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Actions speak louder than words - why RSPB's Beccy Speight's words ring hollow

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

RSPB decided some time ago to be a universal conservation organisation dealing with anything, anywhere, and not just birds and not just in Britain.

This obviously increased their capacity to raise the vast sums of money their infrastructure needs to simply survive, by using key fund raising species such as red squirrels, dormice and dolphins, and is no doubt seen as success within RSPB.

It did however have significant adverse impacts on other conservation organisations, who lack RSPB's sharp elbows and the £30,000,000 fundraising budget of RSPB and who now are finding it increasingly difficult to stay afloat, let alone expand the excellent work they have done for so long.

Almost the only downside for RSPB was that they had to change the name of their magazine from the commendable and clear “Birds”, to “Nature's Home”, cryptic with a hint of megalomania.

But from the point of view of our readers, this change has in no way reduced the publication's capacity to throw light on the thinking of this once great and respected organisation.

The latest edition contains many interesting snippets. The first is an impassioned plea by the CEO Beccy Speight for everyone to work together and stop the polarisation of the debate.

Hang on, what? From the RSPB? Unbelievable I know, but true nonetheless.

Here is what she says, “We need to work together. With anyone and everyone who is willing to be part of a movement for change. And we must listen, be humble, recognising that others have much to offer in our fight to reverse these precipitous declines. It is clear we need more mosaics of habitat on our land; more balance, more complexity, more sharing, far less intensification in order to let nature thrive again-and our own species to thrive in turn. Recent years have seen an increasing polarisation of debate across many aspects of our lives and conservation is at times no different. However it diminishes us all.”

This statement, by the relatively new CEO, is extraordinary. It suggests a pattern of behaviour, so different from that experienced by moorland communities right across the UK at the hands of RSPB, as to border on the surreal.

There are several explanations for her statement. It may be that she has no idea what goes on in parts of her organisation. Unlikely, I suspect, given former colleagues of hers at the Woodland Trust have told us of her centralised management approach.

A blind optimist would suggest her words might signal a genuine change of attitude, on part of what is probably the most authoritarian organisation in the entire conservation industry.

Sadly, the most likely explanation, is that these are just some words designed to cover up the business as usual approach for the RSPB.

The giveaway clue is the suggestion that the RSPB must be “humble”. Anyone who works in the uplands and across our moorland communities and has had to deal with RSPB will be able to call to mind many words which describe their behaviour and actions, but we can absolutely guarantee that “humble” will not be one of them.

There are many examples that can demonstrate why people think that Ms Speight may not be reflecting the reality of the RSPB's attitude to upland communities. It was not long ago that Jim Dixon, who was in charge of the Peak District National Parks Authority, wrote the following in the Derbyshire Magazine.

“Just a few days before Hen Harrier Day I had the privilege of joining the Peak District Birds of Prey Initiative field worker Jamie Horner on a moor. We walked out on a hot August evening deep into the heather and sat on a ridge overlooking a broad expanse of moor owned by the National Trust and run by a pioneering moorland conservationist Geoff Eyre. For an hour we watched buzzards, merlin, kestrels and peregrines. We speculated that the peregrines may have come from the successful eyrie on a nearby moor owned by the National Trust, where a few weeks before a nest of chicks fledged. High over the ridge in front of us, the unmistakable shape and colour of a male hen harrier appeared”.

The bird was provisioning its mate and her 5 chicks. He goes on to say, “Great credit goes to Geoff Eyre and the NT, on whose moor such wildlife flourishes”.

What could be better? A perfect opportunity for RSPB to listen humbly and work in partnership? Not on your life. When the famous bearded vulture turned up in July 2020, on the self-same moor praised for its, peregrines, merlins, kestrels, buzzards and hen harriers, and hordes of RSPB members were happily trampling around in ground nesting birds to get a tick in their bird book, the RSPB spoke.

What it said was simple and to the point. “For this magnificent bird to have turned up in such a dangerous location, a month before the start of the grouse shooting season, is like a turkey spending Christmas at a butcher's shop”.

In October 2020, Mark Thomas, Head of Investigations at RSPB, went on national radio and suggested to an audience of over 7 million listeners that gamekeepers were a 'coordinated gang of armed criminal roaming the uplands'.

Throughout 2020 RSPB led a highly emotive campaign, 'Ban-the-Burn' claiming controlled cool heather burning was in fact, 'peat burning'. They ran this campaign knowing that the entirety of the UK's controlled burning released less than 0.01% of the UK's annual carbon emissions, whereas a single wildfire can release well over 1 million tonnes of carbon into the earth atmosphere.

How's that for, working together with anyone and everyone? How's that for listening and humble? How's that for recognising that others have much to offer? How's that for avoiding any risk of polarisation? And there are many many more examples of such polarising behaviour that we will come to at a later date.

To simply stay still the RSPB needs to make a million pounds every two days, and it has no intention of standing still. Nothing can stand in its way and no criticism will be tolerated.

The problem that much of shooting has, and that grouse shooting has in particular, is that the people who manage these estates outperform RSPB, on what was their core business, the conservation of birds such as curlew, lapwing and other ground nesting species.

This is made even less acceptable by the refusal of the people who are outperforming them in their core business, to accept the primacy of RSPB in everything and anything, and when told by them to jump, ask why, instead of how high.

Whilst there remain a number of impressive RSPB volunteers and scientists working on the ground, we can find no evidence that their management are interested in real partnership working with the people who own and manage the land, and who they have for so long demonised.

There is on the other hand every indication that RSPB is interested in the acquisition of wealth and power and in telling people what to do. Their ability to acquire almost unimaginable sums of money is deeply impressive. Their enthusiasm for pointing out that everything is terrible and getting worse is gold standard. Their willingness to blame everyone except themselves for the problems they say wildlife faces is extraordinary. Their capacity to engage in genuine partnership working with the communities who own and manage the uplands is lamentable.


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