An open letter to the RSPB Chairman Professor Steve Ormerod

Photo: Kositoes via wikimedia commons
Photo: Kositoes via wikimedia commons

Dear Steve

Hi!  Happy 60th anniversary of the Protection of Birds Act!

It must be around now that you are heading off to Conservation Committee to discuss the RSPB’s conservation work.  And then, in July, there will be a Council meeting, I guess, unless things have changed a lot in the last three years (which maybe they have).

One of the more intractable issues on the RSPB’s conservation agenda is the illegal persecution of birds of prey. Clearly, the RSPB is against the illegal killing of protected wildlife – always has been and always will be.  RSPB Investigations staff do perhaps more than any others to try to bring law-breakers to account, with some success.

However, the disappearance of eagles over grouse moors, the low densities of Peregrines on grouse moors, and the almost complete lack of Hen Harriers on grouse moors anywhere in the UK, demonstrate that illegal persecution is rife (there’s plenty of science too). And it isn’t guys with dreadlocks walking down Brixton Station Road, or nurses in Newcastle, or teachers in Cardiff who are bumping off birds of prey, it is game-shooting interests with the worst and most blatant examples being in the uplands where driven grouse shooting is the major land use. (I know you know all this – and I know you are concerned about it).

Over the years, I lived through them, the RSPB has talked to the shooting community both formally and informally, both publicly and privately, to try to reach some sort of resolution to this problem.  If you flick through your copy of Fighting for Birds you’ll find a brief mention on page 195 of a time when I held out an olive branch of compromise to the grouse shooting industry – and yet, despite enthusiastic noises at the time, no progress was made. If anything, the RSPB has been far too reasonable in the face of intransigence from the game-shooting industry but it is always best to play out the reasonable talking options before taking a harder stance.

However, eventually, even the most reasonable person, or organisation, must say ‘Enough!’. I think I’m pretty reasonable and I’ve got to that point which is why I have launched an e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting in England. It seems quite popular.

The RSPB failed (and I think it was a failure) to support previous e-petitions attempting to address the impacts of grouse shooting on protected birds of prey. The first of these was set up by Chrissie Harper and asked Defra to introduce vicarious liability for wildlife crimes in England, as the RSPB had asked for successfully in Scotland.  The absence of public and substantial RSPB support for this e-petition was noticed but was not understood by many birders.  The next e-epetition was set up by ex-RSPB Regional Director John Armitage and called for licensing of grouse moors. This too received no substantial support from the RSPB, which was again noticed, and again not understood by many birders.

The current e-petition on this subject calls for a ban on driven grouse shooting in England. This is much more difficult for the RSPB to support – I know that – but not impossible, I think.

The difficulty lies in the RSPB’s Royal Charter which contains the following words: The Society shall take no part in the question of the killing of gamebirds and legitimate sport of that character except when such practices have an impact on the Objects of the Society. 

There can be no doubt that the near-extinction of the Hen Harrier as a breeding species in England is relevant to the Objects of the RSPB.  And Hen Harriers are practically absent from the grouse moors of Scotland too. Unless things have changed a great deal, I am sure that the RSPB believes that the main, and overridingly important, reason for this dire state of affairs is illegal persecution by grouse shooting interests.

So, illegal persecution of Hen Harriers (and other protected species) by grouse shooting interests have an impact on the Objects of the RSPB. It can certainly be argued (I would argue it) that grouse shooting is not a ‘legitimate’ ‘sport’ since it is currently dependent on, and benefitting from, the  the widespread breaking of wildlife laws.

Would it, please, be possible for RSPB Council to clarify its position on this matter?  There’s no rush – perhaps a statement at the AGM in October would be in order and would allow time for full consideration and discussion. I note with interest Paragraph 3.2 of the Statutes.

with very best wishes







47 Replies to “An open letter to the RSPB Chairman Professor Steve Ormerod”

  1. Here here well said.
    Over a million members ….(all bird lovers I presume)….. There should surely be more signatories?!

  2. Time then to question again the ‘Royal’ link. It is surely very relevant in this particular case.

    Not related to the discussion but also of concern, I have learnt recently that a licence has been applied for to cull red kites over RAf Benson in Oxfordshire.

  3. First class! Forensic calling out of a kind that we need more of in this country in all walks of life. What a great place to start!

  4. Congratulations , Mark, an absolute tour de force!!! Given the Society’s expenditure on investigations work, its past and current “investment” in the Forest of Bowland, and the many bird protection projects associated with uplands, which has all amounted to a not inconsiderable sum of money over the years, I think we all need to accept the efforts which have been made. Because of these I don’t believe the Society has “hidden” behind the Charter, but that it has recognized the direct impacts that have arisen and taken appropriate action……….until relatively recently, when there does seem to have been some reduction in focus. I can understand the frustration staff must feel when successive efforts make little impact, but now is not the time to ease up on anything, but use the deplorable persecution statistics to raise the collective issue as widely as possible and to be seen to be taking a harder stance than ever.

    Setting aside my having worked for the Society ( and on harrier problems too ), as a birder I just don’t understand the apparent diluted position that is now being held. This may not be the case, and I’m perfectly willing to accept that initiatives are being pursued behind the scenes, but it’s certainly not the common perception and I believe the Society’s reputation is suffering as a result. I just cannot believe the Society has given up on this issue and this call for clarity is , therefore, an extremely important milestone, not least for the Society itself and its future in the eyes of many.

  5. Excellent letter Mark. The RSPB really must ‘t sit on the fence where the potential wipeout of a species is in question. Also, as John says above, significant funds have been spent over the years and members deserve to know that this investment will achieve much more than talking shops and mollifying circular arguments.

  6. Thank you Mark.

    There are so many ways in which the conservation NGO’s seem to have become cosy with the establishment. When I first became involved with conservation in the 1970’s there were far more instances where unacceptable practices were overtly fought.

    The shooting establishment must address law breaking where it occurs or be closed down.

    I want to see more Hen Harriers.

    1. Why wouldn’t they, check out where much of their funding comes from? Perhaps they (NGOs) are in negotiations behind the scenes, advocating for reform of support payments etc.? Defra funding is a variation on offering community funding pots to get developments through planning or encouraging local authorities to accept fracking? Or agri-industrialist landowners receiving welfare payments (SFP etc.) Sadly these days, and probably a sign of the times it’s pensions and profit above principles?

      I am fortunate to be able to see occasional Hen Harriers (would love ‘moor’), but we need to allow them to breed & prosecute law breakers.

      Some excellent posts Mark & well done for raising the issues around illegal persecutions.

  7. A very well judged open letter I think and it will be extremely interesting to see the RSPB’s response in due course. Their wholehearted and proactive support of this e-petition would have a very significant effect on the number of signatures that it attracts.

    1. Agree Tony, but my impression is the RSPB love to lead on every issue they are involved in, so I’d be (very pleasantly) surprised if they get behind “someone else’s” petition, even Mark’s.

  8. I’ve been a member of the RSPB for 35 years but am becoming increasingly disillusioned. In the past year, I have had two phone calls from RSPB fundraisers. On each occasion, I have taken the opportunity to complain about the society’s weak public position on illegal persecution of raptors, especially hen harriers, and declined to give them any money. I’m afraid educating children via puppet shows and computer games, while admirable in the long term, is completely pointless if, in the short term, hen harriers become (have become?) extinct as a breeding species in England. I am moving ever closer to resigning and their stance on this latest e-petition may be pivotal.

    1. Recruiters are likely to be paid on productivity & if their contract / remit does not include feedback then probably deaf ears I’m afraid.

      Let senior staff know, if folk don’t know, then they can’t act to remedy?

      Hopefully someone in their membership department is following this topic on Mark’s blog ….

      1. It’s more likely that the recruiters are actually external contractors, so any feedback given to them probably doesn’t even get as far as The Lodge. :-/

        1. Exactly. Increasingly the phone calls I receive from Charities etc asking for increased donations – announce at the end that they have pledged to raise x amount and their organisation is being paid x amount. This all needs to be raised before the Charities etc receive anything. We are now tending to concentrate on giving to indivuals who are making a difference and smaller organisations. Will probably cancel quite a lot of subscriptions soon. ‘Exit through the gift shop’ seems to be the name of the game now. Fed up with attitude. Excellent letter Mark.

      2. I know several RSPB staff who follow this blog, including people who work on the Skydancer (Hen Harrier) project.

  9. A couple of days ago I drove across a couple of areas of managed heather moorland in North Yorkshire. Not withstanding the fact that the burnt areas looked like a war zone, there certainly was a lot of bird life about. Numerous lapwings and curlews and there seemed to be grouse chicks running about everywhere and highly visible. Under such circumstances I can understand the desire to control predators, but to me the lack of cover and high proportion of bare or almost bare ground made the grouse chicks so highly visible that they were easy prey for any passing predators. It appears that the management techniques incorporating heather burning has exacerbated any predation problems there may have been by removing cover from large areas.
    Moorhouse National Nature Reserve has an area of heather moorland which has not been burnt for around 60 years. The productivity of young heather shoots has increased as the heather has aged and this area is as capable of supporting as large a grouse population as adjoining heather moorland which is intensively managed. This grouse productivity being enhanced by the fact that they are not shot !! Many people believe that the Moorhouse Nature Reserve acts as a pool from which heavily shot over areas of the Pennines are restocked by grouse dispersal. Many people say that if heather moorland is not burnt it will revert to woodland but Moorhouse has shown this not to be true. Even in the ungrazed exclosures tree seedlings are being eaten by the abundant small mammal populations. Without burning the diversity of lichens, mosses and liverworts increases dramatically. Insect species also increase in diversity and abundance. Basically I believe that there is no justifiable reason for heather burning at all !

  10. Hi Mark

    A superb blog over the last few days (and over all the other days). We have been members of the RSPB for over 30 years and will continue to be so. We also donate extra on top of the subscription to fund the reserve at Loch Lomond (we live in Northants). However, we do not like to see the Society taking such a low profile over this issue of grouse shooting and the deliberate persecution of hen harriers. Please Mr President, throw the weight of the Society behind Mark’s campaign and don’t allow one of our native birds to become extinct before our eyes.

    Mark, we will be there in the Peak District in August.

    Sue and Chris Green

  11. “grouse shooting is not a ‘legitimate’ ‘sport’ since it is currently dependent on, and benefitting from, the the widespread breaking of wildlife laws”

    It may well be benefitting from the widespread breaking of laws, but is it really dependent on this? If it were, strict application of existing legislation would extinguish it, and any prohibitive law would be unnecessary.

    1. Filbert – yes, I think it is ‘dependent’ – that is the strong suggestion from Langholm 1. Difficult to get the ridiculously high and artificial densities of Red Grouse in August if you have HH on your plot.

      And yes they’d go out of business if the law were fully enforced but that is difficult up a hill, at dawn, in March. That’s why the criminals are trying to get their illegality legalised.

  12. Mark – Is this about “grouse shooting” or “driven grouse shooting” (particularly with reference to the “dependent on widespread law breaking point”, but actually more generally as well). You seem to slip between the two in this letter and its quite an important distinction I think.

    1. Jeff K – good point. The e-petition is very clear about being about driven grouse shooting. It is interesting, though, that one rarely comes across a grouse moor manager willing to speak out for walked-up shooting as an alternative to driven shooting. This is partly because they are scared to fall out with the big, industrial driven grouse shoots, I think. But also it always seems that walked up shooting is ‘often promoted by those who never want to shoot than those who do. I remember a conversation I had with an American hunter who ‘t regard driven grouse shooting as anything worthwhile at all – certainly not hunting.

      1. Ok. Can you ensure you stick to saying driven grouse shooting then? Even in this comment you seem to be trailing this being about banning all grouse shooting (I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt on wanting to create a good acronym with #BaNGS!). Its important from a personal perspective as I decide whether to sign the e-petition or not.

        There’s a whole bunch of other questions (how do you define driven grouse shooting? Isn’t it actually about intensity of management – you can have good driven moors and bad walked up moors?), but I’ll mostly save those for another day.

  13. Hi mark,great letter.on tablet big problem ,sorry to upset RSPB supporters but top bods certainly know how many of us feel and totally ignore how we feel.
    WOould point out that if we assume that RSPB forum members are probably. similar in thought to the main membership then it is really sad that as the forum membership is probably more than a thousand then only approx five were interested in signing Mark’s petition.
    FIigure of one thousand is very likely low as the largest group is about three hundred strong and there are probably another fifty groups.
    Must point out forum members do not have to be RSPB members but surely most would be.
    Most hurtful thing was the strength of bad feeling from people claiming to be conservationists who totally opposed signing.
    sorry those who disbelieve this and cannot wait to press dislike but this is the truth of the matter and it means we must not expect too much from RSPB members,maybe they take their lead from their leaders.

  14. Mark:

    Thanks for this. It’s very timely that I should get your letter on the afternoon on which I’ve just come back from a shift dug-in on the front-line of nature conservation – helping RSPB staff and volunteers protect the nest of England’s sole surviving hen harriers. The mood there is tense, determined and vigilant, but also anxious: hearts clenched with hope and fear.

    Yesterday, I was out with RSPB staff in Gelstdale where we had fabulous view of short-eared owl, but the skies were bereft of harriers – and you’ll know exactly how that makes me feel. Just two weekends ago, RSPB Council and I were in Orkney, and we moved over lands (large swathes of it managed by RSPB) that now hold 25% of the UK’s hen harrier population. We had fabulous views of a sleek, ghostly grey male – which my 9 year old said was one the best things he’d ever seen. I want him and other children to inherit a world where this, and other things to marvel at, persist.

    Like the rest of RSPB’s staff and members, I care very deeply about saving the nation’s hen harriers: they’re an irreplaceable and inspirational icon that is painted in beautiful colour on the world of upland conservation. But they’re should be more of them – many more – sitting atop the intact food webs and high quality habitat needed to support them. And we need our harriers, peregrines, eagles and other raptors to be free of persecution: the killing, and all that goes with it, must stop.

    The RSPB team will be saying more about hen harrier conservation very soon, but your challenge needs a far more substantive response that I’ll come back with in due course.

    Best wishes

    Steve Ormerod

    1. Steve – thanks for this rapid response and I will await a fuller response with interest. Thank you again.

    2. ‘a far more substantive response’

      – there better had be, the members will be watching. I was planning to leave a legacy to RSPB, but if you won’t have courage in protecting nature I’ll leave it to people who will.

  15. Whatever happened to the RSPB’s hard hitting, high profile campaigns against persecution of all kinds? All we get now is a lot of sentimental drivel about ‘nature’s home’ and a level of information and education suitable for children, not adults!

  16. Excellent letter Mark. I agree also with some of comments re the RSPB apparent soft responses to what appears to be an increasing determination by the shooting industry to eradicate all wildlife that they deem a threat to their profits. Great sadness to see that estates are seeking licences to kill Buzzards again – as the still top bird conservation organisation my view is that the RSPB must take a robust stance on these issues. The press release on the Buzzards was hardly strongly worded. Come on RSPB, now is NOT the time to fall down a big black hole.

  17. I’ve had my doubts about the RSPB for some time. When a controversial subject related to conservation crops up they are noticeable by their lack of voice. As an organisation with a vast membership and funds it’s about time they stood up for what is right and started to agressively persue the necessary course in order to gain the required outcome. The RSPCA were criticised for persecuting illeagal hunting with dogs and yet it was completely the right thing to do and now the RSPB need to stand up a be counted or be regarded as a paper tiger.

      1. Keep up the good work. They way we interact, as a species with nature needs to change. Hen Harriers are just one of the many issues that need addressing and on this I’m with you all the way.

  18. Hi Mark Great letter and as always good response from Mr Armitage. Also as ex Employee with my fair share of issues on birds of prey at the time I like others feel enough is enough. I could not accept killing of birds of prey as a legitimate argument at any time and still feel very intolerant of it now. I think this alongside farmland birds have to be key priorities of the RSPB. After years of hard work on this, the current compromise/soft route is not working. Partnership is not one sided and sometime you have to stand up for something that really matters and the RSPB used to do this, but seems to me to have lost their bottle. Maybe that’s harsh but leadership is sometimes needed and I would say that is now!

  19. As a long term member of RSPB, I agree that the organisation should give much stronger messages on raptor persecution. However, I also think that these messages need to be credible and calling for new regulation from a de-regulating government isn’t. We need to keep up pressure for stronger enforcement of the laws we already have, but we also need to explore approaches that have direct impacts on those that make money from their (upland) estates. This is where it gets rather complex because there are typically many ways in which these people make money, from locally sourced income, e.g. visitor facilities, farm subsidies, etc, to national and global business interests. Whatever the sources, we have a choice whether to support these business interests or not, but we need a simple way of assessing what behaviours underly the places and products we use. The term Corporate Social Responsibilty is often used, but it’s rarely easy to know what this means. Lots of good work is going on to help us make more informed choices (the recent twitter stream on shade coffee is just one of many examples, peat in compost is another), but more could be done by RSPB to develop the knowledge and means to accelerate CSR, including exploring accreditation. In other words we need to develop the markets for good behaviour. I’m sure there are other non -regulatory options too, but the key is to move forward with a credible mix of actions.

    1. Helen – you may have noticed that this e-petition ends just after the next UK general election. Obviously just a coincidence.

  20. Steve Ormorod,maybe you think the Hen Harrier is more important than the rest of your colleagues and members.Their answer to criticism is to stop anyone from doing that even if as members we are supplying the top people with large salaries(this cannot be right and I would give you proof if you doubt it).
    My question would be if it is the word Royal that stops you all from helping out lots of people upset by what is happening what are the great consequences of getting rid of the Royal Charter by presumably getting rid of the word Royal from our name.
    It seems a relatively simple solution to having chains on anything the society wants to do in regard to shooting.

  21. Steve,
    I absolutely agree with Dennis. It is a contradiction to try and protect species like the Hen Harrier if you are prevented from shaking the shooting industry by the throat. Clearly we can all see that Hen Harrier protection across much of the UK has failed miserably where other species and efforts have flourished and the differentiator is quite simply Grouse and shooting.
    Ask yourself why BAWC has formed and whether RSPB is happy to lose membership to another organisation rather than face the music and drop the Royal badge of (dis)approval. RSPB cannot canvass it’s membership for funds to save Hen Harriers and then be prevented from calling this same membership to support campaigns, petitions, direct action and within the law, whatever else it takes.

  22. I recognise I have a horrid habit seeing spin off problems, but when we lived next to the moors in Yorkshire many years ago – we were obliged to install different wood burning stoves to comply with being in a smokeless zone – but the pollution from the heather burning on the moors was OK!

      1. Typical of rural life I think. Different rules for the large landowners.

  23. I see that the RSPB is currently recruiting a project manager for an EU LIFE-funded Hen Harrier project. I’m sure there must be RSPB staff reading this blog who could explain what this project is about.

  24. Rob,almost certainly more than they dare do unless they want their cards.
    The RSPB do most things wonderfully,we have been to a great reserve today all more or less free except for modest sub once a year,however those things they do badly they really do very bad and it does seem from how quiet RSPB employees are on this that RSPB has really laid there jobs on the line.
    Let the RSPB correct me if I am wrong.

  25. If only 10% of the RSPB membership could be persuaded to vote for this petition, just think what the governments response would be if more than 100,000 signatures were presented to them. Remember, many of this governments members of parliament are shooters and owners of grouse moors.

  26. Pingback: Guest Blog – a reply on Hen Harriers and grouse shooting from the Chair of RSPB Council | Mark Avery
  27. thankyou for a very well constructed letter, Mark. I’m afraid I haven’t signed the petition yet because I think it is just unrealistic to demand the complete banning of grouse shooting, with all the money interests that are tied up in it. However, I see it has got a lot of attention and the reply from Steve Ormerod suggests a very good beginning compromise to introduce licensing. I think I will now sign the petition so that numbers of people concerned may have an effect on government. Keep up the good work!

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