Whilst working on our Barlow Hunt Investigation in spring 2018, HIT was contacted by a a whistleblower about the RSPB’s Curlew Management Trial Programme. The whistleblower was highly concerned about the scale of Larsen trapping and employment of a bloodsports enthusiast on a Peak District RSPB reserve. They asked HIT to investigate and document this.
The UK curlew population is in critical decline, and the RSPB’s national Curlew Management Trial Programme uses different measures to try to increase it. Some of the measures focus on habitat management – where wader numbers are increased and sustained through land restoration. Another approach is predator control – as used at the RSPB Big Moor reserve: the extermination of foxes, crows and other species which may pose a risk to curlew numbers through predation. The RSPB maintains that predator control is a last resort, undertaken by thoroughly vetted contractors. Our investigation called this into question.
The RSPB were using Larsen traps to capture crows during the springtime breeding season. Larsen traps are a highly controversial and archaic form of bird trap, used primarily by gamekeepers who have no concerns about their inherent cruelty. HIT highlighted the cruelty of Larsen traps in our 2017 Moscar Grouse Shooting Estate Investigation. Larsen traps were invented in Denmark, where they have since been banned for being inhumane. Larsen traps inflict intolerable mental and physical suffering on captive birds. Trapping during springtime also means that not only do caught birds die, but their dependent chicks also starve in the nest. Better is expected from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Foxes were also killed on the programme: shot by night in the nature reserve. The RSPB fox shooting season runs from 30th October – 30th June, which includes the sensitive time in which vixens are pregnant, and when the dependent cubs of killed adults would also starve to death. This is simply cruel and unsustainable. It is well known that when one fox is removed from its territory, another will move in, and therefore a continous cycle of killing would be required.
The contractor employed by the RSPB on its Big Moor site is a known member of the local fox hunting and grouse shooting community. His social media profiles contain gratuitous pictures from hunting and shooting, and he describes himself as “living for hunting and shooting”. Grouse shooters/gamekeepers are also known to have been employed for culling in Scotland and Northern Ireland. RSPB supporters’ donations are therefore being used to employ bloodsports enthusiasts to kill native wildlife, which is at odds with many members’ values.
Big Moor is an area of known high fire risk – warning posters are displayed on all access gates. Despite this, the RSPB placed numerous crow traps on the moor. Sure enough, during the 2018 trapping season a huge and uncontrolled moorland fire raged across Big Moor putting all the decoy and captured birds in peril. The RSPB has no way of ensuring its birds are protected from moorland fire and it was by luck alone if none burned to death on the site. At a time when moorland fires are known to be increasing in frequency and severity, it is a huge animal welfare concern that these traps should be used at all, let alone by the RSPB.
The RSPB and other organisations agree that harmful farming and land management practices are the primary causes of curlew decline. This includes intensive livestock farming which is having a massively detrimental impact on so many other species and habitats. These are human problems which humans could address at source – and conservation charities should tackle urgently for the benefit of all wildlife. The RSPB also cite the increased number of predators in the UK as another cause of curlew decline – and they target the individual predators (foxes and crows) directly to tackle this. This is unsustainable: when one fox is removed by culling, another will simply take its place. This is a the common territorial practice of foxes.
This particular issue is compounded at the Peak District cull site as the land directly opposite Big Moor has an artificially high number of foxes. The land is managed land for hunting and pheasant shooting. The area contains numerous artificial fox earths and pheasant pens, which both directly increase the number of resident foxes. Rather than challenge these damaging bloodsports practices at source and highlight the danger they create for curlew, the RSPB chose to employ one of the bloodsports community members to kill the unwanted foxes. Rather than tackle this completely preventable imbalance, the RSPB has targeted the local wildlife populations.
The Barlow Hunt Master was – at the time – under investigation for illegally trapping badgers, on the land directly opposite the RSPB reserve. The RSPB’s contractor was a close associate of the Hunt Master. HIT thought the RSPB might be concerned by their contractor’s close involvement with this individual, who set illegal badger traps on the boundary of the RSPB’s own reserve!
So HIT approached the RSPB with all our concerns: the inherent cruelty of Larsen traps, the high fire risk to caged birds on the moor, the fate of dependent young crows and foxes, the RSPB’s association with bloodsports enthusiasts and use of donations to employ them, and the RSPB’s failure to first address the artificially high number of predators locally due to the bloodsports industry.
HIT met with the Martin Harper, RSPB Global Conservation Director, in good faith to discuss these issues in private – to speak up for suffering wildlife and to encourage a new approach. We hoped he would be equally alarmed and keen to make changes. We explained that we thought RSPB members would be horrified to know what was happening. We urged him to see that people will not accept cruelty in the name of conservation.
But the RSPB could not answer our questions and did not share our concerns. Martin Harper has since admitted that he doesn’t know how many foxes or crows have to be killed to protect curlew – which is staggering. The RSPB’s Deputy Head of Conservation admitted she did not know if Larsen traps caused suffering to corvids. The RSPB’s indifference was as shocking to HIT as the report itself – and ultimately led us to make our findings public. Since HIT released the report, the RSPB’s response has continued to shock its members, with its failure to address specific questions and concerns. Members have reported feeling “duped” by the killing, and “patronised” and “insulted” by the RSPB’s response.
Although the RSPB claim to be “transparent” about their culling, the number of RSPB members/supporters who have reported being completely unaware suggests that the charity hasn’t been clear enough. Hundreds of members/supporters have thanked HIT for alerting them to the issue, as they do not want to sponsor this killing. Wildlife deserves better. Members and supporters deserve to be able to make informed choices.
The RSPB publish annual figures of actual animals killed on their behalf. For example, in 2016-2017, the RSPB killed 661 crows and 434 foxes in the UK. However, these figures do not account for the thousands of dependent young chicks and cubs who starve to death in the nest or the den as a result of their parents being killed. The RSPB’s figures therefore grossly underestimate the number of birds and animals killed – and do not reflect the true scale of the suffering. And the numbers are going up significantly for foxes, crows and red deer (also killed on the Big Moor site). These basic figures also do not make explicit the reality of trapping and killing wild animals, which HIT have documented more fully.
Furthermore, if the RSPB’s experiment shows that culling does increase curlew numbers, we expect it will be rolled out – meaning an even greater slaughter. Using the RSPB’s own figures there are 68,000 breeding pairs of curlew in Britain. To cull to protect a large proportion of them, which is what would be necessary to prevent their decline, would mean vast predator culls on an industrial landscape scale. Let’s think about what this would mean. It would mean culling foxes and crows on en masse, persistently and indefinitely. Culling will also be given an artificial sense of validation, and the need for real change in land management will once again be sidelined – to the serious detriment of all wildlife. The RSPB’s use of culling will also be used (falsely) to “justify” bloodsports predator persecution.
There is a disturbing narrative at play here, with predicatable species being singled out for protection and persecution. Crows and foxes are once again typecast as ruthless predators which must be eliminated from the countryside. This is a tired old narrative from the bloodsports lobby, and not one the RSPB should be replicating. As we all know, the plight of the curlew has been appropriated by the shooting lobby to justify its own highly damaging practices. Yet the RSPB are giving false validity to dangerous bloodsports ideology. George Monbiot actually highlighted this in 2013 – and the problems persist on the very same site.
HIT fully appreciates the plight of the curlew – and fights tirelessly for better land management for all wildlife. After all, the curlew is just one species amongst many put in peril by destructive farming practices. But we will not turn a blind eye to the unjustified suffering and persecution of other species. We will not turn a blind eye to the RSPB’s continued use of Larsen traps, which are intolerably cruel even when used legally. We will not turn a blind eye to the RSPB’s choice to use well-meant donations to employ bloodports enthusiasts. These practices must be documented and scrutinised – for the benefit of suffering wildlife and the public who are unwittingly funding the killing. On an issue as important as killing wild animals, supporters deserve the information to make informed decisions.
Everything we know about the wider ecological crisis tells us we need urgent and immediate action for the benefit of all threatened wild species. Conservation charities should be ramping up the pressure on damaging land practices, not firing bullets at the species which are thus far surviving the mess we have made. Targeting other wild species is not a sensible or ethical response. We are no longer in a scenario of “sticking plaster solutions” for certain favoured species. A very large proportion of our biodiversity is imperilled. There is a whole host of British species in decline, many in an even more precarious position than the curlew. Killing foxes and crows won’t benefit them, but a more joined up approach would benefit all wildlife.
The RSPB curlew management trial programme will continue for a further 2 years on six sites across the UK: Big Moor (Peak District), Geltsdale (Cumbria), Penmachno (North Wales), Glenwherry (Northern Ireland), Caithness (North Scotland) and south Scotland. The programme prescribes shooting foxes four times per week between 30 Oct – 31 March and two times per week between 1 April – 30 June. Trapping crows is conducted from 1 April – 30 June. Hundreds of foxes will be killed by free shooting and hundreds more crows will be caught and killed in Larsen traps. Thousands of dependent young cubs and chicks whose parents are killed will starve in the earth and the nest. Many other species are killed by the RSPB on many more nature reserves. HIT will continue to gather evidence.
If you are as horrified by this as we are, please let the RSPB know your concerns. If you are a member, please use your memberships to demand better protection for all birds, and a greater focus on tackling root causes. If you are a donor, please demand that your donations are not used to employ bloodsports enthusiasts to kill native wildlife. We are aware that many RSPB employees are unhappy with the organisation’s use of cruel traps and their reluctance to speak out against bloodsports. If you have information you would like to share, please Contact HIT in confidence today.
For more information on corvid traps, please see the very informative website Against Corvid Traps.