Why the RSPB's Christmas card excuse is strictly for the birds

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The Independent Online
This is the weekend we write the family Christmas cards - and ponder a perennial question: "What has the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds got against recycled paper?"

You would have thought that the RSPB would be rather keen on trees; their feathered proteges, after all, tend to depend on the things. But while charities such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Christian Aid and Cafod ensure that all their cards are made of recycled paper, four- fifths of the bird protectors' offerings come from felled forests.

The RSPB says its members are not as green as they seem. Karen Rothwell, the charity's marketing co-ordinator, says it gets "a high level of customer complaints" about recycled cards.

While they are environmentalists in theory, people often compromise "in their personal choices in their own lives", she says.

Ms Rothwell insists: "We are trying to increase the proportion." Let's see. Last year only seven of the 35 entries in the RSPB's catalogue were made of recycled paper; this year there were eight out of 37. By my (or rather, my calculator's) maths, that's a rise from 20 to 21.6per cent.

Punters are supposed to be reassured by a note in the RSPB catalogue saying that non-recycled cards "are made with soft wood pulp from sustainably managed forests". The note adds that "for every tree cut down at least one more is planted".

It sounds good. But this sort of statement drives green activists - such as, normally, the RSPB - wild. Even atrociously clear-felled forests are claimed, by their owners, to be "sustainably managed". And, as the charity knows, it's not the trees but the woods that count; rich, diverse, ancient forests are replaced with industrial plantations of single species, crowded together - as one Canadian forester put it - "as thick as the hairs on a bear's back".

"Greenwash," concluded forestry conservation experts at Friends of the Earth (FOE) and WWF when I read them the note. There was some embarrassment when I revealed who had published it (although green groups fight like ferrets over cash and publicity, they rarely criticise each other openly). But they stood their ground.

Ms Rothwell says the paper comes from a well-managed Finnish forest inspected by the organisation's own staff. But Georgina Green, FOE's senior biodiversity campaigner, says that 1,700 species are threatened by Scandinavian forestry, including many rare birds.

She adds: "We would like to encourage the RSPB to shift to using recycled paper in the interests of nature conservation. It should be taking a lead."

Talking of changing course, I can't help feeling sorry for the Ministry of Agriculture (something I wouldn't previously have thought possible). After years of scandalously doing too little too late over BSE, it is now under attack for doing too much, too soon. And poor old Jack Cunningham, the minister, after years of being an environmentalist's bogyman, is being told by the Daily Telegraph that he is worse than Douglas Hogg.

Now, I wouldn't be surprised if the speed of the action over beef on the bone wasn't related to the turf wars being fought over the ministry's role in the planned Food Standards Agency. And I agree that it contrasts with the Government's shameful behaviour over Formula One and tobacco. But that is to Dr Cunningham's credit, and I do think some of the criticism is over the top.

Take all that stuff in the quality press last week purporting to show that you are much less likely to die from CJD from eating beef than by being struck by lightning or while playing football.

These comparisons were based on the numbers of people who have died so far; but the disease, like lung cancer, has a long incubation period, so we are just seeing the beginnings of what might be a big and lengthy epidemic.

If similar comparisons had been made after the first few deaths from smoking, they would have said the same about tobacco.

Anyway, Jack needs some good news. So here it is. His much-loved Sellafield can no longer be called the world's most polluting nuclear reprocessing plant, despite all the leaks and accidents (and the small matter of a quarter of a ton of plutonium in the Irish Sea.)

A Russian one, Mayak in the Urals, has been found to have discharged five times as much radioactivity as Sellafield, the Chernobyl accident, and the world's 500 atmospheric bomb tests put together.

There, Jack, I knew that would cheer you up.