This week, the depths of social media have been filled with grumblings of discontent aimed at the RSPB for their use of lethal control as a conservation tool on their land: to protect threatened curlew (and other ground-nesting birds), to restore woodland and to protect a suite of native fauna from damaging invasive species.
To their credit, the RSPB have acted with commendable transparency on this issue: releasing their annual report of vertebrates controlled on RSPB owned reserves and issuing a frank take on Curlew conservation, penned by Conservation Director, Martin Harper.
Criticism of the RSPB has been rife, not least from compassionate conservationists, and based on a scan of various platforms, it is safe to say that more than a few RSPB members have been left questioning their commitment to the organisation. By all accounts, it seems like the RSPB simply cannot get it right: receiving flack for ‘not doing enough’ to protect our wildlife and then, when they do take action, finding themselves lambasted for their chosen methods. It’s all rather tedious, and frustrating; especially as in this instance, the RSPB have done the right thing entirely.
Take Curlew for example. We all know that to truly save this species from extinction in the UK, landscape-scale change is required – I do not dispute that. Neither do the RSPB and as I write this, they are working to achieve just that by conducting vital research into Curlew-friendly land management options. However, we also know that in areas where changes in habitat have left birds vulnerable, and where generalist predator numbers have increased, the impact of habitat loss is drastically amplified. With corvids and foxes, in particular, greatly reducing Curlew breeding success and thus, creating the potential for localised extinctions. The final nail in the Curlew’s coffin, so to speak.
The RSPB acknowledge the need for landscape-scale change to protect Britain’s Curlew and are working to inform and enact this; though they also recognise the need for action to halt Curlew declines while long-term plans are formulated. Essentially, they are not content to merely wring their hands and wait as Curlew numbers plummet and instead have opted for a science-based approach they know runs the risk of alienating some of their members. In doing so, prioritising the protection of birds – through necessary and entirely justified means – instead of profits. Is that not what critics have pushed for all along? It is certainly what I want to see as a paying RSPB member. Action as opposed to apathy.
As I stated in a blog post a few weeks ago, whether we like it or not, the act of killing is, in many cases, the only thing which stands between a plethora of wildlife populations and collapse. It should never be undertaken lightly and absent scientific justification – as is widely available in the case of the Curlew – but is, in fact, a necessity in response to wildlife populations forced out of kilter due to long-term mismanagement of the countryside.
It is also worth pointing out that the RSPB only enact lethal control of wildlife once all other viable options have been exhausted. Demonstrated by this quote pulled from the aforementioned post by Martin Harper:
Non-lethal methods, whilst always our preferred way of doing things, are not always practical. Lethal vertebrate control on RSPB reserves is only considered where the following four criteria are met:
That the seriousness of the problem has been established
That non-lethal measures have been assessed and found not to be practicable
That killing is an effective way of addressing the problem
That killing will not have an adverse impact on the conservation status of the target or other non-target species.
There is no magic wand available that will restore the countryside to a natural state of equilibrium. There are things we can do on a case by case basis, sure: rewilding were we can and pushing for legislative change that incentivises sympathetic habitat management. We should do both of these and in the long-term, they are vital; though both take time. Time many species currently teetering on the brink simply do not have. Whether we’re talking the control of foxes to protect Capercaillie, the control of surging deer populations to protect woodland or indeed, the killing of corvids and foxes to safeguard Curlew, in many cases, action is required now.
Such action may, from time to time, be hard to swallow but ultimately, is preferable to the losses that may be incurred otherwise. At least in my opinion.
Cover image: By Charles J Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42805097