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RSPB received £25m in public grants last year, yet they won't release their bird data - wonder why?

[RSPB's lavish headquarters]

Let us return to the RSPB's article which seeks to explain to its own members why they think shooting game can be equated with apocalyptic wildfires in Australia and California.

The article is like a bucket, into which a rich mix of assertion, pseudo-science and wild claims have been tipped. All anyone, who understands what the real world looks like, has to do, is pick out something at random, ask a couple of questions and the watch the whole thing turn to ashes.

Oh! Sorry! We forgot, we're trying not to mention ashes when talking about the RSPB. You may recall its a sensitive subject for them, since it became clear that their preferred method of managing moorland, unkindly characterised by some observers as, “Do nothing and take the money”, appears to have cornered the market in wildfires.

But today's lucky dip has given us the following quote, “More than half the land covered by RSPB reserves is upland, and your support has enabled these places to provide a range of benefits and remain profitable”.

This assertion is difficult to test, as the RSPB is very, very careful to keep the detail of its finances secret. So there is no publicly available information with which to assess the validity of such claims.

Only occasionally does the necessary information come to light. Even then only part of what is needed is available. A rare example is provided by Lake Vyrnwy, their flagship upland site in Mid-Wales.

The RSPB stated in 1984, “Because of the regime of burning and despite grazing the moorland, there is still a fairly healthy population of red grouse and large numbers of breeding curlew and whinchats.

Less common are golden plover, hen harrier, merlin and stonechat”. So, when they took control the estate was clearly in a reasonable state. Obviously not as rich in upland biodiversity as a fully functioning grouse moor, (few places are) but still at the upper end of the RSPB upland sites.

[The RSPB still can't tell the difference between a curlew and golden plover]

There is of course no problem in claiming that Vyrnwy provides at least one benefit, clean drinking water, but it would have done that without their involvement, as had been the case since the reservoir was built, long before RSPB took control.

What is less clear is the profitability claim and the success of their management to “increase localised populations of threatened birds such as curlews and black grouse”. Something they grudgingly allow grouse moors are good at, elsewhere in their article.

By pure luck we have an insight into the state of “threatened birds such as curlews and black grouse”, on Vyrnwy after nearly forty years of RSPB management. This was provided in the application for £3.3 million pounds from Lottery Funds.

A direct quote from the bid is, “Without the serious interventions RSPB is proposing in this bid, in the next few years curlew, black grouse and merlin will cease to appear as breeding species in this area of Wales. It is also likely that the same fate will fall red grouse and hen harrier within a decade”. We must assume that this is accurate.

RSPB would hardly lie just to get £3.3 million. In fact the situation on Vyrnwy itself is probably worse than that. It is important to note that the bid very carefully refers to “in this area of Wales” and not, as one might reasonably expect, “On the reserve”. They choose their words advisedly. No curlew or black grouse now breed successfully on the reserve, although a few cling on around it's boundaries.

So we get clean water, which we were getting any way. The birds which were supposed to increase, are de facto extinct or about to be. As to profitability, who knows? With huge sums of money from HLF, NRW, the Welsh Government and sundry other sources, reinforcing failure, it would be difficult to assess how applicable this model of upland management would be to the challenges faced by ordinary human beings.

What is clear however, is that the outcomes from a properly managed grouse moor are as good or better in terms of eco-services and biodiversity, and far better at creating and maintaining breeding assemblages of rare ground nesting birds. It appears that, in the circumstances brought to light by chance at Vyrnwy, RSPB is in no position to lecture anyone about how the uplands should be managed.

But in one regard the RSPB is very definitely top of the class in the uplands. They are so far above their peers that all anyone can see is their vapour trail. This is in getting their hands on immense sums of public money.

Their last set of accounts showed some very impressive figures for the grants they received from government agencies and others.

  • Scottish Government and SNH. £2,528,000

  • Welsh Government and NRW. £1,005,000

  • DEFRA and NE £9,334,000

  • EU £3,014,000

  • National Lottery £3,526,000

  • Local Councils £3,488,000

There are a lot more and together they add up, in just one financial year, to a staggering £24,854,000. When you factor in their annual turnover is close to £150m and they have reserves of £227 million, that's a huge amount of money.

It is worth remembering that many of the organisations, so generous with taxpayers money, claim to be strapped for cash. If that is the case, what they are giving RSPB these awesome sums of money for must be really important and have some massive benefits for biodiversity and species recovery. That must be the case, mustn't it?

The really extraordinary thing is that very often when you ask the grant giving body what they got for their vast expenditure, they find the question puzzling. It's almost as though giving it to the RSPB was an end in itself. Very often it is. The Welsh Government is a case in point. Money flows from it into the the pockets of the RSPB as water flows from a tap.

But can they point to a single extra bird, just one? No, of course not. A strategy paper here, an application, filled in to get even more money, there. A nice new car park, some meetings and a forum. Things to gladden a bureaucrats heart but which do nothing, absolutely nothing, to solve the appalling reality of the populations of upland ground nesting birds moving from going to gone.

A million pounds would fund 50 gamekeepers and their equipment and overheads and leave change for a really good Christmas party, where you could celebrate the increases in breeding lapwing, curlew and merlin that would take place. Instead it pours into RSPB and results in exactly what? Perhaps they would like to tell us? If they send us a list of their successes in increasing the number of rare ground nesting birds in the Welsh uplands, we guarantee to publish them.

But they won't. How can we be sure? Because they were careful in their claim. Their members support, “Enabled these places to provide a range of benefits and remain profitable”. They thought it wiser not to mention the birds.


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