Here he replies to an open letter from me that was posted on 4 June where I asked the RSPB to clarify its position on the Hen Harrier and grouse shooting issue.
I’m grateful to Steve for his response and I’ll reply with my thoughts at 6pm this evening.
Huge congratulations on helping to organise last weekend’s Hen Harrier Day – a major success despite atrocious weather. Although I was unable to join you in person, along with tens of thousands of others I supported the day in spirit and through social media. The whole event has been a great way to bring the illegal killing of hen harriers and other birds of prey under the spotlight – and to continue the push to end what so many of us judge as immoral and deeply unethical as well as being plainly unlawful. But, as both you and I know, illegal raptor killing and disturbance are only part of a broader set of conservation issues about which the RSPB is deeply concerned.
You wrote to me in June seeking clarification on the RSPB’s position on grouse shooting. I know you’ve had various discussions with the RSPB since then, but I haven’t yet honoured my promise of a fuller answer to your challenge.
Eighteen months ago, the RSPB’s Council of trustees debated the growing environmental impact of intensive, driven grouse shooting and reached conclusions about how we should respond.
As an organisation, we remain appalled by the ongoing persecution of birds of prey: we’re committed to working with the police to detect wildlife crime, and to catch and bring to justice those responsible. Our new £2m EU LIFE+-funded 5-year project to track hen harriers will improve monitoring and surveillance of England’s most threatened bird. As I saw first-hand in June, this technological surveillance is supported by the dedication and courage of RSPB staff working under very remote and challenging circumstances to protect hen harrier nests around the clock.
The RSPB is equally dismayed by the terrible condition of upland SSSIs linked to intensive grouse moor management and the wider environmental damage posed by accompanying actions such as burning on peat soils and the use of medicated grit. As someone who researches freshwater ecosystems and their value, I’ve seen for myself the downstream cost of these practices, and RSPB believes it is wrong that the public purse must pay to clean up the resulting damage caused by private or commercial activity: increasing evidence shows how browner waters, erosion and eutrophication can all result from inappropriate upland management.
It was on all of these grounds that RSPB Council concluded that we would, in the absence of effective self-regulation, call for licensing of driven grouse shooting to deliver better environmental outcomes. You will have noticed that we are urging the political parties to introduce a licensing system after the next general election.
We note the success of your petition and the public desire for action to save the hen harrier and the upland habitats on which it depends. However, we do not consider a call for a ban on grouse shooting to be the right step. This is not because we are constrained by our Charter or our charitable objects, but rather because we think the next rational step from self-regulation is regulation. We also think that the introduction of a licensing system is a proportionate measure in the absence of self-regulation by the shooting industry. Arguably, any legally compliant business would also benefit from such a system as it would prevent unfair competition from those that cause environmental damage as they seek to increase the shootable surplus of grouse.
I’m delighted that there is cross-party support to explore how licensing might work in Scotland. We hope and expect such support in England and have presented principles for a licensing system, which any system would need to follow to effectively achieve its aims of better prospects for birds of prey and protected habitats. The RSPB is currently working with a number of willing landowners on these ideas as well as reaching out to the colleges where gamekeepers are trained. We are also committed to working with Defra and partners on the Hen Harrier Joint Action Plan, which we are helping to ensure is an effective species conservation plan.
Mark, you achieved a huge amount in your 25 years at the RSPB and, as an independent campaigner and writer, you continue to challenge anything that harms nature today. The RSPB applauds you resoundingly for that.
I hope that you’ll continue to offer constructive support to the RSPB as we continue to do whatever nature needs to thrive.
With my best wishes,
Professor Steve Ormerod