Shooting leads conservation way

L1Conservation is big business nowadays, with any number of huge organisations boosting their multi-million pound incomes by means of high-profile campaigns to ‘save’ this or that endangered species. That’s all well and good, but along the way many of these groups have turned their backs on the original conservationists: the shooters, hunters and gamekeepers. Not satisfi ed with simply ignoring the massive contribution our daily toil makes to the wildlife of this green and pleasant land, they have cast us as villains of the piece, consumed with bloodlust and relentlessly slaughtering  anything that stands in the way of profit.  Of course nothing could be further from the truth – and one very good example was to be found recently at the Acorn shooting ground near Stockbridge in Hampshire. On a glorious sunny day in early May, this well-run ground opened its gates to around 100 keen shots whose natural habitat is the moor and covertside. The shooters had a great time and smashed thousands of clays, but there was a serious purpose to the day. This was the annual fundraising shoot of the World Pheasant Association, a little-known charity that works quietly behind the scenes to conserve game birds around the world, ranging from our own native black grouse to the more exotic and desperately threatened Edwards’ pheasant in the jungles of Vietnam. Few people, shooters included, realise that there are no fewer than 286 species of game bird throughout the world. The group, known as galliformes, includes pheasants, partridges, grouse and quail – not least the jungle fowl ancestor of the domestic chickens that much of the world’s population depend on heavily for food. Many of these game birds are under serious threat due to factors such as habitat loss and illegal poaching. The WPA, with limited resources, does its best to help them all. The sums of money involved are tiny compared to the budgets of the big name conservation organisations. The WPA’s shoot raises around £12,000-£13,000 annually, which probably wouldn’t keep the RSPB in stamps. But, through its clever use of resources, and the dedication of a small band of enthusiasts around the world, the WPA has punched well above its weight. £1,500 of the money raised by the shooters, for example, will secure the future of an ongoing research project to benefi t the black grouse in our uplands. The project is looking at the wind farms that are springing up across the bird’s habitat and asking the question: do wind turbines threaten the black grouse? Astonishingly, no-one knows, and without this vital research we might never find out until it’s too late. Far away in Nepal, home of the Gurkhas, the WPA runs a project that is still, 30 years on, hailed as an example of enlightened conservation. Here, in the foothills of the Himalayas, the association’s Pipar project is protecting the rare and threatened relatives of our own ringnecks; exotic, colourful birds such as the satyr tragopan and the koklass pheasant. Without help, these birds would have died out years ago due to habitat destruction and poaching. The WPA doesn’t have the resources to buy up massive areas of land and run them as nature reserves, even if it wanted to. Instead, it works closely with the local people, educating and helping them to protect their own environment and the exotic birds that live there. A large part of the financial support goes to building and running schools for villagers’ children. In a roundabout way, this guarantees local support for the conservation work, as well as providing a vehicle to teach the local population about their environment and how they can protect it. It’s a win-win all round. The youngsters receive an education that wouldn’t be possible any other way in this remote area. Local people have a stake in the vital forest habitat and do their utmost to defend it. The pheasants thrive, protected from both illegal poaching and over-hunting. And all this is done on a budget of around £4,000 a year. It just shows what can be achieved in conservation by working smarter.

L2Throwing money at the problem simply wouldn’t work. Without the support of local people it would be impossible to protect the forest. The area is just too big and remote to police effectively. It would quickly be plundered by commercial hunters and plant collectors; a local herb named yarsagumba, for instance, is claimed to be better than Viagra and fetches a high price on the black market. Closer to home, WPA members are involved in conservation breeding programmes, helping to secure a future for species whose very survival is threatened. A successful breeding project can even produce a small surplus of birds for reintroduction into their native habitat. A recent example was the spectacular Bornean Peacock pheasant. The very first chicks ever bred in Europe were hatched by the WPA near Edinburgh last summer, providing new hope for this red-listed species. Perhaps most remarkable of all, these and many other vital conservation projects are funded and driven by people who are enthusiastic game shooters, the very people who are so often portrayed as the enemy of conservation. Of course, as gamekeepers we understand the paradox. To us it makes perfect sense that we love wildlife and the countryside on one hand, while being able to harvest game and control pests on the other. It’s all about keeping the balance. The work of organisations like the WPA is an extension of what each of us does every day, quietly and in our own small way protecting and preserving the natural environment. Many a shoot could point to real conservation benefi ts of their work, often done purely for its own sake rather than any financial reward. It’s just a shame we aren’t better at blowing our own trumpet, and showing the general public how much gamekeepers and shooting contribute to the glorious British countryside we all know and love…

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