Again, my hereditary loyalty to farmers is being tested. I don’t want to stir the pot too briskly, but having just spent ten minutes reading a press release from the RSPB website, I feel sufficient steam coming out of my ears to pass comment on an ongoing initiative to help farmers manage their land to the benefit of wildlife.
Since 1999, six thousand farms have been surveyed by RSPB volunteers as part of a scheme to help farmers take care of the bird species resident on their property. I would never usually swallow an RSPB statistic without first inspecting it for rot, but I’m afraid I can believe this one. The web page I’ve been looking at explains that farmers can have free surveys conducted on their land to identify breeding bird species. Obviously, the sugar on the pill of this bobble hatted intrusion is that, if the volunteer surveyors spot a giant hornbill or a kookaburra on your land (provided that they can tell which is which), then you can ramp up your grant application to provide these birds with the habitat they require.
Now, the use (and flagrant, sickening misuse) of agricultural grants is a topic for another day, but not only is it utterly scandalous that farmers wouldn’t already know what birds they have on their property (and I increasingly believe that it’s the case that they do not), but the implication that the RSPB have the rubber stamp on land management is rather unsettling. This is a bird charity set up to restrict the sale of exotic feathers used in fashionable hats, now presuming to act like a civil institution, being invited to consult with government departments to determine how grant money is spent.
When I looked into applying for grant money for my work on the Chayne, I was working to conserve a “red list conservation concern” BAP species. However, my application was dependent upon “surveys” carried out by the RSPB which would first verify the presence of the birds on my land. I quite understand the logic of this, since if nobody checked up on who I was and what I was doing, I could quite happily claim to be conserving black grouse on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow, raking in public funds twenty miles from the nearest lek.
However, I do seriously object to the idea that the RSPB would be conducting those surveys. I run a (extremely modest) shoot, and while everything I do is scrupulously above board, the idea that representatives from an outspoken anti-shooting charity should have free access to the property is not at all pleasing. Somewhere along the line, the RSPB shifted from a sad, innocuous tribe of robin-botherers to sleek, authoritative civil servants – the government endorsed go-to-guys on all things relating to bird conservation. That puts them in a strange position of authority, which they, without question, don’t deserve. After all, how can they claim to give impartial conservation advice when they publicly squabble with farmers, gamekeepers and anyone else from the countryside who doesn’t agree with them. It’s now the case that this suburban charity is working itself into a dangerous position of control over the countryside, and it is being consolidated by the fact that ignorant farmers are going to them for advice.
The first things I ever learned about wildlife were taught to me by farmers. My father used to plough crooked furrows so that he wouldn’t disturb lapwing and oystercatcher nests, and the very idea that his son wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between the two would have made his hair stand on end. Somewhere in the last two decades, it seems that even farmers have lost touch with their land to such an extent that they now need a rustly jacket with an HND in binocular management to come and tell them what a corbie crow is. If farmers don’t know what breeding birds are on their land, then it’s no wonder that the RSPB is in the ascendency.
One of the great attributes of shooting (now declined) was farming’s ability to support stocks of wild gamebirds. Farmers had a vested interest in knowing what was what, because come September the 1st, their day’s sport depended on it. I suppose the last twenty years of agricultural progress has put paid to all kinds of natural game species so that farmers now have little use for yellowhammers and corn buntings. The only thing these little birds offer is a bit of beauty, and for many, that has a much narrower appeal than a day’s exciting sport. Bit by bit, the RSPB are aiming to become the custodians of the countryside – it’s nothing new, but it’s surprising how inflamed you can get when you read the wrong thing at the wrong moment. It’s about time we “stepped up for nature” and told them where to stick it.