'Pheasants Fell Trees’ Says Natural England

Natural England and Yorks Sport Ltd clash in court over alleged damage to Special Sites of Scientific interest by pheasants released for shooting.

How many pheasants is too many? That was the question asked in York Crown Court earlier this month, as Farndale Estate and Natural England battled it out over damage to a Site of Special Scientific Interest on the estate’s shooting grounds, which the government body claims was caused by “excessive” numbers of released pheasants.

A perplexed Michael Wood, director of Yorks Sport Ltd, asked a representative of the independent body: “What it is it like to be god?” It was a throwaway comment during a discussion concerning a land management disagreement, but one which preceded a series of events that eventually led to York Crown Court on 28 February in a week-long case.

Whether a clash of personalities or of land use, in the case of the Farndale Estate, NE chose to tackle game shoot management in the vicinity of SSSIs head on. It may well prove to be an important test case for all involved in the rearing and releasing of game birds.

This is not the first time that accusations of damage to SSSIs have been levelled against shoots. Earlier this year, Devon Wildlife Trust claimed that birds from a shoot nearing its Dunsford Reserve SSSI were destroying the habitat of the rare pearl-bordered fritillary butterflies found in the area. NE has yet to become involved – but after events in York, it may only be a matter of time.

Yorks Sports Ltd leases the sporting rights on Farndale from Sir Lawrence Barratt, where Justine Clarke is responsible for the SSSI sites along the estate’s Dove Valley. Farndale is an area of outstanding natural beauty, world famous for its profuse displays of daffodils in springtime. The estate has always had a deep-rooted hunting tradition stretching back centuries to at least the time of the Norman Conquest, when Farndale was recognized as a Royal Forest. Fieldsports, particularly game shooting and hunting with hounds (the dale has its own pack), is embedded within the community culture on this great North Yorkshire expanse. That tradition is now coming under threat, thanks to NE – a public body that styles itself as “For people, for places, for nature.”

Natural England has a broad remit that extends across the country, dealing with a range of schemes and initiatives. It works with land managers such as farmers, gamekeepers, foresters, town and country planners, researchers and scientists and the general public. Its intended aim is to create a better natural environment that covers all of our urban, country and coastal landscapes, along with all the flora and fauna that live within.

When communications had clearly broken down between both parties, NE embarked on a prosecution against York Sport and Michael Wood. It alleged that pheasants released by Mr Wood’s gamekeepers on the Farndale Shoot caused irreparable damage to the Dove Valley SSSI known as the Bull Hole and the SSSI River Dove margins.

The prosecution’s case centred on the numbers of pheasants released, claiming that the amount of birds was excessive and far exceeded numbers released by the previous shoot manager, Frank Croft.

Mr Croft – now head keeper of Warter Priory Estate in East Yorkshire – gave evidence for the prosecution. He confirmed that he had been head keeper at Farndale before Mr Wood took over the shooting and that he had been employed directly by Sir Lawrence Barratt. Mr Croft went on to say that during his time at Farndale he initially shot 20 days per year, increasing this to 30 or 35 days, for which he released 10,000 pheasant and 300 mallard duck, achieving an approximate 55 per cent return.

This was disputed by three of Mr Croft’s former under keepers, who were witnesses for the defence. All three gave evidence claiming that the numbers quoted by Mr Croft were inaccurate and that these kinds of numbers were released on their own beats alone. It was also alleged that Mr Croft had let additional days without Sir Lawrence’s knowledge. Mr Croft’s bag returns were also disputed and a number of unusual working practices under Mr Croft were alleged during the course of under keepers’ evidence, including adding into the bag previously shot birds from earlier shoots.

But expert witnesses for the defence Professor Rotheram and respected ecologist Giles Manners, both asserted that in their professional opinion, the main cause of damage to the Farndale SSSIs in question was not pheasants. Both stated that they felt the damage actually resulted from over-shading by the surrounding unmanaged woodland, coupled with surface run-off erosion. The woodland was formerly ancient coppice and had not been managed to any extent since the 1950s. It was also acknowledged in court from Environment Agency and Met Office evidence that in June 2007, Farndale had experienced its heaviest rainfall in 200 years.

Mr Manners added that a degree of damage could also be credited to straying livestock that had breached inadequate fencing in places, and locally by rabbits and roe deer.

A murmur of amusement swept around the courtroom when NE in-house ecologist Justine Clarke gave evidence that, as a result of pheasants pecking and scratching at the base of an oak tree within the SSSI, this tree had actually fallen over. The tree in question was quite substantial.

Ms Clarke also alleged that she had seen evidence of damage to Farndale’s famous daffodils from pheasant pecking activity. Another NE ecologist Emma Goldberg tried to defend her colleague’s claims of pheasants felling trees, and she too claimed that pheasants did indeed eat daffodils.

These claims were disputed by Hugo Straker of the GWCT, an expert witness for the defence. Mr Straker explained to the court that pheasants very rarely peck at daffodil bulbs or shoots, as they contain a toxic substance. He stated that, with his 25 years of experience, pheasants were not responsible for the alleged damage to the Farndale SSSIs. He concurred with the previous defence experts, saying that overshading was the primary cause, with rabbit damage and natural erosion adding to the effect.

At the end of the hearing mid-afternoon on Friday 4 March, Judge Ashirst advised that he would issue a written judgment at a later date. At the time of going to press, this judgement had still not been issued.

Modern Gamekeeping asked Shaun Mintoft, the current headkeeper of Farndale Estate who did not give evidence, his views of the case brought against his employer. He said: “I have worked on this great estate for the past seven years; it is a place where I grew up in, and Natural England has driven me to hand in my notice and seek employment elsewhere. It is a sad day for shooting.” ν

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