THE idea there is a wildlife apocalypse is hard for me to believe. One evening recently I was in the car with my two daughters driving back down the stretch of river I look after. During the 10-minute journey, we saw 10 brown hares, watched a skein of geese fly over and were almost besieged by bats. A few weeks before and about 10 miles away, I had watched a distant Golden eagle twisting on a thermal.
I am not denying that there are serious problems with the nation’s wildlife and the recently published ‘State of Nature’ report is deeply worrying. The bad news, parceled into bite sized statistics, just kept coming; a 16 per cent decline in the number of butterflies, a 25 per cent decline in the number of moths, 15 per cent of all the UK’s species threatened with extinction, 44 million breeding birds lost since 1970.
Intensive farming, industrial fishing, climate change, urbanisation, woodland management and non-native species get the blame for the declines.
To my mind, the truth is simple. We live on a small island where land needs to work hard to pay its way and often that pushes wildlife out.
Despite how the newspapers portrayed it, the news was not all bad. Many species have actually increased in abundance and expanded their ranges.
The report praised the conservation of ‘special places’ citing examples of publicly-funded, charity run nature reserves as a bulwark against the loss of biodiversity. I’ve never been much convinced by nature reserves. The tendency to bottle up nature in a special space where people can look but not touch is, I suspect, one of the things which is breaking people’s connection with the natural world.
It is curious, but perhaps not surprising, that shooting had no mention at all in the ‘State of Nature report. And I don’t think any of our major shooting organisations – BASC included – were directly involved in its creation. Yet, in my experience, shooting is one of the key factors in the protection and promotion of wildlife-rich habitats.
Without shooting, how many more miles of hedgerow would have been grubbed up, how many acres of bog would have been drained, how much moorland would have been grazed bare? There is not much economic value in a deciduous woodland unless you can shoot or release pheasants in it and a hillside covered with scrub is a dead loss unless, a few times a year, a team of spaniels can rummage it to put some birds up. Shooting provides a powerful incentive to maintain these habitats instead of turning them into something which would make humans richer but nature poorer.
Shooters go far beyond simply maintaining habitats; shooting people are some of the busiest habitat creators around. Year on year, I have watched species-rich deciduous woodland displace species-poor grassland as new woods are planted to expand pheasant drives.
Even if you have never seen cover crops planted or woodland created, you can research the brilliant work done at Barton-on-Humber, where wildfowlers with a vision have created a wonderful new habitat that is already drawing in wading birds alongside ducks and geese. It is a perfect model of what shooting does for wildlife, the opportunity to hunt delicious wild food driving the creation of new habitats for a whole range of flora and fauna.
But shooters don’t just deliver habitat work. Species management is one of the most controversial, but also one of the most important aspects of conservation in the UK.
A big part of the reason my daughters and I can enjoy the sight of hares every day is that, night after night, a highly-skilled and well-equipped gamekeeper is managing the local fox population. More men and women with guns keep deer at sustainable levels, preventing the destruction of new woodlands and the loss of ground flora. Those untrendy grouse moors, with their robust predator control, are rapidly becoming the last refuges of many of the country’s waders, with another piece of science just a few weeks ago showing how they thrive when predators populations are suppressed. Now that forestry has replaced grouse moors in much of southern Scotland, removing much of its natural food supply, that roving Galloway golden eagle is kept going instead with culled goats.
BASC calculates that shooting provides 3.9 million work days to conservation each year, with two million hectares actively managed for conservation as a result of shooting; that is an area larger than all the national parks in England and Wales.
But there is also something else, something less tangible. Around 600,000 people in the UK take part in shooting and that provides something vital to the UK’s wildlife. It provides 600,000 people who care and whose caring doesn’t come from watching a TV screen or from a weekend visit to a bird hide, but from a lived experience of nature. People who know what a curlew is and care about its decline, people who watch the skies for returning geese and listen in the woods for roaring stags and people who can turn that interest into effective action on the ground.
Shooting gives British wildlife some of its most important habitats, deals with some of its toughest problems and provides it with some of its most useful friends. If our wildlife is in sad state now imagine where it would be without shooting?