Britain’s wild birds need our help

They are threatened by habitat loss, predation and persecution. This website is for those who genuinely want to tackle these problems. It is not for those who think that conservation can be achieved by using Twitter and signing petitions. It is for those who want to look at all the facts not some of the facts:

  • endangered birds are flourishing on grouse moors
  • persecution is falling sharply
  • the RSPB refuses to publish its annual bird counts
  • hen harriers are doing worse on RSPB reserves

Let’s start with the data from grouse moors. In 2017 academics from Newcastle and Durham universities looked at the impact of having gamekeepers on moorland. When they compared similar types of land the differences were spectacular.

The data suggests that for these species Britain’s grouse moors are Britain’s best bird sanctuaries. The study echoes the results of research carried out by RSPB scientists in 2001. That also showed that there were many times more waders on grouse moors compared with other types of moorland.  Other surveys point in the same direction: a survey of grouse moors in the Angus Glens recorded 81 species while in 2016 a survey by ringers licenced by the BTO found 89 species flourishing in a North Pennines grouse moor.

For anyone serious about bird populations these figures that really matter. With the UK human population forecast to hit 70m next decade, habitat for birds will come under even more pressures. So we need to maximise the success of the breeding grounds they have.

“Britain’s Best Bird Sanctuaries”

So what’s the key difference provided by gamekeepers? As well as managing the habitat, they also do the hard work of predator control. Birds flourish on fox free islands. So gamekeepers try hard to limit the numbers of foxes, stoats and crows, to make their moors paradises for ground nesting birds. Per square mile gamekeepers shoot nine times as many foxes as RSPB. Unfair on foxes? Well there is no evidence that the fox population is falling and if we want birds to flourish then we have to make some hard choices.

And what about the non-legal predator control? Yes there is still a persecution problem. But here are figures – from the RSPB – which should encourage you.

While illegal activity is coming down it hard to know how much the remaining persecution is to blame for hen harrier numbers being poor.  There are many other factors at work. In Scotland raptor workers only attributed one of 163 hen harrier nest failures to human interference.

Of course there may have been other cases of persecution. But if persecution by gamekeepers is the key problem then why have hen harrier numbers fallen sharply in Wales where there is no driven grouse shooting?

Are the foxes getting them?

So if there is some encouraging data from grouse moors how are birds faring at the RSPB?  Let us look at hen harriers – the species the RSPB is always criticising gamekeepers about.

This is official evidence from 1,307 nests over five years. It is clear that hen harriers are consistently doing better on land not run by the RSPB. Could some of the reason for this be the significantly lower level of fox control on RSPB reserves? It is logical that if you want endangered birds to flourish then you need to stop predators eating them. Yet, fearful of its activists who do not want to face up to this reality, the RSPB operates in denial. On average it only shoots one fox a day across its entire network of 200 reserves. In 2014/15 it shot nearly three times as many deer as it did foxes. (RSPB data) Are gamekeepers fair when they jest about RSPB reserves being “fox larders”? Has it become the Royal Society for the Protection of Foxes?

At least with hen harriers we have some data. In 2012 something very suspicious happened: the RSPB stopped publishing figures on how many birds it has on its reserves. This is the last table.

When this table is compared with the official figures for hen harriers we see that over the last five years the RSPB has not just been suffering from poor productivity of its nests. The charity also had fewer birds choosing to nest on its reserves. In the last five years of official data they had 206 nests – 196 in Scotland and 10 in England. That is an average of 41 a year. Yet between 2008 and 2011 the RSPB was achieving 49 a year. That is a decline of 18%.

Given its enthusiasm for publicity it seems unlikely that the RSPB would not be publishing figures if it had a good story to tell.

This halt also wasn’t because of a lack of cash. The RSPB makes £15,000 an hour. Every hour of the year. Indeed the RSPB has continued to count its birds but is not disclosing the figures. Is it acceptable for a conservation body with such a massive income – including lots of public money – to refuse to disclose how many birds it has on its reserves?

Every so often its predation problem cannot be hidden. Nature bites back. The RSPB was so embarrassed by TV coverage of a badger destroying avocet nests at its reserve at Minsmere that it built a fantastically expensive fence. Some birds will be protected. Some badgers will starve to death outside the fence.

Red kites are another problem for the RSPB. One of its scientists has revealed how because these birds have become so common they were having “a big predatory effect on one of our reserves.” Again the RSPB has come up with an expensive solution. It has been feeding the red kites to stop them eradicating other species.

Yet this is kicking the can down the road as it will increase the numbers of red kite even further. At some stage the RSPB will stop the feeding programme. At that stage the superabundant red kite will devour all the small birds they can find. And when they run out, they too will starve. And even if this scheme could be kept going in perpetuity it would be too expensive to replicate in the rest of the countryside.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Foxes

Despite its lack of effective predator control the RSPB’s reserves do have birds. They are not flying away whenever they spot its logo on the gates. Yet without data scientists cannot tell whether these birds are tourists which fly into RSPB reserves in abundant flocks but fly out with depleted numbers. Many researchers suspect that Europe’s most financially successful conservation body has become an ecological sink.