NEWS: RSPB prepares to shift position on gamebird shooting

At yesterday’s RSPB AGM, Kevin Cox, the Chair of Council made the following announcement;

There is growing concern about the environmental impact (including for carbon, water and biodiversity) of intensive forms of game bird shooting and associated land management practices.  This includes both driven grouse moor management (which involves shooting our native red grouse) and largescale release of non-native game birds, primarily pheasants and red-legged partridges, now in excess of 40 million birds annually.

Environmental concerns include the ongoing and systematic illegal persecution of birds of prey such as hen harriers on some sporting estates; the ecological impact of high numbers of game birds released into the countryside increasing the density of generalist predators; the mass culling of mountain hares in some parts of our uplands; the use of lead ammunition; the impact of burning peatlands and medicating wild animals for sport shooting.

In response to the evidence about the scale of the environmental impact and growing public concern, including from our membership, the RSPB’s Council has agreed to review our policy on game bird shooting and associated land management. 

This is an emotive and sometimes controversial subject but we want to use our scientific rigour to develop a set of conservation tests for management practices associated with game bird shooting.  We will use these to guide the RSPB’s conservation policy, practice and communications, consistent with the ongoing climate and ecological emergency, respectful of our charitable objectives and maintaining the confidence and support of our members.

We intend to do this, informed by the views of members and other stakeholders many of whom we have engaged with on these issues for decades. 

The exact process we shall follow to conduct this review will be communicated as soon as possible.  The intention is to complete this work as soon as is practically possible but in order to engage people in the right way and ensure we have the best available evidence it might take until the next AGM, though we hope that it will be completed sooner than that.
And to avoid doubt, we shall in this period, while the review is being conducted, continue to call for the introduction of licensing of driven grouse shooting.”

This is welcome news.

Obviously the RSPB is always up to date with the science, and always reviewing it (although the figure of 40 million Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges used above is way out of date!) and so we shouldn’t imagine that there are many new data out there that the RSPB hasn’t noticed. No, this is more to do with unease among RSPB members, and ex-members, and potential members, and staff and Council about whether the RSPB has been drawing the right conclusions from the evidence that exists and carrying out the right advocacy.

Let’s just take lead ammunition as an example. It has been RSPB policy for about 10 years to seek the removal of lead ammunition from use in the UK but have you noticed the RSPB shouting about this issue? I haven’t, and I’ve been watching and listening closely. It’s also the policy, unless it has changed fairly recently, for WWT to do the same. No review of science is needed, just a bolder approach to following through on what the science says and what the organisation has already decided.

No, this review is about repositioning the RSPB in an important public debate because it is realised that the RSPB has been lagging not leading. Perhaps it has taken a new Chair of Council and a new Chief Executive to grasp this nettle rather belatedly. The campaign of vilification of the RSPB by elements of the shooting industry may, I’m not sure, have slowed down the inevitable repositioning in the past, but its continuation in the face of RSPB reasonableness and patience will have made change inevitable. Eventually even the RSPB loses patience and realises that if it is going to be unfairly attacked then it might as well be unfairly attacked while speaking out rather than while biting its lip. Although it has sometimes appeared that the RSPB would put up with any lies and insults thrown at it, eventually the organisation was bound to realise that appeasement and talking to the wilfully deaf was likely to be a waste of time, and indeed was damaging to the RSPB’s reputation.

It’s usually around now in any conversation that the RSPB’s Royal Charter comes up, and in particular the phrase ‘The Society shall take no part in the question of the killing of game birds and legitimate sport of that character except when such practices have an impact on the Objects.’. This is sometimes used by people with varying views on game-shooting to claim that the RSPB must remain silent on the issue but that isn’t, as you can see, what it says or what is meant. As you can see from the RSPB statement at its AGM, legal game shooting, and the management practices associated with it, have a wide range of impacts on nature conservation and the RSPB can comment on them to its heart’s content, and certainly has and does. What it can’t do, and never has done, is to comment on the legitimacy of killing birds for fun per se. I learned from Tessa Boase’s excellent book (reviewed here) how far back that goes and what was its origin. It may be time to remove that single sentence from the Royal Charter (a more involved process than you might think) because it rather like an appendix in the human body, it has no function and can sometimes be more trouble than it’s worth, time to have it out.

It is particularly welcome that the RSPB is going to involve its membership in these matters. I wonder what that will look like. I predict a few new memberships from hunters and animal rights supporters in order to play their part in the debate! I understand that some membership pressure has helped to push this statement along. I’m pretty sure that the existence of Wild Justice, getting into some areas where the RSPB has been nervous to tread, has also been a factor.

This, as far as we can see at the moment, is a good thing. It is an overdue good thing. But it is only an opportunity not a done deal. Let’s hope, after England’s brilliant performance against the All Blacks yesterday that the RSPB knows where the try line is and can make the right moves to get the ball over the line as soon as possible.

I’ll come back to this issue, I’m sure.

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30 Replies to “NEWS: RSPB prepares to shift position on gamebird shooting”

  1. I’d take issue with you on a point of politeness, Mark, as someone with hearing loss. Maybe add ‘wilfully’ to ‘deaf’ as a description of the people the RSPB should stop talking to.

    1. There’s no mention of animal welfare in the RSPB statement. I appreciate that the RSPB is not an animal welfare organisation but whenever shooting practice is dispassionately examined substantial welfare concerns are uncovered. It is important that the RSPB takes this into account. This is not solely an environmental or conservation matter.

      1. Yes, I was interested by that omission but not surprised given a fair amount of ‘behind the scenes’ involvement in this latest announcement.

        The process and scope of the consultation hasn’t been announced yet but I would hope it ends up with the development of an ‘ethical framework’ (to complement its ‘conservation framework’) within which the RSPB will operate from here on.

        Despite the cotrary efforts of so many throughout the history of humankind, nothing we do can be separated with any degree of honesty from ethical considerations. The RSPB was founded on an ethical principle and should continue to evolve these principles as society evolves and new (environmental/conservation) challenges arise.

        Attitudes to the killing of game birds have changed greatly in the last 25 years and probably most of all in the last 10 years. While the ecological case against driven game shooting has become increasingly apparent, the ethical argument against recreational killing has been ignored for too long by a broad range of what can be fairly considered ‘the establishment’ (in which I include the RSPB). Public sentiment, however, has risen up behind this apparent indifference to the point where the pressure has become too great for the establishment to go on ignoring it.

        I think the RSPB have done well to recognise this (unlike the National Trust with hunting) and it is to their credit that they have embarked on this consultation. It’s now up to us to make our points coherently and with plenty of emphasis!

  2. Long overdue but welcome news, that the RSPB will ask/ engage with their membership on these important matters. However, I do hope that this engagement is sincere as many members voices have been ignored for so long. An explanation would be helpful from the RSPB to explain why there has been a change of track and perhaps one too that gives an apology to the membership it has ignored for so long. Here is hoping for positive change.

    1. I’ve certainly noticed that when I’ve contacted RSPB Scotland through their facebook page if it’s a general enquiry they are excellent at getting back to me. If the question concerns something contentious usually about shooting, but sometimes the farming community, I rarely get a reply at all. I’m still waiting for it to respond (it was passed on I’m told) after I said it should stick its neck out and establish a precedent by applying to the Scottish government to translocate beavers to their Insh Marshes reserve (in a National Park) for conservation purposes – ludicrously all translocations to new territories are currently banned – some in the farming and salmon fishing sectors HATE beavers, so you can apply to shoot them, but no one can move them where they’d help wildlife and reduce flooding. The Insh Marshes may well be the best place in the UK for beavers and to benefit conservation wise from their presence, the RSPB should show leadership. Hopefully the RSPB is going to stop body swerving issues like this at all the levels in which they’re raised.

  3. Personally, I can’t remember having read a GWCT best practice manual, but surely there is a big problem with voluntarily opting into following these guidelines. It strikes me that game shooting needs a QA process that a) ensures shoots are following best practice; b) really isn’t worth breaching because it has massive financial implications.

    I am generally neutral on shooting, I think the licencing route is almost inevitable, but failure of licencing should lead to an outright ban.

    This really is not that dissimilar to drug manufacture for example, I could easily make a huge batch of almost any drug and if I chose to make the right one, exploit the needs of vulnerable people across the world. I could sell this cheap through a website and I am sure rewards could be huge. However this is illegal, I would have to prove that I can make a regular supply of very high quality material and that I can trace the materials that I manufacture through a recording process, so that if it turns out I kill someone with my product, I can recall the whole batch of that product. I have to scientifically prove the robustness of the process that I use to manufacture my drug and if i deviate from this record that, I would need advanced quality control and even a QA process that sees the QA manager on a par with the production manager of my company. There are almost countless regulations and QA processes.

    The point is that the investment is huge and the key is that after such a huge investment in QA, managers would be very, very reluctant to allow activity that compromises the value of the investment. Sure there are usually conflicts between QA and Manufacturing, but generally the system delivers safe drugs.

    There is an argument that such systems prevent others from being able to break into a market, but the safety of customers is a high priority.

    Why do such systems exist? Surely to get the industry to self regulate, which it does seem to do fairly well because breaching the rules leads to severe financial penalties and loss of a licence to manufacture.

    1. The GWCT last year published “The Knowledge”, a book “to raise standards by increasing awareness of Guns’ legal and ethical obligations including tackling some of the most controversial issues affecting shooting today.” There is also the “Code of Good Shooting Practice”.
      The small shoots I know here in mid-Wales adhere to the recommendations in these publications. Of course there may be much more that can be done. On the subject of licensing I will be unpopular among my game shooting friends but my view is that licensing should not be an issue for any shoot that is managed properly.

  4. A welcome, albeit very belated move. Interesting to contrast this with the RSPB’s proactive, precautionary stance on the use of neonicotinoids, where it was willing to alienate farmers and fall in with other conservation bodies, on the basis of ’emerging evidence’. The evidence on the detrimental impacts of driven grouse shooting has been ’emerging’ for rather a long time, not least thanks to this blog.

    1. “The evidence on the detrimental impacts of driven grouse shooting has been ’emerging’ for rather a long time, ..”…not least thanks to the RSPBs own Investigations Section…

      1. Fair point – the RSPB’s investigations team does a great job and has been doing so for many years.

        1. Dave and Paul – it’s a fair point but the organisation as a whole has not used the evidence gathered by the Investigations team to engineer enough change in the world. The Investigations Team’s work will have been successful when the rest of the RSPB have used it properly as a sharp stick with which to poke decisiion-makers.

          1. Agreed, And I have no doubt that some members of the Investigations team – past and present – share your view.

  5. This is very welcome news.I have sensed a hardening of attitude towards D.G.S in the R.S.P.B for a while now and it has become increasingly obvious that they are out of step with their membership. As a member who has held in there waiting and pressurising for change I hope there will be a platform for members to express their views and observations fully. This change can’t come soon enough.

  6. Great news in dark times. How nice to have something to be optimistic about! Thank you for everything you and Wild Justice have done to help.

  7. I noticed in the very latest issue of ‘Nature’s Home’ (I too hate that bloody title) the RSPB had a statement about how much money their reserves brought into local communities – an estimated 66 million quid – and that equaled the income from English grouse moors, but from a fraction of their land area. That’s exactly the type of thing that the RSPB should have been saying for years and doing so very loudly but I couldn’t recall it ever doing so, so this struck me as a small, but very significant departure. It made me raise an eyebrow and my heart jump a little. There were a couple of other features along the same lines including a fair sized one about Henry Morris’s run to raise funds for Wild Justice. Was the RSPB changing direction? It seems so. Yes if you’re going to be kicked again and again no matter what you do you might as well kick back. Finally the RSPB has realized this and acted – although what alternative did it have? Very good news.

  8. Mark, very worrying that you think “that single sentence” in the Royal Charter has no function. It is that sentence which has enabled the RSPB to remain a conservation charity and not be taken over by animal rights factions or shooting interests. Long may it continue to do that.

    1. Bob – oh Bob! You mustn’t worry, largely because you aren’t right.

      All charities have to be able to justify how their actual work relates to their charitable objects and so the sentence is entirely superfluous.

      Also, the sentence is so specific, and covers so little of what those who care for animal welfare and rights (or indeed many fieldsports activists) actually care about that there would in any case be plenty of scope for a takeover if anyone seriously wanted to.

      1. Thanks Mark. You may be right but I’m a bit of a belt and braces man myself. I can’t help remembering what happened to the RSPCA over fox hunting.

  9. I am one of no doubt many RSPB members who will be saying to themselves and others, “About bloody time” or words to that effect. A long time ago I realised talking to various colleagues amongst both raptor workers and ordinary birders that the licencing route we were then advocating for driven grouse shooting was probably not the way to go. Licencing as a solution works where the majority of those licenced are either on favour of the scheme or neutral to it, it the case of DGs they are opposed and unless any such scheme was extremely vigorously policed ( which I doubt) it would not work and would just give DGS a longer lifespan than it deserves. Why do I think this, Simply because transgression of the law is so widespread against predatory birds notably, Hen Harrier, Peregrine, Goshawk, Golden Eagle and Red Kite, it seems impossible this would be stopped by licencing or that better or no burn regimes would be brought in. The only answer for me is a ban on DGS. Will RSPB reach the same conclusion I wonder?
    As to mass releases of alien game birds this must surely somehow be restricted in both number and to those ( unprotected) habitats where it has been shown they will neither damage that habitat for native species of all orders nor unduly compete with them. a legally binding QA or best practice regime would be necessary and may work, a failure of this would for me usher in a ban.

  10. I think there is no doubt that a campaign to ban driven grouse shooting needs to be tied into the climate change crisis. As we heard at the RSPB AGM yesterday the moorland peat bogs and peatland contain a huge amount of CO2 and the severe damage being done to them by the shooters through such activities as. burning, draining, spreading lead shot everywhere, and driving on them by 4wheeled vehicles has to be stopped. If we also link this with animal welfare of which the shooters have no concerns whatsoever because they kill all types of wildlife for fun, these combinations should help to create an over whelming case for banning driven grouse shooting and help to galvanise even more people into supporting such a ban.

  11. Mark
    Whilst you are quite correct to say that it has EFFECTIVELY been RSPB policy for about 10 years to seek the removal of lead ammunition from use in the UK, can you point to a clear and accessible formal statement of what the RSPB wants to happen regarding lead ammunition and why? Is there a clearly-labelled position statement on the RSPB’s policy on this which can easily be accessed on its website? I cannot find one, though the topic is certainly mentioned in various RSPB blogs, etc. In my opinion, this omission is unfortunate. It contrasts with the stance of the GWCT, which until recently had a very forthright position statement on the issue, accompanied by GWCT’s own assessment of scientific evidence. As you pointed out in a recent blog, the GWCT website’s spin on this was recently modified substantially after the misleading nature of some of its claims was pointed out. However, for three years, the GWCT’s online position statement on lead ammunition was unchallenged as the most accessible, clear, concise and (apparently) authoritative material readily available on the topic. It was understandably consulted more by many interested parties than the detailed scientific reviews and updates of the Lead Ammunition Group. The RSPB should have been much clearer about what it believes should be done and why. It still can be. Let’s hope that the new review will help.

  12. Am I alone in being highly unimpressed by this RSPB statement?

    Firstly, why was it not made by the chief executive? Isn’t she the individual who is supposed to demonstrate leadership?

    Why is she hiding behind Kevin Cox?

    He is chairman of the trustees and an excellent fellow, but it is surely the responsibility of the senior leadership team to put their heads above the parapet on such an important issue.

    Secondly, why the need for a review at all? The data is all readily available. Top brass at the RSPB should have assessed it long ago, reached a conclusion and provided a clear direction.

    Instead it has dithered and shilly-shallied.

    It may not until be until next October that the review is published, so that’s up to another 12 months’ of dither.

    What a waste of precious time! This will allow those on both sides of the argument, plus organisations such as Natural England, to sit on their hands and say: “Let’s wait for the outcome of the RSPB review.”

    In the meantime, nothing will change – the abuses will continue.

    Then, when the review is published, who’s to predict it won’t be a load of prevaricating, sit-on-the-fence wiffy-waffyness.

    At the very best, all publication of the review will do is take us right back to Square One where we are now.

    I keep paying my subs to the RSPB, but I despair of it showing any decisive leadership on the big issues affecting the welfare of birds and the countryside.

  13. James, agree with everything you say,the RSPB could have done plenty of things over the past decade and even longer.
    They will have to get considerably bolder to do things they talk about.
    It is far easier to talk than to get on and help sort out lots of problems especially the illegal killing of raptors.
    Family left the RSPB over raptor killing and RSPB being extremely weak about it.
    Will need evidence of proof they mean what they say.
    As of today it is difficult to believe they will have the guts and determination to carry out what they propose.
    If they do however they will have my admiration.

  14. The RSPB will hopefully carry a great deal of weight in further discussions re driven grouse shooting and all of its implications. PS Just to be scientifically correct – the human appendix has been shown to be an integral part of the immune system and reservoir for microbes helpful for our health. See ‘10% human’ by Alanna Collen.

  15. I think I’ve got a nose-bleed from the speed of the RSPB response.

    I’m not used to this rapidity, they usual lethargy is at glacier pace.

    Anything to do with the latest accounts – possible? The threat of loosing the cheques from the ‘little old dears’, has more to do with it– not conservation.

  16. I have long agonised over keeping my RSPB membership. A few days ago I had an email asking me (as a member) my opinions on various topics which are included in this latest statement. They mentioned Wild Justice in a positive way and I applauded the fact that they now seem to be supporting issues that are very important to me ( like stopping driven Grouse Shooting and Raptor Persecution) So for now, I will continue with my membership, hoping to change things from the inside.

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