Reviewing Wildlife Management in Britain
On the first of September
One Sunday morn
I shot a hen pheasant in standing corn
Without a licence.
Contrive who can
Such a cluster of crimes against God and Man!
Richard Monckton Milnes, First Lord Houghton.
Oh dear! Pheasants are protected by law until October, the gamekeeper will be upset because a hen pheasant may still have poults in September, the parson is offended because of shooting on the Lord’s Day, the gentry are annoyed because the Game Laws were designed to prevent working classes killing game on their only day off (but killing ‘vermin’ is OK), the farmer is not happy with you running around in his corn looking for it, and the State is not happy because you have not paid for a licence (now abandoned as not worth the admin cost). And all this fuss over a common introduced species!
British wildlife law dates from medieval times. Since the 1830 Game Act it has had thousands of add-ons and amendments. We have local Councils, NGOs such as the RSPB and RSPCA (dressed up as officials), devolved regional governments, Westminster, Brussels and of course international treaties such as CITES, all vying to control wildlife management. We wallow in a miasma of controls that are negative, unenforceable, incomprehensible and which don’t work. Our environment is now a disaster zone and we are facing the final mass extinctions on this planet.
We only have this one planet. We cannot expect other countries to carry us. We must bear our own share of the global responsibility. How can we preach to other nations about hosting elephants when we agonise over a simple thing like restoring our beavers?
We are ourselves ‘wildlife’, and everything we do impacts the environment. Our current wildlife management entails polluting water with hormones that feminise fish, amphibians and humans, disrupting whole aquatic ecosystem with nitrates and slurry, and screwing marine life with plastic. On land we have lost 75% of insect biomass, destroyed habitats and soil structure over huge areas and fragmented habitats with impassable motorways so that isolated populations are no longer connected or viable.
Please, no more sticking plaster legislation! No more unenforceable, misdirected, negative sieving of midges while swallowing camels. Clear it all away and start again with legislation based on principles, not political point scoring and pressure groups. We need objectives that will guide us through the next hundred years of human exploitation of this planet. We are unable to control our own over-population demographic crisis. Thanks to the tragedy of the commons, no government is going to tackle this issue. None have set a target ceiling for its human population, or envisaged what standard of living its citizens would have at that density. As we over-populate the planet we destroy whole areas of habitat, entire ecosystems, and thousands of species. Evolution is too slow to adapt to such high speed global warming and exploitation.
In this scenario, we need objectives to guide us into the future. We cannot recreate a Garden of Eden. We cannot use history as our guide. We need habitats that are genetically diverse and representative, versatile enough to face whatever contingency comes along. Concepts such as ‘indigenous’ have little relevance in a fast-changing future.
Our objectives need to be prioritised in descending order:
- Planet Earth and sustainable global systems.
- Shared regional resources, such as water, and fisheries; the ‘commons’.
- Habitats with full biodiversity for at least minimal viable populations of all species.
- Single species management programmes.
- Individual animal welfare.
Far too often, individuals are prioritised, often on an emotional basis, to the detriment of the larger good. Once the objective criteria are prioritised, one can evaluate past and future decisions. Looked at in this way, one can easily see how most of our wildlife legislation, in its broadest sense, is a failure and has led us into the mess we are in.
These objectives are key to the decision-making tree. For example, the concept of individual animal welfare hinges on #5. This has its place, but only within the context of higher priority objectives. Where it conflicts with those higher priorities, such as the welfare of a species as a whole, or even of habitats, then it is clear to see that the higher priorities should take precedence. Rather than battling it out in trial by media and online voting campaigns, the guiding principles of our objectives make decisions obvious and lead to an effective outcome. Provided of course that we have politicians prepared to make such decisions, rather than curry votes.
Most of our wildlife legislation is a catalogue of negatives. Most are unenforceable, over-detailed, ineffective and under-targeted; that is to say that they are aimed at too low a level on our priority tree. Unenforceable? Look at the Hunting Act. Over-detailed? You need a licence to look inside a dormouse box! Ineffective? Look at the depressing stats on almost any species or habitat you like. Under-targeted? We protect starlings while multi-spraying crops with chemicals. Our farm business model, based on subsidies, is a disaster and yet we expect farmers to be more and more ‘efficient’ which in reality entails chemically bludgeoning the ecosystems.
Subject all legislation to a cost-benefit analysis. Is it achieving the benefits for the priority level it is aimed at, and are the administrative and social costs actually worth it? Does the legislation actually work? Does it achieve what it was intended to achieve? Most licensing systems are a waste of time; they are heavy on admin, expensive for all, largely unenforceable and easily avoided by those wishing to avoid it. Dog micro-chipping? No central database, no updating of the database, no police checks, easily evaded, and no change in human or livestock injury statistics. But politicians think that they have ‘done something’.
We need to change our approach from negative to positive. Why protect bats? People killing bats is not the issue. Let churches take whatever measures they wish; local peer pressure will stop them being too drastic. Protectionism is simplistic. Instead, focus on the positives. Go up the priority tree and target #3, improving habitats for bats by increasing insect biomass. Insert a planning requirement for new-builds to have bat housing.
A new, positive approach requires clear vision. What kind of world do we want Britain to be like in ten, fifty, a hundred years’ time? We cannot turn the clock back, we have to prepare ourselves and the natural world around us, for the future. Social attitudes need to be integrated into this vision. About 80% of us live in single species urban environments, often with little comprehension of our reliance on natural resources and our unintended impacts on them. Land itself needs to be prioritised towards our objectives. Grades 1 and 2 agricultural land should be prioritised for food production. Grades 4 and 5 for housing, trees and wildlife habitats. The concept of ‘utilitarianism’ needs to be re-evaluated from what is of immediate benefit to human pressure groups to what benefits our objectives in the priority tree.
By removing most of the over-detailed and ineffective legislation we have become bogged down in, we can simplify and reduce admin costs. Recently 90% of Defra prosecutions on raptor keeping did not involve wild birds at all; they were all failures to comply with paperwork requirements. Get rid of the law and you get rid of the crime. We need to empower people in a positive way and encourage a better appreciation of how our own actions impact the world and our future. Treating for woodworm, killing cockroaches and mice, gardening; this is wildlife management at home. Motorway design and street lighting is wildlife management. Practically all farming decisions are wildlife management. ‘Leave it alone’ is not an option. People have their own priorities for what wildlife they want or don’t want and these utilitarian approaches often conflict. The media thrive on fomenting conflict between groups concerning wildlife issues, while politicians prevaricate. Badgers and bovine Tb, fox hunting, grouse moors, predator control, nitrate vulnerable zones; one group wants one thing, the other something else, and all feel that they should be able to force their own priorities onto others without justifying those priorities against any broader objectives. Most of our wildlife law derives from these one-sided viewpoints; it is time to review them against a new frame of reference and priorities. With Brexit we have the opportunity to do a clean sweep of ineffective, admin-heavy legislation and create new, simple legislation that people can understand and empathise with. And use positive incentives, such as a replacement of CAP, towards measures that target higher up the priority tree, with benefits that cascade right down to the individual level.
In this essay I have deliberately taken a broad approach. Of course I could go into all sorts of detail and case studies, and suggest remedies, but not in the space available. We are fiddling while Rome burns.
Dr. Nick Fox OBE
Dr Nick Fox runs international conservation projects and hatched the first 53 Welsh Red Kites leading to their restoration in the UK. He wrote the submission to UNESCO resulting in Falconry being inscribed as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Mankind for eleven countries. Dr Fox has made 14 films and three books on raptors, and received an OBE for “Services to Falconry and the Conservation of Raptors”. He has published research on animal welfare and established the Bevis Trust which promotes wildlife diversity, based on his farm in Wales where he breeds beavers.