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The bloated wastefulness of the RSPB

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad.

On Saturday at its AGM, the RSPB will announce that when, in 2020, it instructed the shooting community to change what the RSPB said it was doing (that is, different from what was actually happening), the shooting community, according to the RSPB, decided to ignore their instructions. The shooting community is therefore in for some punishment. Accordingly, the RSPB have decided that self-regulation (involving what is called freedom of choice in a free country) is not delivering what the RSPB says should happen, and as a result the RSPB wants more regulation, more licencing and more complex and costly enforcement to make sure that the shooting community behaves as the RSPB wants it to do.

There are moments when the RSPB can still surprise. Who would have thought an organisation so wasteful of public money, so useless at fledging ground nesting birds on its reserves, so bloated with cash, and so often incompetent in its core business, would want to draw attention to themselves in this reckless way? But then self awareness has never been one of their most obvious traits.

Self regulation has its limits, but whilst shoot management's core purpose is to produce a harvestable surplus of game and subsequently, edible game meat, no reasonable person could deny that properly conducted game shooting is anything other than a completely sustainable activity. It contributes significantly to the environment, the economy and the culture and society where it occurs. It takes place, and has a positive impact, far more frequently and over a far greater area than the RSPB covers and it costs the state not a penny.

Let us compare this to what the RSPB can boast about.

It can certainly claim to be good at getting money. They have an in excess of £146 million and usually make a profit of over £10m. They have reserves of a quarter of a billion.

In spite of their already bloated finances they constantly beg for money and are very skilled at getting it. They average around £3m every month in legacies, year after year, and suck the market so dry that the smaller conservation organisations are left scrabbling about for bits and pieces.

Despite their huge operating surplus they receive massive amounts of public money – around £26m last year – and seem to be immune to value-for-money tests that would apply to normal people. The taxpayer even subsidises their trading arm's profit of over £20m, with the Welsh government recently giving them a quarter of a million to refurbish one of their cafes and its car park.

The RSPB HQ, in a multimillion pound mansion

The RSPB is certainly very good at working out how to spend money on itself. The decisions they make in the multimillion pound mansion in rural Bedfordshire that serves as RSPB HQ are of course secret, but just looking at their published accounts reveals that they only feel able to spend £30m on running their reserves, which is surely their core conservation contribution. That's £30m out of £140m; leaving 80% to spend on whatever else they want.

What they want to spend their money on is also interesting. When stoats turned up on Orkney, where RSPB have extensive reserves, there was justified concern that the mammals could decimate ground nesting birds. For ten years RSPB watched as the situation got worse and worse. Eventually it got so bad that they managed to get a government grant of £64,000 to write an application to the EU, which subsequently got them 6,000,000 euros to kill the stoats. Any competent gamekeeper could have done the job a decade before for a fraction of the cost, and saved both millions of public money and thousands of rare bird chicks. But that would have reduced their profit. Far better to wait til it gets so bad that you can get someone else to pay.

Even their self confessed incompetence is used to make money. In their successful application to get a £3.3m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, they actually majored on the fact that curlews had, whilst they managed the Lake Vyrnwy Reserve, gone from abundant to functionally extinct as a breeding bird. Normal people would have been too ashamed to behave like that, but RSPB are not normal people. Normal people would not have been given £10,000 by the Welsh Government to write the application for the £3.3m. But in the cashaholic world that RSPB manipulate, it is normal, perfectly normal.

Even the day-to-day management of their own reserves can have catastrophic consequences. Their abandonment of traditional moorland management techniques has not stopped one wildfire after another burning into the peat on the reserves, releasing hundreds of thousands of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

We could go on and on about these failings, but it isn't necessary. The RSPB, a once respectable and respected organisation, is now self-evidently bloated with cash, driven by its obvious ambition to get ever larger, richer and more powerful and has become so convinced of its own importance and omnipotence that it genuinely believes that it when it says jump, the only acceptable question is: 'How high?'.

Of course the RSPB continues, as it always has, to do good things. It would be difficult to spend £146M and do no good at all. But that does not justify its decision to attack game shooting; it doesn't even explain it. There are of course examples of bad practice, as there are plenty in the conservation industry, or any other community of interest you can think of. So what? They are not causing landscape scale or population level effects: if they were we would hear about them.

The claims that RSPB keep going back to are that large numbers of pheasants are increasing fox numbers, and that gamekeepers kill raptors. The first flies in the face of all the available population data. GWCT says that fox numbers have been steady for years and the British Trust for Ornithology says that fox numbers are falling. The second about raptor killing may still occasionally be true, but it is now at such a low level that any reasonable person that studies the data will see that it is at worst a local problem and not a crisis.

Most raptors have populations higher, some very much higher, than at any time in living memory or even historical record. Whatever occasionally happens can hardly be significant, is already illegal and the perpetrator can and should be prosecuted. The ones that are declining are ironically the smaller ones like merlin and kestrel, that can hardly be seen as an enemy of game or gamekeeping. Are they in trouble in some places because they are now being killed by bigger raptors like peregrines, goshawks and buzzards?

What the RSPB now propose is that the law-abiding shooting community, who contribute to rural sustainability by enhancing the local economy and employment, conserving and creating scarce habitat, by the legal control of common predators, and enhancing and maintaining social cohesion, culture and community, should all be stigmatised and disadvantaged because the RSPB thinks it would be a good idea.

Well, what about a different idea. Why not ask the RSPB to demonstrate value for money in terms of practical conservation outcomes on the ground. If they refuse to demonstrate that the vast sums they absorb can actually compete, in real conservation outcomes, with say, a well run shooting estate in Wiltshire or a Yorkshire grouse moor, then the Government should set up a value for money task force and publish the information for all to see. We could then get to a point where money spent on conservation, which God knows is scarce enough, goes to people and organisations that actually do some good with it, rather than helping to deal with a pension fund deficit.


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