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A new approach to conservation needed as trust in RSPB from rural England is 'irrevocably broken'

Updated: Sep 15, 2020

Today the RSPB called on the UK Government to back ambitious global goals and national legally binding targets to restore species and habitats, and a UK-wide commitment to conserve 30% of land and seas by 2030. It is an admirable ambition and, as has been raised in our articles many times, without urgent intervention, the UK, risks losing many of its most endangered species and habitats.

The tragedy however is there could not have been a worse messenger to raise such an issue to the British government than the RSPB for nothing they say carries any merit anymore amongst decision makers, and this issue deserves merit.

Not just because of their own appalling record of repeated conservation failures in the UK, or the recent allegations of framing gamekeepers using frozen birds with lead shot stuffed into them but because this once respected organisation is now almost unanimously considered to be politically toxic by most of the government, as well as the vast majority of the farmers and landowners in the UK.

As one influential conservationist told us, ‘The RSPB’s involvement in this, sadly, risks setting the whole global effort back by years. They have unfortunately forfeited any credibility they once had’.

[RSPB's Jeff Knott with convicted criminal and activist, Luke Steele, and Mark Avery]

In terms of their own conservation record, there is no better example of their abject failure of management than what has taken place in Lake Vyrnwy in Wales.

It was not long ago that Lake Vyrnwy, when it was under private management, was an abundance of wildlife and biodiversity which presented a blueprint in good conservation management to the rest of the world.

[Lake Vyrnwy in Wales suffered a collapse in wildlife once the RSPB took over]

Then it was taken over as an RSPB reserve and, as was predicted by experts at the time, the wildlife and biodiversity it contained plummeted, despite spending millions of pounds of taxpayers money there. It was a textbook example of catastrophic conservation management.

Yet today, the RSPB’s CEO, Beccy Speight told us ‘We have to put our money where our mouth is’, this is despite the RSPB receiving annual income of £142.6m. No amount of money can make up for systematic organisational failure, which her organisation continues to demonstrate time and time again.

Extraordinarily in her press release, Ms Speight also makes the claim that the UK’s existing 28% of land protected for nature should not count as it includes ‘National Parks and AONB that are not well managed for nature.’ This is a thinly veiled attack on moorland managers despite it being clear that well managed moorlands have a greater level of bio-diversity and bird species than almost anywhere else in the UK, as the BTO’s Peak District bird survey proved – before the data was mysteriously suppressed by the RSPB, no doubt as being inconvenient to their narrative.

[Bird species recorded in the Peak District in 2018, which was then suppressed by the RSPB]

If Ms Speight is looking to include examples of poor moorland management, she need look no further than the RSPB’s own moorland projects, such as Saddleworth, where in 2018 we saw the worst wildfire the UK had ever experienced. That fire released half a million tonnes of carbon dioxide in just a few days, which equates to the annual total of 100,000 cars. Why did this happen? Because of an appallingly inept display of conservation management by the RSPB which they had been repeatedly warned about.

Rob Marrs, Professor of Applied Biology at Liverpool University, said at the time in an interview to the BBC: “The fire would not have spread, and would have been less likely to have penetrated the peat beneath, if the dry scrub and heather had been managed by occasional [controlled] burning. The RPSB didn’t think a big fire like this would happen to them but I’ve been predicating this for 15 years. Leaving the land alone causes much more damage than controlled burning because there’s more heather to burn so it gets hotter and spread to the peak which in turn spread the fire. It wasn’t a matter of if, but when, and that when is now.”

[Saddleworth fire was the worse ever seen in UK. The RSPB had been warned of the risk]

As for the political toxicity of the organisation, it is little surprise given the close affiliations of its staff with the Labour party, particularly from Jeremy Corbyn's premiership. Their contempt for the government, and indeed most rural organisations, is clear to see. It oozes through the external communications and the social media platforms of many of its current and former staff.

Unfairly or not, nothing the RSPB says will be taken seriously by the landowners and farmers across the UK, given their duplicity and relentless dogmatism.

Tragically, their political posturing is having a real impact on the ground on the wildlife and biodiversity that the RSPB are now calling to be protected.

As well as seeing far more nests fail on RSPB land when compared to privately managed land, including hen harriers, the organisation's collaborations led to over a thousand incidents of our most endangered ground nesting birds to be decimated by gulls as a result of the former RSPB’s Conservation Director Mark Avery leading a campaign which had gull control licenses banned.

The relationship with the RSPB has been irrevocably damaged and it looks likely to only get worse. In the week alone we have been made aware of two privately owned reserves which are currently managed by the RSPB in which they are soon to be kicked off by the landowner and replaced by another conservation organisation.

It was not long ago that across the country the RSPB could happily call up any number of landowners who would be only too delighted to have them view and enjoy wildlife on their farms. Now, few will allow them anywhere near privately-owned land.

This was reinforced earlier this year when we were made aware of a case where a farmer had a series of rare stone curlew nests on his farm. He willingly provided access to a number of conservationists and enthusiasts to view them from a distance, but explicitly banned anyone from the RSPB.

With the RSPB set to announce a tougher policy against gamebird shooting and associated land management next month, something Martin Harper, the RSPB’s Director of Conservation, hinted at gleefully during his recent interview with the BBC’s celebrity interviewer, Chris Packham, the derision towards the RSPB looks set to grow further still.

Why does this all matter? Because many other countries around the world look to the UK for leadership and guidance on this policy position on conservation targets that are greater than any individual nation. At the moment, it is only a number of African countries, particularly Ethiopia, that have shown leadership and commitment to achieving these conservation goals, often by working closely with privately owned large reserves. Their patience however is being greatly tested by the unwillingness of more developed nations to follow suit.

Protection of nature is already happening across huge swathes of private land in the UK, mostly without recognition or any credit from the RSPB . Many of these privately funded projects work hand-in-hand with sporting interests and working conservationists, as they do in many other parts of the world. The public and policy makers are increasingly aware that it is these projects, not the RSPB's, that are leading the charge in protecting nature in the UK.

Rather than the RSPB continually attacking these interest groups, just imagine how much more effective, and indeed how much more receptive the UK government with a vast rural majority would be, if these groups were tasked with leading the national policy position, rather than the politically toxic RSPB.

Fortunately many farmers and other working conservationists recognise that our wildlife needs a more proactive approach and have launched the Work for Wildlife Pledge. If you agree that a new approach is needed then you can sign up here:


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