The following article is taken from the Chairman's Column in the Winter edition of Scottish Gamekeeper (SGA's quarterly member magazine)
Recently I received an email from Duncan-Orr Ewing of RSPB. It was pre-warning that RSPB intends to campaign for new laws regarding game bird releasing in Britain.
There was the usual pre-amble about conservationists and the game sector ‘agreeing on some things’. Then the knife was turned.
He need not have bothered with small talk.
Today the reality is, there are very few things the working countryside agrees on, with RSPB.
There was maybe a day (when RSPB were more about saving birds) that the prospects of working to bring about shared goals may have been possible, even encouraged.
That day, unfortunately, seems long gone. They have lost many friends in the farming community with their we-know-better-than-you attitude and their inability to reflect with humility on their own shortcomings when it comes to saving birds.
They now seem like an organisation fixated on accruing money- and ending game shooting.
They would have people believe it is reform they seek. I don’t believe it and there are less and less people, who rely on the countryside to make a living, who do.
If it was reform they sought, they would have looked at the facts, presented to them by GWCT’s Teresa Dent (on how low ground shoots produced more farmland birds than non-shooting land) and decided to engage with working conservationists on how to maximise proven benefits of game releasing.
Instead, they’ll cut straight to politics and campaigning. Stuff the farmland birds who benefit from management that goes with pheasant and partridge shooting such as hedgerow planting, game crops and woodland creation and management (see: https://www.scottishgamekeepers.co.uk/latest-news/2022/2022-10-09-pheasant-shoots-save-scotlands-vanishing-hedges.php
Here is a powerful charity, carrying forward over a quarter of a billion pounds in its latest accounts, with the potential to do so much good. Instead, they seem to spend more and more of their legacy, which they could invest on making a difference to their nature reserves, to what they term ‘advocacy’.
That ‘advocacy’, to anyone looking in, is political and media campaigning and, more often than not, demonstrating an unjustified sense of superiority over other land managers who spend their daily lives using land for ‘providing’ rather than simply relying on other peoples’ money to manage it, in order to promote their own world view or do things like build visitor cafes.
Not everyone has the luxury of bank balances which could rival a small nation's GDP, which is what the RSPB have.
There are people out working hard in the countryside daily, making a living and trying to strike a balance for nature because they are passionate naturalists who simply believe it is the right thing to do, even if those choices are financially difficult.
That’s certainly what our members are doing and there is increasing pressure on farmers, but try they will.
Perhaps the reason the RSPB wage persistent war against game shooting is that game shooting provides more birds, per pound, than their land management prescriptions? Maybe game shooting is the RSPB’s eternal red face?
Whatever the case, we will never know. There is no requirement for RSPB to publish what they produce in terms of birds and they stopped reporting on what nature they had on their reserves a long time ago. There needs to be greater political scrutiny as to why this is, before more scarce cash is doled out to them. Why is there no measurement for Return on Investment when it comes to the activities of this very wealthy charity when all other public spending is scrutinised in Holyrood and Westminster? Are they answerable to no one?
There also needs to be a recognition within the game sector that, if the RSPB chooses to pursue a goal against you, no amount of evidence will turn the ship. The notion of ‘working with them’ has failed and it hasn’t produced any more birds.
This is desperately sad.
There is a view often spoken that some local RSPB officers on the ground are sympathetic to land managers. I am glad to hear this. Some actually agree on many points when it comes to bird conservation, such as the weight of predation. Sadly, these individuals never enter senior positions. The RSPB hierarchy controls the message. That narrative, today, is increasingly anti-shooting.
For example, in her reply to the same warning letter from the RSPB, Teresa Dent laid out the work GWCT had done in showing senior RSPB officials evidence on gamebird releasing. There were site visits, papers showing higher bird population trends on shoots than on non-shoots. None of it mattered.
You would think the RSPB would at least have been interested in the higher bird populations?
In Scotland, RSPB recently used its evidence session on the Hunting with Dogs Bill to promote views to try to weaken the game sector’s hand. Given foxes are one of the principal predators of birds, you might have thought they would decide that effective fox management was generally beneficial, even if it maintained an otherwise neutral stance on using dogs, as an organisation? Perhaps the thought of agreeing on something with the game sector was too much for their ego?
They drove legal protection for mountain hare knowing their own management of their flagship reserve at Abernethy had basically wiped the species out on that land; something grouse moor management had never done and never would. Indeed, there were regular, sustainable, hare and Capercaillie shoots on Abernethy, before RSPB bought it and changed the management.
Nowadays there would barely be enough of either species to even know they were there. This has occurred entirely on their watch.
Was their campaign really about mountain hares? Was it more about disrupting grouse moor management?
Their apparent desire to drive shooting from the UK leads to curious policy contradictions.
They tell MSPs on the RAINE Committee that fox management with dogs is not required around their woods because foxes are not really posing them a problem yet they spend money erecting electric fences to protect wading birds from foxes.
That measure may be OK to protect their own reserves from ground predators but it protects nothing beyond the boundary fence- hardly good neighbourliness or thinking about overall bird survival.
Someone should also have told them that corvids can fly over fences.
At Insh Marshes, they control foxes to protect wading birds. 25 miles away, at their Abernethy reserve they refuse to manage foxes to protect Capercaillie which are even rarer in Scotland than the wading birds they are protecting down the road.
The evidence for fox predation on Capercaillie is unequivocal. What is the justification for this stance, other than to try to make a case (wrongly) that predator control is unnecessary; something which would, of course, hurt game shoots.
Then, of course, there is the never ending campaign against muirburn on peatland yet they accept cash from a company doing extensive operations which alter peatlands. It can only make you wonder what their true priorities are and how deep their morals run.
Still, it gives them another crack at game shooting.
There are undoubtedly good things RSPB has done but it is a different beast today, with more cash, more power, more land, more influence and less accountability.
It is a shame this has made it more intolerant when it comes to the views and needs of others in a working countryside whose aspirations may be different but who make such a positive impact on birds and biodiversity.