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RSPB’s review of lowland ‘gamebird’ shooting: “Bleak picture”

Has the RSPB finally run out of patience with the shooting industry? The country’s largest bird charity speaks out – but in an oddly low-key way.

Tied for over a century to a Constitution enshrined in 1904 which insists it should be ‘neutral’ on shooting, the RSPB (by far the most important and most effective bird charity in the UK) has always tried to walk a difficult line between noting ever-rising numbers of birds (mainly Common Pheasants, Red-legged Partridges, and Red Grouse) being shot and the ‘conservation benefits’ of small areas of land being planted as cover crops for so-called ‘gamebirds’ (the ‘benefits’ of which are incidental, shoots couldn’t care less about finches and buntings).

Their approach has been (and still is) relentlessly scientific and resource-based rather than on a love of birds (which most of us would hope would be the case).

The world is definitely a better place with the RSPB in it, but many of us fully in the latter camp haven’t been convinced by their stance. We have long called for the charity to re-think its policies. Gratifyingly the RSPB finally announced “a review of our policy on gamebird shooting and its associated land management” in October 2019

Delayed by Covid, the review has (sort of) now seen the light of day, and the RSPB does appear to have shifted its position slightly (though certainly not to the degree that lobbyists for shooting were decrying from the pages of The Times back in October 2020).

 

A small but significant shift in approach

In an almost unpromoted video released on YouTube on 16th October, the RSPB’s Jeff Knott, in his new role as Director of Policy and Advocacy, carefully laid out why that shift has taken place. Jeff has risen through the ranks of the RSPB over two decades and was never likely to dramatically upend established policy, but he does point out that the numbers of non-native birds being released since the 1950s has increased ten-fold and discusses the ‘biomass’ of all these birds and their ecological impact on other wildlife. He also notes that while releases have gone up massively the numbers of birds actually being shot hasn’t (birds surviving the ‘shooting season’ providing an easy meal for the very predators the industry so ruthlessly targets).

Pointing to a “whole range” of negative impacts of shooting, including habitat alteration, disease transmission, a failure to phase out lead ammunition, and personal attacks by shooting lobbyists on conservation staff, Jeff – who is a birder – never ventures into issues of sentience or the immorality of rearing millions of birds simply to be shot, but does end with an acknowledgement that at the national level working relationships with shooting has not improved for decades and is not likely to.

Most tellingly, perhaps, on illegal raptor persecution, Jeff says that “we know as a statement of fact that a majority of gamekeepers who kill birds of prey are gamekeepers”, that recent levels of persecution have been at their highest for decades, and that he sees “no chance of meaningful progress in the short-term”. I know from speaking off-the-record with the RSPB’s own investigators that the consensus is that if shooting were to stop so would raptor persecution.

Jeff concludes by saying of ‘lowland gamebird shooting’ that the review paints a “somewhat bleak picture”, particularly in the context of the climate crisis and biodiversity emergency and that compliance and regulation must be better enforced. To have a future, ‘gamebird’ shooting must, he says, provide net benefits to native wildlife and not negatively impact the environment. The RSPB will, he says, be pushing for new regulations “to deliver that over the coming months and years”.

An important and significant statement then, and it’s perhaps worth noting (especially for the social media team at the RSPB) that six days after release this video has had less than 150 views.

 

What we think

Protect the Wild welcomes the general direction the RSPB seems to be going in, but it is overly cautious at a time when shooting itself is becoming more reckless (especially during the current Avian Flu crisis) and less interested in compromise.

We would also like to see the RSPB move towards dropping the term ‘gamebird’ entirely and talk about ‘birds’ being shot instead. It’s more accurate and closes an unscientific separation of bird species that only benefits shooting. And – assuming they still can’t bring themselves to condemn the enormous slaughter of birds for ‘sport’ – at least call out the collateral massacre of so many native mammals and birds in traps and snares by the industry: it’s not just the illegal persecution of birds of prey, but the ‘legal’ killing of literally millions of wild animals including foxes, stoats, weasels, and corvids that must be stopped.

As we stated earlier, the world is a better place with the RSPB in it, but while the charity’s slow and steady approach is applauded by scientists and population-conservationists, as campaigners against shooting we have no compunction at all in asking the nation’s largest bird charity to protect ALL birds – now – not just some of them.