An interesting report

At the Game Fair – I said those couple of days could keep this blog going for ages – I picked up a report by the  National Gamekeepers Organisation considering the state of nature on commercial shoots.  It’s an interesting read.

With the snappy title ‘Gamekeepers and Wildlife’ this report compiles information from a postal questionnaire of under a thousand gamekeepers who represent around a fifth of all employed in such work.

Given the methods behind this report, we are dealing with what gamekeepers themselves say and believe rather than hard facts, and that needs to be borne in mind by the reader.  And that just adds to the interest, of course.

Interestingly, there is a high reliance by shoots on agri-environment schemes – not surprising but one of the reasons why the shooting community should be an ally in many debates on the future of public policy.

Something is made of the large area covered by this ‘survey’ – I only put survey in quotation marks because it was the gamekeepers who were surveyed, not their ground – it is an area five times greater than the area covered by National Nature Reserves and 13 times greater than that of RSPB nature reserves.  Well, that is a little bit interesting.  It’s a pity though that the figure used for the area of RSPB nature reserves is 102k ha whereas the correct figure is over 140k ha (a figure easily found on the RSPB’s website for those keen to check their facts)  but that doesn’t really matter except than every time I find a wrong ‘fact’ in a report I tend to look closer at the other ‘facts’ too.

There was another part of the report that made me wonder a bit –  the list of birds regarded as breeding or visiting these 941 shoots according to their gamekeepers.  Remember that these shoots are distributed right across England, Scotland and Wales and yet 56% of them claim to have lesser-spotted woodpeckers, 33% turtle doves, 9% hawfinches and 8% bitterns.  I do wonder a bit about these ‘facts’ but I can see how they might be strictly speaking true, but still misleading, if there are lots of small shoots in those parts of southern England which are great for wildlife.

So I was interested, too, to see the distribution maps of various quarry and predator species and to read what gamekeepers think about them.  Although most of the distribution maps look pretty accurate to me there are certainly some interesting records such as those grey partridges further west in Wales and the West Country than I would have expected and a whole bunch of red grouse in parts of Devon where I would be surprised to see them.  I wonder what the BTO/SOC/BWI Atlas will say? Have a look for yourself as the report is online (although it does take a while for the maps to download) and tell me what you think.  In particular, are there really still red grouse in those parts of southern Devon?

Over 95% of shoots in this survey have woodcock (including wintering ones) and I was surprised to see that this species is a sporting interest on two thirds of those estates with the species present.  I had thought, and I had been told, that many pheasant shoots discourage the shooting of woodcock on conservation grounds but maybe that’s a kind thought about shooting that I should now dismiss from my mind.  Please, those of you who know, comment on this subject here as I’d like to know the true situation.

If you are an avian predator on a shoot then you are probably best off being a barn owl, kestrel or red kite because the majority of gamekeepers surveyed here believe that these species cause problems for neither game nor other wildlife species.  Buzzards, sparrowhawks and badgers are far less popular.

This report also shows where the gamekeepers’ legal predator control efforts are most directed.  More than three quarters of those shoots where the species is present will cull foxes, crows, rats, grey squirrels, magpies, rooks, jackdaws, mink, stoats, weasels, feral cats and jays.  I’m always taken aback by the fact that rooks and jackdaws are in this list.

When covered in the Daily Telegraph this was what the paper thought about this report – somehow turning it into a competition between shooting estates and the RSPB.  I was interested to see that the Telegraph says that the League Against Cruel Sports says that 12,300 wild birds and mammals are killed on UK shooting estates every day.  That’s a lot of death – I wonder whether that is the right figure?  It’s about 5 million deaths a year – quite a few.

I think that many readers of this blog will find this report interesting.  The thing that would have made it much more interesting would have been if the NGO had asked its members what proportion of them killed kites, buzzards, sparrowhawks, harriers etc.  That’s the piece of information that would be fascinating to know the truth about but a questionnaire is not a reliable way to get to that truth.  If only we knew those figures it would be so much easier to move further on the relationship between the shooting community and nature conservation.  Is it the small minority or the rather large minority or even the majority?

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21 Comments

  1. Edward William Hutchings

    I've been on over 100 shoots in my life Mark. Every single one of them has encouraged the shooting of woodcock. The excited shouts of 'Cock!' as the bird flies down the line of guns ensures that there is often no escape. Only the bird's ability to zigzag between trees with agility gives it any hope of survival.

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    • Mark

      Edward - welcome! Well, as I say, I've been labouring under a misapprehension for many years then. Thank you for helping to correct it.

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  2. Birdseye

    Your final paragraph sets a challenge. May I suggest that you might accept an important challenge before that? The conundrum is the wisdom and sustainability of Red Kite introductions when the the law about fallen stock deliberately withdraws the main food source for any scavengers?
    The greatest numbers of Red Kites I have ever seen [into 000's] was in the outskirts of East Berlin on huge uncontrolled open waste tips, long before the wall came down. Does that tell a story about Red Kite food supply. In additon all the raptors you cite all have a different conservation satus and thus the questions anwered species by species?

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    • Mark

      Birdseye - there's an awful lot of carrion in the countryside still. All those rabbits and pheasants on the roads for a start - and some dead badgers too. The most red kites I ever saw in one go was at the refuse tip for a sausage factory in Spain - black vultures too! But I agree about the folly of an over-bureaucratic position on fallen stock - and wrote accordingly in another place at an earlier time.

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  3. Mal Taylor

    I read the report and came to the conclusion that an awful lot of effort had been put into collating data for no other reason than arriving at the results that the questionnaire was undoubtedly constructed for, i.e. that Gamekeepers tolerate birds of prey and manage the land under their control for the benefit of a whole host of endangered species. It would have been nice to have seen the questionnaire that was distributed to gamekeepers, and how the questions were weighted to arrive at conclusions such as “the majority of gamekeepers who reported buzzards on their land considered that they had a negative effect on both game and wildlife”. Whatever negative effect may mean! The fact that “the two species most widely reported as quarry throughout the UK were the pheasant and the red-legged partridge” says a lot though! Both alien species and released into the managed countryside in their millions.

    So are gamekeepers managing their land in favour of “rare and charismatic wildlife” as this report would have you believe, or simply to blast huge numbers of predominately alien species from our skies? Exactly who does this propaganda fool? Unfortunately our great British press if you read the article in the Daily Telegraph! Yet again lazy, lazy journalism.

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    • Mark

      Mal - thank you for your comment (which disappeared into the ether for a while because I pushed the wrong button - apologies)

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  4. Julian Fox

    The fact that so much land is 'controlled' by gamekeepers sholdn't really be a surprise Mark. And of course it probably doesn't cover lots of part time keepers too.

    All the more reason to get them all onside. One could say the impact of RSPB and NNRs is relatively small......

    of course I generalise, but you get my point.....

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  5. Mark

    In my experience many shoots regularly shoot woodcock, considering it a very sporting bird due to the relatively fast and jinking flight pattern. I would consider that I am closely involved with 10 shoots and have a good working relationship with at least another 30; of these I'd say 80% shoot woodcock. Of those that don't this is usually down to the reluctance of the shoot owner. Having said that, the majority of shoots have a self-imposed ban on woodcock shooting, if the weather is too hard, much in the same way as wildfowl. Shooting around the time of migration to the UK when birds are tired is also frowned upon.

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    • Mark

      Long Sword - welcome! Thank you for that.

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  6. Birdseye

    Red Kites are not stupid. They shy away from landing on roads to feed on carrion I have never seen that and Kites are relatively abundant here. There is very little other carrion about in the countryside. I am told that one individual in heartland kite country is putting out 300+kg of meat pre day that is that sensible.

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  7. Paul v Irving

    Here in yorkshire Kites certainly take road kill and indeed several of them have become road kill themselves doing so. Despite their apparent size, all feathers and wings kites are quite slight birds as such their food intake is surprisingly small. Given that numbers of birds such as kite are governed by food supply not the other way round there is obviously enough carrion out there. Lets not go down that road again. Much more interesting is this survey the answers as supplied tell us much more about keepers perceptions of wildlife than it tells us about wildlife itself. Mind you some of the questions also say much of attitiudes in shoot employee organisations, when I've digested more of it I may comment further on both these points.

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  8. Ed Hutchings

    Birdseye, there is plenty of carrion in the countryside. Just because you can't see it, doesn't mean that it's not there. Animals, like humans, die all the time. Unlike most humans, animals eat other dead animals. Where else do you think their bodies go?

    Due to the grammar in your last sentence, I can't tell whether you are endorsing or criticising Red Kite feeding stations. Please clarify.

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  9. Julian, the impact in terms of political influence of RSPB and other conservation bodies has been anything but small. Their influence has had an entirely disproportionate impact on our rural economy and ironically a negative impact on many areas of our environment, particularly in Scotland, where the damage through the pursuit of costly single species protection programmes, to biodiversity has now been recognised and acknowledged.

    As for "reports" and credibility Mark, until recently, we were relentlessly bombarded with RSPB PR Raptor Campaign "reports", predicated on conjecture and scenario, lacking the factual evidence required by Wildlife Crime Officers to pinpoint trouble spots, catch and prosecute. PAW was created to provide more efficient, independent, credible, intelligence reporting. The inclusion of the SASA independent Scottish Government Scientists and the Scottish Police Forces in the partnership creates and ensures that vital independent, credibility. The Raptor Poisoning Mapping Initiative provides a tool for our WCOs to work more effectively with their communities to work to eradicate the horrendous illegal poisoning of raptors.

    One "report", above all, that will forever tarnish any credibility in RSPB reports for me, is the Langholm Report, but how credible are any reports? They are usually written from an angle. However, credibility once lost is hard to win back.

    Re woodcock. Shoots are autonomous and each one enjoys its own little ecosystem nurtured and shaped by its keeper. In times of plenty, woodcock, as with other species, may be a quarry, but it is not in a shoot's interest to wipe out any of its quarry species. It is arrogant to assume from afar, in the absence of hard facts that wholesale unsustainable slaughter of woodcock or indeed anything is taking place across the countryside.

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    • Mark

      Daye - always glad to get your comments here.

      No woodcock shoot is an island, entire of itself. Most, I would guess, woodcock shot in the UK are immigrants from the continent so the point about it not being in a shoot's interests to wipe out its quarry doesn't apply so clearly - but I'm not sure anyone has suggested that shoots do wipe out their quarry nor that wholsesale unsustainable slaughter of woodcock is taking place across the coutryside - those are your words.

      Which RSPB report on Langholm do you mean - I don't recall there ever was one.

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  10. The Duke of Buccleuch generously handed over the management of Langholm Moor to RSPB control in an experiment. 5 keepers were lost to the moor leaving the management entirely to RSPB. It was a disaster economically and environmentally with resultant loss of habitat and biodiversity including the raptors. Where is the RSPB report on that outcome? You're right Mark, none was publicised. Had it been a success, I have no doubt there would have been a report.

    Rather than simply take the moor back, generously, the estate gave it another go, this time with a partnership including RSPB and GWCT, but the project managed this time by Head Keeper Simon Lester. http://www.gwct.org.uk/about_us/news/1114.asp Biodiversity and habitat loss is now recovering along with grouse and raptor numbers. 'Nuf said!

    No one organisation should ever again have the influence to become the final arbiter of how our countryside is managed. Partnership is the way forward. I strongly believe we are on course for a new beginning but tit for tat discussions on data are turgid. Few entirely trust statistics. I find the comments from practitioners help to balance my views, as long as there is a genuine balance of contributing practitioners and that is your challenge but respect and trust will take time.

    Re woodcock. Geese are a migratory quarry species, not sure I understand the point you are trying to make. Perhaps we have a different definition of quarry species. Whether immigrants, resident or simply passing through, a keeper has intimate knowledge of his habitat throughout the year, and makes management judgements. At the start of the shoot, the guns are assembled and instructed. What can or can not be shot on the day is part of that instruction process. This ensures good management of "quarry" species as other posts have illustrated.

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    • Mark

      Daye - thank you for your comments about Langholm in your first paragraph which are wrong in just about every respect and therefore in one go allow me the opportunity to correct a few rural myths about the project. I speak from personal experience having been instrumental in making sure that the RSPB was part of the consortium running the original Langholm project. The RSPB had no staff on the ground in the original Langholm project and were not in any sort of control of the moor. However the RSPB did put a lot of money into funding this important study (and we could have spent it in other ways) - and rarely gets any credit for doing that. In fact, the project was thought up by the Game Conservancy Trust and the Institute for Terrestrial Ecology. It was a scientific study and so success or failure would be in terms of how well the study went rather than what happened on the ground. There was not, in the study, a loss of habitat - at least I can't think what it might have been and it would have made the findings rather more difficult to interepret if there had been. There was not a loss of raptors - hen harrier and peregrine numbers went up. There was not a loss of biodiversity - you don't define what you mean but the usual myth on this subject is that all the waders disappeared whereas actually some increased through the study and some decreased. There was a report published straight after the study by the scientists who did the work, and a number of scientific papers in the following years. And there is a website on the current work at Langholm which contains a summary of the findings of the first study if you would like to check it out (and it includes graphs of wader numbers for you to check what I have said about them) http://www.langholmproject.com/otherwildlife.html. You might want to apologise for spreading such inaccurate views?

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  11. Birdseye

    Ed
    I am sorry that you seem to suggest that I am not a countryman; I understand that animals die and are eaten, [I can smell when they die as well!] I was suggesting that there is still not enough carrion to feed all the mammals and birds that wish to scavenge. [As an aside there is more traffic in the South that the North luckily for them!] I apologise for my grammar, which is not helped by my typing. I was trying to ask a question 'is it sensible to feed at that level'?

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  12. Mark

    The League Against Cruel Sports tells me (via twitter) that the figure of 23,000 creatures a day is not their's and they wouldn't know what the real figurte is. Anyone got a clue how many foxes, stoats, crows magpies etc killed through the year as part of legal predator control?

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  13. Ed Hutchings

    I think Red Kite feeding stations are a very bad idea in general and most unnatural. (So is feeding garden birds some might say, but I feel that's a different situation altogether). I believe the populations of Red Kites within the vicinity of feeding stations become too reliant on them and therefore have no impetus to spread their range further. This has led to large concentrations in some parts of the British Isles and a rather sedentary nature.
    It was never my intention to imply, Birdseye, that you weren't a countryman and I apologise for any offence caused. Although the diet of the current kite population has been shown to include pheasants, they are almost entirely scavenged carcasses, many of them road victims (Why else do we see so many kites along the M40?) or killed by disease. So far the reintroduced kites have steered clear of chickens. However, this probably reflects the changed ecology of domestic poultry, rather than any modification to the kite's hunting methods. Hens and their chicks would once have scratched their living on every village green and presented easy pickings in the more open landscapes of pre-enclosure England, particularly to an agile opportunist like the red kite.

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  14. Ed Hutchings

    Birdseye - I have a theory to why you don't see raptors feeding on the side of a road. I suspect it is because they have talons and can therefore carry off the majority of carrion to be eaten undisturbed elsewhere. Corvids on the other hand lack talons and therefore have to feed on carrion 'in situ'.

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  15. Robin Edwards

    "Over recent decades, most UK bird of prey populations have surged to levels not seen within living memory. Gamekeepers have had to adapt to this new situation within a legal framework that dates from a time when many birds of prey were rare.

    Gamekeepers adapting to the 21st century ? Poor chaps.
    Their web site doesn't explain why BoP in upland landscapes are bucking this trend ? They know onlt too well the reasons though don't they?

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