The RSPB, game bird shooting, and how we can’t afford to be “comfortably unaware”

by Alex Lockwood

In the hugely successful but hugely problematic non-fiction bestseller H is for Hawk, author Helen Macdonald tells us the story of how she worked through the grief of the death of her father by training Mabel, a goshawk, to hunt from her hand.

In the book Macdonald loves one species of bird, the hawk. Shetells us her and the hawk’s amazing story, its genealogy as a bird of prey and of the art of falconry, weaving into her story that of E.B. White, author of another book, The Goshawk, who also trained a bird as a means of dealing with his own psychological difficulties.

Macdonald’s connection with the hawk is one of obsession and love. She has always loved hawks, from the earliest moments of her childhood. She has always trained them. The hawk is a hunter, and she gains its trust by feeding it meat: scraps of steak and day-old chicks from her freezer, cast offs from the egg production industry (male chicks are gassed, thrown or ground up alive, being of no use for egg laying).

When she goes out to hunt, Mabel hunts rabbits, other birds, and often pheasants, even though Macdonald knows this is illegal, having encroached on shooting grounds. The pheasants are, of course, the property of landowners who breed the birds for the shooting season (and are often subsidized to do so). Game fowl classed as livestock during breeding.

Macdonald’s book is problematic in that she is a blood sports enthusiast, and I have wondered if a person who dealt with the grief of the death of a loved one through fox hunting or through game shooting would have won so many accolades. (When Australian cricketer Glenn McGrath went on a shooting expedition after the death of his wife, and the pictures emerged of him with his prey — buffalo, hyena and the tusks of an elephant — he was vilified on social media, and came out with an apology.)

Following a talk by Macdonald in Newcastle in February this year, I had the privilege of dining with her later that evening. We engaged in a discussion about her book. I expressed sadness for the suffering of the other birds: the chicks, the pheasants. Her response was that “oh, I feel the same” and that if she had chosen to raise a pheasant rather than a hawk, she would have loved that pheasant as much as the hawk (or as much as the parrot she now ‘owns’).

But her position is untenable. Macdonald’s book propagates a position of ‘loving one, while eating the other’ (at dinner she had leg of duck) while demanding that we love and respect ‘nature’ and ‘landscape’, oblivious to the facts that the mindset that encourages and makes permissable ‘loving one, but eating the other’ is grounded in the speciesist logic that leads to the devastation of the things she loves most: nature and landscape.

Animal agriculture is, we are coming to understand, the largest contributor to climate change emissions, as well as major contributor to deforestation, ocean acidification, soil erosion etc. (All this reaffirmed many times over the last ten years via bodies such as the UN.) We cannot feed nine billion people on an animal-based diet. This isn’t even yet engaging with the ethical decisions of why a hawk is more valuable to us — or rather, if the hawk should be more valuable to us — than the pheasant. Because it is rarer? Because it is wild? Because the pheasant is not under threat of disappearing?

Pheasant shoot (c) David Kalsbeek

These are the same questions that have been raised by the “hullabaloo” surrounding Martin Harper’s blog post and interview with the Observer newspaper about the British conservation charity the RSPB’s position on shooting. (The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is one of Britain’s oldest and most established, and effective, conservation charities.)

Harper, the RSPB’s Director of Conservation, wrote a post on the charity’s website on 15th March to counter the myths around the RSPB’s position on shooting. It was then covered in the Observer newspaper on 29th March. Harper then wrote a follow up blog after the story hit the papers and the PR people at the RSPB dealt with the fallout.

Harper clarifies that the RSPB “are neutral on the ethics of shooting.” This has upset a number of people, and led them to cancel their memberships.

Harper believes they shouldn’t be surprised that the RSPB is “neutral on the issue”, at least. With a rather patronizing tone, he adds: “And, guess what, we have been for over a hundred years.”

The RSPB’s position is this, as Harper puts it:

Many lowland farmers also manage their land for pheasant and partridge shooting. The RSPB is neutral on the ethics of shooting wild or released birds yet we are often misrepresented in the shooting press as anti-shooting. This is wrong, unhelpful and unnecessarily imposes a strain on our relationships with some in the farming community.
Yes, we condemn wildlife crime including any persecution of protected birds of prey. And yes, we continue to work with the police to end illegal killing that remains prevalent in the uplands, threatening the future of hen harrier, and still occurs on some lowland estates.
But, the contribution progressive shoots can make to supporting threatened wildlife is significant, and we are delighted to help them further.
This isn’t a contradiction. We simply do whatever nature needs and will work with anyone that wants to help wildlife.

Harper’s tone in his follow up blog is out of step with that of a modern, progressive, compassionate organization. The story “caused a bit of a hullabaloo” and he is “bemused” by the “inevitable uproar” around “Today’s little storm”, belittling the responses of many society members and members of the public who have reacted to what they see as the “contradictions” in Harper’s position, which is the position of the RSPB.

The first problem is this: Harper and the RSPB seem not to define pheasants and grouse, birds bred for shooting, as “wildlife”; yet many of their supporters aren’t interested in definitions, but that the birds are living beings.

In his follow up blog, Harper claims that “Today’s little storm has, if anything, reinforced the point I was trying to make — a simplistic interpretation of our position is not only wrong but unhelpfully divisive.” But this fails to take account or respect that others have a different definition of how to protect wildlife. For example, Twitter user @Deltaecho14 states on her profile that she is “Member of Wildlife Trust, Badger Trust, LACS, HSA and English Heritage. Ex member of RSPB and National Trust as they like to kill wildlife. All life matters.”

Such people are not trying to be “divisive”. They are trying to point out that all life — wild and bred — is valuable. For a bird charity to work with those who breed birds for blood sports will naturally be anathema to many. Harper should not be surprised that some people were not aware of this, or disagree with it, and he certainly shouldn’t be using sarcasm to repudiate it. (This is not an ad hominem attack, but rather about the ethics of dialogue and engagement and how to build a movement for animals.)

Some of this problem comes with the claim that the RSPB is “neutral” on the ethics of shooting. But is to work with and support those farmers who offer shoots, in their work of providing wildlife management care, a neutral position? Surely it can be seen as one that corroborates and validates the economic interests of those farmers, which includes shooting. As Elie Wiesel puts it so clearly: ““We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”

And the pheasant and game bird bred for death are the victims in this. As George Monbiot put it in his column from 2014, the pheasant is a singularly pathetic bird in terms of our treatment of it. And, crucially for the people criticizing the RSPB, they are, for the length of the shooting season, classed as wildlife:

When pheasants are reared, they are classed as livestock: that means the people who raise them are exempt from some payments of value added tax and certain forms of planning control, on the grounds that they are producing food. But as soon as they’re released they are classed as wild animals. Otherwise you wouldn’t be allowed to shoot them. But if you want to re-capture the survivors at the end of the shooting season to use as breeding stock, they cease to be wild and become livestock again, because you aren’t allowed to catch wild birds with nets.

Perhaps what many people are upset about with the RSPB’s position is not a “little storm” at all but anger at their “neutral position” on the ways in which nonhuman life is so easily manipulated for human pleasure, of which blood sports such as shooting seem some of the worst of what we do as humans to maximize the suffering and shaming of other species.

I do have sympathy with the RSPB for their very good work on conservation, and how hard this is in the face of contemporary environmental and economic enemies. I was once a member and I volunteered with them a few years back on their seabird sanctuary on Rathlin Island, off the North Coast of Northern Ireland. It was a fantastic experience and the RSPB there and elsewhere, does superb work in protecting wildlife and the lives of (some) birds, their rights and their living conditions. They, as a conservation charity, not an animal welfare organization, have as their a goal to protect threatened wildlife.

But is this enough? And is their approach up to date? Conservation founders in the face of the greater threats of global climate change and its driver, out of control neoliberal consumer capitalism.

My problem with both Macdonald’s book and with the RSPB’s position to work with farmers who provide shoots is that they are both based in an old, traditional, even nostalgic paradigm that is not fully looking into the face of the problem we have — that our current systems of speciesist economics and production, all based on the exploitation of the bodies of animals, are leading us to climatic chaos and social disruption.

The logic of speciesism — that we discriminate against other living beings on the basis of their species — is circular. If we support the logic that allows us to “love one and eat/shoot/exploit the other” then that logic — very clearly at the heart of the RSPB’s position (the protection of the curlew and bunting at the expense of the pheasant) props up the logic that we can go on with business as usual in our relation to the world’s living beings, including ourselves.

We can’t. There is very little time to reverse our actions on climate change. The single biggest change that can take place is that we change our diets to plant-based diets. Or as Ethan Brown, founder of Beyond Meat (funded by Bill Gates and Biz Stone) says, “The single most important thing you can do as a consumer is change out those 3 or 4 ounces of meat in the center of your plate.”

This will only happen if our logic of domination over other species changes. Conservation is commendable and necessary, but at the expense of perhaps, after the chicken, the UK’s most abused and exploited bird, the pheasant? It isn’t only the pheasant that suffers when farmers’ shoots are supported.

I do not know what takes place in the discussions of the RSPB’s hierarchy, but I want to know if they are engaging seriously with combating the causes of climate change, the worst of which is animal agriculture, and if their practices, all the way down (from the canteen to their conservation policy) are working to counter the chaotic possibilities that runaway climate change is leading us to. If they are, then supporting the logic of speciesism is not compatible with conservation, because animal agriculture is central to the destruction of the nature and wildlife Martin Harper works so hard to protect. Without tackling these root causes, then they are, in the words of Dr. Richard Oppenlander, remaining “comfortably unaware” of the reasons why conservation is needed in the first place.

Here’s a question for Martin Harper and the RSPB. Does the bird that is being shot know that it is not free? Did it ask to be bred to be shot? And where has that logic — that humans consider themselves so important that we get to decide upon life and death for other species — got us so far?