Sunday, September 2, 2012

What should the RSPB be called?

Ever the polemicist, Mark Avery in his Blog today   ( see here Standing up for Nature ) poses the point that it is inevitable that the RSPB will need, at least at some stage, to consider a name change and review its future role. I confess that I read the entry with a great deal of interest and voted for one of the options for an alternative name which he provided ( see the end of this entry for the answer! ) . Do read the entry on Mark's Blog, and the Comments, as I believe it's important the subject is given a thorough airing and that the RSPB is made aware of the opinions being expressed.

After taking a look at the "local patch", which didn't produce much other than a "new" Starling flock of 79 birds, a Whinchat and a very pale Redpoll sp ( whitish underparts with very little streaking, bright forehead patch and small bill!!! ), which disappeared as quickly as it popped up and sat on a fence line, I returned home disgruntled and spent the rest of the morning in a blur of domesticity within which the above subject ( and the Redpoll )  kept recurring time and time again!!  I kept considering submitting a "Comment" to Mark's Blog, but then thought it would be a little unfair as I felt I had so much to express on the issue, so I decided to set out an entry on my own Blog.  I have to say that I'm also currently awaiting delivery of a copy of Mark Avery's latest book, "Fighting for Birds" within which a chapter considers the future of the RSPB. It will be interesting ( it might also be acutely embarrassing ) to see if any ideas are in agreement.

I have to confess that, over the twelve years or so since I took early retirement from the RSPB, I've become increasingly concerned over what might best be termed the "popular image " surrounding the Society. Given it tells the truth, it's not as universally popular as one might think, but I also personally believe it is not as forceful as it ought to be!!  In 1979 I felt a deep and sincere affiliation with an organization pledged to the protection and conservation of the UK's birds. Previous to that date I'd served on the Council of the (now named ) Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, been involved with the Yorkshire Naturalist's Union Ornithological Committee and worked, professionally, on environmental conservation issues for several years. A good mix of either distinct or inter-related responsibilities connected with wildlife and the environment. However, what filled me with joy when I joined the Society's staff was  the clear cut, major commitment to the UK's bird life which the RSPB displayed. For me, the picture was as clear as that which had motivated the good ladies of Didsbury, Manchester almost a hundred years previously when they campaigned to stop the commercial exploitation of egret plumes for the millinery trade. That eventually led to what we know as the RSPB today.

I was particularly impressed , and in awe, of the Society's willingness to fund major land purchases, be they on estuaries, in the uplands, freshwater marshes or remnants of Caledonian pine forest. That continues today and so it should! Its parallel willingness to confront Central Government, the Forestry Commission, MAFF, the River Authorities and many others in the cause of habitat protection displayed the steel and determination required of such a premier campaigning organization.  Sadly all that seems to be so much less apparent nowadays and I don't feel terribly convinced that lasting progress is being achieved either. Access to the machinery of government can be felt to be progress, but the value of independence can be a much stronger weapon to wield. Cosy meetings, and good manners, that lead nowhere in terms of enhanced regulation or legislation can be no substitute for the exposure and promotion of good sense , logic and the fruits of research. Whilst the Society may have achieved maturity, in the sense of acceptance by Whitehall and Brussels, the same old problems prevail and the political will of the powers that influence such aspects remains relatively unchanged. At some point the RSPB will have to confront the values of the Establishment,  which perhaps necessitates a process of reflection and where it would wish to see itself in ten or twenty five years time.

Nowadays I can't help feeling disappointed, coupled with real sadness even, that the fire in the Society's belly has dimmed and the stances of yesteryear are increasingly less obvious. The increasing widening of its areas of interest I suspect are diluting its ability to address a whole series of issues affecting the UK's birds. It's simply not possible to address everything and be all things to all conservationists!!  Now it may well be that all this is nonsense and is nothing to worry about. The flame of bird protection, as a beacon of intention, may be burning as brightly as that which has overseen the recent and current Olympic events, but the messages received, and the PR stance portrayed by the Society, appear to indicate otherwise. Much may be going on in the background, but it doesn't feel like progress, expressed concern or determined commitment. Meet-ups with previous staff members, retired staff members and those still involved with the Society all end up generating the same indictment.....the RSPB seems to have lost focus!! It doesn't please me to make such remarks, and I'm sure some will find it difficult to forgive, but the fact remains that such is the impression being arrived at!! As such it is a problem to be addressed, surely?

Within the UK we have endless organizations pledged to protecting and enhancing its wildlife heritage ( the Wildlife Trusts, Butterfly Conservation, and many others ). That we need a strong organization promoting the conservation interests of our bird life is of paramount importance. The RSPB was IT, but, somehow, now seems intent on diluting that self evident role. There is a crying need for an RSPB, whatever the name , and that is the starting point.  There are so many problems confronting our bird life that to try and address such alongside trying to deal with parallel problems affecting other wildlife can only lead to confusion and an increasing lack of efficacy. I am not saying such requirements on Society held landholdings shouldn't be addressed, but more general actions should be left to others. The attraction of a "biodiversity" name tag I'm , therefore, not convinced about!  I can't personally see the actual benefit of the Society being  "Royal" either. I'm sure it makes some people feel more comfortable , but I can't see any real benefits arising. Such a change would need to be an RSPB Council decision and undoubtedly involve more than a few discussions elsewhere if change was considered. As you can probably guess, I feel the Society should pull in its horns somewhat and concentrate on BIRDS.  But there's another dimension, and one that I never agreed with!! Indeed I even cancelled my subscription to the Society for a period!!  The Society's close involvement with land holdings abroad I feel to be wrong. I'm a great advocate of the BirdLife International "system" and the organization and, whatever the problems, I've felt it wrong that the RSPB should have got involved with land ownership and management abroad , particularly given the endless problems still remaining within the UK.  Support from the Society for BirdLife International by all means, and I'd even sanction a proportion of my RSPB subscription being used in that context, but the bottom line is that the Society should be addressing, and dealing  with, UK problems. Its expertise can be used to assist new countries entering into the BirdLife "family", and even financial assistance offered, but that should be the limit to involvement otherwise the exercise begins to smack of  "conservation imperialism" in my view.

So, where does this emotional rant leave us?  Well, I'd change the RSPB 's name to BirdLife UK and concentrate on birds!  The RSPB is already the UK partner for BirdLife  ( whose BirdLife International headquarters are situated, perhaps somewhat confusingly , in Cambridge, UK ). I don't believe a name change is likely to cause any permanent problems if the PR promotion of such is handled properly and the name firmly communicates the area of concern or operation. Coupled with a full review of future intentions, policies and the like , such a change could be a much needed renaissance in the fortunes of bird conservation in the UK.  What do other people think?  Let's have comments please, supportive or otherwise!!!

This is not a call for rejection!  The RSPB, and many other conservation organizations, will require our increasing support and commitment in the future whatever they choose to call themselves. However, in the meantime, I believe it to be in their interests for them to have a clear view of what their supporters think even if, in the short term, that can't result in change and may not be terribly palatable!!


  1. I totally agree with your concerns re RSPB's trend towards 'diversification'. I'd like to know what evidence it has that it's members are demanding/requesting this. Whose idea is it? How do they justify it? What do they hope to achieve?
    I'd like to see the word 'protection' included in any name change.

  2. Interestingly, out of 474 responses to the poll on Mark Avery's Blog today, 63% feel the name should remain unchanged, 19% suggest it should change to BirdLife UK, the RSPBiodiversity suggestion gained only 8% of votes, Nature's Voice 9% and Biodiversity UK only 2%, which hardly endorses the embracing of a wider role which the RSPB appears to be actively pursuing. Clearly reserve landholdings shouldn't be managed to the exclusion of the widest possible biodiversity, however,it's in the area of advocacy, education and literature production that the central message of bird protection and its needs should be centred. To be involved in a routine presentation of a much wider depiction of natural history, with all the necessary allocation of finance and the effort required,seems to depart from the single mission the Society should be pursuing.

  3. A thought from someone who's been away from the UK for some time. The word 'protection' needs to be promoted or rejuvenated within the publicity people at the RSPB.
    Most the other points on Mark's blog are valid but the principal aim of the society should be kept in focus and hopefully with the power & wealth the RSPB commands, does everything in it's power to 'protect' our species as best as members can, with or without diversification.