What’s the going rate for saving a songbird? The RSPB successfully persuaded one local council it should get £74,193 of taxpayers’ cash per pair of cirl buntings. The councillors are shocked.
Cllr Chris Clarance of Teignmouth District Council calls it a ‘heck of a lot of money’ that could put to better use, now that cirl buntings are on their way back.
You can trace the sad decline of the bird alongside the rise of intensive agriculture. In the 1930s, guide books show it was found as far north as Yorkshire. Since then and up to the early 2000s, its UK population has been pushed into one small corner of South Devon. Since the rise of countryside stewardship and payments for farmers to leave over-winter stubbles in the last 20 years, the bird has started a slow comeback. It’s a comeback that the RSPB claims as a victory – for the RSPB.
The RSPB claims that the cirl bunting needs its help and that, as a UK-based bird charity, the RSPB is the best beneficiary for cirl bunting money, because the bird is endangered nationally. The cirl bunting’s distribution across Europe is widespread, however – something the RSPB does not mention when asking for cash handouts.
The RSPB is spending the money it gets from the local council on its Cirl Bunting Project: saving the cirl bunting on land near Teignmouth in South Devon. Its public reserve is Labrador Bay on land it bought from the local council. The land is farmed and, although the RSPB maintains some of it for cirl buntings, it allows the ploughing of precious over-winter stubbles on other areas.
During the winter, when food is scarce, the cirl bunting and other songbirds feed on the dried seeds of weeds that grow up between stubble. Ploughed land is no good to the birds, and neither is cattle pasture, which is weed-killered to encourage only grass.
Labrador Bay is not the RSPB’s sole reserve in the area. A look at the RSPB’s recent accounts reveals it has been buying up other land locally. It took out a £500,000 loan from Lloyds Bank to buy 90 acres of land at Ashill, on the other side of the Teign estuary from Labrador Bay. The RSPB is getting its money back for the Ashill purchase from the local council over just five years (See RSPB 2020 annual report, PDF 6MB). The council reports that it has paid the RSPB around £650,000 so far.
Much of the cash that pays for this land purchase and management comes from property developers, who pay it to the local council as part of agreements attached to their planning permissions. A local developer gets permission for a housing scheme and pays the council a cirl bunting duty. The council bounces that money straight on to the RSPB. This cash can be called a community infrastructure levy or section 106 agreement.
Local councils usually use this money for amenities, such as outdoor space at schools, bicycle lanes and play parks. The RSPB nabs its cut for birds.
The Ashill purchase is at the back of the Teignmouth Morrisons supermarket. On our visit in Ocober 2020, there was no signage to show that it is RSPB land, and it doesn’t look like the RSPB is managing the land for cirl buntings. Most of it is cattle pasture, with only part of one field, which may or may not be the RSPB’s landholding, suitable for cirl bunting food. The cattle pasture has been weed-killered.
Local gamekeeper and regular Fieldsports Channel contributor Mike Powell has carried out pest control on both Labrador Bay and Ashill during the more than 80 years he has lived in the area. He says that the land at Ashill lies directly between urbanisation at Teignmouth and Bishopsteignton, and will oneday sell well for property development, if the RSPB chooses to do that.
Mike can no longer tidy up th magpies and foxes on the RSPB’s land. The charity has banned pest control on its land in the Teignmouth area, even though pest control benefits songbirds including cirl buntings.
As far as the local council is concerned, the RSPB is doing a great job. Cllr Clarance says Labrador Bay is a successful cirl bunting reserve. He admits, however, that he is not convinced that paying a single agency to manage local wildlife is the best way forward in the long-term. He says that, although the Labrador Bay cirl buntings are a success, the £74,000 cost per extra pair of buntings is no longer value for money.
The RSPB favours a centrally organised reserve system. The language of environmental management now is about centralisation. Even Natural England believes it should be involved in conservation, rather than providing a framework for UK citizens including farmers and gamekeepers to do the work for them. Mike Powell says it would be better for the council to put the money into encouraging farmers, gamekeepers and landowners locally to provide over-winter stubbles, rather than paying it in a lump sum to the RSPB. And Cllr Chris Clarance has a long list of what he would do with £74,000, including encouraging the lifelines of the local economy, tourism, and paying for affordable housing.