RSPB’s Geltsdale reserve: a flagship flop

Ben O’Rourke

The only evidence Geltsdale nature reserve in Cumbria was ever a grousemoor that hosted shoots is the former hunting lodge, which is now the RSPB’s visitor centre.

The charity took over in the late 1990s and it’s been mostly downhill since then for the moorland bird population. 

In 2006, Geltsdale was taken off Natural England’s list of known breeding sites for hen harriers. 

Two years later, Natural England found it had the lowest populations of moorland birds in the North Pennines, below all the nearby managed grousemoors where shooting continued. One bird was thriving though – the carrion crow.

Then in 2021, two males went missing from the reserve under “suspicious” circumstances, a common term used when the RSPB wants to associate the death of birds of prey with grousemoors.

Geltsdale in Cumbria

RSPB has defended its record at Geltsdale, insisting some species are recovering. Hen harriers did indeed return, but the celebration was short-lived.

2020 was described as a ‘fantastic year for hen harriers’, with 60 chicks fledging across England – most from nests on grousemoors. It wasn’t a great year for the handful of nests RSPB was monitoring, with most failing. 

The charity swears it wasn’t its fault. Some of the nests were near grousemoors, so naturally, it accused gamekeepers of raptor persecution – a claim now so common it apparently no longer requires evidence for national newspapers to report it.

“The five nests that failed also bear more scrutiny,” wrote Mark Thomas, RSPB’s head of UK investigations on the charity’s blog. “On our Geltsdale reserve in Cumbria, which lies next door to a driven grouse moor, two nests were being provisioned by a single male. However, as has been recorded on many previous occasions at monitored nests, the male suspiciously ‘disappeared’ and the two nests then failed through lack of provisioning.”

No further comment is necessary. RSPB supporters have been conditioned into connecting the dots themselves, which raises their blood pressure and forces their hand to reach for their wallet or PayPal app, convinced a donation will ‘stop the killing’.

Nobody cares: John Cavana finds a neglected vistor's book in a bird hide

Despite a spike in raptor persecution claims, a look at the RSPB’s own figures show ithat raptor persecution is now a rare occurrence and getting rarer. The number of convictions has dropped from 16 in 1990 to one in 2017. Statisticians argue it’s not worth worrying about.

It’s also a fact that three-quarters of raptors die naturally in their first year and, since most of them live on grousemoors where there is plenty of food, it’s no surprise that that’s where their carcases are found.

On a trip to Geltsdale in January 2021, John Cavana and I were disappointed by the lack of birds advertised on its website. Could it have been the snowy weather? 

“Obviously it’s restricted to the winter species – we haven’t got the summer migrants here,” says John. “But the wildlife that is here still needs to feed and eat. If we’ve had a severely bad day, they might just do very little, which means they would then have to catch up with what they need to do. Today’s a nice bright day… there’s plenty of footprints. If it was managed for grouse, the gamekeepers would be out to find out exactly what has been round – not only what they can see and hear but by the footprints, knowing that they’d been there.”

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