Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Better late than never, RSPB !

Last week I received my copy of the RSPB's  BIRDCRIME report which sets out offences against wildbird legislation in 2012 and offers thoughts for further improvements in the future.

As is always the case the report presents a wide range of activities which affect  birdlife , both at home and abroad, in a very professional way, all of which is enhanced by an impactive selection of illustrations. The contents are also a sad  litany of activities which, in my direct experience, have been occurring over the past thirty years and continue still to affect, in particular, our raptor populations .  However, we need to remind ourselves that certain things HAVE changed and , in no little way, as a consequence of  RSPB's actions over the years.  Previous to the Wildlife and Countryside Act,1981 (as amended ) the pressure on certain raptors ( Peregrine, Goshawk and Merlin ) was immense due to an illegal demand for birds or their eggs for incubation, which were then often retained in captivity or used in falconry. In some cases birds were obtained for foreign interests. Active petitioning for change ( remember that phrase, folks ) by RSPB and others, coupled with investigative actions by the Society, including the Dept of Environment, confronted these practices and improvements gradually occurred.

On another front, egg collecting in the 1980's was far more endemic than today, with an estimated 500 collectors being active. Such activities are much reduced nowadays, although with occasional high profile cases appearing there is clearly no room for complacency.  In many senses the RSPB Investigations Section, both for years before and throughout that period, was operating alone, but petitioning for change ( remember that phrase, folks )  eventually brought other agencies on board and into being. The track record and consistent application of effort by the Investigations Section has been exemplary throughout a long period and involving many different staff through the years.  That effort is still apparent to this day.

Whereas, in days past, the RSPB ploughed a lone furrow in many senses and was seen to be the only "operator" within this particular field, things have now changed.. Nowadays, with the inauguration of the Partnership for Wildlife Crime (PAW ), there are many agencies involved ( the Police, HMRC, UK Border Agency and many smaller distinct groups ) and the sphere of influence has extended significantly with a wide range of involvements. Some of these activities are still supported or advised upon by the RSPB's  investigations staff.  No little amount of credit must accrue to the RSPB for advocating and campaigning for such involvements.

Now I'm not going to review the report in the usual way. It contains a wealth of information and demands to be read thoroughly. It can be accessed on-line or copies can be obtained from RSPB's HQ.  and I would recommend it to everyone.

As previously there is a section assessing what beneficial changes have occurred to legislation, or where there has been no progress against suggested proposals.  Clearly great stock was placed by the RSPB on the outcome of the recent Law Commission review of wildlife legislation., much of which has proved to be misplaced in my view. The final provisions have not yet been released by the Commission and one hopes that continuing efforts will be made to gain some improvements to what has initially been proposed. The RSPB's position on various matters does appear to oscillate somewhat in terms of the effort it is prepared to exercise at different times to secure the adoption of proposals it appears to support.  The Vicarious Liability scenario is a case in point.  RSPB openly advocated its adoption in Scotland, an effort that was successful. And then , an E-petition, raised by an individual on the self same subject, was acknowledged positively,  but not supported via being promoted to the RSPB membership. Vicarious Liability was no doubt actively promoted  by the RSPB within the internal consultancy process accompanying the Law Commission review, but failed to get accepted in a robust form, about which the Society is clearly disappointed.  One wonders if the petition had attracted a high number of signatures whether the outcome might have been different?  An opportunity lost to demonstrate the feelings of people "out there" who carry a concern for birds, whom the Society claims to represent via its membership process.  But why the imprecise positioning and the confusion  it generates?

When I registered the E-petition relating to the licencing of grouse moors ( see here  Licencing of upland grouse moors and gamekeepers  )  the RSPB kindly and openly explained that it was intending to put its efforts into an attempt to gain the adoption of the Vicarious Liability offence within the Law Commission review. I accepted that, and still do, as a choice made by the Society, although I personally felt they were wasting their time, and being naive in the process, given the adamant refusal by DeFRA to even consider the subject.  Their best efforts failed despite, I imagine, well researched and presented argument.

Whilst I never had any illusions that the above petition would result automatically in the adoption of licencing regulations I sincerely believed in two things. It would keep the subject of raptor persecution alive and that the signature total could be used further in demonstrating the depth and extent of feeling on the subject.  That expression could then be used repeatedly in raising the matter with Government and others, reminding ourselves that we are in the run up to an election in 15 months and such matters can be raised to test the sympathies of prospective candidates.

So, folks, I was a little surprised to find within the above report the following entry about which I can't find any other recent public statement by the RSPB promoting its position.


In fact if you need the full version, here it is!

Now I have no objections to what is being said, just an ever increasing amount of confusion over how the RSPB conducts its affairs.  Increasingly the RSPB appears to be placing the responsibility for improvements to conservation legislation and policy on others, via its comments,  as opposed also to it carrying the standard itself in the front ranks! The old approach of campaigning ( and petitioning for change, remember!! ) appears to have been consigned to yesteryear, only to be replaced by advocation from within the advancing ranks and in a somewhat  muted fashion too.

I actually care when people think badly of the RSPB and I feel guilty at criticising them.  But cracks are beginning to appear!  People see it as being a standard bearer for bird conservation, as being a leader, but its communication and positioning appear to be all too apologetic, as if a major objective is to be respectable and popular.  It would appear it no longer has the ear of Government to the extent it once enjoyed. Hardly surprising given present circumstances in Westminster!

Clearly it doesn't like supporting the efforts of individuals in terms of addressing policy or legislation change. In other words, it needs to be their idea in the first place.  Clearly too, despite it having secured many goals in the past by outright petitioning, it has lost faith in the current system.   Ok, not its fault perhaps, but more a response to the disingenuous arrogance within Government, e.g the Badger Cull E-petition at 300,000 signatures secured.  But those figures live on and can be used and quoted time and again.

So  " yours confused " in terms of which game the RSPB does want to play and how!  I leave a few thoughts. Remember the seminars within which there was  a brain storming session and key words for consideration and action were written up on a board?  Here are a few that might apply,

Focus, leadership, respect, communication, enthusiasm, clarity, ACTION,  conviction, consistency,openness

Feel free to add others via your comments!

 As of 1400 hours today the E-petition relating to the licencing regulation of grouse moors and gamekeepers has reached 8294 signatures, a more than apt representation of peoples' concerns about raptor persecution and what needs to be done to combat it.   Use it as you will,  RSPB,  but consider, you could perhaps make it into a far more telling response that, collectively , we could all use in our efforts to improve current circumstances for our birds of prey.    Actions speak louder than words!


  1. As an ex-employee like yourself John, I too, very occasionally find myself standing up for the Old Firm but I was left in no doubt that certain folk at the top, back then, were more interested in playing politics with governments [and opposition politicians] than in standing alone. After trying to influence the tories when they were in opposition, they now find themselves ignored and their policies repudiated by those they thought of as, if not friends, at least as allies.The sensible political move is to join the increasingly vocal opposition, which is becoming increasingly radicalised by the government's extremist approach to conservation [overturn planning laws etc..]...but the modern RSPB has no idea how to be radical, politically or otherwise...hence the confusion that you are witnessing?

  2. As a current member of rspb staff, hence the need to comment anonymously, I have to agree with Dave's comments. It seems to me that the rspb board is so fixated on growth that it has forgotten how to do hard-hitting nature conservation. I am embarrassed that the rspb failed to throw its support behind John's petition.

  3. As a member of the RSPB I am extremely annoyed that with it's apparent inability to tackle Raptor Persecution, has it forgotten it is supposed to be fighting for birds. This is what myself and other members pay our subs for. Not supporting this petition is another example of it's failure to act and be seen by it's members to act. It's getting to the point now that members such as myself will be thinking about not renewing subs unless the RSPB start supporting the fight against Raptor Persecution and be seen to do so.

  4. John - I share a lot of your confusion and disappointment (another ex-member of RSPB staff)

  5. John

    I appreciate some of your frustration, and perhaps there is more that RSPB could have done, could be doing in this area. However, remember who the enemy is here and just how much worse things would be without the RSPB. The criminal element within the shooting world would have pretty much free reign to do what they want. Without the RSPB there would be far fewer prosecutions, far less publicizing and no proper recording of persecution incidents, less scientific research to demonstrate the problem etc. Before criticizing the RSPB, a bit of fact checking may also be in order - from even a quick look at past editions of the RSPB Birdcrime report it seems they have been mentioning something about the modernisation of game shooting since 2009 - so hardly the recent revelation you suggest. Interestingly, before you put up your e-petition did you discuss the issue with Raptor Study Groups, RSPB etc to look at the wording, aims and timing etc - these things should always be a two way street. So yes, if you don't think the RSPB is doing enough then raise the issue, provide constructive criticism - however, I'm not sure the tone of your article is really conducive to helping the debate.

    1. I acknowledge your points and criticism, but would advise that, in January previous to registering the petition, I did have contact with RSPB in that I notified the Chief Executive and others. I received no detailed comments re timing ,wording or similar and proceeded to register it about a month later. I was later E-mailed by a former colleague who explained the Society intended to put its weight behind the vicarious liability clause and the Law Commission review, as explained in the article, and that, due to this the Society could not offer open support. Various Tweets from RSPB sources did , however, promote the petition.
      I also had contact with the raptor group network and received opinion in return.
      Mentioning "something about the modernisation of game shooting" for five years is not action as far as I am concerned. It would have been more appropriate to mention the long and persistent attempts by RSPB to try and achieve something through the Environment Council process, which the Society itself had to withdraw from due to continuing prevarication by others.
      The point is that members, birders and many others are simply wanting an open indication of what the RSPB is firmly behind and intending to pursue and how it is seeking to achieve that goal. We can all then get behind a single line of action . I've no doubt that RSPB staff are working hard behind the scenes to achieve such ends, but there is imprecise evidence of such activity, hence the outbursts of frustration and criticism. At least the petition is giving people the opportunity to express their feelings on something directly linked to what they feel is the root cause of the problem associated with raptor persecution!
      Whilst the tone of the article may be slightly harsh, the intention is to communicate the general frustration of the many people I have spoken to on the subject. You may not believe it but we actually want to do something to assist in limiting the above scourge!!!