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

Sporting Shooter - - Contents - WITH TIM WE­STON

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?

Farm­land false­hoods?

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.

Up­land un­truths

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.

Wood­land U-turn

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

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