Photo: Rosie Dutton, RSPB

Beccy Speight: Protesting is in the RSPB’s DNA

The RSPB has accused the government of an “attack on nature”—and, its CEO says, it’s prepared to take to the streets
December 8, 2022

“If you were a bird, what kind would you be?” This feels like a question you have to ask the CEO of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) if you get the chance, but Beccy Speight is taken aback. “Wow,” she says, a Rolodex of bitterns, curlews, cranes and eagles almost visibly spinning in front of her eyes. “A gannet,” she decides. “They are amazingly equipped for what they do”—diving like arrows into rolling seas to fish—“and they just look so cool.”

Speight certainly isn’t afraid to make a splash. In autumn 2022, together with the National Trust, Wildlife Trusts and others, she accused the government of perpetrating an “attack on nature” and warned that RSPB members might take to the streets. It was an “organic uprising” in response to government plans to scrap regulations that protect the environment, she explains. At least one of the offending schemes, the investment zones in the form favoured by Liz Truss, has been scrapped. But it’s still unclear how many laws protecting the environment will go in the government’s planned cull of EU legislation and whether it will U-turn on promises to pay farmers for protecting nature.

The idea of birders marching on parliament at first feels comical. The skills necessary for birdwatching—such as the ability to sit still and quietly—seem the opposite of what protests require. Perhaps the only thing both activities demand is an appreciation of a good song. But “being on the streets is absolutely something that’s in the RSPB’s DNA,” Speight says.

The organisation was founded by philanthropist Emily Williamson in 1889 as an all-woman campaign group against the use of feathers in fashion, a trend that was driving species to extinction. Now, Speight says, its 1.2m members form a “broad church”, “ranging from the more conservative, who want to do the right thing in their garden to encourage species… [to] the more radical, who are all about the global situation, who see the intertwining of the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis, and who want to do something to resolve that.”

Speight seems to have a bit of both. Raised in Dorset by outdoorsy parents, she is in her natural habitat when a workday involves counting skeins of geese flying in from Svalbard to roost on the mudflats of the Solway Firth. Equally, you can imagine her making an environment minister squirm.

After all, the intersecting challenges of climate change and nature restoration are immense. Speight is deeply concerned about the highly pathogenic avian flu, a byproduct of intensive poultry farming in Asia that’s killed tens of thousands of seabirds around the UK this year—including unknown numbers of her spirit-bird, the gannet. And she’s looking to the UK government and others meeting at the COP15 UN biodiversity summit in Montreal in December 2022 to deliver more to restore nature worldwide.

One has to wonder whether the RSPB could do more. It’s the seventh-largest membership organisation in the UK, behind four unions, English Heritage and the National Trust. Its mission has never been more urgent—49 per cent of bird species are in decline worldwide, while one in eight is threatened with extinction. Although the government’s investment zones no longer pose the threat campaigners feared, Speight acknowledges that the policy status quo is still far from nature-positive.

The good news, from Speight’s perspective, is that conservationists know what must be done to bring species back from the brink. “We can make a real difference,” she says. And RSPB members are supportive of her campaign against the “attack on nature”: she received just one email of complaint. “We’re not rowing back,” she says. “Our members… they want to put skin in the game, and to do something about it.” The radical wing of this mega-organisation might yet march on Westminster.