Management of Gamebird Shooting in Lowland Britain: Social Attitudes, Biodiversity Benefits and Willingness-to-Pay.
Successful conservation of British biodiversity largely depends on privately owned agricultural land that covers over 75% of Britain's surface area. Several centuries of traditional management for land uses like hunting and shooting have shaped the British countryside. However, agricultural intensification since World War Il has reduced habitat quality, and resulted in biodiversity losses, for example of woodland and farmland birds. More recently, agri-environment schemes (AESs) have sought to redress these losses, but have not yet realised wider benefits because of adopted inappropriate prescriptions and/or poor execution of these prescriptions. However, many landowners who shoot gamebirds produce high quality habitat that also benefits wider biodiversity. Additional benefits generated by gamebird shooting include job creation, financial benefits for local businesses, and social cohesion among rural communities. Nevertheless, some opponents wish to ban gamebird shooting or introduce regulations. Consequently, many lowland shoots have changed some practices, in particular reducing the numbers of reared and released birds.
This thesis investigates the social attitudes of those who shoot, and the biodiversity benefits and financial viability of these changed practices on a lowland pheasant shoot in Kent. Focal group discussions showed that the four main stakeholder groups placed different values on gamebird shooting, although each group recognised many wide reaching benefits. Equally, discussants emphasised the need to accept change to assure the future of gamebird shooting. Surveys around a new land management regime designed to increase wild pheasant numbers on a commercial reared shoot showed increases in pheasant brood density and average brood size. This highlighted the feasibility of increasing wild game productivity, even among large numbers of reared gamebirds, through habitat creation, modified gamekeeping and supplementary feeding. Pheasant productivity was significantly related to gamekeeping effort, spring pheasant population composition, and the release of reared gamebirds.
The effects of the new land management regime on wider wildlife were mixed. Butterfly numbers increased and were greater in number than were observed in populations at a site under conventional farm management with no AES. Bumblebee numbers did not increase and were no different to those at the conventionally farmed site. This indicated that grass margins created through the new regime increased habitat quality only for certain species groups. Numbers of butterflies and bumblebees were similar to those on well-established shoots that are predominantly or completely wild, indicating that large numbers of reared gamebirds did not affect butterfly and bumblebee numbers. The number of butterflies and bumblebees was positively related to the cover of flowers and herbs, suggesting that the seed mix sown in field boundaries is important in determining the populations of these two species groups.
The number of insects important as chick food items increased significantly in the grass margins sown under the new regime, showing that these habitats successfully provided rich feeding areas for wild gamebird broods. The grass strips contained more insects than conventionally cropped field edge, highlighting the importance of alternative habitat areas in wild gamebird productivity. Densities of songbirds increased under the new regime, and compared to those on well-established shoots that are predominantly or completely wild. Songbird populations were significantly influenced by gamekeeping effort and the amount of alternative habitat created by field boundaries and AES prescriptions.
The willingness-to-pay survey indicated that shoot owners would lose significant revenue, should the release of reared gamebirds be banned in the future. As many shoots generate little or no money for their owners, or are even run at a loss, it was concluded that a future ban on released birds would result in the closure of many lowland shoots, and the loss of the varied social and biological benefits generated by gamebird shooting.