Royal Patronages: Fit for the 21st Century?

A few days ago the National Anti Snaring Campaign released news of a Little Owl found dead in a fenn trap on the Queen’s Sandringham Estate. The trap had of course been laid by a gamekeeper to ‘protect’ pheasants – ‘protected’ until a royal shooting party wandered up and killed them of course.

Social media reacted strongly. Chris Packham was quoted in The Independent saying that the royal family should end ‘unsustainable’ shooting on their land (which includes grouse shoots in Scotland), and our own post on the issue became our most widely-read of the entire autumn (a period which included numerous well-read analyses of the Hunting Office webinars and suspensions of hated licences for so-called ‘trail hunting’).

Much criticism was directed towards the Royals themselves. They have repeatedly been called out as hypocrites, purporting to be pro-conservation while being renowned for the huge number of birds of mammals they have shot or hunted on their various estates – Boxing Day still sees gatherings of royals of all sorts and all ages blowing birds out of the December skies – and on overseas trips. Prince Charles, President of the National Trust (which is currently embroiled in arguments about so-called ‘trail hunting’), notoriously called fox hunting ‘romantic’ in 2002 and was reportedly furious with Tony Blair for steering the Hunting Act through parliament.

 

In the same vein, there was frequent mention on Twitter of Prince William’s recent appointment as Patron of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), an organisation founded in 1932 “for the study of birds in the British Isles” and which is committed to encouraging birders to watch birds rather than lining up to shoot them.

We covered this with a popular post in October (see – Shooter is new patron of British Trust for Ornithology), writing that, ‘Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, a well-known shooter [is] taking over [as patron] from his grandfather the Duke of Edinburgh, a man who’s total kill or ‘bag’ was described in The Independent as long ago as 1996 as “stretching over continents” and running into “mind-boggling numbers”.’

Speaking about it’s new Royal Patronage the BTO writes on their website that: “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”. Which, much as we support the work of the BTO, is an anodyne, nothing sort of a statement which avoids the contentious issue of shooting birds, and really doesn’t offer any clues to what the BTO thinks they specifically get from having William as Patron.

 

We also wrote:

For all the good that they do, for all the love they undoubtedly generate in some quarters, 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.

That has led us to wonder just how many major conservation charities have members of the Royal family in such a high-profile role? And how many hunting or shooting charities are they linked with as well?

Firstly though, what is the role of a charity patron? According to numerous sources, it is “to lend credibility and support” to an organisation. Patrons aren’t typically involved with policy-making (ie they don’t decide the direction of travel), but by agreeing to become a Patron the individual can surely be assumed to at least be in lockstep with a charity’s ethics (or at least the principles they work to) and objects (‘objects’ describe and identify the purpose for which a charity has been set up). That works both ways: as they are there to help raise awareness and support for their charity, the assumption from us members/potential members and donors is that trustees will have done their due diligence before approaching a prospective (and suitable) patron.

Based on that alone, surely having keen shooters and hunters linked to their charitable conservation work is contradictory (and perhaps even off-putting to some potential members)?

Prince William’s appointment at the BTO (‘according to some reports’) appears to have been gifted to him by the Queen on the retirement of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh (which the BTO has neither denied nor confirmed). Philip was involved in the earliest days of some of the charities the Royals still ‘represent’, which partially explains why they are still Patrons of some of the charities listed below, but it seems surprising – in our opinion – just how many conservation charities the ‘Shooting Royals’ are Patrons of.

 

This is hardly an exhaustive list, but it is nevertheless interesting:

  • Prince Philip: Now retired from many previous positions, a life-long shooter/hunter he is still listed as Patron of BirdLife Australia, President Emeritus of WWF-International, and Patron and Life Member of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (a shooting organisation).
  • The Queen: Patron of thousands of charities worldwide including the RSPB, RSPCA, and Zoological Society of London She is also Patron of the Peterborough Royal Foxhound Show Society (which ‘promotes interest in foxhound breeding’), the Labrador Retriever Club (which promotes the breed as a working gun-dog – ‘the breeding and training of gun dogs is one of her great passions’ according to biographer Penny Junor), and the Shikar Club (a club founded in 1909 by Old Boys of Eton and Rugby to champion the cause of hunting and in particular big game hunting).
Sandringham gun dogs

 

This is just a quick post and probably merits weeks of research and a report in the style of Ethical Consumer, but while they say how much royal patronage has done for them, none of the conservation charities we’ve linked to appear to directly address the conflicts that arise from having individuals lauded by shooting and hunting lobbyists (and who actively support shooting and hunting) as Patrons.

Now we do have to acknowledge here that ‘conservation’ means different things to different people, particularly to shooters and hunters who bang on about the small amount of land they protect but not the number of wild animals they kill in a grim sort of ‘quid pro quo’.

In our opinion, though, ‘conservation’ should not be selfish. It should benefit the animal or plant being ‘conserved’ without necessarily benefitting ourselves/humanity in any way at all (particularly those of us with enough food to eat and a roof over our heads). That might appear idealistic, and many conservation charities have redefined themselves as ‘being for wildlife and people’. That’s an understandable and pragmatic position to take where, for example, deeply impoverished local communities that depend on a wetland or forest for water and food will need to be incentivised (or at minimum brought on board with conservation efforts) to stop over-exploiting that habitat so that a dwindling species can be protected (see – The Madagascar Pochard | The world’s rarest duck), but that’s a long way removed from ‘protecting’ pheasants by trapping stoats and weasels (and Little Owls) or ‘protecting’ the uplands so you can put holes into Red Grouse.

 

What’s perhaps the more interesting question, though, is why do conservation charities still want to align themselves with the royals? It can’t be because of the frequent impromptu visits to HQs, the personal in-depth chats with staff, the huge amounts of money that are put into supporting campaigns – because none of that happens. Access to influencers and other wealthy people? If that was the case conservation surely wouldn’t be in a permanent state of chasing funding just to survive?

No doubt the royals used to bring a sprinkling of stardust to an organisation, but surely that predates our own growing awareness of animal sentience and the numerous (well-elucidated) problems that shooting and hunting cause (see for example our posts on raptor persecution)?

This isn’t an ‘anti-Royal’ rant incidentally (though it will be characterised as such): it’s much more a questioning of the ethical principles of charities that align with individuals connected so closely with – and so supportive of – shooting and hunting, royal or otherwise. For activists and campaigners like ourselves, we can’t NOT question the ethics of any charity that would want to align themselves with any individual(s) that have long supported fox hunting and are still enthusiastic shooters. However, we acknowledge that not everyone has come around to our way of thinking yet, and perhaps the majority of, for example, RSPB and BTO members couldn’t care less about a relatively honorary role and prefer to concentrate on the actual work that gets done?

But that misses the point that (to use the well-worn cliche) ‘the times they are a-changing‘, and that there are numerous people who would be a better fit and would in all likelihood put more effort into the role of Patron. The obvious examples are the likes of David Attenborough and Chris Packham (both of whom have an enormous number of roles within conservation already). But why not also look at younger, non-white, non-male individuals who love wildlife, want to work to conserve it, and could bring a whole new audience to conservation.

Naming names just risks missing out some obvious candidates, but if we were given the choice of having someone (anyone) who doesn’t kill wildlife as a role model or a wildlife charity patron over someone who does we know which we’d unhesitatingly choose…