by Tim Bonner

The idea that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) would actively undermine a government project to reintroduce a rare bird of prey into Southern England would be unthinkable until, that is, the fetid politics of shooting are introduced. The facts, uncovered by a Countryside Alliance investigation reported in The Times newspaper, show unequivocally that the RSPB, through its partner organisations in France and Spain, closed down all potential sources of hen harrier chicks to populate a Natural England (NE) reintroduction project based in Wiltshire. 

The RSPB’s sabotage came to a head in March of last year when Natural England were summoned to Spanish regional government officials in Castillo y Leon and the RSPB’s Spanish partner SEO told Natural England that local conservationists had been asked not to cooperate. Natural England staff reported that: “From both communications we know the RSPB orchestrated this late intervention (the SEO simply cites the RSPB position). So the interference continues”.  

The reintroduction project - which has already cost over £300,000 - is now stalled and Defra has provided a succinct summary of the reasons: “Due to contact by RSPB with conservation groups in France and Spain, NE has been unable to source chicks for the re-introduction. Without chicks the re-introduction cannot go ahead and we cannot stop RSPB”.

So why would Britain’s largest bird conservation organisation want to stop the reintroduction of hen harriers in Southern England? It has championed the reintroduction of birds of prey like the red kite, which has gone from the brink of extinction to being a common sight across much of the country. Ironically many of the red kites released in Southern England were sourced in Spain. The difference between the two species is only that the hen harrier has become central to a political campaign around grouse shooting and there seems to be a perception that the successful reintroduction of lowland breeding hen harriers in the South would somehow reduce the pressure that could be brought on grouse moor management in the Northern uplands.

The RSPB’s position is completely untenable and does its reputation no good whatsoever, but in highlighting its hypocrisy we should also be asking ourselves how it is that an essentially reasonable organisation can have become so illogical. We have to understand that whilst there is an unhealthy element of raw politics involved in the campaign against grouse shooting, there are also many whose opposition is driven wholly, and understandably, by their abhorrence of raptor persecution. It may be true that populations of nearly all raptor species are thriving, that levels of persecution are miniscule in comparison to historical norms and that the particular focus on the uplands is based on politics rather than statistics, but that does not diminish the impact of individual acts of persecution that do occur. 

In recent weeks activists have published a video of a goshawk being killed in a cage trap on a Yorkshire grouse moor, and in Scotland the police have appealed for information about the death of a White-Tailed Eagle found poisoned, again on a grouse moor. Grouse moor managers and upland keepers face a blizzard of allegations - many of them ludicrous and most of them false - but there are some amongst them who still think that illegal killing is justified and it is them, not the RSPB, who are the greatest threat to grouse shooting and shooting more generally.

Our Chairman, Nick Herbert, has talked powerfully of the need for all our activities to maintain ‘social licence’, that is the broad acceptance of the reasonable majority of people. This is not about pandering to extremists or accepting the arguments of our opponents, but an understanding that in the long-term, politics is driven by public attitudes. Nothing challenges shooting’s social licence more than a poisoned eagle and for that reason, as well as the simple fact that such acts are utterly disgraceful, we must have zero-tolerance for anyone within shooting who engages in them.

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