The management challenge

Ian Lindsay, Director of Advisory and Education for the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, explains why people should support the Campaign for Game

Following the post-war decline of wild game populations, by the late 1950s artificial brooder systems were beginning to replace the broody hen as the principle form of game rearing. By the 1960s the Fordingbridge System, a combination of brooder hut, shelter, and pens, was introduced, and since that time game bird release, principally pheasants, has grown hugely throughout the UK. Even 20 years ago few would have predicted the extent of this growth, its increasing social accessibility, or the levels of investment and employment it sustains in many rural areas. Increasingly, however, the sheer growth of gamebird releasing is attracting criticism.

Without doubt, some of this may be based on a philosophical objection to game shooting but, increasingly, a range of specific impacts are cited that allege significant environmental damage as a by-product of current levels of pheasant releasing. A significant number of these suggested impacts are speculative and without the benefit of research. Nevertheless, given the bureaucratic propensity to invoke the ‘precautionary principle’, particularly in the protection of sensitive species and habitats, there seems good reason for the game management community to take all these challenges seriously.

To many gamekeepers and shoot managers, this challenge may seem paradoxical. After all, was it not research on the grey partridge, funded by the shooting community, which now underwrites current UK agri-environment schemes? What of the research that indicates the benefits of pheasant management to the retention, management and diversity of low ground woodlands? And isn’t the control of predation now widely recognised as providing benefits across a range of important and declining ground-nesting species such as lapwing, stone curlew and grey partridge? The fact is that, among the game management community, there has been a long-held belief that its activities produce a net biodiversity gain in support of conservation objectives and not a threat against it.

Over this period a great deal of Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) research, funded in part by the game management community, has encouraged this belief. This has included investigations of released pheasants on woodland butterfly populations, the effects of pheasant releasing on woodland flora, and the impacts of predator control and supplementary feeding on farmland birds. Generally, this work has identified significant beneficial impacts and where negative associations were found, the GWCT  developed and publicised management options to address them. Of course, research has to be objective and may not always support current  game management practices; such as the instance when our research revealed the damaging impacts of the release of the chukar partridge, before it was prohibited in the early 1990s.

Like the current criticism of grouse moor management (which probably reveals the highest level of biodiversity gain of any game management model), much of the current attack on pheasant releasing rests on scale, density and a portrayal of naked commercialism or ‘elitism’, leading to unacceptable damage to protected wildlife and habitat. Even without supporting empirical evidence these are powerful arguments!

In contrast with the challenges to shoots reliant on gamebird releasing, the recent success of many wild bird shoots, particularly those that have achieved significant grey partridge recovery, have received significant credit from conservation agencies and organisations. In practice, their success in farmland bird recovery is only reluctantly – if at all – associated with game management options, but the significant recovery of wild game to produce organised shooting is severely limited, mainly to areas of low rainfall, light land and arable farming, in the south and east of the UK. Elsewhere, in the north and west, releasing is, and will remain, an essential tool to justify the investment in game management.

Beyond anecdotal and indefensible cases of excessive local releases leading to overt damage to adjacent properties, spoiling of pasture or damage to crops, recent published challenges to ‘excessive’ pheasant release focus on impacts on amphibian and reptile populations, the damaging effect of ‘nitrification’ on sensitive lichen communities, and the contribution of released pheasant mortality to populations of common predators in the UK. In practice, in many areas, particularly those having conservation designations, pheasant releasing is now classed as a potentially damaging activity.

Against this background, what are the main challenges for the game management community? Where they may exist, how can potentially damaging impacts from gamebird releasing be addressed, and how can its biodiversity benefits be maximised? How, compared with other forms of land use, can a sustainable case be clearly demonstrated for organised released game shooting?

In 2008, the arable farming industry faced similar challenges, following the loss of set-aside, on already declining farmland bird populations. This was accompanied by a powerful conservation body lobbying the government to implement mandatory set-aside through cross-compliance. To counter this arose the ‘Campaign for the Farmed Environment’, a voluntary, industry-led initiative aimed at encouraging individual farms to ‘take the extra step’, beyond the minimum required and deliver effective wildlife habitats on their farm.

Might this be an effective model for the game management community? The challenges are similar, the threat of legislation is the same, and for most, a voluntary ‘bottom-up’ approach would seem the most palatable route.

To address this, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust has launched the ‘Campaign for Game,’ aimed at encouraging individual shoots to select from a list of key management options capable of providing biodiversity benefits on a shoot by shoot basis. Like its farming equivalent, an effective national uptake will provide a clear demonstration of the contribution of game management to wildlife conservation in the UK.

 

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is keen to take the initiative on what might be perceived as radical conservation science. The Campaign for Game aims to maximise the net gain in biodiversity on released-based shoots, and provide the unequivocal evidence of the national impact on biodiversity.

  • The campaign will enable those running shoots to engage with best practice while simultaneously:
  • Addressing complacent conservation thinking on the role played by game management in wildlife conservation.
  • Increasing biodiversity delivered by released shoots through the application of soundly researched and well-communicated science.
  • Looking at the net impact – positive and negative – across released shoots in the UK.
  • Seeking funding support to ensure research results are brought into the public domain.

Join the campaign for game and share your ambition to maximise your game and wildlife:

  •  Email your views to Andrew Gilruth on agilruth@gwct.org.uk or learn more on our website: www.gwt.org.uk/campaign4game
  •  Book a specialist game advisor to visit you on the ground at www.gwct.org.uk/advisory  or telephone 01425 652381

This article was first published in the GWCT members’ magazine Gamewise

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