Not forgotten

Written by on 12 November 2014 in Interviews

For the RSPB’s director in Scotland, the charity has most definitely not forgotten the birds

When a campaign is led by former cricketer Sir Ian Botham, it is bound to cause a stir.
‘You Forgot The Birds’, which has the ex-England captain, a keen shooter and landowner, as one of its three-man advisory board, accused the RSPB of failing to live up to its conservation promises and has reported the organisation to the Charity Commission.
It has criticised the charity for spending only 24 per cent of its income on nature reserves and claimed it is misleading its more than 1.1m members.
While the claims may have made great headlines, they are “incredibly misguided or mischievous or both,” according to Stuart Housden, director of RSPB Scotland. He, in turn, has accused the accusers of failing to understand what his organisation even does - basing its campaign on spending on nature reserves but leaving out important parts of the organisation, such as its Centre for Conservation Science.
“I think if you look who these three people are, they’re coming out from the shooting community,” says Housden. “I suspect they are motivated because we have said sport shooting in Britain, including Scotland, is not very well regulated.”
Since its foundation in 1889, when a group of well-to-do women, outraged at the international plumage trade, petitioned and campaigned for people to sign a pledge not to wear bird plumes in their hats, coats and jackets, the RSPB has been a campaigning organisation, pressing for new laws, from banning oil tankers discharging their tanks in territorial waters in 1913 to setting up the government’s own conservation service in 1949. 
While it owns or manages about 70,000 hectares of land in Scotland alone, it did not acquire its first nature reserve for about 50 years.
Ultimately though, Housden says Botham’s campaign hasn’t really had an impact. At the RSPB’s AGM in Birmingham it was discussed, but at the same time they’ve welcomed another 1,873 members.
While the RSPB deplores any bird persecution, its response is not to ban grouse shooting but campaign for better regulation. “If anything, our members don’t think we are radical enough,” says Housden.
“There’s a petition running in the Westminster parliament to get grouse shooting banned. It’s got nearly 20,000 signatures. They are saying to us, what is the point in trying to work with these people – they are always kicking you in the shins, you’d be better banning them.”
Housden describes himself as an “RSPB career man”, joining 18 months after leaving university – where he was president of the Royal Holloway College union – in 1976.
First based at its Bedfordshire headquarters and in Edinburgh as Scotland director since 1994, in that time the charity has grown substantially. But even in his early days, it had its hands in some fairly major pieces of conservation legislation, including the 1979 EC Birds Directive and the 1981 Bird and Countryside Act, which he led the campaign to “substantially shift” what the government of the day was offering.
From 181 staff and 181,000 members when he first joined to 2,500 staff – 300 of whom are in Scotland – and more than 1.1m members, he admits the size of the organisation means it can be “the big boy in the playground” without even knowing it and in a crowded field there can be competition for both airtime and funding.
However, while he says that there can be benefits to both the “large spotlight” that a big organisation can provide and the more specific work of smaller charities, increasingly there is a need to work together with a single voice.
The State of Nature report, the combined work of 25 UK conservation and research organisations released in 2013, warned that of nearly 4,000 species being monitored, 60 per cent were in serious decline.
Housden’s message is stark. “Given the assessments coming out of things like this, we’re failing – basically, collectively, all of these probably 50 bodies or so.
“Collectively, there are small little wins. But if you look at the tide of what’s happening, you have to ask yourself is the current way of doing business for each of us going to work?
“We’ve got to do a lot more together to speak more clearly with one voice – share the glory if there is glory and the pain if there is pain. The crisis in these islands of ours is really strong and severe and we’re deluding ourselves if we think it is all OK. Getting that message over is more important than who is saying it.”
But while there is quite rightly a focus on what needs to be fixed, Housden says it is important to have a balance and highlight the good work that is going on.
It is the reason the charity started its Nature of Scotland awards, now in its third year and due to take place at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Edinburgh on 20 November.
The awards highlight community projects, innovation and of course, the politician of the year, which has been won so far by Richard Lochhead as well as Rob Gibson and with a shortlist of five this year.
Housden says: “It’s all too easy for people in my shoes to talk about the declines in this and the loss of that and the threat of climate change, but you need to give people hope to inspire them to show people can make a difference.” 
In Scotland the dust is still settling after September’s referendum. RSPB took no stance, partly because Housden said it would have been wrong to, but also, he says, because of the example of environmental NGOs’ support for the Democrats during George Bush’s time as president that saw them cast out to “the wilderness”.
But he says now the referendum is over “there is a whole raft of stuff that does need attention from government but hasn’t had it”.
He wants greater focus on reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and the European subsidies handed out to agriculture and says Rural Affairs Secretary Lochhead “has perhaps listened a little too much to the farmers”.
He adds: “They think it’s their money and in fact it’s the public’s money. We’d like a bit more in terms of directing it towards public good, benefiting the environment and looking after the landscape than is currently on the table.”
But undoubtedly one of the areas the charity has been most outspoken on is the issue of wind energy. While recognising the threat of climate change on bird populations as much as any other life on the planet, the charity has vociferously opposed wind turbines in some locations if it feels it will have a negative impact.
Housden estimates it objects to around 15 per cent of the renewable energy projects it is consulted on and, of those, about half see an agreement reached, such as reducing the number of turbines. 
It means, he says, that while other parts of the world have seen large numbers of birds killed or displaced, there has not been the same impact in Scotland.
Despite this, the announcement by the Scottish Government that it was approving four projects off the Tay and Angus coasts, was expressly against what RSPB had advised, warning that the Firth of Forth was the feeding ground for gannets and kittywakes and could have a serious impact on populations.
Housden said he was expecting the decision despite regular conversations with Marine Scotland and the Scottish Government and says the scientific evidence the decision is based on is “really pretty iffy”.
“The assumptions being made by Marine Scotland is that at every opportunity, things will always be alright on the night.
“You only need one or two things to click to a different point on the scale and the perspective of loss is very, very high indeed. Even work approved by Marine Scotland, thus the Scottish Government, bases its decisions on shows that thousands of seabirds will be killed by these developments.”



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