More than just game – reflecting on World Wildlife Day

Today marks World Wildlife Day, the UN’s headline event for promoting ecology across the globe. This got me thinking. Many people I meet greet the fact I work for the GWCT with some form of reference to pheasants and partridges. That’s no surprise given that we have been the leading organisation researching game management in the UK for over 80 years, but our work goes much further than that. Here are a few of our non-game research findings that you might not be aware of:

  • The gut parasite Trichostrongylus retortaeformis significantly reduces the fecundity of female mountain hares, enough to cause a cycle of regular population crashes.
  • In 2002-3, direct trapping using the mink raft, designed by the GWCT, achieved a substantial impact on mink, resulting in water voles increasing their range along the River Itchen. This success led not only to widespread use in the UK but in many countries across the world.
  • Skylark nest survival was positively related to the area of set-aside around the nest.
  • Song thrush nest survival during incubation was positively related to the amount of permanent pasture around the nest.
  • Nesting success of spotted flycatchers at Loddington was higher when predators were controlled.
  • Swan grazing pressure during the first half of the year reduces the subsequent growth of Ranunculus.
  • In the absence of skylark plots, putting in wildflower margins led to 23% more skylark food items compared with standard fields.
  • Farms providing over-winter food supplies showed an average increase in breeding yellowhammer numbers of 51%, compared with 28% on control farms.
  • Bumblebees are primary pollinators of blackthorn, solitary bees of hawthorn and wasps of ivy.
  • There are insufficient weed seeds on the surface of most stubble fields to attract or hold farmland birds – hence the need for conservation headlands.
  • Blackbird nest site exposure has a negative effect on nest survival, but this negative effect is reduced when predators are controlled.
  • Sawfly larvae, which make up more than two-thirds of black grouse chick diet, were found to be twice as abundant in fields grazed by cattle than those by sheep only.
  • Yellowhammer pairs nesting adjacent to wild bird seed crops produced 15% more chick than pairs nesting further away.
  • Trout and juvenile salmon number can be increased by excluding livestock from chalk rivers.
  • Sainfoin, a perennial legume, supports rare and scarce species of insect as well any many common pollinators and insects that are food for farmland birds.
  • Artificial nest boxes were not effective as a conservation measure for farmland bumblebees.
  • Translocation was a successful mechanism for re-establishing black grouse range.
  • Tree sparrow fledging success increased with the area of agri-environment scheme grass cover.
  • Long-term declines in invertebrate abundance on the Sussex Study are related to an increase in the intensity of pesticide use, not to trends in either temperature or rainfall.
  • Juvenile salmon densities were positively associated with Ranunculus cover.

It’s not just about the research – these findings inform policy, give advice and guidance to those managing our landscape and result in a better countryside.

The theme of this year’s World Wildlife Day is Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet. There are some fascinating speakers at the UN’s online event, with organisations ranging from Vie Sauvage in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Ranu Welum Foundation in Borneo and the National Congress of American Indians.

Interestingly, the UN say that the event aims to ‘promote the value of traditional practices and knowledge that contribute to establishing a more sustainable relationship with these crucial natural systems.’ As part of our new International Conservationist series, we recently interviewed Elizabeth Azzuz a member of the Yurok tribe, which has been undertaking prescribed burning in spring and autumn for centuries. This ancient practice is used to regenerate vegetation, create space for wildlife to roam and, more recently, for wildfire control. The Yurok’s involvement in wildfire mitigation is encouraged by local authorities in California and they work in tandem with the local fire agencies.

Elizabeth ended the interview by saying “nature has always been tended by the people that dwell on her. Nature cannot clean herself; she needs a helping hand!”. Perhaps this approach to traditional management can find an audience closer to home.

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