting of Red Grouse (Redpath & Thirgood 1997, Thompson et al. 2009). A study combining Atlas data and a two-year field study provided good evidence that nesting success, annual productivity and survival of female Hen Harriers was lower on grouse moors than on other moorland or in young conifer forests, due to destruction by humans (Bibby & Etheridge 1993, Etheridge et al. 1997). Fielding et al. (2011) conclude that illegal killing is the biggest single factor affecting the species and that it is having a dramatic impact on the population in core areas of its range in northern England and Scotland.
On the other we have the opaque shooting industry which badmouths birdwatchers as ‘animal extremists’ and exists to turn a profit from killing wildlife. The driven grouse shooting industry, as outlined above, is underpinned by wildlife crime and the widescale illegal persecution of raptors. It is responsible for the deaths of around 750,000 Red grouse every year, innumerable native predators in traps and snares, and is the sole beneficiary of damaging environmental practices like the rotational burning of the uplands.
In the lowlands (and increasingly in the uplands as grouse farming becomes more unpredictable) the industry releases (according to their own data) around 60 million non-native pheasants and red-legged partridges every year (the bodymass of which, when totalled up, is the same as all the other birds in Britain put together). These releases, a practice which Wild Justice has called an “ecological assault”, are being challenged in court on the grounds that Defra (who authorises them) haven’t taken into account the potential impact on protected sites and species in release areas. Even the ‘neutral on shooting’ RSPB recently said that the mass release of ‘gamebirds’ was causing environmentally unacceptable damage.
The role of a charity patron is, according to numerous sources, “to lend credibility and support” to an organisation. Patrons don’t usually have a policy role but are listed on headed notepaper, in appeal literature and publicity material to help raise awareness and support for the charity (hopefully In William’s case he won’t be photographed with his guns). Speaking about it’s new Royal Patronage, the BTO says: “The patronage reflects the close alignment between two of The Duke of Cambridge’s long-standing areas of interest – supporting communities to protect their natural environment for future generations, and helping children and young people to build their skills, confidence and aspirations”.
Really? William’s long-standing ‘areas of interest’ includes putting holes into wild birds rather than counting them, and the ‘skills’ he appears to be helping his own children to build (like his grandfather before him) include how to show a lack of empathy towards sentient beings. That surely allies him more closely with shooting than conservation, which also encourages children to use firearms and kill wildlife from an early age?
William has of course (and we’d be churlish not to point this out) also spoken movingly about mental health issues affecting men and set up his own wildlife charities. He is – in that curious way that shooters seem able to compartmentalise wildlife into ‘good to shoot’ and ‘good to protect’ – highly vocal about the poaching of elephants. Whatever good he does though, he comes across as typical of the average tone-deaf so-called ‘shooting conservationist’ – seemingly unable to recognise value in some species whilst eulogising others, and unaware (apparently) of the ethical dilemmas that creates. Attempts to portray William as a ‘modern Royal’ with the same concerns as the rest of us, fail while he still upholds the ‘traditional’ one-sided relationship between historically wealthy landowners and the wildlife that calls that same land home.
And it’s on those latter points that it’s difficult (from the outside at least) to see how the BTO benefits from a tie-up with William. Do modern conservation organisations really need access to Royal families? Especially those so embedded within shooting. And how much access will come via a man who is already currently president or Royal Patron of nearly 30 other organisations and institutions (including such diverse groups as the Welsh Rugby Charitable Trust and the Irish Guards) anyway? Does he really lend any ‘credibility’ to an organisation that is fully committed to understanding trends in bird populations and to encouraging birders to watch birds rather than lining up to shoot them? And isn’t this a genuinely missed opportunity anyway: the BTO recently asked a hugely important question – “Where are the young women in birding?” Imagine how choosing a female Patron rather than yet another white, privileged male (who shoots) might have influenced and encouraged a whole generation of young women.
But then maybe the BTO didn’t get a choice? Newspaper reports suggest that he was handed the patronage by his grandmother the Queen and Prince Philip in a form of Royal succession. That may well be spin by supportive outlets, and it will be interesting to find out one way or another once the dust has settled and more information becomes available. If it is the case, though, and he was not the BTO’s ‘first choice’, that surely further undermines whatever relationship William and the BTO might be looking to build – especially in the eyes of already sceptical birdwatchers…
We are of course not privy to the conversations that may or may not have taken place between Prince William and the BTO. It may be that William has promised to use his connections to help out the BTO – which would presumably be very welcome. Maybe outgoing chief-executive Andy Clements (who has done a remarkable job of modernising the BTO and turning it from a rather fusty society into the dynamic outgoing organisation it is now) is right now bundling up reams of reports for William that analyse the egregious impacts on birds and the environment of shooting. At the same time, though, it would be extremely naive not to think that the shooting industry – which is being attacked from all sides at the moment – won’t also be working out how this particular pro-shooting Royal can help them. The Royals, after all, historically normalised the slaughter of Red Grouse and are still cheered in some media for their ability to blow semi-tame Pheasants out of the sky. For centuries they have killed wildlife on privately owned estates up and down the land. They may have lost Prince Harry, but William and Kate still fly the flag for bloodsports and shooting will undoubtedly milk that for all it’s worth.
And therein lies the problem that comes with linkages to the Royal Family. For all the good that they do, for all the love they undoubtedly generate, until they put the guns down and distance themselves from an industry that is so out of step with modern ethical and environmental concerns, they will always face accusations of hypocrisy – and so (fairly or unfairly) will the conservation organisations that line up alongside them.