Wildlife is suffering – from those unwilling to compromise

Curlew -chick

A guest blog by James Barrington

Asking what methods of wildlife management anti-hunting or anti-shooting groups actually support, as opposed to the activities they are keen to condemn, should always be part of any debate surrounding field sports.

The usual response is either a deafening silence or an idealistic ‘leave it all to nature’. Practical examples of how these alternative models of the countryside might look tend to be few in number, but more recently a picture has started to emerge which shows what happens when some of these idealistic theories are put into practice.

Wild Justice is a group set up to “fight for wildlife” by naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham, former RSPB Conservation Director Mark Avery and raptor specialist Ruth Tingay. One of its first actions related to the general licences issued by Natural England to farmers and landowners for control of pest bird species to protect livestock and newly sprouting crops.

The group brought a legal challenge last year on the basis that licences were too loosely worded and allowed "the casual killing of wildlife, falsely in the name of conservation”, resulting in Natural England’s decision to avoid a court case and withdraw the licences, even at a critical time of year

It appears that little thought was given by Wild Justice to what would occur in the absence of such predator control and a high degree of anger and frustration was expressed by farmers, along with some appalling scenes of dead and dying lambs filling social media.

This move by Wild Justice didn’t just affect livestock and crops. It also meant that rare species, such as yellowhammers, curlews, turtle doves and linnets, the eggs and young of which are taken by crows, jays, magpies and other predatory species, were also affected.

The delight shown by a spokesman for Wild Justice following government agencies backing down was in stark contrast to conservationists like Mary Colwell, who said the timing of the general licence withdrawal was putting curlews in even graver danger of extinction.

The consequence of the original legal threat continues, once again at a critical time, in relation to control of predators on Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation, some of which were established precisely to protect curlews. Wild Justice is also preparing legal action against Natural Resources Wales issuing general licences.

These situations could have been resolved by dialogue and a more conciliatory approach, but it would appear that Wild Justice’s determination to end shooting at all costs has created a kind of tunnel-vision version of conservation.

Chris Packham’s organisation isn’t the only one inflicted with this condition. Back in the 1960s, the League Against Cruel Sports started purchasing land in the West Country in order to prevent hunting with hounds, in particular stag hunting. Putting down feed encouraged red deer onto the largest ‘sanctuary’ Baronsdown. The attraction of abundant food meant that unnaturally large numbers of deer gathered there, and this brought problems.

The deer started to suffer from lungworm and were treated with a domestic animal wormer, a drug never designed for use on wild animals. Deer were not controlled on League land, but those wandering off the sanctuary could be taken by stalkers and, as it takes approximately six weeks before the animal is clear of the wormer, this created a serious difficulty for sale of the venison and thereby the wider management of the deer herds. But an even bigger problem was approaching.

Bovine TB is rife in the West Country and not just spread by badgers. Deer accumulating in large numbers are obviously more susceptible to the disease, particularly those herds not being moved on, as happened with hunting with hounds. Research undertaken by ADAS for the Exmoor National Park Authority and published in the report The health of the wild red deer of Exmoor (2008) showed that mismanagement by the LACS on Baronsdown had caused one of the largest outbreaks of bTB in deer ever seen, something denied by the League. However, a detailed map of the area and incidents of bTB in deer tells a very different story.

There is little firm scientific evidence of what effect the Hunting Act has had on the previously hunted species, but with at least one reputable report stating that the fox population has dropped by about one third and with the condition of some herds of red deer in the West Country known to be deteriorating, this law can hardly be regarded as a success.

Once again, in its determination to see an end to hunting with hounds, an organisation has allowed itself to become blinded to the wider aspects of wildlife management and animal welfare.

A toxic mix of animal rights idealism and prejudice politics was behind the Hunting Act and a similar combination was behind the change of policy by Bradford Metropolitan District Council and its decision to ban grouse shooting on Ilkley Moor.

Up until 2018, grouse shooting had taken place on this land, which is an important breeding ground for threatened ground-nesting birds such as skylarks, curlews, plovers and lapwings (the Council had terminated the sporting lease once before but decided to reinstate it to avoid paying the bills to repair the exposed peat after kids kept setting fire to the heather).

Management was undertaken by estate gamekeepers at no cost to the public purse. Following a campaign by animal rightists, including the League Against Cruel Sports, the Labour run council decided to prohibit grouse shooting and take over the management of the land.

Baildon Moor forms part of the wider moor and earlier in April this year a tractor was filmed mowing heather at this critical breeding time. Contact was made with Bradford Council, who admit that they own and manage that part of the moor, but denied they were to blame and said they had contacted the police and Natural England. An investigation is currently in progress.

What cannot be denied, however, is that management of Baildon Moor is the responsibility of Bradford Council. It is doubtful anyone would mow part of the moor just for the fun of it, so what is the answer? Is it that the council’s land manager or tenant was unaware of the breeding season or that he was simply reckless and didn’t care? Either way, it reflects poorly on Bradford Council, as well as those who call for landowners to be held liable of the actions of their employees or agents – or does that only apply to shooting estates?

In exchanges via social media regarding the Baildon Moor incident, those in favour of a shooting ban appear defensive and evasive, even referring to the legitimate concern expressed by bodies like the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and Countryside Alliance as an “extraordinary attack” and “nasty”. Such statements are no different in tone to the outraged responses from hunt saboteurs when accused of violent and abusive actions, despite film footage of their behaviour.

What can’t be denied are the similarities in these sorry accounts, in which an emphasis and desire by these anti-hunting/anti-shooting groups to end a particular activity has overshadowed any thought as to what might follow.

It is a view fuelled by the belief that they are always absolutely right, that any discussion about compromise is a betrayal and that victory only comes when something is banned.

James Barrington is a former Executive Director of the League Against Cruel Sports and has been involved in various animal welfare campaigns for over 40 years. He is currently a consultant to the Countryside Alliance and a committee member of the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management. You can read his blog here.

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at 21:02 on 12/05/2020 by Craig Tulie

James Barringtons observations have hit the nail on the head. The whole Anti shooting/control stance is based on emotion rather than facts. It might be wise for the likes of Packham and others to remember that for every action there is a reaction desired or otherwise.. Unfortunately as proven it has been conservation and nature that has been forced to suffer because of emotional based thinking rather than the acceptance of proven scientific fact that benefits such a wide variety of flora and fauna .

Jim Barrington

at 20:13 on 12/05/2020 by Richard May

Star article as ever from Jim. Voice of reason and wisdom from someone who has 'walked the walk' in all weathers and on all mountains.

Wild Justice

at 17:53 on 12/05/2020 by Jonathan Holmes

I have read some of the blogs be Chris Packham and wild justice, it’s obvious to me that Wild Justice is more about revenge against people that take part in shooting rather than conservation , Mr Packham actually talk about revenge for the way shooting people’ have treated him. They have a very good propaganda machine behind them and are all over social media. A lot of those that support them have no knowledge of the benefits of conservation.

James Barrington blog

at 11:59 on 12/05/2020 by Tony Wright

What an excellent piece! Fantastic! It is great to have someone of that calibre on our side of the argument. It should be a front page spread in national newspapers.

Wildlife is Suffering

at 10:22 on 12/05/2020 by Paul White

Once again a brilliant piece by James Barrington! He really is the voice of reason and we should be so pleased to have a man of his expertise in our ranks. It must be galling for LACS though!! He is proof that if one can see a problem from both sides and have a discussion then a compromise can be reached. Thank you Jim.

James Barrington blog

at 10:14 on 12/05/2020 by Charles Forbes Adam

Very good piece. As a grateful owner of Skipwith Common NNR, I find it hugely frustrating, as does our gamekeeper AND local Natural England managers, that Natural England has not issued a Special Licence for the site, which we applied for on 2 December 2019. I understand they have received over 1000 similar applications for corvid control on SSSI’s across the country and have not yet issued a single licence (Countryside Alliance email last week). This is an appalling state of affairs, especially as corvid control cannot take place within 300 metres of these sites either. Two years ago we stopped driven shooting and bird release on the whole estate and are spending considerable private resources on trying to increase the grey partridge population as well as many other threatened bird species. We are being utterly hampered by the very organisation that is supposed to be responsible for enhancing wildlife. In short, it’s bonkers, Lockdown Angry of Escrick.

Your research work

at 10:05 on 12/05/2020 by Rupert Turner

I have been a member for at least 40 years and can not thank you enough for the tremendous work you do into so many facets of wildlife conservation. Having the hard scientific evidence as to the effects of inputs into various habitats of such a wide variety of game birds , non game species and fish enables you and our members to answer so many uninformed views and arguments put by those who wish to put an end to the pursuits we so enjoy. Again many thanks.

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