Countryside Alliance Head of Shooting Campaigns Liam Stokes writes: The State of Nature report has been published, and it would appear to be grim reading. In the coming days we will go through the report and the supporting documents to see what conclusions the working countryside can draw from the analysis, but our immediate reaction is that it confirms what we have known for a long time; we have an immediate fight on our hands to conserve some of our most precious species. The headline figure, 56% of all species experiencing population decline between 1970 and 2013, is incredibly alarming. Everyone who cares about wildlife will be united in the view that “something must be done”.
Where our views begin to diverge is what exactly that “something” might be. Elements of the report have been interpreted in some quarters as an attack on farmers. The report, and the press surrounding it, certainly doesn’t hold back on the role agriculture has apparently played in the decline of many species, but the National Farmers Union (NFU) has been quick to point out that the intensification of farming hasn’t been an issue for over 25 years. Indeed, as NFU Vice President Guy Smith has highlighted, since 1990 the trend towards intensification has in fact been reversed. Despite this, the RSPB’s Mark Eaton has told the BBC “We now know that farming practices over recent decades have had the single largest impact on the UK’s wildlife. The great majority of that impact has been negative.”
The representatives of the UK’s farmers, who manage 75% of the landscape, are not impressed. This has all the signs of the latest example of the RSPB continuing to alienate the working countryside, a trend we have extensively documented over the past few months. Despite the rapid declines in wildlife detailed in this very report, the RSPB media output has recently become fixated with attacks on shooting and efforts to conserve one particular species- the hen harrier. Despite robust evidence that shoot management boosts species that the RSPB highlight as being in difficulty, species such as the curlew and lapwing, the RSPB have chosen to align themselves with those who would see this management banned.
This gesture politics, attacking farmers and shooters, is the antithesis of the solution. To reverse these declines the RSPB calls for conservation organisations, governments, businesses, landowners, communities and individuals to work together. This cooperative principle is, of course, the answer, but it is also precisely the principle behind the Hen Harrier Joint Recovery Plan, which the RSPB has walked away from seemingly in fright of a tiny number of its more hardline supporters.
The countryside cannot be divorced from its social and economic context. Food needs to be produced, people need jobs, communities value their landscapes and conservation needs to be paid for. It is by holding these competing demands together that shooting contributes effectively to conservation. Similarly, in their response to the State of Nature report the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) has pointed out that in the wake of Brexit we have an opportunity to find new ways of weaving these strands together into a refreshed agricultural policy, to boost the biodiversity benefits farmers have already begun to deliver. The authors of the State of Nature have done great work by highlighting these declines, but the RSPB needs to jettison its increasingly antagonistic stance towards those who can do something about it- farmers, landowners, gamekeepers and shooters.
The Camddwr Shooting Society Case Study: How Shooting Supports Conservation
The Camddwr Shooting Society has the rights to 1,080 hectares, and while they only shoot over less than half of this area, their conservation work covers all of it. Fifty years ago there was virtually no woodland on the site and game of any sort was very scarce. Today thanks to the Shooting Society there are 54 small woodlands on the site, and 19 lakes where previously there were none at all.
The newly created woodlands have been carefully crafted to maximise the valuable woodland-edge habitat and provide a valuable blend of thick bramble understorey and broadleaved trees, resulting in significant conservation impact.
One species that has particularly benefitted from the Society’s shoot management is the red-listed woodcock. Having experienced a 29% decline across Britain since 2003, returns from the Camddwr Shooting Society show a 17-fold increase in the species since 1963.