I’m glad that the Mail on Sunday’s latest rant at the RSPB for being a nature conservation organisation didn’t spoil Martin Harper’s weekend. It shouldn’t have done, because Botham appears to be bonkers. But there will be some, and Martin may be one of them, who work for the RSPB and feel a bit dispirited when a nature conservation charity with such a fantastic track record for protecting birds, yes, and other wildlife, is taken to task so unfairly by a bunch of shooters. It’s not nice to be slagged off in the press and I was never sure whether wholly ill-informed attacks were any better than partly-informed attacks. Does the fact that criticism is unfair make it easier to take or just make it a bit more irritating? I could never decide – it depended on the day.
But the signs are that these and other attacks, coupled with the behind the scenes obduracy of the shooting organisations in just about every area where they need to give ground (burning of blanket bog, lead ammunition, wildlife crime, there may be others) , are bringing it home to RSPB staff and RSPB Council that we are not ‘all on the same side really’.
There is common ground for some forms of shooting and nature conservation to co-exist, and to co-exist quite politely and quite amicably (albeit not completely amicably) but the shooters left that centre ground some time ago. For years the shooting press has been slagging off the RSPB. In just about every issue, Shooting Times used to contain disparaging remarks about the RSPB and I guess it still does. This is a strange way for an industry or ‘sport’ that depends on public tolerance to behave. And it’s a clear indication that shooting just does not have the leadership that allows it to change.
All the signs I see, partly on social media, but I often speak to groups of birders too, and I’m always meeting conservation professionals, is that this current attack on the RSPB has badly misfired from the point of view of the attackers. There was not a shred of disquiet amongst the few hundred members attending the RSPB AGM over this matter. They were all rather worried that the RSPB might have to spend time defending itself rather than conserving birds but that was about it (as the GWCT’s observer at the event will no doubt have had to report back).
Having spoken to an RSPB Group last week and a BTO regional conference at the weekend (and many other such groups over the last few months), there was chatter about the Botham-led (or that should be Botham-fronted, because he is nowhere to be seen arguing the case) attacks, but largely along the lines of ‘what is he on about?’ and ‘I used to like Ian Botham. Great cricketer, but he doesn’t know what he is talking about here’.
The things that the RSPB is most criticised for, amongst its older and loyal membership that I meet, are a squirrel called Bob and a magazine called ‘Nature’s Home‘ but these are criticisms in the ‘I wish they weren’t a bit naff’ category rather than in the ‘They have completely lost it’ category.
No, as with the staff and the Council, the impact on RSPB members, of all this flak from shooters, is to wake them up to the fact that in some areas, and in some cases, and because of some people, shooting is on the other side of the argument from nature conservation and that the RSPB should be absolutely clear about that. There is also a realisation that being nice hasn’t worked, and being firmer and more demanding must be the way forward. In other words, the membership is being radicalised by those who have most to lose from that change of approach.
That’s what I think is happening anyway. For one, small indication of that, if you look at the comments on the Mail on Sunday piece, and press the tab that says ‘best rated’, then the comment that gets the most ‘likes’ (over 290 when I looked) is one by me which says:
‘It is time for the RSPB and the public to take a stronger line with grouse shooting which depends on illegal persecution of birds of prey such as Hen Harriers. If anything the RSPB is being too soft. Find the e-petition ‘ban driven grouse shooting’ via a search engine and add your name to over 19000 who want the rich man’s ‘sport’ banned altogether – and ask the RSPB to support it too. Botham and his shooting friends should be shown that their attack on the RSPB has misfired.’
The second top-rated comment on this article is also by me (this one has 278 ‘likes’) and says:
‘Ask yourself, how many people who like birds and watching birds are likely to side with a bunch of people who shoot them rather than a bunch of people who campaign on behalf of the natural world, manage many of the UK’s best and most famous nature reserves (as often seen on Springwatch/Autumnwatch), have a fantastic track record of conserving birds such as the Avocet, Red Kite, Bittern, Corncrake, Stone Curlew, Dartford Warbler, Osprey etc etc and of saving sites of wildlife importance from being concreted over for airports (eg the North Kent Marshes), windfarms (scores of sites – probably some near you) and other developments. This government has been so awful for wildlife that we need organisations such as the RSPB to be much more vocal in standing up for wildlife. I hope they take a little bit of notice of the criticism, but not very much, and then decide to take a stronger and more vocal approach to defending wildlife.‘