Guest blog – Ian Coghill, Chair of GWCT

I’m Ian Coghill. Mark very kindly suggested I do a guest spot on his blog.  I’m the Chairman of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT). Contrary to some possible expectations that this news may engender, I am not rich, I don’t own a grouse moor and the only estate I have regular contact with is an ‘08 Peugeot 207.

I am a huge fan of the Trust and its work and have been involved in one way or another for over 20 years and never miss a chance to explain what it does.  So here goes.

We are, like most organisations in the field, tiny when compared with Mark’s old firm, our total budget is less than 25% of what they spend just on fund raising.

We, unlike almost all other conservation organisations, primarily exist to carry out scientific research into the problems facing wildlife and where possible come up with practical solutions.

We used to be called the Game Conservancy and we have a long history of high quality research into issues facing game, the reasons we changed our name were threefold.  First that the skills and techniques our scientists had acquired on say Grey Partridge and Hares were transferable to issues and species which had nothing to do with game.  Second, because nothing exists in isolation. Partridge chicks need sawfly larvae, sawfly larvae need arable weeds, arable weeds need a space free from herbicides.  The question ceases to be how can we have more partridges and becomes how can we get enough arable weeds in a landscape primarily designed for food production.  Third, because of the above we now do a lot of research which has nothing to do with game.

The largest group of staff are research scientists, a very unusual employee balance when compared with all other conservation organisations, and they are expected to do the research and publish in peer reviewed journals.  We have an exemplary record for peer reviewed publication.  There are two reasons for this.  First, we are seeking practical solutions to real problems and it is our duty to publish.  Second, because what we find is sometimes not universally welcome, peer review provides validation of method and conclusion which helps to move discussion to a better place.

We have a very good record of getting to the bottom of problems and finding practical solutions which can be and are used to enhance wildlife abundance. We invented Beetle Banks, Conservation Headlands and many other interventions which are now so mainstream that no one can remember who actually did the work.

That is a very short version of the GWCT and why it is a good thing.  Why then could Mark say, truthfully no doubt, when he asked me to write, that many of you did not like us? That is only partially a rhetorical question.  My view is that GWCT exists to make the world a better place and if people who also have that ambition don’t like us, we need to listen to what they have got say, debate it, learn from it, and where practical adapt.

If a small organisation like GWCT is to maximise its power to do good it needs to work in partnership with other organisations and individuals.  The basis of successful partnership is trust and ‘don’t like’ is a bad place to start.

One of the problems is, I think, that we have allowed ourselves to be painted into a corner on the issue of predator control.  This is a real challenge.  GWCTs philosophy of following the science and publishing what we find has resulted in us being clear that for some species and in some places legal predator control has a part to play in conservation. A lot of people don’t like that.  Unfortunately we believe, based on peer reviewed research, that it is true and we further believe that we have a duty to say so.

When we are asked that question, say on a TV programme, an RSPB spokesman invariably pops up and says that habitat is what matters.  The impression created is that the RSPB takes an entirely different view on legal predator control, whilst we think it is the be all and end all of conservation.  Little could be further from the truth.  The RSPB clearly believes that ‘for some species and in some places legal predator control has a part to play’ because they do it, although of course they avoid talking about it.  Equally we believe that habitat is of critical importance, why wouldn’t we?  We did much of the research that demonstrated it in the first place.

The reality is that an increasing number of conservation organisations undertake predator control.  They just do it covertly and keep very quiet about it.  I can perfectly understand and sympathise when a mass membership organisation has to adjust its image to avoid upsetting its client base.  For example I may have missed it but I can’t remember anything about the number of rare and protected birds and small mammals killed by member’s cats in any of their journals.  With over a million members and a standard distribution of cat ownership the RSPB’s annual toll must in millions, including quite a few serious rarities.  As an example take the Gloucestershire Bird Report 2008. ‘Wryneck Jynx torquilla.  Very scarce passage migrant.  Wooton-under-edge; one killed by cat on 20 May’.  It’s a bloody sight scarcer now!

When you get beyond the drums and trumpets virtually everyone trying to save the wildlife of these crowded islands agrees about most things.  The few things we disagree about are in many cases capable of resolution through the slow but sure route of scientific research.   If we spend our time fighting over Carrion Crows don’t be surprised if when we finally stop and look round that they have concreted over Berkshire.

I may, of course, be wrong.  It may be the people, not the research that is the source of the alleged dislike.  That would be a pity but not necessarily a surprise.  Historically a lot of our supporters have been people interested in shooting and this seems to be a problem for some people who only watch.  It’s a pity because properly conducted game shooting and wildfowling has played, and continues to play, an enormously important part in creating and conserving the rural landscape and the wildlife it supports.  The huge and pressing problems facing wildlife are far too important for us to pick and choose who can help.  If you are prepared to work with someone who shoots and eats pheasants, I can work with someone who buys 30 day old birds from Sainsbury’s or whose cat has just presented them with a Red Backed Shrike.

Then again you might just be allergic to Tweed.

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43 Replies to “Guest blog – Ian Coghill, Chair of GWCT”

  1. Good morning Ian and thank you for a thoughtful and interesting piece. I am aware of the GWCT’s contribution to farmland conservation practices and hope that your organisation can long continue to carry out high quality research to the benefit of all wildlife.
    With respect to predator control the devil is very much in the detail. It is one thing to carry out a carefully planned, limited action to alleviate a specific localised problem – say the removal of crows that are otherwise threatening breeding failure in a colony of black-tailed godwits or, on a wider scale, the removal of introduced hedgehogs from the machair in the Outer Hebrides – it is quite another to operate a shoot-on-sight policy towards anything with a hooked beak. Of course the GWCT does not advocate indiscriminate killing of raptors but sadly the mentality of many gamekeepers and, implicitly, their employers is one of total intolerance of predators. Whilst it is admirable that you should be honest and open with regards to the occasional need for localised, targetted predator control, it would be good if your organisation could maintain an unequivocal and stance against indiscriminate predator killing.
    With respect to Hen Harriers, my view is that even if they do take grouse chicks and may affect grouse numbers on a moor, that is insufficient reason to shoot them. They are a rare and beautiful species whose extinction in England is threatened by gamekeepers and if their continued presence in our moorlands means a few less grouse to shoot then so be it.
    With regards to cats, I am not sure that you are right that their impact on songbirds and small mammals is never discussed by the wildlife conservation organisations. They clearly kill a lot but I have to say, however, that I am sceptical as to the extent that they can be blamed for the scarcity of either the Wryneck or the Red-backed Shrike! Unscrupulous game-keeing on the other hand is undoubtedly implicated in the rarity of Hen Harriers.
    You are right that it is important that all members of the conservation community should work together to help prevent the seemingly inexorable erosion of our national biodiversity and the ‘game’ part of your name and your remit should not be a reason for you to be excluded from this. It would indeed be a disaster if Berkshire were concreted over whilst we fight over carrion crows but, that said, some aspects of the predator control debate are not at all trivial and require our ongoing attention at the same time as we all continue to oppose the metaphorical bulldozers.

    1. Jonathan – thank you for a very thoughtful and temperate comment which I hope will set the tone for others. Thank you again.

      1. Fair point. I freely acknowledge that the gamekeeping community also includes enlightened and law abiding members. I honestly don’t know the proportions of good to bad but can we agree that, whatever the actual number there are too many of the latter?

  2. I don’t eat chicken, don’t have a cat, not allergic to tweed, still disagree strongly with the ethic. #GWCT #shooting #predatorcontrol

    1. Seasonalight – welcome to this blog and thanks for your Twiitter presence! Thanks for your comment.

  3. I phoned you Ian this year to discuss the problems faced by introducing Red legged Partridge to Black Grouse habitat. You had no answers!! Yes Red legged Partridge carry more disease than most birds but as there is no need for a license to introduce a foreign bird to these shores [there is for all other species but not game birds!] then 2500 have been released by a thriving population of Black Grouse. First observations is that vast numbers of predators have been brought to the site not just for the Partridge which are often left dead after shooting but for all the mice and rats encouraged to the site for all the grain that is now put out over the whole area. The second observation is that no Black Grouse now use that part of the fell as the disturbance factor is endless. Quad bike tracks are now everywhere as no one can walk any more. Shoots are once a week using beaters flushing everything on the moor and main tracks have been turned into mud due to the amount of traffic using them. Sadly the area is not an SSSI but given the lack of protection on most Red Grouse moors to SSSIs with the continuation of making roads up them it may not make much difference. By the way I am not an anti but I am loosing patients with organisations like yours and the RSPB who do nothing to protect Birds of Prey.

    1. John – thanks, but you sound quite grumpy this morning. And are you sure you are being fair in your last sentence? Seems a bit harsh to at least one organisation to me.

  4. Ian illustrates perfectly what I’ve felt for a long time about GWTC – its a rather shizophrenic organisation. It really does do some great science – and the scientists are scientists first and solely – one I worked with on a pheasant & wildlife research project moved on to RSPB and then to the Government’s central science laboratory. The problem is it all gets mixed up with shooting culture/lore and from the hard facts we stray into the sort of random non-science Ian comes out with eg the cat-killed Wryneck. And whatever good work it does it is still tainted by the misbehaviour of significant parts of the shooting world, particularly bird of prey persecution but also the sort of environmentally damaging practise John Miles highlights. GWTC may not be involved or responsible but the mud still sticks. Thats life and the answer is the whole sector has to clean up its act if it wants to survive.

  5. “If we spend our time fighting over Carrion Crows don’t be surprised if when we finally stop and look round that they have concreted over Berkshire.”

    Wise words Ian. I’m presuming by ‘they’ you mean unchallenged developers rather than Carrion Crows who aren’t known for their prowess with bricks and cement, but your point is entirely valid.

    In my opinion, there are important arguments to be had over detail, but it’s the macro-arguments – and the wider consensus that can be achieved – that will do most to protect our countryside.

    1. Ciaran – many thanks! Those carrion crows with their bricks and concrete – they’re vermin you know. Thanks for your (serious) comment.

  6. With regard to shooting I would be very interested in what the GWCT thought about my non lethal deer management methods. I walk my dogs round my woodland and when we encounter wild deer they flush them out and occasionally chase them. I’ve written to the police about this and they say that this is now a criminal offense unless I comply with the conditions in the Hunting Act for exempt hunting.

    These entail only using two dogs and shooting the deer.

    Does the GWCT think that for a small woodland owner non lethal dispersal methods can be appropriate.

    And from an animal welfare perspective does the GWCT think that having flushed a deer out it can cause it less suffering not to be shot?

  7. Hi Ian, thanks for your thoughtful and balanced introduction. I wrote an overlong comment but my computer lost it! So I’ll just say firstly that I appreciate your sympathy for the RSPB looking after its members opinions – it seems only natural that they do, and that likewise the GWCT is unlikely to do or say anything that would really upset your trustees. Whether we are anti or pro, surely we all accept that shooting is likely to go on for some time, and that it is best for all if it is turned to wildlifes benefit, rather than detriment wherever possible – for this, the GWCT is an essential part of UK nature conservation.

    This leads to different approaches but I trust that in the end both organisations are fighting for the same thing – a countryside rich in wildlife, achieved through research steered conservation work. It’s true in my experience in both cases, and it’s a shame that I’ve heard unecessary vitriol aimed in both directions. I have lived in Berkshire on and off for a few years and can confirm the concrete continues to spread in the meantime.

    And to add a personal note, GWCT were amongst the most professional and generous of organisations I encountered on the MSc I just finished, and I wouldn’t have made nearly such a decent attempt at a research project without the advice and support of a GCWT scientist. For that, many thanks!

  8. Good morning Mark, I found what Ian Coghill had to say as very interesting. Disappointingly however his words lacked substance regarding any solution to the on-going persecution hen harriers on England’s red grouse moors. On the other hand Ian is to be congratulated for condemning the illegal persecution of hen harriers by gamekeepers, not many individuals in his position would have the balls to come out and condemn this unacceptable practice.

    Ian made a very significant point also when he said, “We have a very good record of getting to the bottom of problems and finding practical solutions which can be and are used to enhance wildlife abundance.” I must assume this statement applied to the hen harrier as well as other wildlife species on England’s moorlands. Wouldn’t it have been nice to hear what Ian’s views were on how best to move forward in an attempt to resolve this difficult problem once and for all?

    I can also understand why John Miles may have sounded grump this morning. Like John there are many amongst us who feel very frustrated and angry that so far there has been no positive solution to the hen harrier predicament which appears now to be getting much worst.

    1. Terry – thank you. Wel I doubt that Ian could cover everything in one short blog. And I understand why John, you and I might feel grumpy about hen harriers every morning but it still doesn’t mean that I can’t tease hiom about it! From his words perhaps Ian Coghill would like us to take out our grumpiness by actually kicking the cat but I will only do that metaphorically (not having a real one to hand!)!

  9. Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust?? So are stoats, weasels, pine martens and polecats not wildlife which should be conserved ?. Ian is so defensive about predator control in this blog that there must be an underlying message. I feel he either has a guilty conscience about advocating predator control practices or that he personally doesn’t think it is the correct thing to do.
    I personally have nothing against things like rough shooting as I have been involved in this in my youth, although as I become more mature with more sense I increasingly find many aspects of shooting pretty abhorrent. May i also say that there is never any mention of gamekeepers killing feral cats which I am certain that they do and which is apparently legal!

    Shooting seems to have adopted almost industrial proportions with millions of (extremely tame) pheasants being released into the countryside each year which from my experience totally disrupts the ecology of the areas surrounding their release pens. Ground vegetation is decimated, any insects present are consumed and even the last colonies of rare butterflies have become extinct with the pressure of so many feeding birds.

    1. DavidH – thank you. Industrial shooting practices are criticised by many in the shooting community, but not often publicly as far as i can see.

  10. I am not someone who tends to comment unless I feel the issue is important. I liked the piece by Ian Coghill. It was well thought out and made a good case for GWCT and what it has done in the past and continues to do.

    I believe there are few conservation organisations that are 100% politically correct in what they do. Sadly their detractors focus on the few percent of things which cause them a personal moral dilemma rather than looking at the bigger picture.

    Most conservation organisations carry out some form of wildlife control. Foxes on nesting wader and gull colonies is just one example. They choose to keep the work low key and to me that is correct. After all, it is a very small part of their work.

    I just wish sometimes people would agree to disagree and focus instead on the bigger picture. Working with other organisations is always a compromise and sometimes you just have to put aside your personal, moral or individual species protection views for the greater benefit of habitat protection.

    The approach to looking at nature conservation management in the round through initiatives like “Living Landscapes” should be applauded. Nothing is ever perfect and we should be brave enough to admit it , debate it with the benefit of knowledge and hard science and then move on to bigger things.

    1. John Biglin – welcome! and an excellent comment. Please keep coming back and adding other comments – thank you.

  11. Is scientific data available to back up this suggestion of millions of dead birds at the hands (sorry, paws) of domestic cats?

    The blog started out well but unfortunately descended into Songbird Survival rhetoric which isn’t very helpful if what you’re trying to foster is a coming together of organisations in the name of conservation.

    Targeted predator control is a very different thing to the wider public’s perception that when a gamekeeper is involved anything that is a threat is mercilessly hounded out of existence. I think you should be looking to rehabilitate your industry’s image.

    Full disclosure: Not a cat owner, not a bird eater, very much a RSPB member.

  12. A quick observation from Somerset:

    Over the past 20+ years, hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of agri-environment subsidies on have been targeted at creating perfect breeding habitats for waders on the Somerset Levels. The aim has been to restore numbers to 1970s levels. Success has been… well, let’s say limited at best.

    The only place in the area that has seen significant improvements in breeding success and wader numbers is an RSPB reserve which excludes ground predators during the breeding season using electric fencing.

    Unfortunately the amount of effort and resources that have to go into maintaining the fences – e.g. keeping the grass cut along the lines that it doesn’t short the fence out – mean that you can’t expect the practice to become adopted by other landowners. Predator control, however, would be more feasible at the landscape scale.

    In this area, controlling predators would undoubtedly increase numbers of breeding waders (and probably wintering waterfowl, skylark, bumblebees etc etc).

    So there’s your choice. Anyone want to discuss it with the Badger Trust?

    1. Mark – welcome and thanks for your comment. I have a vague recollection that badgers may have been implicated in some of those nest losses but I am not really sure. Fencing works for badgers but culling is illegal – something else in favour of fencing. And yes some RSPB nature reserves do practice predator exclusion and predator control – I authorised some of it myself. The spending of agri-environment money has certainly not just been to increase wader numbers but you are right to point out that it has mainly been on RSPB land that much success has been delivered for waders. Look at the flat land between Norwich and Great Yarmouth for another example of best returns from agri-envt money from good habitat and some predator control.

  13. Isn’t the point about cats that people get very upset about certain activities that kill animals and not others. I keep five cats which we let out every night. I also shoot next door for maybe one or two days a year. So by keeping the cats I am causing far far more animals to die than the odd day’s shooting. However in the eyes of some I am sure Giles the shooter is an animal abusing blood thirsty toff whereas Giles the cat owner is an animal lover.

  14. Why I sing the praises of cats is that they kill rats. What you have to do with all predators is work out the good and the so called bad. Take away the cats and how many rats and mice then destroy £millions/billions of human food. The economic value of cats then out weighs the number of birds killed especially game birds. They also save many birds of prey as less poison is then used to kill rats which have already been taken out by the cats. Like Giles my cat is let out for the night so few birds can be killed but plenty of rats and mice! [No cat flap]. What is the main reason for increase of rats in towns and cities? – bird feeding stations!!

    1. Actually the main reason for rats in cities is food waste from humans. When talking about cat predation people always focus on the birds, but the real impact is felt by reptiles and amphibians. Reptiles like common lizards and slow worms now often exist in fragmented populations so when under sustained predation from cats the population just reduces and, with no reptiles around nearby to move in, eventually goes extinct. Ive heard of whole frog population scooped out of ponds and killed one by one, which if it carries on for a number of years, as it did in a recent case I was told about, the frogs disappear.

  15. Hi Mark and Ian,think you both deserve praise for putting a blog on here today.We can surely look at Ian’s blog and at least understand what they do and we have to accept that the shooting part is all legal and nowhere as far as I can see does he condone illegal things.
    We will never get better relations between them and us unless moderates on both sides are prepared to give and take on some issues,that negotiations move to better wildlife it is essential and happens in life all the time.

  16. Well Mark you have attracted more response from this guest blog than you usually receive. The conclusion you might draw is that Ian’s offer gets peoples’ juices flowing?
    However, apart from one or two [BBs], the resonance is let’s discuss, employ ‘give and take’. Clearly there is a genuine interestin his offering. I suggest you have a guest more often.
    Maybe you should even try and find a forum to further discuss some of the emerging themes.
    May I whilst responding just observe that no organisation should be credited with the impact of illegal or criminal activity, just because they operate in that area of countryside; to do so is not worthy of the discussion via your blog.

    1. Birdseye – a response well within the normal bounds, don’t big your friend up too much! To be fair – i suspect that GWCT gets more of its funding from people breaking wildlife laws than do the Wildlife Trusts or the RSPB, but that doesn’t, of course, mean that law breaking is GWCT policy.

  17. It’s great to get to hear from GWCT. As such a small organisation it’s nice to see some exposure – thanks Mark for the opportunity and Ian for a thought provoking article.

    Predator control can indeed have its place in conservation work. If you need to boost the population of a certain species, or group of species, targeted predator control is a useful tool.

    But let’s not dwell on the slightly controversial points. The fact remains that GWCT have undertaken some important research, research that I’ve cited many times (alongside RSPB, BTO, and independent papers too). I agree completely with John – let’s focus on the wider conservation issues that we all agree with.

    Shooters – unfortunately, some of your activities have a negative impact on wildlife, but probably no more so than dog walkers, cat owners, greenlaners or over zealous wildlife watchers/photographers. I believe that the net result of your activities (maintaining habitat etc.) results in a significant net gain for biodiversity. But you must be seen to be more proactive in preventing raptor persecution. Until you do this, no-one in the conservation movement will take anyone from the ‘shooting fraternity’ seriously on conservation issues.

    Conservationists – you must put aside your instant disapproval of anyone involved in shooting sports. Don’t tar them all as raptor persecutors. Focus instead on what you agree with. Our country’s wildlife needs us all to work together on the points we agree with.

    Easy to say on paper isn’t it?! No offence meant to any party. I’m stuck firmly in the middle and both shooters and conservationists have arguments that I both agree and disagree with.

    Full disclosure: professional ecologist, raptor fan, shooter, former RSPB employee

  18. Thank you Ian for your very interesting guest blog, which was an excellent idea Mark.

    I do not shoot, nor am I a GWCT member, though perhaps I should be, as over the last 11 years in my role advising farmers and landowners on farmland conservation, I have frequently drawn on some of the many outstanding examples of unbiased GWCT research.

    I think Ian makes some very sounds points and from my perspective, sought to convey a moderate and constructive tone, so I was surprised to read some of the reaction to his comments regarding cats and songbirds by those that had missed the point that Ian was making.

    The GWCT do not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Song Bird Survival and I not sure what the GWCT can do about the illegal persecution of raptors anymore than the RSPB. I doubt that those gamekeepers and shoots engaging in such nafarious activities are likely to be influenced by an organisation largely concerned with the production of peer reviewed scientific research.

    The GWCT has been reponsible for some of the best examples of science available to farmland conservationists in the UK and as Ian states it was the GCT that came up with many of the farmland conservation techniques that are widely practiced today. It is also perhaps easy to forget (though it was well before my time) the key role played by the GRA (as it was then), in producing the research that led to the banning of several organo-chlorine seed dressings. Research that was undertaken in collaboration with the BTO & RSPB.

    John Biglin (who really should comment more) hits the nail on the head, and his last two paragraphs epitomise the moderate and progressive attitude that nature conservation needs.

    One last thing Mark, I really do like the guesting idea. Perhaps you can pursuade Robin Page to explain his unique insight into predator-prey relationships or perhaps your dear friend Peter Kendall on his long-term vision for farmland biodiversity ? 🙂

  19. Like many who have commented on Ian’s blog I agree that both shooters and conservationists have a common goal in maintaining biodiversity. As always the extreme poles of the debate generate the most noise which tends to drown out the genuine dialogue which exists between organisations such as GWCT, BTO and RSPB at ground level.

    One thing is for sure that mankind has messed up the natural equilibrium and for many threatened species a ‘hands off’ policy will not work. We have to face the fact that for some species such as lapwing, curlew, and black grouse we need to micro manage them back to viable breeding levels. this requires both habitat restoration and predator control.

    Comments about shooters not being vocal enough regarding raptor persecution are absolutely right. As a shooter I would like to see us have more confidence in making it clear that this is not done in our name.

    Equally many people brought up in an urban environment detest the very thought of anything being killed, they conveniently forget that their Tesco best organic chicken had to be killed for them, comfortably out of their gaze. These town folk represent the very public opinion that keeps the RSPB quiet about their essential predator control, however in many cases their understanding of the complex ecosystem that exists in our managed countryside is poor. Unsurprising therefor that shooters are reluctant to take advice from these folk.

    It is this lack of understanding that sanctions the release of RSPCA ‘repaired’ foxes into the countryside. An action I regard as cruel because these animals don’t have the hunting skills to thrive in this new environment, those that do thrive place an added burden on threatened species such as hares, lapwing and curlew.

    As a shooter I am aware of the good that the vast majority our community do for conservation in funding vital work carried out by organisations such as GWCT and BASC. Although there is justifiable frustration at the relative silence from shooters about raptor persecution, I hope that those on the other side of the debate will accept the millions of pounds donated to organisations like GWCT as a measure of the fact that we like them are dedicated to promoting biodiversity.

    1. Owen – thank you for your comment and welcome to this blog – keep coming back and posting excellent comments.

  20. Whilst one can accept that just because some members employees ie Keepers kill things they should not of course does not mean that GWCT approves but GWCT does take money from the persecutors and has accepted invitations to organise admittedly legitimate activities or accepted sponsorship for such things from some very very dubious estates in Scotland( persecuted eagles ETC.)
    On the harrier issue to my mind the only grouse keepers who definitely don’t persecute are those who don’t have them.

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