Martin Harper has penned (or keyboarded) an interesting BB eye in this month’s British Birds magazine. It is entitled ‘Why it is in the driven grouse industry’s interest to clean up its own act’ and it rehearses the long list of ills with intensive management of driven grouse moors with which so many of us agree. The whole article is well worth a read (and there is plenty more in this issue of BB, and all the others, to repay the cost of your subscription).
I’d be interested in your views of it (but you’d have to read it first!) as it is probably the longest written account of the RSPB position (apart from their written evidence to the session in the Westminster parliament) for some time.
There are two significant weaknesses in the article; the first is a weakness of passion and the second is a weakness of analysis.
A weakness of passion
Although the RSPB is much more than ‘just’ a bird conservation organisation, and has been for a long time, it is still a bird conservation organisation and one that is, and for many years will always be, at the forefront of combatting illegal persecution of birds of prey, especially where those impacts affect the population levels of protected raptors. And yet Martin writes very calmly of birds of prey being ‘under renewed pressure’ but that we are, thanks to the RSPB, learning much more about the lives of our most threatened birds of prey. True, but how much will it take before the RSPB actually looks angry about 60-year old bird protection laws being systematically broken and the current government not addressing the issue.
Although Martin was shocked by the land management he saw at Walshaw Moor, there seems to be very little corporate outrage at wildlife crime. This might be the RSPB Council’s position on raptor persecution but if so then it is probably the first time in the RSPB’s history that unsustainable land management has been more shocking to the organisation than deliberate wildlife crime.
It’s worth thinking about this a little bit as it relates to the second weakness in the RSPB position onto which I will come shortly.
There are lots of things wrong with driven grouse shooting and they include the impacts of burning on protected habitats and flood risk, and the use of lead ammunition, and potentially the use of medicated grit and the carelessness (to say the least) with which legal traps for ‘vermin’ control are set and the proliferation of tracks etc in the uplands and a host of other things too, but wildlife crime is wildlife crime and is in a different category altogether. When you are dealing with an industry that is underpinned by, and depends on, criminal activity then it is right to get a bit angry and that’s where the RSPB is showing weakness. It appears to be so keen to be nice to everyone that it cannot see that it is demonstrating to government, the flawed industry and to its membership and the public, that it is still not really too exercised about criminals taking the mickey out of wildlife laws or the Westminster government sitting idly by and letting it happen.
Notably, there is no mention of vicarious liabiluity as a partial English solution to this problem. The RSPB blows hot and cold on what it wants but mostly blows luke warm on what it feels.
A weakness of analysis
The very title of the RSPB piece indicates that it is still trying, in a friendly and yet rather condescending way, to appeal to the better nature of the driven grouse shooting industry despite there being no evidence that such a nature exists. One wonders what the grouse shooting industry has to do to persuade the RSPB that intensive grouse shooters are not for changing. If the RSPB is not convinced by the negotiating process over the Hen Harrier Inaction Plan, the campaign funded by the grouse shooting industry against the RSPB, the lack of amelioration of bird of prey persecution or the smug intransigence of grouse shooters in their public pronouncements then what will persuade them? No, really, what will?
Martin cites the RSPB’s relationship with the water, ports and aggregate industries as examples of where the RSPB often started from a position of conflict but developed productive and worthwhile partnerships. He writes that ‘Modern industry should aspire to minimise its impact on the natural world, advocate change to others and, if their business model results in unacceptable harm, be prepared to change that model’. Hmmm. I would love to see a bunch of photographs of the faces of grouse moor owners as they read those words.
The reason that the RSPB has a good relationship with the ports industry is that the RSPB was very tough with them in the past – and won. For some reason, many industries think that environmental legislation is in some way soft legislation that they can get around. I don’t know why they think this – it must be a fault in business schools – but they do. When they find, as Associated British Ports did (as an example), that a few birds and the European Directives can stop you building a port and knock £40m off your share value that day, then they tend to come to heel. And industries such as aggregates, water and ports do their work under the public gaze – their actions can be seen written large on the landscape, there is no hiding. When shown that there is a quicker way to get much of what they want, as opposed to a slow and uncertain way to get everything they would like, then they are pragmatic enough to recognise the best way forward. It also helps if they are being criticised for every misdemeanour by NGOs in the media which brings home the message. If you need a new port then you have to work with the possible and learn from your mistakes or your competitiors will get all the good spots. It’s rather different if you own the moorlands on which your business is based.
It’s also a bit different if you have sunk large amounts of money into a business from which you have been promised large reliable profits over a period of years. If you have to bend or break the rules in order to get those profits, but there is little chance of being caught, then the temptation is to keep on going. That seems to me to be the position in which some grouse moor managers find themselves – they aren’t going to be talked out of their business model which is working very nicely for them at the moment thank you.
The fact is that you cannot have driven grouse shooting of any real profitability if you protect birds of prey. The business model depends on someone, not necessarily you on your land (but someone), committing large amounts of wildlife crime. If there were complete protection of birds of prey for five years then very few English grouse moors would be shooting sufficient grouse to maintain driven grouse shooting. Driven grouse shooting is backed into a wildlife crime corner (of its own making and choosing) and no amount of appealing to the industry’s better nature is going to work. And yet that is what the RSPB does.
It’s time that the RSPB Council got real.