GWCT science again

Someone blowing a trumpet. By Francoise Gadbois (Wikipedia:Contact us/Photo submission) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
The GWCT describes itself thus: ‘The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is the leading UK charity conducting scientific research to enhance the British countryside for public benefit’.

Not, you note as ‘very good’ or ‘one of the leading’ or ‘has a distinguished record’ but ‘the leading’.  That’s blowing one’s own trumpet quite loudly.  I only bring this up because last week I gave you an analysis of some of the metrics that are available to examine such a claim.  They certainly aren’t the only ways to examine that claim, but they are objective and publicly available and comprise a perfectly normal way of assessing scientific impact.  GWCT didn’t come out on top – it is very good, but it would find it difficult to claim to be ‘the leading’ on the basis of those figures.

The chair of GWCT has been niggling away at this in comments ever since – I clearly touched a raw nerve.  I wouldn’t have come back to it again here if Ian Coghill hadn’t been so insistent on claiming how unfair was my previous blog and hadn’t spent so long having a go at me and, rather curiously, the RSPB on this matter.

Publication rate, citation rate and ‘h’ are accepted, though not perfect, measures of scientific impact.  If GWCT had excelled in all these measures then the analysis would still have appeared so let’s concentrate on what it says. It shows an apparent recent decline in the impact of GWCT science – that’s what it shows. That’s what Ian should be focussing on as Chair of GWCT, and when he isn’t shooting the messenger here then I am sure that he will give this some thought.

It’s not as though this analysis will come as much of a surprise to many in science or conservation.  Anyone who believes that many outside GWCT  describe it as ‘the leading UK charity conducting scientific research to enhance the British countryside for public benefit’ is mistaken.

GWCT has to differentiate itself in its particular marketplace from BASC and the Countryside Alliance.  It is trying to do that on the basis of science and it has a very very strong case in that regard.  The Countryside Alliance doesn’t really do science and doesn’t really, to my mind, take much notice of it.  The Countryside Alliance hasn’t changed what its website says in regard to chocolate and lead despite the Food Standard Agency’s Chief Scientist’s words on the subject.  And nor has BASC. Clearly regard for science is a bit thin on the ground in the marketplace where GWCT goes fishing for money and members.

I am just guessing, but my guess is that GWCT is finding it more and more difficult to persuade sporting land owners that supporting science is the way to deal with their problems.  There is so much hysteria in the shooting community about raptors (eg buzzardgate) that the last thing that they want is some sensible science done on the subject.  They will be saying that science at Langholm didn’t get them what they wanted (legal control of hen harriers) and that Langholm II seems to demonstrate the success of supplementary feeding of hen harriers.  We await, such a long wait!, the publication of the comparison between the GWCT’s Loddington project and the RSPB’s successful Hope Farm project so we will have to see what that produces but that may be seen as another test of GWCT science by its own constituency.

GWCT isn’t a small charity – it’s much bigger than the BTO for example in financial terms – and it hasn’t suffered an overall loss of income recently, in fact last year seems to have been quite a good one financially.  So it certainly isn’t lack of money holding back GWCT from publishing more papers and getting more citations.  So maybe it is their ability to recruit and retain staff of the highest quality or some high-level decisions on how to spend their money.

GWCT has a perfectly good scientific record. I admire much of their past work, particularly that on grey partridges which was absolutely ground-breaking (and which gets a good plug in Fighting for Birds) but which has not led to a national upturn in grey partridge numbers (despite some very notable local successes).  And GWCT continues to do good science and employs some good scientists too.

However, is good science what its constituency wants these days?  Maybe GWCT shouldn’t talk up its science so much because maybe that isn’t what the market wants.  However, if any organisation claims to be ‘the leading’ then it had better be able to make that claim stand up.



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16 Replies to “GWCT science again”

  1. Leading in the knowledge that they have 'no' knowledge on the effects of diseases spread from Red legged Partridge to Black Grouse. This is due to many of their members adding 6.6 million Red legs to the British countryside. Many of which are now placed in the uplands along side Black Grouse which are no longer a game bird they want to enjoy!

  2. "... a perfectly normal way of assessing scientific impact."

    Cursed are the bean-counters, for they sucketh the goodness from the Earth, even until the beans perisheth

  3. "We await, such a long wait!, the publication of the comparison between the GWCT’s Loddington project and the RSPB’s successful Hope Farm project" - why do these need to be in competition? You're wishing for conflict here before the results have even been made fully public. There isn't even the smallest hope that these two projects could be mutually useful in informing modern farming practices. THIS complete lack of will to work with 'the other side' (you might call them the dark side) is what is really hurting conservation in this country.

    1. Furthermore, if you ask your erstwhile colleagues at the RSPB, they should confirm that the ball is in their court. The GWCT's Nicholas Aebischer - not a scientist to be lightly dismissed, I suggest - has forwarded some analytical data and is awaiting their comments.

      1. Lazywell - thank you. It is going slowly then isn't it? I certainly agree that Nicholas is no light-weight.

    2. Gordon - thank you for your comments. You're reading rather a lot into what I wrote! Nothing of what you say is in the words that I used. But it's an interesting take on things, thank you.

  4. Not one of the best debates on this site so far - but perhaps we can get better ?

    GWTC is - and always has been - a strange beast, with field advisers straight from the hunting, shooting & fishing world and some very good scientists - led for many years by Dick Potts - who by and large have studied game species simply as species - completely interchangeable with conservation science and in fact there's been a lot of crossover. Additionally, whilst not always reflected in what they say in public, GWTC has had at its core some of the most thoughtful and conservation minded of the shooting world - who have in a number of cases put their money and skill where their mouth is and delivered real results not just for game but for wider conservation on the ground.

    It does concern me a lot - and I don't at the moment know the answer - which direction the organisation is heading. If members are less interested in real science and are going to get lured into the knee jerk of Buzzardgate and similar, and are going to stand by whilst people they may well not support kill the last hen Harriers it is bad news for conservation - but far worse news for future of shooting: shooting has to make its case over the next 20 years because its natural resting place at the moment is extinction - and every time it tries to flex its muscles it takes one step closer. If it can't make something like the Buzzard cull stick with a friendly Minister and a Government that would like to care about nobody other than their closest friends what does that hold when the wind swings back towards a more egalitarian point ?

    And, before anyone delivers the Daily Telegraph response, this is not a point of party politics I'm trying to make: it is the sort of neutral political analysis I had to make in steering the Forestry Commission back from the swamps of the Flow Country and through administrations of various different bents.

    1. At last a reassuringly sensible commentary on the GWCT; thanks Roderick.

      I continue to lurk behind a pseudonym, but I have long since outed my own involvement with the Trust.

      I take your point about the actions of others in relation to raptors, but the GWCT's position hasn't shifted since the days of A Question of Balance and Dick Potts's paper in Ibis, which Mark has often referred to, where he set out the basis for a quota scheme. The Trust continues to engage in a variety of ways in the conflict resolution process - Langholm 2, of course, (where a more sensible buzzard issue in my view than Buzzardgate is now being explored), and the dialogue coordinated by the Environment Council, which disappointingly the RSPB recently walked away from. For the avoidance of doubt it is a genuine conservation conflict (as Mark has in the past acknowledged), and I remain confident that there will ultimately be some kind of managed solution, which actually results in an increase in the number of harriers nationally; but it has proved a woefully slow process.

      As for the future of shooting, I am more sanguine than you. For all the bluster that is generated on this blog, the conservation argument remains very strong - stronger than for hunting, for example - not to mention the economic arguments, all of which I've canvassed here before. I concede that there are some aspects of the shooting community that are not great advertisements for the sport, but they neither reflect nor influence the charitable objectives of the Trust. Certainly their adherents should realise that the way of life that they cherish will depend very largely on the sound science that (whatever Mark says) GWCT continues to deliver.

      1. Lazywell - thank you but just one minor correction (which isn't to say that everything else you write is perfect). The hen harrier/red grouse conflict certainly is a real conflict but I doubt that I have said that it is a conservation conflict. It is an economic conflict. At the end of Langholm I there were lots of hen harriers but just as many nesting grouse at Langholm. There weren't enough red grouse to shoot though - that's for sure! Thank you for your comment, as always.

  5. Having read yesterday's blog I was interested to compare the GWCT's ‘the leading’ claim with what the RSPB and BTO say about their science on their respective websites:

    The RSPB at says: "Rigorous scientific research work underpins our conservation policies and action...The RSPB acts upon its scientific results in order to improve the fortunes of wildlife, both on its own land and off." Lots more detail follows describing different types of research and monitoring undertaken and their purpose.

    The BTO at write: "The dominant context for our scientific work is undertaking impartial research on bird populations in a changing environment... we are committed to developing and advancing the science of ornithology ... We endeavour to publish much of our scientific work in peer-reviewed journals ... Where appropriate, we collaborate actively with those who have complementary expertise...". What's not to like about that?

    I don't *think* I'm quoting selectively there and I think the words I've chosen are a fair summary of the overall content and tone of these pages, I hope readers agree.

    Going back to the GWCT's site and delving a little deeper I found these words at "The Trust conducts original applied science. Our ecological studies are field-based, and published in peer-reviewed journals... An independent Scientific Advisory Committee, which reports to elected trustees, is responsible for maintaining the high scientific standard of our research." Which seems fair enough and would have been the more helpful comment to put on their front page rather than a claim to be 'the leading' which could be disputed.

    Best to simply lay out some facts about what you do and how you do it and then let the science itself speak for you?

  6. Sorry to be late again but I had a 300 mile round trip to a Fisheries Research Steering Committee in torrents of rain and didn't switch the computer on.
    I'm also sorry that I have upset you so much but I don't think I said you were 'unfair' in your unprovoked attack on GWCT, its science and its scientists. What I said as I recall was essentially that I was not going to waste my time responding to something that started with anecdote, ran through anonymity and ended with a bad penis joke. That is still my position.
    For the record I did not attack the RSPB, I merely pointed out that it could have done more research while you were helping to run it and expressed the hope that they will do even more in the furture.
    Inspite of your efforts to create pointless and numbing discord and division, I and GWCT will continue to respect good science from any source, continue to work in partnership with any who will work with us and do our best to see science applied to best effect in the battle to protect what wildlife we have left.

  7. "protect what wildlife we have left"

    Apart from those species who's existence conflicts with your own activities eh, Mr Coghill?


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