Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Who Forgot the Birds?

As most people who are reading this will know, a new website has popped up over the weekend. Its primary concern seems to be critiquing the RSPB and its work, and as many have already pointed out, is a fairly blatant bit of propaganda for those with shooting interests who have become increasingly agitated by the RSPB taking a harder line on wildlife crime and a more active role in political lobbying. 
It's not hard to spot the fact that the ideas floated on 'You Forgot the Birds' website are far from those of an enlightened, well-informed group of conservationists wishing the best from birds. Errors range from minor to the farcical, starting with one of the banner photos being of a Carolina Wren, native to, well, Carolina and far from the RSPB's remit, to suggestions that the RSPB, a charity for the conservation of wild birds and not an animal welfare organisation, doesn't do more for chickens, Muscovy Ducks and Eagle Owls as they aren't photogenic enough.

North American Carolina Wren as YFTB's cover star.
Screenshot from You Forgot The Birds website.

These attacks on the RSPB are far from unusual; any organisation with the scale and reach that it has is likely to come under attack from time to time, and the RSPB is certainly no stranger to hostility from the shooting community, the NFU and Songbird Survival. Many of YFTB's criticisms appear to be merely repetitions of the same old disproved and barmy ideas that the RSPB has already dealt with (a photo of a Sparrowhawk sat on a House Sparrow, "raptors and garden birds can't co-exist", blah blah blah). What is perhaps more worrying is the media coverage it has received. Having the likes of the Mail and the Telegraph cover right-wing, shooting establishment agendas is nothing new, but somehow the Independent also got in on the act, describing YFTB as 'conservationists', and lending credibility to their criticisms. As a paper normally friendly towards environmentalism and the conservation movement, it is worrying that the knowledge level at the Independent is so low as to not be able to see the ulterior motive at work here. It is even more scary that the Independent will give credence to an argument, even when taken at face value, is environmentally nonsensical and logically faulty. The only explanation for this can be the media's indulgence of celebrity, and with Sir Ian Botham (who owns a shooting estate with his son near Harrogate) at the helm, it was clearly too easy a headline to miss out on.

YFTB lamenting the lack of Muscovy Ducks on the RSPB's website. Screenshot from You Forgot The Birds website.

YFTB criticisms of the RSPB are convoluted, incoherent and frequently contradictory, but as far as it's possible to ascertain, they have two main bones of contention with the RSPB. Firstly that the RSPB has “recently relegated its 'protecting birds' mission, in favour of becoming a “giant fund-raising machine”, and secondly that it has taken its eye off the bigger picture of bird conservation in favour of specific pet projects, protecting raptors and cuter wildife in order to enhance its fundraising ability, over those species and habitats which truly need its help.
The suggestion is that, consequently, donors to the RSPB and “bird lovers” are being unfairly misled by the RSPB as to what they are donating money for. It argues that the RSPB should be spending more money on staff who get their hands dirty, and that insufficient money is spent on direct conservation, such as reserve management and purchases. It quotes a 'poll' with no link or reference given, suggesting that 'RSPB donors' (which ones? How many?) want 60% of RSPB spending to be directly on nature reserves, and poses the faintly ridiculous question: “how much money does the RSPB spend on bird food?”.

These stated aims are contradictory. From a conservation standpoint, increased spending on nature reserves can have an extremely beneficial effect in creating or preserving important habitat islands, which can be vital in saving individual endangered species, or isolated but extremely important areas that are necessary for migratory species. The RSPB has an extremely good record with this work; look at Bitterns, Avocets Ospreys and others that the RSPB has focused on. In fact, these are the cuddly, cute species that the RSPB stand accused of being overly focused on. So if they are overly focused on these species, why would they not spend more money on reserves and reserve management, that has a proven track record of working for these species?

Where have we heard this before? Oh yes, the shooting lobby. Screenshot from You Forgot The Birds website.

The answer to this is also clear, and one that the RSPB is well aware of. The bigger picture is of this planet having lost half of all its wildlife in the last 40 years, and closer to home, Britain has lost 44 million pairs of breeding birds since 1966. Buying isolated areas of land, surrounded by barren wastelands dominated by industrial farmland and empty grouse moors in an environment irretrievably altered by climate change, is not going to make a big enough impact at population level to save birds that are declining at this alarming rate. What is required is a voice for nature that can speak to power, that can effect and alter government policy, that can rally public support in the face of short-sighted and misguided projects such as the airport at Cliffe, and that can lead on science, research and land-use in an authoritative manner. These things don't come cheap, and they don't come about by employing more people to dig ditches, buy land or plant reedbeds, as vital as that work may be.

The fact is that it is contradictory to simultaneously accuse the RSPB of losing sight of the bigger picture whilst also demanding it spends more money on localised, 'on the ground' projects that cannot have an effect at a population level. The RSPB does a fine, but not perfect, job of protecting our birdlife and our wildlife. It is worrying that an group such as 'You Forgot the Birds' who demonstrate such a high degree of ignorance of the issues at hand can garner such widespread publicity.

As 'You Forgot the Birds' aims to pose 'fair' questions to the RSPB, here are a few for them:

  • Do you think climate change is a major problem for birds in this country? How can it be tackled through having more nature reserves?

  • Do you think that the current government acts in the best interests of wildife?
  • How much land should the RSPB own? 
  • How have you determined that owning more reserves would have a better outcome for birds than campaigning for more environmentally sustainable farming?
  • And finally, how many pairs of hen harriers do you believe should breed in England?

Why not give YFTB some 'ideas'/piece of your mind. If you're an RSPB member, they ought to listen to what you have to say! ideas@youforgotthebirds.com
Screenshot from You Forgot The Birds website.

-Oliver Metcalf
Oliver is a freelance Ornithologist, a job that gets him out and about birding all over the North and East of England. He lives in York, so regularly goes birding in the Lower Derwent Valley and spends his winter birding time at Rufforth tip. His Spring and Autumns are spent trudging the cliff-top paths looking for migrants at Whitby. 

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