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goes the 'harmful man' theory:
grouse moor owners are heroes not villains of
Columnist, The Times
Filed 20 Mar 06
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
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.
Further reading recommended by Land-Care
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
Here to View
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
Here to View