The poor old RSPB has been under fire for culling deer (News, 22 January) — again. I say “again” because some years ago the charity got a lot of stick when it revealed how many deer it was culling at its Abernethy reserve, in the Highlands. It is reputed to have lost about 300 members on that occasion. A tiny proportion of the organisation’s membership of one million, perhaps, but it certainly put the frighteners on RSPB bosses.

The most recent furore is about culling 250 deer on the RSPB’s nature reserve at Minsmere, Suffolk. An RSPB member wrote to the local paper to say he was resigning — not because of the cull, but because the lack of regular culling by the RSPB over the years had led to the current situation where the reserve’s ecology has been severely damaged and a mass cull was now necessary.

The problem for the RSPB, of course, is that it has had to tread carefully to avoid alienating those members who simply do not understand — and probably never will — why a cull is necessary. The paradox is that the RSPB must bear some of the blame for this sort of attitude.

Doing the right thing

Let’s be clear; the RSPB is trying to do the right thing at Minsmere. You could even say it is being brave. It faced similar protests last year, north of the border, when it revealed that it was having to resume a controversial cull of feral goats on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond. Some locals protested, arguing that the animals were popular with tourists and walkers on the West Highland Way. But the RSPB stuck to its guns — literally — because the goats were damaging woodland habitat.

There was further embarrassment for the charity when a Freedom of Information Act request by the Countryside Alliance revealed that, under licence from Natural England in 2011/12, the RSPB had killed three lesser black-backed gulls, as well as destroying 76 large gull nests. It also admitted to killing 292 carrion crows and 11 magpies under open general licence in the same year. Oh, and the charity had also oiled, to prevent hatching, 73 greylag eggs, 25 Canada goose eggs, as well as destroying 195 Barnacle goose eggs.

As for cuddly mammals, we don’t know how many deer the RSPB kills in total each year, but it does “zap” bambis on several of its reserves. And then there are grey squirrels, rats, mink —and let’s not even talk about foxes. The annual toll of wildlife that falls to the RSPB’s guns and traps must look like a Victorian gamekeeper’s gamebook.

Moment of truth

The nub of the problem, in my view, is that the RSPB has been unduly coy about telling its members the truth about how today’s heavily modified countryside is actually managed. It has elevated feathered fund-raisers such as raptors to the highest levels of public appreciation, but quietly shoots and traps other prey-eating birds — notably crows. It makes rather muted protests when licences are issued to shoot a substantial proportion of our cormorant population to protect alien rainbow trout, but screams blue murder when a single licence is issued to destroy a few buzzard eggs — a species that is vastly more numerous than the cormorant. It whips up opposition to the badger culls, while killing deer and foxes on its own land. And all this without keeping its members properly informed about its activities.

The RSPB has been a victim of its own hypocrisy. I cannot recall ever reading an explanation of the RSPB’s own culling activities in its membership magazine, so it’s hardly surprising when some members react badly when such activities come to light.

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