My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
Before travelling to the Game Fair this weekend, I welcome a guest blog from Rob Yorke, rural commentator and hunter/naturalist. Have a read and let me know what you think. Both Rob and I would be delighted to hear your views.
Conservation hang-ups; be braver, bolder!
This year the RSPB will have its usual presence at the Game Fair, one of the UK’s largest annual rural events. Some may have expected the RSPB just to attend Birdfair, but recognition that the countryside is a melting pot of multiple land uses demands, requires engagement in dialogue.
Little terns and pheasants both benefit from electric fences; but we tend to get ‘hung up’ on the differences between EU funded protection of terns from foxes and shooting interests keeping foxes out of pheasant release pens.
We cannot ignore both the huge financial costs of conservation and the environmental impact of poor shooting practices. There is much common ground between conservation and shooting that could result in biodiversity being the first beneficiary, before we ‘profit’ from recreational ‘cultural ecosystem services’ of shooting and birdwatching.
The RSPB’s Game Fair theme this year is woodland – managing them to ‘provide for wildlife, people and the economy’ and you can’t manage woodland without cutting down trees (unless you let your wood take an unpredictable Monbiot-style rewilding course).
The same interventionist principle applies to nature conservation.
Deep pockets are required to start managing woodland before major benefits accrue to wildlife, let alone to the economy. Grey squirrels are a major threat to broadleaf woodlands - as red deer are to Caledonian pine forests – and the benefit of onsite shooting interests assisting in woodland management, are considerably cheaper than bringing in hired ‘guns’.
We need, as Sir John Lawton put bluntly, to get more conservation bang for our buck (1). Especially during austerity and reduced funding from Europe.
Science puts a case within the complex interaction of habitat and predators, that intervention may be a necessity in modern conservation practice. Habitat management on our crowded island is not enough. The RSPB and shooting interests both lethally control wildlife - whether by egg oiling, Larsen trapping or shooting – and Lawton himself encourages us to ‘get on with it [predator control] (2)’.
The shooting lobby must self regulate. The release of high densities of pheasants must change. The culture of what guns pay for must change. Less birds, higher standards, more habitat for wild pheasants and wider benefit to biodiversity and forestry. Those that persecute raptors must be ostracised. Shooting organisations could seek funding looking at ways of reducing predator impact on shoots – similar to Defra’s research into reducing raptor conflicts with rural livelihoods elsewhere.
There are some who cannot understand how those that shoot have a deep knowledge and love of nature; even after Sir Peter Scott gave up wildfowling, he said the wildness of the hunt was integral to his love of nature. Conservationists must not mistakenly snuff out that hunting instinct which also nurtures the habitat we all want to conserve. This appreciation is as valid as wanting to have a bird reserve on your doorstep; shooting a woodcock in a woodland devoid of wildlife would be as pointless as a twitcher ticking off a rare migrant in a zoo.
Those that would like to see shooting banned should be aware of the tradeoffs (3) in loss of interest, rural investment, cultural and wildlife diversity. As one environment columnist commented; ‘there’s no denying that across the Norfolk Estate [managed for grey partridge shooting] wildlife has exploded.’
For biodiversity to thrive in today’s world, some conservation practices may seem ‘unfair' to some flora and fauna. We must be bolder and braver with our practices to demonstrate how shooting, wildlife and woodland management can all benefit the widest biodiversity while remaining both economically and environmentally viable.
Please agree or disagree www.twitter.com/blackgull
(1), (2) Sir John Lawton comments at RASE ‘Sustainable Intensification & Farmland Birds’ Seminar
(3) Dr Mike Clarke at BOU Conference 2012
Great blog entry Rob, I would have been anti hunting/shooting a few years back but then my son worked for a local gamekeeper on work experience and from the full and frank discussions that followed I changed my opinions. It's a shame a handful of "defectors" let the side down but that's life I suppose. If they taught co-operation theory in primary school and balance in all things then perhaps prospects would improve for literally everybody!?
"One million members; so few views... " how true !! Hopefully the RSPB lead in reaching out to the masses (via TV campaigning) will redress that balance in time?
Thanks for constructive comments & plenty of debate at the Game Fair re the content above. There is plenty of common ground but few willing to acknowledge it - perhaps seen as a chink in armour?
Good example of middle way is, ironically, the buzzard; some years back shooters/conservationists agreed that for indiscriminate poisoning to stop an alternative must continue - the 'species selective' Larsen trap was the compromise - used by both gamekeepers & RSPB wardens where appropriate.
We must all find a 'way forward' without trying to corner/embarrass each other, while being more acutely aware of the bigger picture.
I shall continue to do so.
Rob, Trying again !
In a country here I'd guess over half the people will never in their lifetime knowingly kill a vertebrate (whilst eating more and more remotely reared & slaughtered meat) shooting' natural trajectory can only be downwards. Telling each other what a great job you are doing just won't work - ironic, as the enormous spread in buzzards must be strong circumstantial evidence of a sea change in the amount of persecution going on. However, shooting has yet again shot itself in the foot with Buzzardgate 1 & 2 which is what will stick in the public mind.
Bluntly, the need for action rather than words now rests firmly with the shooting sector.
First, whilst loyalty is a wonderful virtue the silence of responsible shooters in the face of damaging commercial mega-shoots and persecution endd up with whole sector tarred with the same brush.
Second,why not face up to the inevitable and do the right thing over lead and take the initiative to ban it ? Whilst a lot of the more aggressive parts of the sector will huff and puff mightily, there is the opportunity to grab some moral high ground rather than suffer yet another defeat. The impact on the long-term debate would be far greater than most people realise - it could start to establish the idea that some of the good things about shooting are real, and not just propaganda - and I do know a little about this sort of thing if you think about the transformation of forestry- both real and in its image - over the past 20 years !
Hunting for food is a natural instinct which should not be condemned but there is no doubt that there is hunting and there is hunting. The middle ground produces the best all round outcomes. Excess of anything is never sustainable whether that be pheasants or predators. Welcome and long awaited balanced blog. Well done RSPB for creating a more balanced platform for debate.
I've tried posting twice now and comment been rejected - sorry Rob !
Hi Rob,prod did it for me.I can agree with lots of what shooting people do although do not really understand why they need to do the shooting part as opposed to enjoying the wildlife that they encourage.Can accept the compromise except for the one thing that I draw the line at and that is raptor persecution which although lots of shooting people seem to condemn is still widespread.You shooting people find ways to clean up that act and I would certainly take a different thought on your group of people.
Weather too hot or my blog too middle 'cool' ground to attract attention from even Messrs Sooty, Redkite, Nightjar, Petercrispin et al?
One million members; so few views... perhaps some Game Fair attendees might wade in.
Rob, In general I don't disagree with any of this and I suppose that, like diets, a bit of everything in moderation works well (I wish it did for me). People are starting to polarise in their arguments and as a result of a few gamekeepers under pressure that industry gets a bad name in that same way that as a result of the opinions of a few protectionists the conservation movement gets a bad name in some quarters. We do have to bring those views together with a common goal.
I was on Salisbury Plain yesterday looking for Harriers (I probably shouldn't say that in public) and whilst I never saw any had a long chat with a local farmer who realising I was a good bloke talked to me about his shoot, what he had planted to improve the prospects of local wildlife and was even willing to tell me where to sit up on a public road to get distant views of 'his' stone curlew (never saw them either - heat haze). That man should be applauded, not for being helpful to me but for his view on his environment. I have no doubt he shot what he viewed as vermin but I certainly wasn't stumbling over pheasants everywhere as I do in other areas near here (even out of season).
Broadly agree Rob, as well as habitat degradation and fragmentation, we are currently suffering from unnaturally high numbers of medium-level (meso) native predators, due to absence of apex predators and less compensatory control previously undertaken by farmers and gamekeepers. Pressure on certain prey species (such as capercaillie, some waders and passerines) now too great to sustain populations at previous levels and may be helping hasten local level extinctions.
Equally, proliferation of non-native invasive alien species (including domestic and feral cats) adding to intolerable pressure on some. Sadly, a relatively high level of intervention is likely to be necessary if we are to preserve/conserve some much-loved species and habitats.