The RSPB is upping its campaign against grousemoors, moorland gamekeepers and grouseshooters. The conservation work that gamekeepers undertake across the UK is the only barrier to the RSPB’s goal of being the UK’s one-stop-shop for birds, Many gamekeepers believe the bird rights and welfare organisation is piling on pressure to try to bring down their profession.
The RSPB admits that more than 70% of raptors die in their first year. Yet it press-releases raptor deaths as ‘gamekeeper persecution’. There have been a handful of prosecutions against gamekeepers illegally killing raptors in the last few years. The RSPB ignores condemnation of raptor persecution by shooting associations such as BASC. And the result is that the Government now believes the RSPB line that grousemoors are widespread killers of hen harriers.
The RSPB rides roughshod over wildife crime cases, says the police. In March 2018, the RSPB agreed to back off from wildlife crime cases after the police told RSPB that its actions could jeopardise prosecutions. Documents seen by The Times newspaper reveal the Police predict the RSPB would “kick and scream” if excluded from investigations into crimes such as the suspected poisoning, trapping and shooting of birds of prey such as golden eagles.
The credibility of the RSPB and bird rights campaigners such as BBC TV presenter Chris Packham suffered a blow after an eagle it claimed had been killed and dumped in the sea by gamekeepers turned out to have drowned naturally, after being blown out to sea while carrying a transmitter. See our report here.
The Times obtained restricted documents from the National Police Chiefs Council under the Freedom of Information Act. These reveal that the RSPB is accused of failing to disclose a dead marsh harrier it found in England for six months before announcing it to the media that it had been poisoned rather than calling in the police.
In 2017, masked officers from the RSPB intruded on a Scottish estate looking for an eagle. The estate found it, and filmed it healthy and flying – but still the RSPB issued a release implying the estate had killed it.
Laura Sorrentino, director of the North Glenbuchat Estate, Strathdon, Aberdeenshire, sais in a statement: “We have been made aware today of statement sent to media outlets by RSPB appealing for information on the whereabouts of a satellite-tagged golden eagle whose transmitter appears to have stopped working
“The RSPB suggests that the bird has died and that no data had been recorded from its transmitter since March 5 or 6 when it was last recorded in the vicinity of our estate.
“The estate head keeper filmed what he firmly believes to be the eagle in question yesterday afternoon at 2.17pm and that film was sent to the wildlife crime officer later yesterday. We will also be contacting RSPB.
Mrs Sorrentino adds: “Our headkeeper has 14 years’ experience and is as confident as he can be that it is the bird in question as he has seen it on a number of occasions and filmed it last month. He was aware of the presence of the bird as it had been in clear sight when the keepers were burning heather.
“The headkeeper and two other keepers from the estate offered to help the police and RSPB representatives where they may find the bird they were looking for but visibility was poor on Wednesday. The RSPB people offered no explanation while at the estate and kept their faces hidden.
Despite the evidence of the film, the RSPB issued a statement that pointed the finger at North Glenbuchat Estate for killing the eagle.
“The estate is shocked by the clear implication that the estate may have been involved in the disappearance of this eagle,” says Mrs Sorrentino. “There was an incident six years ago when a dead eagle was found on estate land and at that time the estate issued a very robust statement condemning the poisoning of birds of prey and emphatically denying any involvement. There is no evidence that the estate has been involved in any wrongdoing or criminal activity. As regards satellite tracking, it is interesting to note that Natural England tagged 47 juvenile hen harriers from 2007 to 2014, and of the 47 tracked 37 tags ceased transmitting.
“We have had a new keepering regime since February last year headed by an extremely experienced keeper. We are appalled at the allegations made by RSPB and are in discussion with our legal representatives.
“Our estate – which is small in size – lies in a very densely-keepered area of the country. We take our legal and wildlife responsibilities very seriously and our keepers are also fully aware of their responsibilities.”
The rediscovery of ‘persecuted’ birds of prey happens over and over again. Also in 2017, the RSPB found itself in a new pickle over a hen harrier. The bird charity believed it had the perfect story in 2016 when the transmitter on a hen harrier stopped working. The charity announced that the bid it called ‘Highlander’ had undoubtedly been killed by a gamekeeper in order to protect grouse stocks. At the time, RSPB Bowland project officer James Bray said: “We must turn that anger into a determination to stop persecution of birds of prey.”
The RSPB offered a £10,000 reward for information about its disappearance. Imagine its embarrassment when Highlander reappeared in early 2017 in the Forest of Bowland with what turned out to be a faulty transmitter.
The RSPB used the disappearance of the bird from its monitors as an excuse to pull out of the Hen Harrier Action Plan, which is the government-backed scheme to look after the species.
Gamekeepers have long cast doubt on RSPB claims that they are responsible for hen harrier deaths. For example, the hen harrier that Scottish antis said had been killed by gamekeepers was found alive and well in January 2019. Now gamekeepers want a crackdown on satellite tagging after the RSPB spotted the bird in Perthshire.
According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, the RSPB said nothing about spotting it alive, even though the organisation made a great deal of eporting its apparent disappearance in 2018.
In addition, a farmer found a dead sea eagle with a tag that had failed several weeks previously and was already on a list of birds “Missing believed persecuted”.
The Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association says it wants the satellite tagging of birds to be licensed by the Scottish Government and some gamekeepers claim that cumbersome tags are what are killing hen harriers.
Both shooters and some of its own members accuse the RSPB of hypocrisy. In March 2018, the Daily Telegraph reported that RSPB members are leaving the bird rights and welfare organisation because it kills birds. The RSPB is concerned that the breeding population of the curlew in the UK has halved since the 1990s, so it has started culling vermin that eat curlew eggs and chicks. It kills around 500 crows and 400 foxes a year. This has led to hardline RSPB members resigning in disgust. Tensions have spilled over, with one RSPB warden having to apologise for telling critics they were “knuckleheads and nimbies”.
Part of the reason for the hypcrisy charge dates from April 2018, when Scottish Natural Heritageat last sanctioned a raven cull. Raven numbers have exploded in recent years and they are damaging populations of waders, grouse and starving ravens are attacking sheep, as this video shows.
SNH allowed a cull of just 60 ravens in Perthshire. The RSPB attacked SNH for the move. It admitted it shoots foxes to help waders, and it admitted that the raven cull will also help waders, but it is furious that the cull will help grouse populations on shooting estates.
The RSPB’s own management of Britain’s uplands is woeful. in the summer of 2018, the wildfires raging across Saddleworth Moor in Yorkshire sparked a rapid response from the area’s gamekeepers.
Helping firefighters with equipment and logistics, staff from local shooting estates were among the first on the scene, which is on land owned by United Utiliites and managed by the RSPB.
In this video, one of the keepers, Richard Bailey, explains what happened.
Antis tried to blame grouseshooters for the fire and were embarrassed when they found out it was on RSPB-managed land. Several news organisations, including the BBC, have since pointed out that grousemoor management such as careful muirburn might have benefitted wildlife AND created natural firebreaks.
The RSPB blamed private landowners for deliberately drying the land, earning this response from the Andrew Gilruth at the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust: “In written evidence to a 2016 Parliamentary Committee, the RSPB stated that moorland drains were ‘cut in the 60s and 70s to improve grazing’ for sheep. It is bizarre that they should now suggest that gamekeepers dug these drains for their grouse (RSPB accuses gamekeepers of deliberately drying land, July 5). MPs and conservationists alike will feel their attempt to perpetuate this myth is gratuitously misleading. It is equally unfortunate that the RSPB cannot recall their praise for grouse moor owners in resisting grants, from successive governments, to drain their land and plant commercial forestry blocks on what is now recognised as a globally rare habitat. It is time for the commitments made by these private land owners to be recognised, rather than demonised.”
Meanwhile, the blazing 2018 summer weather has had an effect on wildlife. With parts of Scotland hitting seven weeks without rain, deer have little fresh grass to eat, and wildfires are devastating large tracts of moorland and forestry. Meanwhile, firefighters are struggling to control a number of major incidents. As well as the Saddleworth Moor fire, another has started at Winter Hill near Bolton, and at sites across Wales and northern Scotland, including Braichmelyn in Gwynedd, Mynydd Cilgwyn in Carmel, and Ben Bhraggie close to the Duke of Sutherland monument near Golspie.
Thanks to Richard Bailey for the footage