Magnus Linklater is a clever man as befits some Old Etonians and some former editors of The Scotsman newspaper. I’ve only met him once and we got on quite well as we looked at the heather moors of the Langholm Estate one sunny day.
He wouldn’t deserve a place in this occasional series of articles, about those who appear to be less than full admirers of the magnificence of golden eagles, hen harriers, sparrowhawks and the like, just because he owns and manages a grouse moor (or is that his wife’s really?) as we all know that grouse moor managers and owners are divided on the merits of the hen harrier – not very equally divided, but divided all the same. Magnus may, for all I know, be a great admirer of the talon-equipped raptors.
His article in the Scottish edition of the Times in 2007 entitled ‘All right eagles shouldn’t be poisoned. But...’ would be a strong contender for entry to this series on its own, and he has penned other articles which aren’t exactly gushingly in favour of the mighty eagles and falcons of the world (here, here). I think he deserves his place – what do you think?
In his latest article, the claws are out for the RSPB in a kind of lazy, clever way. His article, in the Observer, timed, provocatively you might think, to coincide with the ‘not very glorious 12th’ starts with a description of the AGM of the RSPB. It’s quite a good description but I’m not sure it is a first-hand description as I didn’t see Magnus there last year. Maybe I missed him, or maybe his account is based on that of a mate and padded out with information gleaned from the RSPB’s Annual report.
Magnus’s article is full of remarks like: ‘the RSPB has incurred the hostility of farmers, landowners and even the rural communities among whom it works‘, ‘Landowners and farmers claim that there is something odd about the RSPB’s very public campaigns’, ‘Landowners and farmers, who find themselves on the receiving end of hostile publicity, say’ and, to be fair, these sweeping generalisations are backed up with quotes from a single gamekeeper and a single land owner from Kent. I’m sure that Magnus’s dinner party companions chunter on about the RSPB in such tones but it’s just possible that that is not a very representative sample of folk.
It suits Linklater’s paper-thin argument (that the RSPB is out of touch and out of sorts with all those ‘real’ country people) to promote the rural myth that most RSPB members are urban. Those 1.1 million people are a bunch of townies apparently. What evidence could Linklater provide to back up this assertion I wonder, other than the mutterings and splutterings around dinner tables after a day’s grouse or pheasant shooting? I recommend that he reads Chapter 12 of Fighting for Birds for some corrective information on this subject. But Linklater himself seems to live in a town, the New Town of Edinburgh, where he no doubt has dinner parties before decamping to the heather-clad hills for country suppers. Apparently it’s OK to live in a town provided you go to the country to kill things now and again. I, myself, would like to be ‘rurban‘.
Let me give you one example of what I regard as Magnus’s lazy cleverness. He’s kind enough to quote me in his article – in a rather disparaging way. In discussing the RSPB’s reaction to an important piece of science carried out by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Linklater writes as follows;
‘This was dismissed by the RSPB’s former conservation director, Mark Avery, as “work… funded by grouse-moor managers who are keen to promote the wider value of grouse-moor management… predator control, legal and too often illegal, is part of the business of delivering lots of grouse to the shooting parties in the autumn.”
For a measured response to a serious scientific paper this borders on the facile, but highlights the yawning gulf between the two sides.‘.
You can check that I have faithfully recorded Magnus’s words by following the link that I have already given you (and here it is again). That passage is the only support that Magnus gives for his assertion that the RSPB ignored this important scientific study. Those little rows of stops (…) show areas where words have been omitted. It is usual to do that to save space and preserve sense but here is the full text, the un-Magnussed version, of what I wrote:
‘work was funded by grouse moor managers who are keen to promote the wider value of grouse moor management. This study does certainly confirm what has been thought for quite some time that the systematic removal of large elements of native wildlife such as foxes, crows, magpies, stoats and weasels will benefit some ground-nesting birds. No doubt the RSPB will be told that we should join in the massive scale of predator removal that occurs on many upland estates. Our management philosophy is to start with habitat management and to use predator control as a tool of last resort. The situation is completely different for a grouse moor manager. The whole business of grouse shooting depends on there being lots of grouse to shoot from the Glorious 12th onwards through the shooting season. So predator control, legal and too often illegal, is part of the business of delivering lots of grouse to the shooting parties in the autumn. ‘.
So, Magnus’s version of what I wrote was 40 words and the actual version of his chosen excerpt was over 140 – that’s quite some edit! And the excerpt was from a blog of over 700 words devoted to talking about this study, written at the time the article was published, so hardly, as Magnus stated, virtually ignoring it. I even called the study ‘interesting and important’ – which it is, but maybe I was just being facile. Here is the link to that two and a half year old blog which you can see was not dismissive but was a reasonable thoughtful commentary on the work. However, in a lazy clever sort of way it seemed to suit Magnus to portray it in a different way. And here is the link to the study itself.
When it comes to ignoring science, Magnus does quite well himself. He fails to mention that the most powerful test of the potential impact of sparrowhawks on songbirds was not only carried out by the BTO scientist Dr Stewart Newson (whom he does mention) but also other BTO staff, academics from St Andrews University and a scientist from his own favoured GWCT. Linklater’s description of the study is that the evidence against the sparrowhawk was ‘unproven’ although the authors say that ‘for the majority of the songbird species examined there is no evidence that increases in common avian predators or Grey Squirrels are associated with large-scale population declines‘. When scientists say ‘there is no evidence’ that is a pretty strong statement. Is this just the difference in terminology between the English and Scottish legal systems or is it that Linklater will never be convinced, as a true countryman (with a town house in Edinburgh) that predators aren’t evil, aren’t causing havoc and should be tolerated by all?
There are plenty of clear errors of course (whose is the Red Data List, does the Red List really list only globally threatened species, wasn’t Linklater’s favourite GWCT study carried out at Otterburn (the clue is in the name – the Otterburn Study) which is in Northumberland rather than Yorkshire, are golden eagles flourishing (I wish!), do the BTO and RSPB differ over the population trends of raptors, were red grouse all but eliminated from Langholm?) which betray Linklater’s careless grasp of nature conservation and the facts that underpin our understanding of these issues.
There are jokes too – many will laugh (to use the type of phrase that Linklater employs so often) when he describes Lord Peel as a conservationist. Clearly we are all conservationists now. No-one, except some in the shooting community, equates nature conservation with the industrialised shooting of grouse and pheasants and the industrialised killing of so-called ‘vermin’ such as foxes and crows.
This article, as with this recent article in Shooting Times, is written, I assume, for consumption within the grouse-shooting community to buoy their spirits. It is written to try to maintain flagging morale, rather than to make any serious points or advance any worthwhile cause. It is the type of article that makes your side cheer and the other side snigger. And you only have to read the comments attached to the article online to see that such a poor piece of argument, cleverly written all the same, backfires with those who are not the normal habituees of the Linklater dinner-party circuit – normal people are quite able to see through all of this.
In fact, we have to thank Magnus Linklater for collecting together in one place most of the misconceptions, downright inaccuracies, prejudices and myths about the RSPB in one handy article. Rarely has such a complete job been done. Here are the ones that I can spot:
- the RSPB is obsessed with raptors (look at the RSPB’s website and see if you think the same – start here perhaps)
- the RSPB’s members are townies (see above)
- RSPB nature reserves are badly managed (see figures on bird numbers here)
- the RSPB doesn’t care for small birds (look at the RSPB’s website and see if you think the same – start here perhaps)
- the RSPB is anti-shooting (look at the RSPB’s website and see if you think the same – start here perhaps)
- RSPB staff and members are anti-farmer (look at the RSPB’s website and see if you think the same – start here perhaps)
- RSPB ignores the science (look at the RSPB’s website and see if you think the same – start here perhaps)
- RSPB cares about membership numbers more than nature conservation (look at the RSPB’s website and see if you think the same – start here perhaps).
Some of the cleverness of the writing is really quite well deployed. The RSPB ‘admits‘ that it helps the police try to catch people who break wildlife laws – I’m sure the RSPB is proud to be on the side of law and order and wouldn’t regard this as an admission. Linklater writes ‘ The RSPB, however, maintains a passionate campaign on behalf of all birds of prey, irrespective of their numbers’. Irrespective of their numbers? – I don’t think so, when hen harrier and golden eagle are missing from large parts of Scotland and northern England because of illegal persecution according to government, conservationists, scientific papers and even Linklater’s NGO of choice, the GWCT. Linklater writes ‘Privately, RSPB officials will concede that farmers or landowners do much good work to propagate bird species – planting bird-friendly crops, burning heather and killing vermin in order to improve shooting prospects. In public, however, support for those who kill birds for sport is rarely if ever expressed.‘ whereas publicly the RSPB is always singing the praises of wildlife-friendly land managers, some of whom are also shooters.
We must thank the Observer for publishing such a long account (3000+ words) of the misconceptions of a clever man fully embedded within the shooting community. Let’s have more of such nonsense as it will drive people to the arms of real nature conservationists in droves.