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Tim Bonner: The RSPB's unprincipled approach to shooting

Last year the RSPB announced that it would be reviewing its policy on gamebird shooting which came as no surprise to anyone who had been watching the Society being manipulated by a clique of anti-shooting activists within its membership over recent years.

It has subsequently consulted on what it claims are a set of draft principles, but which read more like a wish list from an organisation which wants to see restrictions on shooting. The principles are notable for having little connection to accepted international principles and the major environmental treaties that Britain and many other countries are signatories to, which is especially strange when the RSPB is usually so keen to promote such international agreements.

In advance of the predictable findings of the RSPB's review, the major organisations with an interest in shooting wrote this week to the Secretary of State for Environment, George Eustice, in support of the launch of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust's (GWCT) 12 key principles to support wildlife recovery alongside sustainable gamebird management. In contrast to the RSPB's approach, the GWCT's principles are based on accepted international principles that are compatible with the objectives of the major environmental treaties, recognising the value of sustainable use which they seek to enhance.

The principles also draw on decades of research by GWCT scientists and others which, when followed, will deliver net biodiversity gains. As such they provide a framework for game shooting underpinning the shoot standards and self-regulation which are crucial for our future. Applied consistently with the Government's support, these principles can ensure that shooting continues to deliver huge benefits for wildlife and the environment.

To create the principles of sustainable gamebird management, the GWCT reviewed internationally-agreed guidelines on sustainable use and biodiversity. Many of the principles align closely with the Bern Convention European Charter on Hunting and Biodiversity. The charter is in turn based on two important agreements of the Convention on Biological Diversity: the Addis Ababa Principles and Guidelines for Sustainable use of Biodiversity and The Ecosystem Approach to Conservation (Malawi Principles) which are supported by the IUCN.

The challenge has now been laid down to the RSPB. If it wants to diverge from internationally-agreed principles of sustainable use and conservation it will have to explain why. And it will not be good enough to just say it does not like shooting.

The principles of sustainable game management:

  1. Biodiversity. All shoots, whether based on wild gamebirds, released gamebirds or a combination of both, should strive to achieve a net biodiversity gain on their land.
  2. Landscape. Through active management of the rural landscape, effective game management supports the growth of game populations, allowing a sustainable harvest with positive benefits for other species whilst avoiding population levels which could damage other land uses such as farming, forestry and nature conservation.
  3. Densities. Gamebirds should only be released and managed at densities appropriate to the local circumstances, so that there is a net environmental gain from undertaking such activity.
  4. Diversity. Appropriate habitat creation, management and sometimes restoration is needed for all gamebirds. Maintaining this critical and appropriate diversity of habitats is a feature of our advice and recommendations, based on our scientific research and observation. Habitats created, restored and managed to support gamebirds include woodland, hedgerows, field margins, game cover crops, wild bird seed mixes, moorlands and wetlands.
  5. Timing. Releasing gamebirds in the summer increases the number of birds available to shoot in the autumn and winter. Shoot managers should only release gamebirds in habitats that enable them to acclimatise quickly to life in the wild, following the guidelines and recommendations outlined in the Code of Good Shooting Practice and British Game Alliance standards.
  6. Development. Following release of gamebirds, habitats should be provided to encompass their year-round needs. All birds should be fully adapted to life in the wild before the first shoot day.
  7. Responsibility. Shoots should ensure that all game that is fit for human consumption is eaten.
  8. Science. Grouse and wild partridge shoots should assess their proposed bag by calculating the sustainable yield based on annual game counts and follow GWCT recommendations for sustainable harvest of wild game.
  9. Sustainability. Game management provides an incentive to privately fund the creation, restoration and management of habitats across large areas of the countryside specifically for wildlife – something which is usually only incidental to other forms of land use such as forestry or farming.
  10. Wildlife. Habitats created and managed to support released gamebirds include woodland, hedgerows, field margins, game cover crops, wild bird seed mixes and wetlands. Much other wildlife benefits from this habitat provision. Alongside the habitat provided and managed for gamebirds, predation control and supplementary feeding are often important aspects of game management. These activities can benefit a wide range of other wildlife.
  11. Balance. Predation control is undertaken to reduce predation pressure. This is especially important in spring, to reduce levels of predation on nesting birds, nests and chicks and during summer to protect young birds. Many species, including several of conservation concern, benefit from predation control undertaken to conserve gamebirds.
  12. Legal control. The predators targeted are common and successful generalists so a temporary reduction in their numbers locally will not jeopardise their population or conservation status. Predation control activities should be undertaken according to best practice guidelines to ensure they are legal, humane and effective. In no circumstances should any protected species ever be illegally killed to protect game, nor should any predation control activity risk negatively affecting the conservation status of a species.

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