Heroes and villains

By I, Paleixmart, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2343038

The RSPB is celebrating the success of its long term Stone Curlew recovery project at the moment. And so it should, as the Stone Curlew was heading for extinction in the UK before the RSPB got involved. The recovery of this bird, which will always remain localised in its distribution because it is quite fussy about life, is a great example of the RSPB’s almost unique approach to nature conservation involving excellent research, practical work on the ground through nature reserves and working with a wide range of other landowners, and policy work which makes it easier for wildlife-friendly actions to be taken by others whose primary aim in not nature conservation.

Yesterday the RSPB gave a Guest Blog to Gerald Gray, the head gamekeeper of a large estate in the Breckland area.  This estate has worked with the RSPB for a good many years, I’ve been there many times myself, and has played a full part in Stone Curlew recovery.

But the world is a funny place isn’t it? This week the RSPB praises a gamekeeper employed by the van Cutsem family in Norfolk whereas nine months ago the RSPB and police were investigating the setting of poletraps by a gamekeeper employed by the van Cutsem family in Yorkshire. That investigation led to the gamekeeper being cautioned by police (a bungled handling of the case), masses of publicity, the termination of the gamekeeper’s employment as a gamekeeper (I wonder what he is doing now?) and the resignation of van Cutsem from the Moorland Association.

Is the RSPB cleverly demonstrating that you can’t tar all gamekeepers with the same brush (as you surely can’t) or demonstrating that the RSPB’s ability to forgive an influential landowner knows no bounds? Is the RSPB’s choice of Gerald Gray as a hero merited because of many, many years of effective collaboration on an important conservation issue or should a letter have been sent to Gray’s employer saying ‘if only there hadn’t been that ‘unfortunate incident’ last year…’?  I’ve heard all of those views expressed and I find it difficult to know on which side I would come down myself today, or would have come down many years ago when I might have had a say in it.  What do you think?

I’ve also heard people suggesting that the RSPB’s left hand didn’t know what its right hand was doing (I think that unlikely), that the RSPB should go back to the wisdom of Shania Twain (always a good place to go, see here and here) and that RSPB has been taking PR lessons from Scottish Mountaineering (the two cases are quite different). What do you think?


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16 Replies to “Heroes and villains”

  1. The RSPB has a line into some very influential people.They should use it, with lots of "influencing".They probably are...and should be encouraged to do so.

    1. "Influencing" gave us No successful breeding Hen Harriers in England. Its the Royal Society for the PROTECTION of Birds. So why don't we enforce it and Not cow tow to the same folk who destroy Raptors?

  2. I take my dogs out early most mornings [today its pouring!]. Just close to the house is a Carrion Crow. I speak to it most mornings. It knows me. The other morning it made a funny call which I had not heard before. When I looked up a second crow was moving through its territory and with just one call the dominant bird saw off the other.

    When I worked at Leighton Moss I was given Carnforth marsh to work with the assistant warden Dick Squirres. Here the first year all territory holding crows were shot off. The breeding waders had a terrible year as non breeding crows devastated the marsh. The following year the territory crows were left and the waders had a very successful year as they kept the majority of crows off the marsh.

    There is a thing called alarm calls and when you destroy all the predators young chicks do not learn alarm calls and are more likely to be predated than birds that have been brought up with predators. This has been seen in pheasants with released birds being predated while chicks with a mother are less likely.

    One amazing event witnessed near here was of a Kestrel taking a Lapwing chick in a group of around 10 breeding pairs. This chick was taken on the outside of the group and as the Kestrel had not been spotted by any of the adult Lapwing it was the adult Lapwing which was supposed to be protecting the chick which was mobbed by the rest of the Lapwing not the Kestrel. This showed that the now weaker group was trying to work together as a team not as individual pairs.

    So when you destroy all predators where to do you stop.

  3. I haven't seen the article, but assuming Mr Gray is a good guy - and it seems he is - and assuming the blog about his work for stone curlew and not about how wonderful van Cutsen Estates are in general, then why not give him a guest blog?

    He's not responsible if his employer has allegedly had a hand in bad things somewhere else. I'm employed by a County Council - should I be blacklisted if another part of the Council did something terrible? Cut hedges in bird nesting season? Approved some planning application that the environmentally righteous thought they should have rejected? Failed to protect a child? Where do you draw the line?

    Keeping some lines of comunication open is important, however nasty the opposition. If anyone from the shooting fraternity is willing to respect nature conservation interests and work together on a joint project of genuine worth, shouldn't that be encouraged? Especially since illegal persecution of BoP is not the only pressing UK nature conservation conservation issue, important as it is.

    And by the way, I bet there are plenty of gamekeepers strongly criticising Mr Gray for working with the hated RSPB. Bet some of them see him as a traitor. He's a brave man, risking the wrath of his peers. All the best to him I say.

  4. I don't think that demonising an entire profession who have a great deal of influence over land management is a productive way to save nature. This was a shared success and I think the RSPB is right to celebrate it as such.

  5. For all the good work they my be doing in the Brecklands I think it is inappropriate for the van Cutsems to bask in the reflected glory of the gamekeeper's nomination as a Stone Curlew, give their association with altogether unacceptable skullduggery on their Yorkshire estate. I would therefore have favoured the ‘if only there hadn’t been that ‘unfortunate incident’ last year…’ approach. This would have had the merit of still encouraging the good work in Norfolk without allowing them to vaunt themselves as conservation heroes and thus undermine the message that driven grouse shooting is a a pastime that is riven with criminality and not in any way a beneficial contributor to conservation.

  6. Let's face it, if it wasn't for the RSPB, even with their cozying-up-to-the-likes-of-Van Cutsem, then our wildlife would probably be in a much worse situation than it is now.
    Much better that the rich landowners are aware about the RSPB, however much they may think poorly of them, than to not have an RSPB.
    No heroes without villains.

  7. A few things about this - you don't have to shoot anything to do conservation work and it's perhaps the HLS payment that's the real hero here, is shooting on the back of conservation a more honest comment? As far as work to help conservation and reduce pressure from intensive agriculture goes well that would be much easier everywhere if we needed to do less of it. I have read that on Holkham Estate in Norfolk in one year they put out 200 tonnes (yes 200 tonnes!!!) of grain as supplementary feed for partridge. I have been informed that's equivalent to the crop from 56 acres of land. Might not be so bad if all the partridge were actually eaten by people, but as we know from the 30 million plus birds raised and released for game shooting every year that just doesn't happen - might boost fox numbers though. I'm sure the head keeper is a decent and genuine bloke, pity he can't just do straight conservation work rather than as a byproduct (if he's lucky) of maintaining birds to be shot for fun. Slight aside, but relevant I think - the RSPB recently announced that thanks to working with Forest Enterprise Scotland and doing some habitat work they've boosted the population of nightjars in Dumfries and Galloway to 40 pairs. What's interesting is that this is a ground nesting bird and there's no mention anywhere of the 'predator control' that's supposedly vital for their survival.

  8. Question - if a species such as the Stone Curlew can only be saved from extirpation or extinction by us controlling predation, at what point can that control cease and the species in question sustain itself? Or is biodiversity only possible if we prevent nature feeding on nature herein?

    1. Rob, that's a big question to unpack. I'd guess we'd al agree that leaving nature to get on with it is the best default option, but that's not always going to work unless we accept the loss of a range of species as a consequence. The UK environment is just too altered, and over too long a period, for it to be possible to walk away from all habitat management or species protection/predator control. Plus our countryside has a wide range of non natural pressures (farming, recreational dog walking, to name but 2) that some species need help to cope with. So if we want to retain what we have, active management of some kind is often necessary. Predator control is a very uncommon but occassionally necessary example of that.

      Some species that used to do fine now need protection because we've so reduced their numbers and available habitat that what's left can't survive without our help, whether that means electric fencing or predator control. I believe stone curlew are in this category.

      Some need us to control introduced predators, that they're not adapted to and which would otherwise wipe them out (mink and water vole, rats and island seabirds).

      Others may be vulnerable to excessive predation because we've removed the natural controls on their predators - for instance otters seem to be very good at excluding mink, and wolves keep fox numbers down. Badgers and foxes, left to themselves, will exist at far higher densities in a farmed landscape than they would have in a wildwood, and so have an unnaturally big impact on ground nesting birds. Not quite predation but reducing the damage current absurd numbers of deer can do to vulnerable plant communities are in the same category - would be lovely to bring back wolves and bears, recreate the landscape of fear, and magic away the introduced muntjac but in the meantime we're stuck with culling. I'm all for ecosystem restoration but there are practical limits, esp in a farmed landscape.

      I don't accept the premis of your question, in that it is phrased as an absolute (all biodiversity depends on us preventing anything feeding on anything) but if you meant "As one of a wide range of conservation measures, do we occasionally have to resort to lethal control of some mammal and bird species if we are to retain our full current richness of biodiversity?" the answer is unambiguously "Yes - but only in exceptional circumstances".

        1. Thank you Jbc - yes, a good answer and in case you thought, my question was fairly black-and-white but not borne from any sentimental standpoint of never culling and agree that some fauna needs to be controlled to maintain a balance if we want diversity of species. What I find sad is that we have species of bird that can't exist in the UK unless we control species that would otherwise prey on them. 🙁
          I also think that many game keepers will impose control simply because that's their job in life and often it's not as a last resort. I'm therefore very untrusting of the motives of gamekeeping per se and those that I know in the profession seem to have some very old fashioned views of nature and science compared to me!

          1. Cheers Rob. In general I share your doubts about gamekeepers - but I think that's all the more reason to applaud a decent one!

  9. Mark

    Surprised but delighted that you managed to resist the temptation to include a reference to Dersingham Bog...

    More to the point, though, I wonder if the Bible might be more relevant here than Shania Twain: "Am I my brother's keeper?"

  10. I just don't see the sense in alienating a decent gamekeeper because of the actions of a despicable one, it wouldn't to much to advance the cause of the Stone Curlew, and articles such as this are also a useful way for the RSPB to combat the anti-shooting label often thrown at them by a certain sections of the shooting industry.

    If we are prepared to admonish poorly managed shoots and those gamekeepers who break the law, and rightly so, then we should also be prepared to give credit where credit is due, and in this case it is.

    The acid test for many lowland shooting estates, and indeed farmland bird conservation, will come in the next 10 years when the likely reality of zero or limited post-Brexit agri-environment support kicks in. Although we need more Gerald Gray's now, we will really need them then.


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