A little bird tells me that the humans at the RSPB are about to admit “a significant” problem. At their AGM on Saturday they will reveal an enormous deficit of over £10m. Membership is down, grants have stopped and jobs will go.
So why have donors lost confidence in the RSPB? Why did the CEO announce last month that he is going? Why is the charity mimicking the RSPCA’s death spiral with its ferocious legal attacks on those who dare to disagree?
The flashing red light over the RSPB is its lack of birds. For the last six years the charity has refused to publish bird counts for its 200 reserves. If it had a good story its 34 press officers would have told us. On this most basic issue, donors expect transparency.
Parliamentary questions reveal that the birds the RSPB is most vocal about – hen harriers – breed better outside RSPB reserves than on them. How come? It’s because the RSPB fails to stop its birds being eaten. Ground-nesting birds get savaged by foxes, stoats and crows. Every gamekeeper deals with this problem. But the RSPB is more concerned about upsetting activists than protecting birds. So it shoots far fewer foxes.
The predictable consequence is shown in repeated academic studies: grouse moors have become Britain’s best bird sanctuaries. This year Newcastle and Durham Universities found that without gamekeepers the number of curlew chicks hatching would plunge by 87%. Golden plover would be down 95%. In stark contrast RSPB reserves seem to be ecological “sinks” with fewer birds flying out than flew in.
As it falls further behind the RSPB faces an evolutionary choice: adapt or attack. Sadly its basic instinct has been to double down on media spin – presenting itself as ‘nature’s friend’ and others as ‘countryside villains’. Farmers, gamekeepers and even the hand that feeds it, Defra, have faced a relentless barrage of criticism. The RSPB attacks to distract from its own failings.
The assault is led by its vice president, Chris Packham. From his pulpit as the BBC’s most high-profile countryside presenter he rails against the sins of grouse moors: they are “psychotic”, “evil” and “satanic” – that last insult came on the Today programme. Can you imagine what would happen if Laura Kuenssberg used that language about Momentum? Yet grouse moors are fair game.
Attacking everyone else has left the RSPB isolated. A few years ago Defra would not dare to announce a policy that the RSPB wasn’t happy with. Now the charity gets left in the corridor. Journalists have become jaundiced about the RSPB – noting how it has been lambasted by judges, police officers, Defra officials as well as by scientists in the pages of a Royal Society publication. Every time the RSPB spins that bird persecution has gone up – when it’s actually fallen sharply – trust goes down. Every time it sneers about the conservation success of grouse moors and chooses not to celebrate soaring numbers of hen harriers, partnering with it on conservation becomes ever harder.
Those of us who launched the You Forgot The Birds campaign hope that the RSPB will find a pragmatist for its new CEO. Someone who will wonder whether it was ‘bird friendly’ for the charity to call for a six-fold increase in onshore windfarms. Someone who will spend more than a mere quarter of the charity’s income on its bird reserves. Someone who will halt the vast spending on lawyers.
Step forward Lord Randall of Uxbridge? Theresa May’s environment guru in Number 10 could start by stopping the RSPB’s judicial review against Defra’s efforts to increase hen harrier numbers.
It needs his help. For years the RSPB has been a massive money-making machine hoovering up cash that would be spent better by wildlife trusts. Today the giant vampire squid of the conservation world has sucked our goodwill dry.