5 minute read
By Mike Swan, GWCT Head of Education
The big new story in agri-environment schemes and farmland conservation is farmer clusters – groups of neighbouring farmers working together to deliver landscape scale conservation in a co-ordinated way.
Over the last few years, this approach has achieved an enviable reputation for delivering real conservation and biodiversity improvements, offering much better value for money compared to the older schemes with their inflexible prescriptions.
So, why not shoot clusters as well? Groups of shoots that are still individual enterprises, but which are working together for a better countryside. In some ways the idea does not sit too easily, and keepers will be naturally concerned about issues like encouraging straying where habitats are linked with neighbours. However, if we can overcome that, there is surely scope for enhancing both conservation and the public perception of what we do.
Linking habitats to help the wildlife get around is an age old idea, and perhaps the part of this cluster approach that holds the greatest fear for the keeper. Strips of attraction like new hedges, wild bird seed mix and such like that run towards the boundary could easily help to lead our birds astray. That said, they could also help ones that arrive to find their way to the heart of the shoot. To my mind, the key here is to make sure that the whole thing is integrated.
When they get up in the morning, our birds want to have a potter about. Pheasants, in particular, have a daily routine, coming off roost, and going off to look for breakfast, and eventually trundling quietly back towards their favourite roosting sites. If we are clever, it is relatively easy to create circuits of linked up habitats that steer them in the right direction, satisfying their need to go for a daily wander without leading them astray.
Keeping the heart beating
So, while linking with the neighbours is good conservation practice, we can still do our best to ensure that the heart of our ground offers the greatest attraction. With some cover crops probably already in place, it often makes sense to use strips of stewardship cover, like wild bird seed mix, or unharvested cereals to link them together.
This can help to offer a great environment over the main shoot area. It is also possible to choose stronger mixes that should stand well into the winter for these parts, while going for weaker ones on the outskirts that will still offer food for the songbirds, even though the cover itself breaks down quite early in the autumn.
Wandering people and their dogs are a growing problem across the land, and it is deeply frustrating to put wildlife cover where folk can see it, only to have its value undermined by hunting pets. So, here again, what we put close to footpaths, bridleways, and other places where the public has free access needs a bit of thought.
One solution to scoring for conservation and in PR terms, while minimising risk of damage by people is to use flowery margins. These are resilient to disturbance, and attract both pollinators and favourable public comment, while not being that likely to hold lots of game. They can also score as link habitats out to the boundaries, that do not draw our birds in the way a strip of wild bird seed mix would.
Knowing where to start
Working out the best conservation policy for an individual shoot is hard enough, but deciding on how to link it all together with the neighbours is even more so. As a start, its good to assess what you have already got. There is no point, for example, getting together for a wild grey partridge project if you do not have enough suitable open ground between you.
So, ask yourself what habitats are available, and how does it all link up with the neighbours. Is the farming arable, livestock or a mix? Are there lots of woods, and is it all plantations or are there bits of ancient wood too? Is there scope for a joint woodland restoration and planting policy that can lead towards enhancing native woodland? Are there wetlands and are they being managed to best advantage? Is there scope for a heath or moorland restoration project?
Figuring out the priorities can be very hard, and professional advice is invaluable; the GWCT’s advisory team offers the option of a biodiversity assessment visit to help work out what you have and what might be done with it. Having a visit to each shoot in a cluster is a great starting point to deciding both individual and group priorities.
Its not just game
Running my own little shoot on part of a farming cluster has been great for my wild pheasants, as well as showing a steady improvement in the grey partridges. The cluster has also done great things for declining farmland birds like corn buntings, yellowhammers and skylarks. By linking across from farm to farm with floristically enhanced grass margins, great insect and small mammal corridors have been created too. It even seems that both kestrels and barn owls are on the increase, no doubt benefitting from the extra foraging areas.
Documenting the results
Another really important aspect of the cluster approach is that pooled financial resources can allow monitoring, and documentation of results that an individual farm or shoot would find hard to justify. This can be hugely valuable in demonstrating our conservation value, with proper statistics rather than just assertion. Co-ordinated partridge counts, collated by GWCT, show that our wild greys have bucked the trend with the population growing across the cluster. Annual turtle dove counts are also showing that at the very least, we have stemmed the decline – fingers crossed for an upturn.
As well as counts and surveys carried out by cluster members themselves, we have a butterfly transect across the shoot and on to two neighbours that links to a national nature reserve. This is walked by expert volunteers at least once a month, showing how both numbers and species diversity have grown over the last few years.
This is just part of a scheme to use local experts to monitor wildlife that would be beyond our individual talents and resources. This has a double benefit, in that as well as providing extra data, it results in extra ambassadors for what we are doing. Being well known and respected in conservation circles, these people are just the ones that we need to spread the good word about what we are doing.
This may all be part of a farmer cluster, with nothing directly to do with shooting, but with much of the ground keepered, the spin off is still there. More to the point, I cannot see any reason why shoots cannot adopt the same model, thereby improving what they offer in conservation terms, documenting the results, and spreading the message to the sceptics.
This article first appeared in Shooting Times