Wild Justice, the campaigning company led by Chris Packham, is now in such a muddle it has asked the GWCT for help.
The knot it has tied itself in started two years ago. Then it was criticising the General Licences used to control pest bird species to protect the nests of other bird species, farmers crops or livestock. It argued that where there was no scientific proof of damage, it should be assumed there is no damage at all. That argument did not land well with farmers when lambs were left with their eyes pecked out by crows.
Releasing for shooting and the proposed 500m buffer
When it came to releasing pheasants on or near sites with a European level of protection (see our blog here) it argued the other way around. It claimed that if there is no scientific proof of no harm, it should be assumed there is damage.
Just think about that. Most things in the countryside, and society at large, would have to stop if we were to apply this rule. Despite its new logic being obviously flawed, the group demanded that, on this basis, there must be no releasing of gamebirds for shooting within 5km of a European protected site.
Did Defra agree?
No, it didn’t. Releasing and managing game can continue in these areas. However, Defra will soon consult on an appropriate interim general licensing system for releasing on or within 500m of one of these sites.
Why has Wild Justice asked for help?
Having failed to win the legal argument that releasing should be banned up to 5km from protected sites, it changed direction again. This time it decided to criticise the idea of allowing releasing withing the proposed 500m buffer – it claims it is “not based on science” and it would appreciate a little GWCT help on this.
It’s an unexpected request considering it’s barely six months since one of its team was hoping the GWCT might soon be going bust. Luckily, our members stood by us last year, and as a charity will continue to help all those wishing to understand the science.
What do the scientific reviews say about impacts and the 500m buffer?
There have been three reviews. One by Natural England, which we have written about before, one by the GWCT, and the other by the RSPB. All three looked at positive and negative impacts. Looking at the direct negative impacts of releasing, these can occur at or adjacent to release pens or other places where birds congregate at high densities. There is evidence on this for soils, woodland ground flora, hedgerow flora, and for insects.
The science and the reviews also indicate that no, or very little, direct impact of releasing occurs beyond these areas. There are several relevant studies, on insects for example, that included protected sites. There are plausible indirect effects identified in the reviews, in particular possible disease issues and predation caused by excess predators.
These complicated processes need to be investigated properly in the context of other land management activities. Currently there is no good evidence that they are significantly damaging to habitats or wildlife within or beyond the release area.
The data referred to in the Natural England review also suggest that on average the density of released pheasants at 1km or so away from release points becomes vanishingly small. We should also take account of the fact that the main role of a game manager is to keep released birds in the vicinity of release areas, game crops and feeding points.
500m is not explicitly discussed in the review, but it is not difficult to make inference from the available data and other information. For example, Natural England will know that the releasing and driving of pheasants for shooting tends to operate at the scale of a few hundred metres. Game crops, from which birds are driven over guns back to release pens or to other game crops, are usually considerably less than 500m apart.
So why did Defra choose 500m?
As far as we can tell, the 500m recommendation made by Natural England to Defra is based on several factors:
- its reasonable interpretation of the impacts in the available scientific evidence (as described in the reviews).
- its wider experience of dealing with wildlife impacts alongside, for example development.
- its understanding of dispersal and of how shoots actually work
- coupled with, in our view, an over-precautionary approach.
Does the GWCT feel 500m is appropriate?
Based on the same evidence and the other considerations, the GWCT suggests that 500m is over-precautious. It would be more appropriate to focus on adherence to the GWCT’s sustainable releasing guidelines, coupled with a site-based knowledge approach that accounts for potential conflicts on or adjacent to protected sites.
Was the Wild Justice recommendation of 5km based on science?
No. It produced its figure:
- without any scientific backing (this figure is not supported by any science at all).
- with no apparent sector or other expert consultation.
- no scientific information on dispersal of released game.
- a poor understanding of the releasing shooting system.
Could Wild Justice’s recommendation be damaging?
Yes. Such an uninformed approach can lead to inappropriate and possibly damaging management recommendations. For example, by curtailing the potential biodiversity benefits that game management can deliver.
Footnote 1: There are a range of positive and negative effects of releasing for shooting that tend to balance each other numerically. These are described in detail in the Natural England review and in summary in the GWCT review. The GWCT’s Advisory team offers a biodiversity assessment service to help shoots to make an even more positive contribution to wildlife and conservation.
Footnote 2: For those wishing to check if they have a European Protected Site within 500m of one of their release pens, we have provided a guide on how to access the online Defra mapping tool for FREE here.