KEEPERING WITH THE NGO: Tim Weston examines the RSPB’s State of Nature report and discovers some disappointing omissions
A recent report looks at the role of conservation in preserving wildlife, yet makes no mention of keepers and the vital work they do; Tim Weston asks why, and points out the report’s other failings
Recently the RSPB and other partners launched the State of Nature 2016 report. Working side by side, over 50 wildlife organisations have compiled a stocktake of our native wildlife. But where were the working conservationists? The National Gamekeepers’ Organisation (NGO) and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) were not asked to participate… why?
According to the report, 56% of the species studied have declined over recent decades. More than one in 10 of all the species assessed are under threat of disappearing from our shores altogether. However, the report illustrates that targeted conservation has produced inspiring success stories and, with sufficient determination, resources and public support, the fortunes of our wildlife can be turned around. What the report doesn’t say is much about the good work of farmers and gamekeepers in habitat management and predator control, and the fact that many of the species in question are thriving on shooting estates and grouse moors.
The State of Nature report says: “A key step in helping a species to recover is identifying and addressing the factors that are currently limiting its numbers and distribution. This needs to be followed by action at an appropriate scale. The needs of some species may be met by delivering broad habitat management actions, but tailored action will often be essential for some of the species most vulnerable to extinction. The range of specific actions required varies from species to species but includes combating non-native invasive species; reintroduction or translocation; targeted habitat management or restoration; and combating wildlife crime or unsustainable harvesting. Protecting the best places for nature is a key part of our conservation response, and designated sites, such as Special Protection Areas, currently cover 8% of England. However, this total falls well short of the global target of at least 17% of land area managed for nature. It is also important to note that a protected area designation does not mean that a site is safe from pressures, or that it is being managed effectively.” This to me sounds very familiar; isn’t this exactly what gamekeepers and those of us who run little shoots all over the UK do every day?
The State of Nature report calls on all of us – conservationists, landowners, businesses, organisations and government – to work together to help stem what they see as a massive decline in ‘our’ nature. The report says that the best way to help promote and protect the UK’s nature is to improve habitats, protect special places and create new wildlife sites. The report says about farming and farmland: “Our review of the factors driving changes to the UK’s wildlife found that the intensive management of agricultural land had by far the largest negative impact on nature, across all habitats and species. In one sense, it is no surprise that changes to our farmed environment have had more impact than any other, simply because the habitat covers so much of the UK. However, we know that government farming policies led to dramatic changes in farming practices, almost doubling wheat and milk yields since the 1970s, whilst simultaneously having wide-reaching consequences for wildlife. This increase in agricultural
productivity has been achieved
through changes such as a switch from spring to autumn sowing of crops; the production of silage, rather than hay, in our pastoral farmland; and the increased use of chemicals over the long term. In addition, many marginal habitats, such as hedgerows and farm ponds, have been lost, to the detriment of wildlife.”
What about keepering?
It is no secret among knowledgeable conservationists that gamekeeping is uniquely placed to offset the intensive management of much agricultural land. It is able to help wildlife in the farmland environment to a greater extent than almost any other type of land management. In fact, much of the conservation work the report calls to be implemented is routinely carried out by gamekeepers every day of their working lives. The incentive provided by game retains hedgerows, ponds and marginal land. It also ensures that woods are planted and managed with wildlife in mind, some of the areas where the report precisely urges action to be taken. The report does not in any way congratulate keepers and shoot owners for their continued work to help stop the decline of wildlife in our countryside. Whether by accident or design, the positive environmental work that is being carried out daily by gamekeepers is missing from the State of
Nature 2016 report. The report proudly states that volunteers from conservation charities spend 1.5 million hours each year doing conservation work – but compare that to gamekeepers and shooting people who spend 3.9 million days working to improve our natural environment. Again, the report fails to acknowledge the huge amount of work that keepers and shooting people put into the countryside and its flora and fauna for all to enjoy.
It is also interesting to read the report’s take on upland management. They start off by saying “We know less about what is affecting upland nature than we do about many other habitats.” A cynically minded person might suggest that the report doesn’t want to acknowledge what is good about upland management because it mainly revolves around grouse moors. The best place to see many of our wading birds is on these moors that are managed for grouse shooting. The habitat management and predator control is an essential part of getting healthy breeding populations of birds back and this is not mentioned at all in the
State of Nature report. The report’s authors do take an underhand swipe at grouse shooting: “A large proportion of the UK’s uplands are managed intensively for food production, and are heavily grazed by sheep and deer, which converts them to grassland. This is compounded by the impacts of drainage. In large areas, uplands are also subject to frequent burning rotations as part of grouse moor management. This can result in heather dominating blanket bogs and has greatly reduced the condition of internationally important upland sites”. When the report says, “The UK population of heather moorland-loving hen harriers is extremely low, and in some areas close to extinction, due to illegal persecution associated with grouse moor management”, it presents to its readership a hypothesis as a hard fact. Of course, where the law is broken it must stop, which the NGO has always been clear on. From where I stand it looks to me like the people who do the most good for upland conservation are being blamed for the reported declines in biodiversity, even though RSPB upland reserves are, in the opinion of many moorland experts, hardly shining examples of wildlife richness when compared with properly keepered grouse moors. The report also, regrettably, does not spotlight the important collaborative work being done to boost harrier numbers, namely the
Hen Harrier Joint Recovery Plan, which perhaps should not come as a surprise, given that the RSPB, one of the authors of State of Nature, recently walked away from the project.
One aspect I find particularly hard to stomach is the section on woodlands. The report says that our woodland is not in a good state because of a lack of management. One of the major buzzwords over the last few years within the conservation world has been ‘natural regeneration’. In other words, we shouldn’t manage our woodlands and should let them sort themselves out – something that gamekeepers and deer stalkers have been objecting to for years. Now all of a sudden it seems that this policy wasn’t a great one after all! For years ‘conservation’ bodies have wanted natural regeneration, meaning that deciduous
The subject of controlling foxes and other predators – an essential part of wildlife management – is neglected by the report’s authors
Gamekeepers have been preserving biodiversity and putting wildlife conservation into action for years
The report says that intensive farming has the largest negative impact on nature