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Sir Ian Botham: Cute? No, they’re verminous killers

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Sir Ian Botham: Cute? No, they’re verminous killers

Country folk have long known it – now the experts have confirmed it. 

Research by scientists at Newcastle and Durham universities suggests that grouse moors are not the ecological deserts some campaigners claim them to be, but are teeming with endangered birds.

Take the vulnerable lapwing: the scientists have found their numbers increased a spectacular 24 times where there were gamekeepers, compared with land that did not have any. 

They also found eight times as many golden plover and six times more curlew – a species RSPB scientists say is one of their highest conservation concerns.

And that is because gamekeepers are experts, not just at cultivating game birds for people, such as me, who like to shoot, but at protecting all wildlife from a range of pests and vicious predators. These are fantastic results which should delight every true bird-lover.

Yet did the RSPB leadership welcome them? Not at all. Instead, they sneered at them, questioning the integrity of the scientists, preferring their own fantasy of conservation, in which hard choices between species don’t have to be made and where foxes and other predators are allowed to wreak havoc.

It is a squeamish, Disney view of wildlife – one which protects all cuddly wildlife at any price – that costs lives of countless birds and creates imbalances in nature.

So what’s going wrong at the RSPB? How did this organisation with so much money and so many good wardens and scientists become the Venezuela of the conservation world – arrogant, unaccountable and failing to protect those it is supposed to look after?

It is a squeamish, Disney view of wildlife – one which protects all cuddly wildlife at any price – that costs lives of countless birds and creates imbalances in nature

It is a squeamish, Disney view of wildlife – one which protects all cuddly wildlife at any price – that costs lives of countless birds and creates imbalances in nature

It is a squeamish, Disney view of wildlife – one which protects all cuddly wildlife at any price – that costs lives of countless birds and creates imbalances in nature

The heart of the problem is that the RSPB’s leadership appears to lack the courage to manage nature. Everyone who lives in the countryside knows that nature left to its own devices is a brutal place.

To millions of ground-nesting birds around Britain, foxes are a constant threat. They are natural-born killers that destroy nests, devouring eggs, chicks and parents. Yet the RSPB doesn’t want to upset its activists by shooting them.

So, instead, it builds fantastically expensive fences to try to keep them out of its reserves. But nothing stops a hungry fox. Whether it is over, through or under the fence, the fox will find a way. And then the fox is not inside a chicken coop but a whole bird reserve. 

Even if fences worked, they would be too costly to use throughout the countryside. And what would become of the birds outside the fences with those ravenous foxes?

Shooting foxes is a more effective way to control their numbers. Yet the RSPB shoots four times as many deer. On average, it allows its wardens to shoot only one fox a day across its 200 reserves – and birds suffer every day as a result.

Even if fences worked, they would be too costly to use throughout the countryside. And what would become of the birds outside the fences with those ravenous foxes?

Even if fences worked, they would be too costly to use throughout the countryside. And what would become of the birds outside the fences with those ravenous foxes?

Even if fences worked, they would be too costly to use throughout the countryside. And what would become of the birds outside the fences with those ravenous foxes?

If you go to an RSPB reserve and see a flock of birds, they are likely to be tourists, not residents. Due to foxes, fewer birds fly out than in.

Every conservationist knows that birds thrive on fox-free islands such as Orkney. Gamekeepers replicate this in our countryside but the RSPB does not. It has a choice between foxes and birds – and it appears to favour foxes. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has become the Royal Society for the Protection of Foxes.

So, you might ask, how many birds are left on the RSPB reserves? Astonishingly, the charity is refusing to tell us. Until 2012, it published an annual table of bird numbers, but it has been silent for the past five years. 

Vulnerable: The golden plover is on the amber (threatened) species list 

Two years ago, the RSPB had seven hen harrier nests in England – albeit producing only one chick. Last year there was just one. And this year? None

Two years ago, the RSPB had seven hen harrier nests in England – albeit producing only one chick. Last year there was just one. And this year? None

Two years ago, the RSPB had seven hen harrier nests in England – albeit producing only one chick. Last year there was just one. And this year? None

The figures are such a secret it even refused to let Newcastle and Durham scientists count birds on its land. Does that suggest it has something to hide?

Perhaps the RSPB can’t afford annual counts? Not so. This big business keeps getting bigger.

Over the past ten years, the RSPB has taken in a staggering £1.2 billion through membership fees, donations and government grants. Of that, £228 million came from the taxpayer amid the struggle to finance key public services. And what are we getting in return?

The RSPCA's squeamishness over predator control comes with a price – one paid by species on its reserves.

The RSPCA's squeamishness over predator control comes with a price – one paid by species on its reserves.

The RSPCA’s squeamishness over predator control comes with a price – one paid by species on its reserves.

Well, not a land fit for birds. Take hen harriers. The RSPB is always making a noise about this species and blaming gamekeepers for the lack of them. So you would think the charity would be doing a brilliant job for this bird. If only.

Two years ago, the RSPB had seven hen harrier nests in England – albeit producing only one chick. Last year there was just one. And this year? None.

Last week, I challenged the charity to publish its bird numbers. Journalists have been ringing the RSPB asking it to do the same. What has been the response? Not a dickie bird. Or even a tweet.

If you go to an RSPB reserve and see a flock of birds, they are likely to be tourists, not residents. Due to foxes, fewer birds fly out than in

If you go to an RSPB reserve and see a flock of birds, they are likely to be tourists, not residents. Due to foxes, fewer birds fly out than in

If you go to an RSPB reserve and see a flock of birds, they are likely to be tourists, not residents. Due to foxes, fewer birds fly out than in

If private grouse moors can have their bird numbers independently audited, so should a big public charity with all its Government grants and tax privileges. 

In an era when teachers and doctors are publicly accountable for their work, why does this massive charity think that it can get away with not being transparent?

The fact is grouse moors have become some of Britain’s best bird sanctuaries. And as it becomes clear how gamekeepers are among the elite of the conservation world, the reaction of the RSPB suggests it is focused more by hatred of grouse moors than love of birds.

Not that you will have heard this on the BBC – because the RSPB has powerful friends there. As I found out a fortnight ago on Radio 5 Live, if you speak up for the grouse moors on the BBC, its presenters will shoot you down. 

We need respect for the law and those doing the hard work of managing nature. We also need respect for science

We need respect for the law and those doing the hard work of managing nature. We also need respect for science

We need respect for the law and those doing the hard work of managing nature. We also need respect for science

If you search for BBC stories critical of gamekeepers, you will find hundreds; if you try to find BBC stories critical of the RSPB, you will have to look very hard.

It is no coincidence that the BBC’s chief countryside presenter Chris Packham is a vice president of the RSPB. He says grouse moors are ‘ecologically disastrous’ and calls those who work on them ‘satanic’, ‘evil’ and ‘psychotic’. And as an employee of the BBC he is meant to be impartial.

The charity is also having difficulties with red kite, once an endangered bird of prey. No longer. Our law gives them unlimited protection. The result? We have squadrons of red kite killing vast numbers of small birds.

An RSPB scientist has complained about the ‘big predatory effect’ they have on smaller birds on one of its reserves. So what does the RSPB management tell its wardens to do? 

Put out dead animals for them to eat. But that just boosts the numbers even further. And what will happen when the RSPB decides it has other priorities and stops the feeding programme? Then the red kite will hoover up all the small birds. After that, the red kite will starve. 

If you search for BBC stories critical of gamekeepers, you will find hundreds; if you try to find BBC stories critical of the RSPB, you will have to look very hard

If you search for BBC stories critical of gamekeepers, you will find hundreds; if you try to find BBC stories critical of the RSPB, you will have to look very hard

If you search for BBC stories critical of gamekeepers, you will find hundreds; if you try to find BBC stories critical of the RSPB, you will have to look very hard

The RSPB thinks these fantasy conservation techniques of fox fences and putting out meat for birds of prey could work. It also appears to believe you can never have too many foxes or red kite. 

Its squeamishness over predator control comes with a price – one paid by species on its reserves. Its activists who hate the idea of hounds killing foxes should equally hate the idea of foxes ripping apart ground-nesting birds.

You would have thought bird activists would have been up in arms about the appalling conditions that many commercial chickens are kept in. 

I was not surprised that eggs were withdrawn last week due to contamination with insecticide. 

Some of these birds never see the light of day. Compare their appalling brief lives with grouse, which live entirely in the wild for around two years, and you will see how ridiculous the attacks on grouse shooting by chicken-eating activists are.

The RSPB tries to deflect attention from its lack of birds by lecturing others. Yet farmers and gamekeepers are unsurprisingly resistant to its ‘advice’. 

So the RSPB shouts even louder in the media – vilifying those in charge of managing the countryside.

Nothing stops a hungry fox. Whether it is over, through or under the fence, the fox will find a way. And then the fox is not inside a chicken coop but a whole bird reserve

Nothing stops a hungry fox. Whether it is over, through or under the fence, the fox will find a way. And then the fox is not inside a chicken coop but a whole bird reserve

Nothing stops a hungry fox. Whether it is over, through or under the fence, the fox will find a way. And then the fox is not inside a chicken coop but a whole bird reserve

Yelling doesn’t work; nor does it help that last year the RSPB walked out of discussions on how to increase hen harrier numbers just months after having agreed to a civil servants’ plan.

The officials know the lack of hen harriers is not just down to rogue gamekeepers – the numbers of these birds are also falling fast where there are no grouse moors because of foxes and the pressure on their space from our island’s fast-growing human population.

Our Government has tough decisions in deciding whether farmers should be allowed to protect lambs from foxes and gamekeepers protect grouse from buzzards. But whatever it does decide, we must all obey the laws Parliament passes. That includes any gamekeepers who illegally kill birds of prey.

We need respect for the law and those doing the hard work of managing nature. We also need respect for science. 

Last year, a group of professors wrote an article for a Royal Society publication saying that RSPB press releases attacking grouse moors had ‘only passing resemblance’ to the science they were supposed to be based on.

Shooting foxes is a more effective way to control their numbers. Yet the RSPB shoots four times as many deer. On average, it allows its wardens to shoot only one fox a day across its 200 reserves – and birds suffer every day as a result

Shooting foxes is a more effective way to control their numbers. Yet the RSPB shoots four times as many deer. On average, it allows its wardens to shoot only one fox a day across its 200 reserves – and birds suffer every day as a result

Shooting foxes is a more effective way to control their numbers. Yet the RSPB shoots four times as many deer. On average, it allows its wardens to shoot only one fox a day across its 200 reserves – and birds suffer every day as a result

Until now, the RSPB has felt it does not have to listen to anyone. It is protected by its wealth. However, now the £1 billion cover-up has been exposed, it will have to collaborate if it doesn’t want to become known as the society that forgot to protect the birds.

Jeff Knott, RSPB Head of Nature Policy said: ‘This grouse moor funded report tells us what we’ve known for some time; grouse moors are good for grouse. 

‘Some other ground-nesting species benefit indirectly while others do not. The fact that the killing of predators reduces predation is hardly ground-breaking.

‘For the RSPB, controlling predation is part of the conservation tool kit. This includes a range of measures, with lethal control only an option of last resort, rather than the first port of call.’

 


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