RSPB criticised for protecting birds… fancy that?

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,

If you enjoyed this blog, please consider voting for James in the Terra Incognita ‘Wildlife Blogger of the Year’ competition. The form for which can be found beneath the article here – please enter number 13. 


  1. David Williams says:

    There is no doubt in my mind that lethal control is sometimes required, and no doubt either that some of the criticism aimed at the RSPB has been a gut reaction to that unpalatable fact of life.

    Having said that, I do wonder whether, rather than undertaking the lethal control ‘in house’, the use of a ‘contractor’ couldn’t be seen as a rather convenient washing of hands by the RSPB?

    Also, if the initial comments are to be believed, the choice of contractor who might appear to ‘relish the job’ seems particularly inappropriate.

    1. James says:

      Not too many wardens and rangers are shooters, so they could cause a lot of pain and agony if the shot goes wrong, which no one wants. Contractors are professional shooters. Choice of professional is important though, but sometimes it may go down to a lack of contractors available. All contractors have to adhere to RSPB guidelines and codes of practises.

      1. David Williams says:

        I would imagine that choice of professional is very important but you seem to be implying that if a satisfactory professional is not available, you’ll use someone who you don’t think meets the required standard. Perhaps the RSPB would do better to cancel the lethal control until a satisfactory professional does become available.

        I’d be interested to know what active management the RSPB undertakes to ensure that guidelines and codes of practice are adhered to. Do your staff know the location of all traps and snares – and do they regularly check them?

  2. ann doohan says:

    I heard that Foxes were being killed when they have cubs who rely on them, not sure about that, maybe its not true.

  3. Phil gilbert says:

    I agree with your arguements and fully support the rspb but I must admit to releasing some crows from Larson trap recently after all we are all bird lovers

  4. Pete M says:

    I’m an RSPB supporter but regardless of whether lethal contol is “necessary” there still seem to be a number of unanswered questions.
    The RSPB had placed its Larsen traps on a moor that was known to have a high fire risk, and even suffered a substantial fire whilst the traps were in use. This really troubles me and I haven’t seen any response from the RSPB to this. Larsen traps are controversial enough without having the birds potentially burned to death on the RSPB’s behalf! I would like to know the RSPB’s position on this.
    Also, the land directly opposite is fox hunting and pheasant shooting country, so there will be a higher number of foxes in the immediate area. I haven’t seen any response to the RSPB on how they tried to reduce that risk at source before opting for lethal control and don’t feel that it has been addressed. If we’re going to claim “last resort” we might need to address such issues.
    Like many other people, I was aware of RSPB culling but I do think it should be held up to closer scrutiny. That might need to be more than an annual list of numbers.

  5. Tony says:

    A fabulous article, James, Thanks.

    One thing I’d like to pick up on if I may. When you state and I quote, that the culls are “a necessity in response to wildlife populations forced out of kilter due to long-term mismanagement of the countryside, I’m not sure this is actually the overriding reason for the declines. Population growth, not simply of predators (obviously still very much an issue) but of the human race is the most significant concern, surely? However, as you mention, and anybody with an open mind will realise, populations of ground-nesting birds are thriving in protected and well-managed lands, such as in our uplands and within isolated nature reserves, to which Martin refers. Why is this though? Again, these results are brought about by those lads and lasses with the exceptional knowledge, their growth mindset and skillsets which only a few of us can dream of acquiring. They are the land managers, keepers, conservationists and scientists I will always remember as and when the recoveries arrive.

  6. Maggi says:

    I live in an area where fox numbers are pretty low, raven numbers drastically down but other corvids much the same was they always have been, (apart from the recent appearance of magpies). Curlew, lapwing, skylarks and oystercatchers commonly bred in the fields outside our village, it was a joy to walk along the road and see and hear them in early summer, but just over 10 years ago they all dramatically declined to the point of non existence in most cases.
    I’m pretty sure the farming management hasn’t changed, other than the removal of dairy cows, but there are sucklers instead. Pesticide and fertiliser use has not changed, nor have disturbance rates.
    The only difference between now and 15 years ago is the increasing number of Red Kites. Now I’m not saying they are responsible, but my point is usual suspect species may not necessarily be the problem.

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