The RSPB have moved their own goalposts by supporting a new Scottish e-petition to implement ‘a state regulated system of licensing of gamebird hunting, that addresses the potentially adverse environmental impact of gamebird hunting’. This new policy comes at the same time as the RSPB calls for the licensing of ‘driven grouse shooting’ across the UK, setting a worrying precedent aligned more with the anti-shooting movement of the BBC’s Chris Packham than with their once-declared ‘neutral’ view on shooting.

The problem is that not only are these policies definitively anti-shooting, they are also wildly impractical, representing an unprecedented step away from the RSPB’s usual high-standard of scientifically-driven work. The Scottish Government would have to try to define ‘gamebird hunting’ in legislation, a term that has never been used to discuss shooting in the UK, whilst UK government would be tasked with defining driven grouse shooting against all other types of shooting. And who would be expected to police this mess?

Quite apart from being entirely unworkable, these new RSPB “licensing system” policies are totally unwarranted. If they are driven by a desire to reduce wildlife crime, then multiple tools are already at our disposal. The UK has some of the strongest and most effective wildlife legislation in the world. Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural Resources Wales and Northern Ireland Environment Agency all have the ability to restrict single farm payments on private land where a crime has been committed. Stody Estate in Norfolk lost 75% of its payments when a former gamekeeper was found guilty of killing a number of birds of prey.

Increased funding and focus on rural policing is also reducing crime on private rural land. The Government has shown their commitment to cracking down on wildlife crime through the extended funding of the National Wildlife Crime Unit as well as numerous Rural Task Forces operating throughout local police force areas. Improved policing not only catches more criminals but also works as deterrent, and there is no doubt that the RSPB and local Wildlife Trusts are playing a big role in this element of crime prevention.

Shooting and countryside organisations are also playing their part in tackling wildlife crime. The Code of Good Shooting Practice is supported by the ten largest representative bodies for shooting and its associated industries, and outlines the standard of shoot management expected in our forward-looking sector. These guidelines are well publicised, embed best practice and are expected of all shoots in the UK. Furthermore, many of these organisations are also members of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group in England and Wales and the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime Scotland Raptor Group, aimed at raising awareness and developing actions to reduce crime. The Countryside Alliance and the Scottish Countryside Alliance are members of both, working alongside partners such as the National Wildlife Crime Unit, Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage and, yes, the RSPB.

So cooperation and collaboration between government, police, landowners and conservation charities is already ensuring progress. The Countryside Alliance firmly believes that further legislation should only be introduced if it is genuinely required, not just because it gives the impression of a solution. New levels of bureaucracy and red tape are rarely welcome in the countryside or to people trying to run businesses, and if new restrictions were to result in the closing down of shoots then the loss of employment and local biodiversity could be dramatic. The cessation of shooting in the Berwyn Hills was followed by the local decline of many endangered species, including a 49% fall in the number of hen harriers.

The RSPB’s decision to promote the licensing of ‘gamebird hunting’ in Scotland and ‘driven grouse shooting’ across the UK, flying in the face of their previous commitment to collaboration, sees them depart from ‘neutrality’ on shooting policy and slide towards the knee-jerk anti-shooting positions of animal rights groups such as the League Against Cruel Sports. This is a potentially toxic situation- the RSPB needs to be a partner to landowners and the working countryside, not fight against it.

It appears from the outside that this new RSPB policy is an attempt to appease their Vice-President Chris Packham, and is a compromise with the even more extreme positions the BBC presenter would prefer the charity to take. It is now down to the Countryside Alliance and other rural organisations to continue to argue that licensing is an entirely unnecessary burden on government and on the countryside, and to highlight the fact that the shooting sector contributes a vast amount to conservation, local communities and the rural community. It should be encouraged, not restricted.