Magpies and the RSPB

There is a lot made of the fact that the RSPB carries out lethal control of Carrion Crows, formerly under the revoked General Licence GL04, on a very small proportion of RSPB nature reserves (15 out of 218). Because this is a highly emotive issue the RSPB is attacked by those who wish the RSPB didn’t kill any Carrion Crows and those people have a legitimate view, with which I don’t really agree personally, because I agree that lethal control is acceptable as a measure of last resort. You may disagree, but that is still my opinion (although my hold on it has weakened a bit over the years, almost exactly 8 years, since I left the RSPB’s employment).

But the RSPB is also attacked by those who don’t really care how many Carrion Crows the RSPB kills but just want to cause trouble for the RSPB. These are mostly people who come from a background where they kill loads and loads and loads of Carrion Crows – the shooting industry. These attacks on the RSPB sometimes sometimes use the word ‘hypocritical’ simply to try to wound, but there is no hypocrisy in the RSPB’s position: the RSPB’s actions are very much in tune with its words ie it recognises (rightly or wrongly) that predator control sometimes helps conserve threatened species and carries out predator control on its nature reserves when non-lethal means have been tried and shown to be ineffective. That is a clear and defendable position and one which is thoroughly compliant with the relevant laws.

But none of that is about Magpies – I just thought I’d get it out of the way first.

Magpie – what an incredibly gorgeous bird. Photo: Tim Melling

The RSPB publishes information on how much lethal predator control it does each year – I’m proud of the fact that I started this – transparency is important. I don’t think the National Trust or Wildlife Trusts do the same, and I would encourage them to do so.

So, let us consider the Magpie, a species that the game shooting lobby kills in large numbers despite the fact that the science carried out (which included a GWCT scientist, and, I have to say, top statistician) states has no discernible impact on population levels of songbirds.

How many Magpies does the RSPB kill on its 218 nature reserves that cover over 150,000 ha? 150,000ha is bigger than Greater Manchester, getting on for the size of Greater London and about the size of South Yorkshire – so the size of a small but not insignificant county. How many? None, apparently.

And no Rooks or Jackdaws or Jays either, apparently. I’m surprised there aren’t any at all – but there you go, there aren’t.

These facts may have some relevance for the general licence planned for publication soon by Natural England which relates to killing Magpies to protect wild birds (and those for Jackdaws, Jays and Rooks which are planned for ‘sometime later’).

Is there any conservation organisation calling for a general licence to allow Magpie killing? Or are the wild birds in mind released non-native Pheasants destined for commercial shooting?

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24 Replies to “Magpies and the RSPB”

  1. Magpies do take some eggs and nestlings, but I believe they take far fewer than most people believe.
    I cannot see any justification for them being on a general licence other than to appease those people who refuse to accept the truth.
    Because they are visible and are often seen when a nest has been robbed (and when no nest has been robbed) people assume the magpie is responsible.
    How many of those nests are predated by rats, weasels, hedgehogs, foxes, domestic cats and dogs? Loads more than most people realise!
    Keep up the good work. Yes some general licences are necessary, but we all know they were widely abused (I know of a fishing club that got a licence to kill 10 cormorants, after killing 10 they just continued killing any cormorant that showed up because nobody was checking on them).
    Justifiable predator control is essential, but where there is no justification it should not be allowed.

  2. Mark - I think the wild birds will be grouse rather than pheasants.

    As you know, pheasants are now, apparently, according to GL26, 'livestock' even when they have escaped the release pens and are free living because they remain significantly dependent on people for food and shelter, and are therefore “kept”.

    I would have thought it'd be tricky to argue, for one licence, that pheasant are livestock and, on another, that they are wild. But then the shooting industry seems to be able to get away with just about anything!

    1. Lizzybusy - it is actually more complicated than that. Pheasants switch from being livestock to wild birds and sometimes back to being livestock again. Grouse are always wild birds.

  3. When you say you support lethal control as a means of last resort are you suggesting that non lethal methods to reducing damage caused by wildlife should also be given consideration? [Mark writes - give it a rest Giles. Rest of comment deleted for repetition (but not deviation or hesitation)].

  4. Well said, Mark. I hope your opinion on the moral case for lethal control for conservation reasons when there is no sensible alternative won't weaken.

    I agree that the National Trust, Wildlife Trusts etc. should be much more open about what they do. For example, my understanding is that certain wonderful tern colonies are only successful because foxes are shot and hedgehogs rehomed. It's probably unrealistic to expect signs on site explaining how our biodiversity is maintained in the UK today - most members of the public would just shy away. The wildlife NGOs need members and they need money but I don't think hiding the truth is a good idea. The way that nature has been presented on TV over the years hasn't helped much on that front either. Killing things at home is becoming more and more unpopular with the public whilst we all lead lifestyles that are contributing to the tragic loss of habitats and biodiversity across the globe.

  5. Spot on, Mark.

    It's sad when those with welfare concerns attack the wrong target (RSPB), they seem oblivious of the fact that they've been thoroughly manipulated by the nasties. As for the nasties themselves, well they're entirely predictable aren't they. No amount of facts will ever prevent them from lying.

    Bring on compulsory reading of Tim Birkhead and Ian Newton.

    1. The main reason I'm not sure about the RSPB's killing of predators is that it is the single most common retort thrown back at me by shooters and farmers - along the lines of 'Even NE and the RSPB understand that you can't conserve anything if you have predators about the place. They kill foxes and crows to protect their waders, so why shouldn't we kill birds of prey to protect our pheasants?'
      I know it's nothing like a fair or honest statement of the issue, but it just feeds them such an easy line - and they absolutely love it.

  6. Hi Mark,

    If the 'shooting industry' is killing lots of Magpies and you wish to stop that or reduce it significantly, is it logical to say that some of the RSPB reserves which assumedly are bordered by these areas where lots of Magpies are killed may see an influx of more Magpies which may then start impacting on species in the reserve thus leading to actual killing of Magpies by the RSPB? Basically someone else seems to be controlling them indirectly for the RSPB, legally.

    Again I see the constant signs of the Wild Justice's real motive which is to damage the 'shooting industry' with no concern over any other type of land manager or individual who is affected. Under the old GL's I presume it was legal to kill Magpies for the purpose of protecting reared game birds, and if so, why is that wrong? It is protecting livestock for industry whether it be shooting farming, fishing etc. It just becomes more and more clear that this isn't about Magpies, Magpies are not in population decline, this is about finding more and more ways to squeeze the shooting community because you personally dont agree with it, am I right?



      1. Haha, that’s great Mark. Never thought I’d see you quoting from the TC book of answers.

    1. G - it's not sensitive (well it is with lots of people) it's just that you are banging on about the same old thing over and over again.

      1. You're very adept at expressing yourself so I just thought you might like to answer a simple question. It's related to the blog you published from the vet about animal welfare. Basically whether in principle you feel non lethal activities should be preferred to lethal ones. Personally I always try not to kill stuff - I don't even kill slugs and snails and we normally have a few crwos nests

  7. Decent of you to defend the RSPB, Mark, but why can’t the RSPB speak up for itself? Every time it sees a controversial issue coming down the road, it hides. It astonishes me that an organisation with such a high public profile is so timid. Does its chief executive not have a view?

    1. James - that’s something that 1500 members of RSPB staff have been wondering for the past 10 years ...

  8. “As you know, pheasants are now, apparently, according to GL26, 'livestock' even when they have escaped the release pens and are free living because they remain significantly dependent on people for food and shelter, and are therefore “kept”. “

    So when I am driving through an estate and a pheasant leaps the wrong way from the verge as I pasas and cracks my headlight again I can nip round and have it repaired ?

  9. You may have science quoting this and that figure on Magpie predation and you take it as gospel without question, I have my eyes and apart from seeing the predation by Magpies in my garden I also spend a lot of time in the countryside and see the impact Magpies have on songbirds.
    “has no discernible impact on population levels of songbirds” and what level/numbers might that be? Some birds are struggling to make a comeback, ANY loss may hold them back or possibly push them past recovery.
    You seem to look at nature through rose tinted spectacles and think everything will just get on fine, like the comment from Mr Packham when a Badger eats the chicks and eggs of the Avocet’s nesting on an island at the Minsmere reserve,
    “never mind, at least the parents survived and they will breed again”
    No mention of taking any action to stop it, or the fact that if the birds do breed again the Badger is likely to-do the same again and any chance of recovery for the birds is gone for another year.
    I could guide you to plenty of links that show Magpie predation on eggs, chicks and adult birds, but I guess you are not interested in the truth about Magpies.

    1. Countryman - thank you for making that comment which really sums up the essence of the real countryman's ecological illiteracy. I am profoundly grateful to you.

  10. That’s ok Mark, anytime you need to find out the truth just ask someone with their eyes open.


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