Not the RSPCA: A brief history of the RSPB and the difference between conservation and welfare.
A few weeks ago, whilst listening to Nick giving an interview on BBC Radio Cornwall about the Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project and how it was going (very well in fact), I heard the interviewer introducing him as Nick Tomalin of the RSPCA. This was quickly corrected by her colleague in the studio, but it seems to be a very common mistake. Usually it is just a slip of the tongue, rather than genuinely mistaking one organisation for the other. I have even heard mention of the ‘RSPCB’ – a mythical concoction of the two organisations that sounds more like a chemical pesticide! However, it does appear that some people seem to confuse the roles of the two organisations.
From time to time, we get knocks on the door or email requests to treat an injured bird; usually some poor thing that has come off second best in a collision with a motor vehicle or window. Unfortunately, barn owls appear to be very vulnerable to this sort of injury with their very low body mass to wing area ratio and slow flight, coupled with their tendency to hunt along the roadside verges. Usually there is nothing we can do as the birds are too badly injured, and we lack veterinary qualifications. The best we can manage is to put the person in touch with the RSPCA, an organisation with the expertise and facilities to treat injured animals. Some people are still quite shocked to realise that our role is very different from that of the RSPCA.
The RSPCA is a welfare based charity whose work follows the principle that animals have five basic freedoms:
Freedom from hunger or thirst
Freedom from discomfort
Freedom from pain, injury or disease
Freedom to behave normally
Freedom from fear or distress
These freedoms often relate to the husbandry of animals in captivity and are regarded as fundamental rights.
The RSPB was formed in 1889 to counter the trade in plumes for women’s hats. This fashion was responsible for the destruction of many thousands of egrets, birds of paradise and other species whose plumes had become popular in the late Victorian era. Earlier in the century, there had been concern about the wholesale destruction of native birds such as the great-crested grebe and kittiwake for their plumage. This lead to early legislation, including the Sea Birds Preservation Act of 1869 and the Wild Birds Protection Act of 1880. In its earliest days the Society consisted entirely of women who were moved by the emotional appeal of the plight of young birds left to starve in the nest after their parents had been shot for their plumes. The rules of the Society were simple:
That members shall discourage the wanton destruction of birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection
That lady-members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purposes of food, the ostrich only accepted.
Some of the Society’s staunchest supporters were the very kind of people who might have been expected to wear the plumes – people such as the Duchess of Portland, who becamethe Society’s first President, and the Ranee of Sarawak. A number of influential figures, including the leading ornithologist of the day, Professor Alfred Newton, lent their support to the cause, which gained widespread publicity and popularity, leading to a rapid growth in the Society’s membership and a widening of its aims. Indeed the young Society was so successful that it was granted its Royal Charter in 1904, just 15 years after being founded.
A lot has happened since, especially the purchasing of land to create reserves and safeguard important and vulnerable habitats. The RSPB has always been concerned with the conservation of species and habitats rather than welfare issues. That is not to say that we are not concerned by ill treatment of animals, and we do strongly oppose cruel and barbaric practices. It is just that our expertise relates to conservation rather than welfare, and there are other organisations, notably the RSPCA, which are geared up to deal with rehabilitating injured animals.
On a final note, I have been talking about people handing in birds to the RSPB or other organisations, and it will soon be the season for young birds. The cute little fledglings, which always appear so vulnerable and alone, have a useful survival strategy to reduce the risk of disease and predation. At a certain point in their development, before they are fully-grown and independent, they may leave the nest and split up from their siblings. This reduces the chance of the whole brood being predated, and disease-ridden nests are abandoned. Most of these fledglings will still be cared for by their parents and are not in any need of assistance. As an aviculturist, I can vouch for the fact that young birds are very hard to rear, and even harder to release successfully! The best thing you can do is to suppress the parental urge and let the rightful parents rear their own young in the wild.