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The RSPB tightens its grip

Earlier this month, the RSPB published a report entitled Advocacy 2009: Nature Needs a Voice. The report outlined the RSPB’s political campaigning strategy for the next few years and is aimed at the key decision makers and politicians the charity seeks to influence. There is nothing exceptional in that. The RSPB is entitled to campaign politically for legislative change where such change supports its aims. Of more pressing concern to shooters was the fact that, within the bulk of the report, the RSPB stated that one of the key challenges for this and the next UK Government is to explore a licensing system for all shoots.

Unsurprisingly, the proposal has not found favour among shooting and fieldsports bodies. Simon Hart, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, last week voiced the thoughts of many when he said: “For an organisation that claims to be neutral on the subject of fieldsports this seems suspiciously like a blatant political attack on gameshooting.” The RSPB’s proposal may seem at odds with its stated neutrality on fieldsports, but there is an important proviso it clings to in order to justify what many regard as outright hostility to shooting. The charity refuses to remain neutral on the sport where it “adversely affects wildlife conservation”. This justifies its extensive campaigning on raptor persecution.

These crimes, which the charity contends a minority of gameshooters are responsible for, are the means by which the RSPB believes it is within its rights to attack gameshooting as a whole. There is little expansion on the licensing proposal to be found in the document. The only elaboration is in the comments of David Hoccom, head of the species policy unit at the RSPB, who stated: Ultimately, if the minority within the shooting community responsible for killing protected birds cannot or will not change their ways, tighter regulation of their industry is needed through licensing. Those shoots that condone illegal acts should be shut down. The Advocacy 2009 report waves a big stick at shooting. The text calls for stricter regulation, policing, punishment and control of shooters and landowners both directly and indirectly through withdrawal of farm subsidies. There is simply no mention of collaboration with shooting interests.

“We are not anti-wildfowling, but we don’t want there to be wildfowling on our reserves.”

A small oversight? It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to speculate that a licensing system for all shoots could be devised that would neatly incorporate another aspect of the RSPB’s aims — protection of habitats. How long would it take for the charity to call for a licensing system to be introduced that would restrict wildfowling under that banner? Already the RSPB is on record as saying the following: “We are not anti-wildfowling, but we don’t want there to be wildfowling on our reserves; we don’t think it is compatible with the other things we do… There are places where wildfowling still happens and we wish it didn’t.” Not a ringing endorsement of the sport…

Similarly, under the guise of protecting habitats, how long before the RSPB calls for a licensing system that restricts the release of gamebirds and places a limit on numbers of shoot days? These may seem highly unsubstantiated suggestions, but the real point is that shooters don’t know what the RSPB is calling for since it has not expanded on its proposal. At the moment all we know is that “a licensing system for all shoots” is now on record as one of its stated aims. What form would such a licensing system take, what penalties would it impose, how would it restrict our legitimate activities and would it make our sport prohibitively expensive both in financial terms and in terms of bureaucracy? No-one knows because the proposal is currently a shot across our bows, an ill-advised political statement.

Why ill-advised? For the simple reason that the one thing such a proposal dismisses is the goodwill and co-operation of those in a position to help the RSPB achieve its aims — the landowners and shooters responsible for habitat management, restoration and conservation. Crucially, one of the RSPB’s stated objectives — just below tackling wildlife crime and habitat loss — is to work with landowners and farmers to help countryside birds. A licensing system that seeks to control and restrict our activities can only alienate the shooters responsible for managing two-thirds of the UK’s rural land. The RSPB might not like the fact that shooting exists, but it does and two million hectares in the UK are managed for conservation as a result. The charity is not in a position to disregard that, no matter which shade of government has its ear.

Finally, the biggest concern such a nebulous call for universal licensing elicits regards the assumption the RSPB’s strategists have made that all shoots, by definition, must be controlled. In their minds we are not to be trusted, we need to be licensed — we are all guilty until proven innocent. If that view is not opposed to shooting, what is?