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Bang goes the 'harmful man' theory:

grouse moor owners are heroes not villains of conservation

Magnus Linklater

Columnist, The Times

Filed 20 Mar 06
©Magnus Linklater

This article, which was originally published in The Times
on 15th March 2006, is reproduced on Land-Care with
the kind permission of the author and the newspaper


CAN THERE BE any more electrifying sight on television than a snow leopard careering down a near-perpendicular Himalayan mountain in pursuit of a deer calf? The leopard gains, the calf stumbles. Seized by the hindquarters, it wrests itself free in a last, desperate bid then cartwheels over a cliff into a fast-flowing river. Does it survive? We may never know.

This is nature red in tooth and claw, as seen on Sir David Attenborough’s Planet Earth series. So gripped are we by the action that we may overlook the subtext: this is also nature under threat. The snow leopard is a rare creature that has never before been filmed like this. Hunted, trapped and pursued, its numbers have declined to fewer than 5,000. It is on the Red List of endangered species. As every conservation body worth its salt will assure you, where man intrudes, wild life is on the retreat.

It is a message that is applied not just to the Himalayas but to the hills and moorland of Britain. It bolsters the ethos and the coffers of impeccable organisations like the WWF, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and government-sponsored bodies such as English Nature and its Scottish and Welsh equivalents. Their running theme, rarely challenged in public, is that, where wild birds and animals are in decline, the hand of man, whether farmer, landowner, forester or sportsman, can be detected. Intensive farming, commercial exploitation and leisure pursuits such as hunting or shooting have driven some species to the point of extinction. Unless these human activities can be reined in, goes the story, the future for wildlife is bleak.

It is a deeply flawed message — at best a half-truth, at worst a deliberate distortion. Past masters at selling it are the RSPB, which last week issued yet another grim account of persecution, this time in the Peak District, which is to be the subject of an adjournment debate in Westminster Hall today.

Peak Malpractice, as the report is titled, claims that birds of prey, such as goshawk, hen harrier and peregrine, are in steep decline because of “illegal persecution”. “The scale of decline is shocking and to bird-of-prey experts, there is no natural explanation,” an RSPB statement says. English Nature is blunter. It places the blame firmly at the door of grouse moor owners. “Areas where protected species have been affected coincide with driven grouse moors,” it says. “These include some of the most important conservation sites in Europe.”

You will find any number of similar stories on the RSPB’s website. What you will not find are some very inconvenient facts, based not on propaganda but on science, which have been issued by the Game Conservancy Trust. Its own report, Nature’s Gain, presents a very different picture. It shows that on land that is managed for shooting, whether moorland, woods or pasture, wildlife is thriving. Over the past ten years, on grouse moors, for instance, golden plovers, curlew (pictured) and lapwing, which are under threat in so many parts of England and Wales, have multiplied by up to five times. The merlin, Britain’s smallest bird of prey, is twice as common on grouse moors as elsewhere. In the North Pennines area, which the RSPB complains about, curlew have increased by 18 times more than in the Berwyn Special Protection Area, which is managed as a bird reserve.

Pheasant shooting, widely condemned by conservationists, has done wonders for small birds such as robins, blackbirds and finches. The cultivation of woods and verges and the planting of game crops have resulted in wild bird numbers quadrupling in some areas. On one sample farm, in Leicestershire, where modern farming goes hand in hand with shooting, song birds, brown hares and harvest mice have shown dramatic improvement. The explanation is simple. In these places, nature is “managed ” to encourage wildlife. Heather is burnt, which stimulates new growth. Vermin are controlled. Predators such as foxes and crows are kept down.

Contrast this with the RSPB’s own lamentable record. On Langholm Moor, where the society, allied with Scottish Natural Heritage, presided over an experiment to withdraw all gamekeeping, the number of birds, including hen harriers, grouse, waders, and all songbirds, has crashed. It is now, to all intents and purposes, a desert area. On Lake Vyrnwy, a reservoir area in Mid-Wales managed by the RSPB, curlew, plover and lapwing have declined to near-zero. Black grouse, which once thrived, are being wiped out, not just by foxes, but, embarrassingly for the RSPB, by the goshawks that they so much favour. Data for other species, like stonechats and short-eared owls, are simply not recorded — perhaps because the results are so bad.

I wanted to know how the RSPB had done on Geltsdale, a former grouse moor in Cumberland that it has managed since the 1970s. The only current report available, however, is sketchy. There seem to be no hen harriers, despite their being a “target” species; there are reasonable results for stonechats and grasshopper warblers; some golden plover were recorded. Most of the report, though, is taken up with a list of alleged incidents involving the persecution of birds of prey in the 1990s by neighbouring estates.

I have no doubt that there are examples of gamekeepers who break the law. But they do far more for conservation than most of their critics. Organisations such as the RSPB would be well advised to form partnerships with them, rather than targeting them as persecutors. Man may indeed be part of the problem in the world’s great wilderness areas but when it comes to the hills and moors of Britain, he is definitely part of the solution.

©Magnus Llinklater

Further reading recommended by Land-Care

Irvine, James (2005). Contrary to what the RSPB and English Nature would have us believe, curlews are doing fine on upland moors managed for grouse shooting.
See ENVIRONMENT Homepage, filed 24 Aug 05, www.land-care.org.uk Click Here to View

Linklater, Magnus (2004). Claws out on a silent moor: a heated battle rages over the birds of prey threatening to destroy Britain's grouse.
The Times 25th August 2004. Reproduced with kind permission on Land-Care
See ENVIRONMENT Homepage, filed 27 Aug 05, www.land-care.org.uk Click Here to View

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