Saturday, 24 October 2009

Death of an eagle - the back story

After the "death of an eagle" piece on Fieldsports Britain on Wednesday (21 October 2009), I called for the RSPCA to be banned from touching wild animals and DEFRA from being allowed near any animal. You might not have heard people on telly "editorialising" like that before. But now we're seeing the birth of specialist consumer TV in the UK, thanks to the internet I expect we'll all see a lot more of it.

So why this call? Something we have discussed on our Shooting Politics debate show is what many fieldsports supporters consider to be the RSPCA's and some of the public's muddled view of the difference between wild animals and pets/livestock. The RSPCA argues that its view is not muddled and that it has different sets of experts for dealing with specialist wildlife science, farm animal science, companion animal and research animal departments.

I think the fieldsports supporters' argument goes like this: with pets/livestock, our responsibility is to the individual, because they depend on us. This only changes when that pet or livestock endangers people or agricultural livestock. With wildlife, our responsibility is to the species, not the individual. That's because there is no effective welfare state for wildlife, not even the one run by the RSPCA and, arguably, nor should there be. An exception to this is rare or endangered wildlife.

Specifically, were I to run over and injure a dog, I would take it to a vet in some anguish. Were I, however, to run over a fox and injure it, I would knock it on the head. Were I to run over and injure a golden eagle on the basis that it is rare, I would take it to a vet.

Some people believe there is no place even for this exception. One naturalist I spoke to about this said: "If the habitat is right, there will be plenty of youngsters ready to take the dead one’s place, as soon as there is a gap in the territories – even among golden eagles. I disagree with you about trying to rescue injured eagles and hack them back. What happens to them when they are released? Are you sure that they are not being turned out into an occupied territory (200 square km each in Spain)? In the Lupton incident [the subject of the golden eagle story in our film], the manned eagle was clearly poaching and the resident dealt with it but lost. Isn’t a fight almost certainly the fate of a released bird? I would like to know how many of the RSPCA’s 12,025 released animals [January-September 2009, four RSCPA wildlife centres] were doing well one week, one month and one year later."

The RSPCA's position is of course at odds with this. I believe the organisation would make the well-intentioned assertion that every injured animal requires a vet's attention. Injured wildlife is often successfully treated. It is released into the countryside where, well fed but overall less able to 'do' because of having, say, fewer legs than normal, it either displaces other wildlife and then is displaced itself or, in the case of foxes especially, it is quickly shot. So, by claiming a responsibility for individual wild birds and animals, the RSPCA can find itself acting against the interests of other individuals in those species.

I have a story close to home which shows the strength of feeling on this subject. I live in the Somerset hamlet of Wellisford, which made it on to an RSPCA press release a few years ago because an RSPCA supporter was about to release a litter of orphaned foxes for, as I recall, the West Hatch RSPCA centre. Somebody broke into the RSPCA supporter's barn in the night and shot most of the foxes. The RSPCA supporter's barn is located between the local shoot's pheasant pens and one of the farmers' main lambing fields so, although none of us condone armed trespass, I'm sure you can see the motivation for the crime even if you don't agree with that motivation.

The reason that some people, including many RSPCA members, can't make this distinction between wild animals and pets/livestock is because I don't think they understand that 'cruelty' is part of wild birds' and animals' existences.

That is not to say there is no place for the RSPCA. The work it does with pets is magnificent, and the work it is doing with agricultural livestock laudable though often too wound up in Government red tape to be loved by farmers.

Fieldsports Channel has also debated on its shows the word 'cruelty' and among conclusions is that perhaps many people use it when they really mean 'brutality' - the act of enjoying rather than allowing animal suffering. We're all against brutality to wildlife. Perhaps the RSPCA should rename itself the RSPBA.

I'm not sure how the RSPCA can resolve all this in terms of its policy. I suspect western civilisation will oneday come to the conclusion that there is cruelty to wildlife inherent in almost everything people do - living in houses, driving cars, eating products produced by agriculture or fisheries, owning cats, with sport fishing, shooting and hunting in a poor sixth, seventh and eighth places. The RSPCA's role may be to help manage all those cruelties in the same way it is working with agriculture. But for the organisation to engage with countrysports enthusiasts, it should accept the role of countrysports in habitat management as a starting point. I'm glad to say we are seeing greater acceptance of that fact from both the RSPB and DEFRA.

My commentary about the RSPCA at the end of the eagle package allowed me to "position" Fieldsports Channel firmly in the fieldsports camp. All my working life as a fieldsports writer, I have reported the RSPCA's, the RSPB's and DEFRA's bossy attitudes towards wild animal management and often those organisations' negative view of the people who manage most of the UK's wild habitats for wildlife - hunting, shooting and fishing interests. These are attitudes widely disliked by people involved in countrysports. Watching the golden eagle story on Fieldsports Channel, it is hard for our viewers not to conclude that we had all the villains in the same bag. I wanted to reflect that. Promoting a ban on the RSPCA treating wild animals was a way to capture that popular imagination.

After the bruising fight fieldsports supporters had with the RSPCA in the run-up to the hunting ban and now with the tone of the RSPCA media output being generally anti-gun, it is going to be hard to bring the two sides together. Fieldsports Channel's two flagship shows - Fieldsports Britain and Shooting Politics - will always welcome the views of RSPCA and even League Against Cruel Sports officers, especially when presented in person (I don't think we can stomach the Hunt Saboteurs' Association). However, our editorialisation of packages in Fieldsports Britain that include the RSPCA and LACS will inevitably reflect the views of our constituency, that they are among the bad guys.

There is always a place for an RSPCA representative and even from LACS on one of our Shooting Politics debate shows, treated the same as we treat our friends in BASC or the Countryside Alliance. Publicity hungry we may be (see The Times follow-up of the golden eagle story) but the circus that surrounded the BNP leader's appearance on BBC1 Question Time is not the kind of television I want to deliver, even if some members of our audience may be tempted to behave towards 'antis' like some of the anti-BNP protestors outside BBC TV Centre. We are keen to entertain and inform our audience: in how to hunt, shoot and fish; in what our critics are saying about us; and in how to answer our critics.

Incidentally, among the ten houses of Wellisford, we still don't know who did it. It's been a bit like Midsomer Murders around here ever since we read the RSPCA press release.

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