Do We Need to Sell Nature?

It’s the 21st century and it’s high time that environmental organisations (and those out there scrabbling around in the muck like myself) stopped behaving like Luddites and get media savvy. The PR war is one of the areas in which we can truly make inroads into the public conscious. With the amount of time we all spend in front of screens now, we have so many avenues (twitter, ‘viral’ campaigns, targeted advertising etc.) to inveigle ourselves into the nether regions of our audience’s minds. But just because we can, does it mean that we should? Do we risk losing sight of what our ultimate objectives are?

Marketing is playing an ever-increasing part in conservation. Not only for disseminating environmental arguments to layman audiences and gaining support for them, but also for the all important role of bringing in funds. With a shrinking pot of potential resources to draw from and an increasingly competitive green charity market, it is not surprising an obsession with ‘selling’ nature has developed recently.

Gone are the quiet, polite request for funds and the discrete membership links on websites. Pick an environmental charity and you can probably see the subtle hand of PR and marketing departments behind many of their activities.

#VoteBob#VoteBob

Some are savvier, or more cynical if you would prefer. The ‘Vote Bob’ campaign has appeared recently, dressing itself up as an independent red squirrel intent on saving our natural world by gaining twitter followers, facebook ‘likes’ and selling fluffy toys. Cute. There’s no big message behind it beyond ‘nature is great, vote for nature’ and no particular issue or project it is supporting. Harmless and well intentioned you might say, but it only takes a little digging to find out that Bob is not such an independent little underdog, he has the whole might of the RSPB behind him. Though they are described as ‘Bob’s biggest supporter’, if you want to buy that fluffy ‘Bob’ toy, then it’s the RSPB shop you link through to.

But yet Bob and the RSPB have kept each other at one remove, though not quite arms length, and it is this dishonesty that one might find unbecoming and perhaps unnecessary. It’s a sign of subtle and stealthy High Street sales tactics seeping into our charities. And the question has to be, do we really want this? Is it beneficial for what we are trying to achieve? Yes, we cannot possibly achieve anything without a solid financial strategy, but we also cannot achieve anything without the support and goodwill of the public and our local communities. Some of the tactics that environmental charities have used risk alienating our traditional supporters. These are likely to provoke questions over just where membership fees and donations are going.

You Forgot the Birds

YFTB Logo - I am still at a loss to explain the tagline

Take the recent You Forgot the Birds’ furore. If you have not been keeping track, this has been a hatchet job on the RSPB perpetrated by a cabal of hunting and shooting types fronted, bizarrely, by Ian Botham. The campaign is inaccurate, snide and misguided and you could therefore easily dismiss it, as just about everyone connected with the RSPB has. However, it attempts, in a hamfisted fashion, to raise some relevant points about the exactly how donations are spent. It would be wrong to dismiss these concerns just because of the wrapping they are presented in, and one only has to look at a number of the responses from RSPB members on Twitter and in comments sections to see that this has struck a chord.

This speaks of the concern that many within the industry have about the future direction of our environmental charities (and the very use of the word ‘industry’ here rather highlights my point about how we are coming to view ourselves). Is a more business-like model always desirable and what we should be aiming for?

My opinions come mainly from the perspective of one working within environmental charities. There can be real concerns that marketing and PR departments are outgrowing (and usually out earning) the coalface staff that undertake the important activities charities are actually known for. The primacy of fundraising and marketing departments within some environmental charities above the job of actually conserving wildlife, is a pet peeve of mine. There is something about campaigns like #VoteBob that smacks of a creative team given free reign, unhindered by the need to actually do something. Like the otherwise admirable Project Wild Thing, there is the distasteful notion that we need to set about commodifying our wildlife.

It’s about time we started to push our agenda forward using all the technology available to us, but when we allow people to believe that habitats and species can be saved at the click of a button, we have failed in our objectives to engage and inspire. Some of the marketing techniques we use now are focused around the sole purpose of getting people to part with their cash, rather than educating and informing. We are involved in campaigns that have revenue generation at their heart and not much in the way of an environmental message. We risk monetising the process of enjoying and discovering wildlife, and for me that can only be a bad thing.

The (Anti) Raptor Alliance

It’s happening again. After the nonsense of ‘You Forgot the Birds’ last year, there’s a new joker on the scene – The Raptor Alliance. Don’t let the name fool you – this is neither a collaboration of sparrowhawks angry at social injustice, a scene from Jurassic World or even a group attempting to save the decimated Hen Harrier. Quite the opposite, this is an alliance of pigeon fanciers intent on clearing the skies of any potential threat to the enjoyment of their little hobby.raptor alliance

I’m not going to make any snarky remarks about how anyone could possibly enjoy pigeon racing, but surely the removal of raptors only sanitizes it. Like modern F11 (again, baffled), where’s the excitement in knowing that they’re all going to make it back safely? Surely the addition of a potential sparrowhawk-wildcard adds to the thrill and anticipation. Surely a little thinning by raptors leads to the evolution of quicker, smarter pigeons2.

The recent petition put forward to members of Pigeon Racing unions (who knew, right?) is asking racing pigeons to be designated as livestock. With this designation it will then be legal (the Royal Pigeon Racing Association states) for pigeon racers to shoot birds of prey ‘around their loft’. Now, I’m not entirely comfortable about the idea of any group blasting away into the sky, presumably in a residential area, particularly when I think about the rather woolly concept of ‘around their loft’. How many pigeon lofts are not in the vicinity of another property? Are they sure they can discharge a weapon without firing beyond their premises (as per Firearms Act)? So straight off the bat, I am not convinced by the legality of this unless said loft is in the middle of a field (yes, some of them will be). Might there be the potential for a little stretching of that ‘around the loft’ phrase?

But that’s mere nuts and bolts, protocol, procedure. From the ‘You Forgot the Birds’ debacle, we all know the real fun starts when you dive into the PR and reasoning behind it all. So lets head straight into the world of twitter, where we can rest assured that these types of movement will invariably make a boob and receive the mauling they deserve:

Another brilliant business enterprise scuppered by my time-travelling nemesis

Another brilliant business enterprise scuppered by my time-travelling nemesis

Ah, here we go. Protection of ‘assets’. A Racing Pigeon owned by someone inherently has more value than a wild falcon. Because someone has paid good, hard cash for it. I’d rather not stroll too far down this path of monetising wildlife, and I’d also rather not turn this into some form of Bird Top Trumps (now there’s an idea), but if we must….

‘60,000 pigeon fanciers in the UK have no legal protection against increasing attacks from soaring sparrowhawk and peregrine falcon populations’

Just picking the RSPB as they’re the most relevant environmental charity here: 1 million+ members, a great deal of them probably spending a large amount of money to view and protect birds. Some of the most popular birds to spot are likely to be raptors (and probably not pigeons, if we’re honest)…if we’re going to play ‘my bird’s worth more than your bird’, I know whom my, a-hem, money is on.

Such nice chaps, and therefore we should totally support them. People who give money to charity should always get their way.

I already said I wasn’t going to play ‘which bird is better’, but…oh go on then, if we must judge wildlife by their interaction with man: Falconry wins by a good 1780 years.

I’m never entirely convinced about bravery awards for animals, but this doesn’t make pigeons particularly special: Falcons were also used to bring down these messages.

I know, I know, all rather childish of me to pick out these random tweets, but there is an inherent undercurrent in everything the Raptor Alliance says that racing pigeons in so many ways have more ‘worth’ than raptors. This is even more dispiriting when in previous releases RPRA gave relatively reasonable advice on how to discourage birds of prey around ones pigeon loft.

This leap towards blasting them out of the sky all harks back to the rather perfidious notion I encountered growing up in the countryside that raptors need to be ‘controlled’. This was sold to me as essential for protecting songbird populations, but even then I could not understand the logic. Apex predator control doesn’t work ‘backwards’ like this. The only natural control on their numbers was prey numbers, and I couldn’t see the need for the introduction of a third agency. With this petition, attempting to directly pit raptors against ‘livestock’, it shows exactly where the real conflict lies.

1I am not disparaging recent changes to F1 or the lack of high-speed, potentially fatal crashes. I am completely ambivalent towards F1. Although the crashes were the best part.

2Smart, self-aware pigeons is one of my nightmare scenarios. That and squirrels intent on world domination.

Fox Week – Part 1: How to Create a Story Out of Nothing

It seems this week is going to be fox-heavy week. I had a post all set up and ready to go today (and it will appear here later) about the ‘scourge’ of urban foxes, the whys and wherefores. It is such an emotive subject and (for frankly irrelevant reasons) foxes cannot now be discussed without being laced with political context (in other words – if you want to control fox populations in any way, if you say anything negative about foxes at all, you’re a Tory). For an ecologist, this is a little annoying as it can be a legitimate area of concern.

This isn’t really a fox article. Urban foxes are (sorry to burst your bubble) dull, abundant, mid-level generalists that have limited value from a biodiversity perspective (barring that, of course, all nature has its own inherent value, etc and so forth). But at the weekend, a story I was keeping tabs on in a local paper has gone national in the Telegraph. It concerns a larger issue of scientific illiteracy in our media that Monbiot has previously addressed, but also a willingness to misrepresent a subject which incites high passions to push copy.

The story first appeared last week in the Wandsworth Guardian, which picked up on a seemingly innocuous press release on Urban Foxes by Wandsworth Borough Council. The press release, quite sensibly, advises securing your food waste to deter Urban Foxes. From this, Wandsworth Guardian have produced the heading ‘Starving urban foxes would drive numbers down in London’ says Wandsworth Council. Now I challenge you to search that press release and find where any such thing has been said. The truth is it doesn’t. The not unreasonable précis of the advice is that if there is less food available for foxes, then they will go elsewhere. Yet the title is phrased in such a way that it appears as though it is a direct quote. The piece also makes reference to baiting, trapping and shooting (not raised in the press release but discussed in a 2007 committee paper) and phrases it in such a way that it appears as though it is an actual possibility. This is the main entry on the subject:

 16. There are a number of methods of fox control that may be legally used. These include baited cage trapping, shooting and snaring, however fox control is not generally recommended in urban areas. Killing or relocating foxes usually provides only transient relief from the problems they cause, as vacant territories are rapidly reoccupied once the control measures cease.foxes 1

A hoo-ha is being generated here where none exists. Various control measures are discussed, as is only correct in a discussion about issues with urban foxes. The Council is merely undertaking the minimal due diligence on the issue. If it were discussing any other contentious issue (drugs, knife crime etc.) you would expect, demand even, that the council take the time to discuss any potential measures, the most severe and the most sensitive. If it were a rat problem, would we expect the council to fail to discuss such measures? (But then rats don’t appear on Springwatch every bloody year)

The story has now appeared in the Telegraph with a similarly misleading title, and not too subtle mention that the Wandsoworth Council is Conservative. The sub-header runs ‘Wandsworth Council tells residents if a ‘vixen is shot during breeding season, the den has to be traced and the whole family of cubs humanely killed’. This refers to a throwaway line in the original press release (that has since, sensibly, been removed) that attempts only to highlight the many reasons why any such undertaking would not be practical or desirable, and yet the phrasing has again been used to infer otherwise.

This, of course, all links in to previous concerns I have raised about ecological and scientific issues being discussed in political and social context. The main point I have is that this kind of misrepresentation genuinely can have negative repercussions for environmental professionals, for whom culling is often a legitimate and necessary tool. A lot of our work can seem destructive to the layman, and when a council press release stating that shooting urban foxes is absolutely not a practical measure gets twisted to suggest otherwise, it risks creating public aversion to potential measures ecologists may discuss to legitimate environmental problems. This is just one example amongst many, and if you want another, more nefarious, example of this, then check out the ‘You Forgot the Birds’ fiasco, where the RSPB’s refusal to back an unworkable government Hen Harrier action plan now, by some twisted logic, means that the RSPB hate Hen Harriers.

And I know, I’m using an emotive subject to get more people to view my blog. My rank hypocrisy knows no bounds. I’ve already made a point about the idiocy of having a cake and not eating it.

Botham Takes on the RSPB (and I Can’t Even Think of a Good Cricket Pun)

It’s not often my twin interests of cricket and conservation combine. So, given Ian Botham’s criticism of the RSPB this week, I couldn’t give up the chance to comment.

Given that I have recently criticised the RSPB (well, the Vote Bob campaign, behind which it lurks and skulks like a group of foxes (learn your collective nouns, people)), this is a tricky issue and it’s going to take a bit of unpicking.

Botham is commenting on behalf of the ‘You Forgot the Birds’ (YFTB) campaign, and they raise some concerns that I have previously expressed. It raises the issue, and it is one I do keep harping on about, regarding the adoption of a business focus by many of our environmental charities. This has seen them diversify and become more centred on generating money through fundraising than actual conservation work. The figures touted (if to be believed) are a spend of £32M on fundraising against £29M on conservation operations by the RSPB. This is, genuinely, a reason for concern. Not just the disparity between public perception and actual activities, but the huge sums involved. Can charities come under the scrutiny of the Monopolies Commission? But these issues are lost beneath the sheer fug of bone-headed, imbecilic points made by the YFTB, thus losing any semblance of relevance.

YFTB Logo - I am still at a loss to explain the tagline

YFTB Logo – I am still at a loss to explain the tagline

Martin Harper has already responded, pretty well, although he has missed some of the key points and relied too heavily on RSPB’s vaunted past as a defence rather than addressing current issues. I could also do without the horrendous crowbarring of god-awful cricket clichés and metaphors into every paragraph. But I think the campaign could do with a much more comprehensive dissection. So lets pick out a few phrases from the website and highlight some of the cretinous asininity behind the campaign:

Firstly, lets look at the three big heads behind the ‘YFTB’ campaign. They are listed as:

Sir Ian Botham
Martyn Howat, former Director of Natural England
Sir Johnny Scott, BBC TV presenter

Where to start with that trio? As a contrarion, I think I’ll start in the middle. Martyn Howat, former Director of Natural England. Yes, indeed he was. But more relevantly, he is also the current (I have been trying to confirm this, but it is not clear on the website, I only know he was as of July 2014) Chairman of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation. Why is he not described as such? Why is he described by his former role? Anyone with half a brain can probably work out why they are keeping this association quiet.

Sir Johhny Scott. Well, just look at that CV. A man more steeped in the noble pursuits of hunting or blowing the face off game birds bred for the purpose of having their faces blown off you would struggle to find. He is described here as a ‘TV presenter’, and not the centenary patron of the BASC or any of the other patronages he has to hunting organisations. I flagged up the Vote Bob campaign for being an RSPB money-spinner by stealth, but this deliberate subterfuge much greater in its venality. As for Botham, a man who runs his own shoot, he is an irrelevance in this instance, a big, lumbering figurehead for a plodding, old-fashioned movement (insert your own joke about his later England career here). It’s sad to see a man who railed against the tie and blazers of the MCC become such an ingrained part of the same set. He’s an embarrassment.

Now for some of the loaded language used on the website. In reference to the RSPB using certain ‘box-office’ species for advertising, they say:

‘The wrong type of bird includes chickens (too frumpy)…’ – Chickens? Why the hell would the RSPB be using chickens, the most common bird on the planet, to advertise its work in protecting our dwindling bird species? Unless it was with regards to the horrendous condition battery hens endure, but that would involve lobbying, and, well…

‘How much “conservation money” is being spent on political lobbying on climate change?’ “Conservation money”? I’m pretty certain climate change is the main conservation issue at the moment. Unless you are denying it. You’re not denying climate change, are you YFTB? The YFTB campaign takes aim at the RSPB spending money on lobbying, education and research. These are core areas we need to be spending money on if we are to protect our natural environment.

Lobbying seems to be the key target for their displeasure and the message this sends out is clear; The YFTB campaign wants the RSPB and the like to stop sticking their nose into the business of landowners and farmers. It comes across as a call for the RSPB to ‘get back in their box’ and behave.

‘Take the hen harrier. It doesn’t just have bankable movie star looks but also a back story of victimisation. So it is the ultimate nice little earner for the RSPB’ – now, when you note that this is preceded by the sentence ‘Ideally there’s a nasty villain to protect it from’, I think anyone with half a brain can put two and two together and see what’s going on here. The plight of Hen Harriers are exactly the kind of thing the RSPB should be promoting and raising awareness about. How could anyone with an interest in bird conservation complain about this? Unless…hang on, do the people behind this campaign have a vested interest in (or think, through some misguided notion, they have a vested interest in) raptor persecution?

The ‘They Shot Bambi’ section added to the website today is equally hypocritical and idiotic (although I can not work out if they are being deliberately obtuse or genuinely are not aware in the contradictions between their aims and their backers). It gives us plenty more statements to pick apart:

‘Last year the RSPB shot dead 1,129 deer along with 273 “Freddy” foxes.’ The BASC (sorry, YFTB) are complaining about this? Well I admire their balls and sheer hypocritical brass-neckery if nothing else. They also ON THE SAME PAGE end the piece with the quote “Rare birds like Golden Plovers thrive when they have rich habitat and are protected from foxes. The RSPB is doing a lousy job at that” from the esteemed conservationist Botham (a man whose last foray in to the public consciousness was this disturbing image).

Botham - a gratuitous cheap shot

Botham – a gratuitous cheap shot

‘It also deliberately suffocated hundreds of unborn chicks by smearing oil around their shells’ – If you are going to throw this kind of emotionally loaded language around, you have to at least give a hint of the reasoning behind it. Control of some species is a vital, important part of nature conservation, which takes on many forms, and for the BASC to get shitty about this…seriously, this is staggeringly ridiculous.

They also ask ‘why its (RSPB’s) executive team is housed in a mansion. Homes for office workers? Or homes for birds?’ This is really childish, and a second’s research elucidates the background of The Lodge at Sandy. It was purchased in 1961, with generous financial help by Tony Norris. I’m not sure how this is relevant to current spending. I’ve been trying to find any evidence of the RSPB supplying homes for office workers (as opposed to, y’know, a place to work), but can’t. Happy to be corrected though if this is the case.

Despite my issues with the RSPB, and the genuine issues the YFTB campaign raises, I can’t help but think that if the RSPB are annoying the people clearly behind YFTB, then they must be doing something right.

YFTB go on to state ‘we are going to examine the accounts of the RSPB and all the 47 Wildlife Trusts and get you the facts’ and ‘It’s time it (the RSPB) was honest about its own approach…’ Well, in the spirit of honesty, I would like the BASC, a-hem, sorry, sorry, I meant the You Forgot the Birds campaign, to be honest about the ‘conservationists or self-confessed birders…farmers and landowners…’ and ‘volunteers from the cities’ behind this ill-thought out campaign. Just who is behind it? It doesn’t take a genius to work it out.