The RSPB is threatening to call for a ban on gamebird shooting if moorland managers don’t do what it wants. That’s the takeaway from the charity’s ‘virtual’ annual general meeting on Saturday 10 October 2020, at which it released a year-long review on gamebird shooting and the moorland management that comes with it.
Moorland and shooting groups dismiss demands set out in the review, warning the charity risks further isolating itself from rural Britain and will “jeopardise jobs… in the midst of an economic crisis”.
RSPB’s chair of council Kevin Cox says the charity is ‘sowing the seeds of change’ with the review.
“The evidence suggests that self-regulation by the shooting community has failed to address the environmental impacts anywhere near adequately,” Cox insists. “For this reason we are calling on governments to intervene… In short, we want to see an end to environmentally unsustainable gamebird shooting.”
There are four issues with gamebird shoots, Cox says, that the RSPB wants shooters to deal with. New rules would include tougher penalties for raptor persecution – the charity’s favourite complaint, one it routinely blames on moorland managers but provides little or no evidence to back up.
He says the charity wants to ban lead ammunition, which is already on the cards, plus reduce gamebird releases that might affect local ecologies, and he wants an end to muirburn.
The review comes just days after the RSPB called for a complete ban on muirburn. It’s 1 October 2020 press release has quotes from outraged politicians, including Labour mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham.
“Upland fires in 2018 and more recently in the dry spring this year have created significant issues in upland areas of Greater Manchester – both from an environmental and public safety perspective,” Burnham says. “We are acutely aware of the environmental impact that upland fires, whatever their cause, can have on the environment. Recent work by Natural England, which will inform Defra’s forthcoming national peat strategy, highlighted that the 2019 Winter Hill fire alone released [about] 90,000 tonnes of carbon [dioxide].”
Unfortunately for Burnham, the major fires around Manchester over the past few years have been on moorland where there is no controlled burning – Stalybridge, Marsden, Saddleworth and Winter Hill. The 2019 Winter Hill fire Burnham refers to was caused by a barbecue. The RSPB’s press release ignores these inconveniences and disregards established facts that controlled burning benefits moorland and reduces wildfire risks.
At the heart of RSPB’s review though, is the accusation too many pheasants are being released and they’re damaging the environment.
“These practices are entirely incompatible with the imperative to address the climate and ecological emergency and there are perfectly practical alternatives,” says Cox, without giving examples.
His one concession when talking about the review is admitting “land well managed for shooting can have considerable wildlife benefits [for] species other than gamebirds”.
Cox insists the study is “not about the ethics of shooting”, claiming RSPB’s stance is still neutral and based on “extensive reviews of the available scientific literature” – some produced by RSPB. There are accusations the charity is responding to lobbying by a small group of campaigners and not the will of the British public, which is unknown but it’s largely thought most people don’t have an opinion on gamebird shooting.
The RSPB wants moors to buy licences for shoots and is trying to set itself up as the key monitor with the power to permit or deny landowners licences to run their shoots. The system may include some sort of financial benefit for the charity.
In his statement, Cox threatens to start taking action against the gamebird shooting community, “if significant progress is not secured” and bird releases are not reduced within 18 months.
In his conclusion, he notes there will be resistance to RSPB’s ideas and claims “recent attacks” on its staff “have only strengthened our resolve to seek change”. It’s unclear what attacks he is referring to, but the RSPB is regularly criticised for failing to look after wildlife on its own land – and others.
It’s also under fire for complaining about the low number of hen harriers yet refusing to cooperate with breeding programmes and refusing to use gamekeepers for its gamekeeping projects.
BASC quickly responded to the RSPB review. Chief executive Ian Bell warns it “risks driving a divide between the charity and rural Britain”.
“Its announcement… is based on a misunderstanding of shooting in the UK and the progress that has been made in self-regulation,” says Bell. “BASC has always sought to co-operate with the RSPB for the benefit of conservation and we still firmly believe that dialogue and working together produce better results than conflict. But the RSPB must not ignore the significant biodiversity benefits that shooting achieves. Shooting has evolved and made significant improvements that positively influence the UK’s wildlife and environment. It is important that the RSPB recognises the work that has taken place and the continued desire within the shooting community for further improvement.”
Scottish Land & Estates (SLE), which is made up of land businesses with shooting interests across Scotland, also picks holes in RSPB’s study.
“A massive amount of conservation work takes place on land managed for shooting in Scotland,” says SLE chief executive Sarah Jane Laing. “The outcome announced today is not surprising given the direction of the consultation.”
Laing points out the laws north of the border are sound enough.
“Shoot operators and gamekeepers are already subject to extensive regulation and legislation that protects a tremendous array of wildlife and precious habitat,” she says. “The licensing of shooting is unnecessary. Many of the environmental issues used as evidence for licensing are already being addressed conscientiously by the shooting community. Nor would it resolve wildlife crime – the only way to do so is through everyone working together to help Police Scotland improve detection and prosecution, measures which SLE is working with other stakeholders on. In addition, this approach would jeopardise jobs in our most fragile rural areas in the midst of an economic crisis.”
Want more on this story? We put up some difficult questions to ask the RSPB here: