A report from our panel discussion at the Labour Party Conference. Plenty of groups and individuals in our society claim to be conservationists and our first event asked the question “who are the real conservationists?” There was consensus amongst the panellists including Angela Smith MP (former Shadow DEFRA Minister) and Teresa Dent (Chief Executive of the GWCT) that there was no single method or philosophy to conservation work and that many different groups had a role to play.

Angela Smith used the example of cement works and former quarries in her constituency near Sheffield which had invested in moorland restoration and water course cleaning whilst Teresa Dent highlighted the scientific research of GWCT scientists on the benefits of farming and shooting to wildlife. “Take the example of songbirds… farms that operate a shoot have 30% more song birds than those that do not” she said.

David Bowles from the RSPCA was equally keen to stress the importance of an evidence based approach to conservation and the fact that more scientific work was required on issues such as the declining hedgehog population which by some estimates has reduced by 90%.

Liam Stokes, a young lecturer in gamekeeping at Wiltshire College, pointed out that best practice in gamekeeping should be seen as conservation in practice and stressed that his students are taught the importance of biodiversity in the countryside and develop an appreciation for all wildlife. “There are two things I don’t have a sense of humour about” he said, “birds of prey and badgers.” He acknowledged that rotten apples had given gamekeeping a bad name particularly over the treatment of birds of prey but that this should not be used as a stick to beat the law-abiding, respectful majority.

The event ended with agreement from the panel that the rapidly polarising views on conservation were extremely worrying and that social media was helping extreme views on all sides to dominate the debate. Liam Stokes suggested that more shoots should encourage community participation and open days whilst Angela Smith said she “would not support moves to ban driven grouse shooting” and acknowledged that the shooting community does have a valuable role to play in conservation. Partnerships on the ground and greater dialogue were agreed as the way forward in the conservation debate.