By Mike Swan, GWCT Head of Education
With the season all but over, my mind, as usual, turns to planning for 2021/22. In just a few weeks the pheasants will be setting up their territories, strutting their stuff, and doing everything they can to keep their harems together.
Meanwhile, the corvids will be getting frollicksome too; rooks start early, jackdaws a little later, and the crows and magpies will be getting territorial too. In two months from now it will be Larsen Trapping season – or will it?
With the new rules under DEFRA’s open General licences for pest bird control, the central plank of my little wild bird rough shoot in Dorset is seriously undermined. While I’m a passionate conservationist, the main reason for my predation control programme is to produce enough wild pheasants for four or five armed nature rambles with my friends.
But, the new licence for conservation purposes (GL40) is entitled “General licence to kill or take certain species of wild birds to conserve endangered wild birds, or flora and fauna”. Please note that word endangered – pheasants and redlegs are not on the endangered list.
To be specific, other than for reasons related to protecting livestock, you can now only control crows and magpies for the conservation of red or amber listed “birds of conservation concern”. Now, between the grey partridges on the more open part of the shoot, the farmland birds like skylark, corn bunting and the odd turtle dove, and the woodland birds like song thrush, marsh tit, dunnock and stock dove, I have ample reason to be running my Larsen traps as normal.
If challenged, I am sure I can build a defence, but why should I? Since 1997 I have run an ever-growing game and wildlife conservation programme around my little wild bird shoot. Apart from a few redlegs in the first two seasons, not a single gamebird has been released on the ground. While I would not deny some of my neighbours’ birds have wandered on, I am not surrounded by big shoots. The local RSPB wood forms one boundary, while others are mostly unshot farms.
Today we have grass and wild flower margins along almost all the field boundaries, strips of wild bird seed mix in a network with unharvested cereals across the whole shoot, several strips or plots of arable wild flowers, and a whole lot more. It is a carefully integrated farmland conservation scheme that takes up about 10% of the total farmland. Most of this is part of a mid-tier Countryside Stewardship scheme, but there is a significant amount of voluntary extra too. After several years of absence the corn buntings are back, yellowhammers and skylarks are on the up, and stonechats bred this year for the first time.
My predation control programme of fox control, tunnel trapping for the likes of rats and stoats, and Larsen trapping for crows and magpies is surely benefitting a whole lot of the other wildlife. But now, as an honest working conservationist I have to question my motives. Do I break the law and carry on with the corvid control for the wild pheasants, or say I am just doing it to benefit other species?
And then there are the rooks, jackdaws and jays. Truth be told I do not take that many jays each year, but my only excuse now is to do so for a short list of endangered woodland birds, like song thrush and marsh tit. In the case of rooks and jackdaws I have no conservation excuse whatsoever.
These two have been removed completely from the conservation licence, although they remain on the licence to prevent serious damage (GL42). So, again, I can say that I am controlling them to protect the boss’s chickens, and to stop them from pulling up the spring beans, and there will be truth in this at times.
But, what I really want to do is to keep their depredations on wild game in check – and in this case my wild grey partridges are a real concern. Back in the days of the Euston System, where keepers took partridge and pheasant eggs to the safety of incubation under broodies, dummy eggs that were put in the nest to keep the bird sitting till hatch time were regularly found under the rookeries.
DEFRA and their NE advisers would no doubt say that there is no scientific evidence that the rooks and jackdaws are a significant problem in themselves, and they would probably be right. However, there is no scientific evidence to the contrary. Carrying out the sort of experiments that you need to find out about this sort of thing is devilishly time consuming and expensive.
But, what we do have is a significant amount of work, mostly carried out by The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, which shows that when you control a suite of common predators including these species, game and much other wildlife benefits. Our two key experiments in predator removal on Salisbury plain in the 1980s and on the moors of Northumberland in the early 2000s showed that clearly.
What DEFRA and NE are now doing is to cherry pick that with absolutely no justification. They are making guesses as to which species matter and which do not, without having any proper science to back that up. Much more seriously, they are also saying that control for birds that are not endangered is not justified, despite there being is no legal basis for them to do so
The enabling legislation for open general licences does not require that conservation ones are only granted for endangered species. The implication is a nonsense too; we must stop trying to conserve species with stable populations, and wait till they are in decline before we take action.
So, where do we go from here? Well, I for one want to be convinced that my normal activities are legal, so I shall be applying for an individual licence to control for pheasant and redleg partridge conservation, and I shall be putting all five common corvids on the list to be controlled. NE have also implied that they will be very unlikely to issue licences for species that are not of conservation concern.
It will so be a two stage process with a pre application which results in being told the likelihood of success, followed by a more detailed one. Strikes me that we can look forward to a log jam, delays, and another year of bad disruption in the conservation of wild game due to licensing chaos.