Ian Parsons spent twenty years working as a Ranger with the Forestry Commission, where he not only worked with birds of prey and dormice, but where he developed his passion for trees (see his previous guest blog). Now a freelance writer, Ian runs his own specialist bird tour company leading tours to Extremadura. For more details see www.griffonholidays.com
Ian has written many Guest Blogs here and you can access all the others through the Guest Blog Archive – click here.
There is a lot being written about rewilding at the moment, it is very interesting and has provoked much debate about what rewilding is or should be. But something has been missing from this debate, something that I feel is very important. I hope that this blog will provoke its inclusion. The thing that is missing is us, the public.
Let me take you back to the 20th February 2001, MAFF (now known as DEFRA) confirmed a case of Foot and Mouth disease in Essex. Within days, this infectious disease was being reported from across the country. As an aside, it is interesting that this infectious livestock disease is acknowledged by MAFF/DEFRA as being spread by the movement of livestock, whilst another infectious livestock disease, Bovine TB, appears to be only spread by those black and white deviants of the natural world, Badgers, and has nothing to do with the widespread movement of livestock across the country. But perhaps that is a tangent I will refrain from taking…
So why I have taken you back to 2001? Well, in the days and weeks that followed the first confirmed reports of the disease, something unprecedented happened in the modern British countryside. It was closed. At the time I was a Ranger for a large area of public owned land, and the government organisation I worked for, followed the example of many other public bodies and ‘closed’ it’s estate. Suddenly, vast areas of the British countryside were devoid of people.
We, people, cause disturbance to wildlife. Not just ‘other’ people, but every single one of us, whether we are on our own walking quietly or whether we are part of a large group. Wildlife is disturbed just by us being there. This is acknowledged by the statutory wildlife licensing authorities, my old Schedule 1 licence for monitoring breeding Goshawk and Hobby was a licence to disturb these species. Human presence causes disturbance. And this disturbance can lead to breeding failures, stress and even abandonment of an area.
The spring of 2001 was a brilliant time for the wildlife in the large area of land that I was the Ranger for. I believe that this was down to the fact that human disturbance was at an all time low. I have no scientific evidence to back this up, just my observations, but it makes a lot of sense, at least it does to me. My list of anecdotal evidence is long, so I will restrict myself to two examples. I occasionally would see two of my favourite animals in the world, the Stoat and the Weasel, in my work as a Ranger, but only occasionally. However, in that spring I was continually bumping into them and, unlike most sightings of these great little Mustelids, the sightings were prolonged and usually right alongside the main tracks and rides, the very areas frequented by the public and their dogs. I worked for twenty years as a Ranger, with the spring of 2001 coming pretty much in the middle of that period. Neither before, nor after that spring, did I ever see these great animals in the way I did then. Once public access had resumed, those sightings stopped. Raptors were of particular importance for the area, that year I had more pairs of Hobby breeding within it than ever before and, again, the number was never repeated in the following years. The Hobby is a late breeder in terms of laying dates, but they had settled on their nesting territories before the public had returned and in them they stayed to attempt to breed. Why the spike in numbers? Surely the lack of human disturbance played a part?
Funding for conservation projects is hard to come by, central funding from the government for the organisation I worked for had been drastically cut (and continues to be very low). What funding is available (lottery funding etc) usually comes with the condition that public access is encouraged; new facilities such as toilets, car parking, new walking routes, new cycling routes etc etc are included in the project. The result is, of course, that the numbers of people visiting an area increase, often sharply. Many of these people also bring dogs, to wildlife a dog is not a benign family pet, it is a genetically modified apex predator, the Wolf. Nick Baker in a recent article in Dartmoor Magazine on dog faeces on the moor, quoted the following figures; 24% of the British population owns a dog, that is 8.9 million dogs in the country (the article is well worth a read, dogs don’t just bring disturbance with them…). That is a lot of dogs. Dogs cause disturbance, probably more so than their human owners. An increase of humans and their Canid pets in an area can only lead to an increase in the disturbance of wildlife in that same area.
Now the logical conclusion from reading the above is that I want the public banned from the countryside. But that’s just it, I don’t. As a Ranger, I actively encouraged people to enjoy the countryside, I led events to show people some of the wildlife, I gave hundreds of talks to encourage the listeners to visit it themselves at a later date. I was actively involved in helping people who found it difficult to visit the countryside to do so (leading a blind group out in to a forest at night to listen to Nightjars was one of the best experiences I ever had as a Ranger). I take full advantage of the open access policy on Dartmoor as often as I can, I write articles for magazines encouraging people to get out there and see the wildlife for themselves. I even run a bird tour company in Extremadura in Spain, taking people to areas they would never go, so that they can see the great wildlife there. If you like, I encourage disturbance.
It is a real quandary for me, I want to protect wildlife, full stop, but I also want people to see and enjoy it too and that, no matter how carefully managed, causes at least some disturbance. Yes, some of our wildlife tolerates some human disturbance, but for most, human disturbance is a bad thing. Open access in our countryside is great on the one hand, but bad on the other. Should some parts of our special countryside be off limits? In Spain and many other European countries it is. I take my clients to the brilliant Monfragüe National Park as part of their tour, many of you reading this may well have been there yourselves, but no matter how long you spent there you would only have been in one fifth of it; the vast majority of the Park is closed and inaccessible (if you think that the Griffon Vulture colony at Peña Falcón is the biggest, you’d be wrong, a much larger colony, complete with more Black Storks etc is in the closed section of the Park). It is shut to protect the wildlife, to provide a refuge, free from human disturbance.
That works in some places, but I don’t think it can work here on the same scale, the demand for access and the pressure of human numbers is vastly different in most of Britain in comparison to most of Europe. Then, of course, there is the issue of people taking advantage of a lack of public access to manage the land in a way that really isn’t a good thing for our wildlife. You are reading this on Mark’s web site, so I don’t need to mention how certain ‘guardians’ of our countryside would gleefully see parts of our national parks closed off to the public as being an opportunity for them to do what they wanted in terms of ‘management’. Public access can cause disturbance to breeding birds of prey, it can, conversely, also help protect them from wilful and deliberate persecution. A public presence can act as a deterrent to prevent the persecution in the first place. Sadly it doesn’t always stop it, but when these crimes are committed it is often as a result of the public access that these crimes are first detected.
As a Ranger I had many people tell me that I should stop people from going in certain parts to prevent disturbance to the wildlife there. These same people, many of whom thought they were the ultimate wildlife expert and therefore somehow immune from causing disturbance, took it for granted that this wouldn’t apply to them or their friends though; somehow they thought it was others that caused disturbance, not them. Not only is that complete nonsense, it is also very arrogant. We can’t pick and choose who we let onto public accessible land based on what ‘club’ they belong to. Public access is just that. Access for the public.
Some say that disturbance isn’t a serious issue, it is. There is a vast array of published papers on the detrimental effect of disturbance to wildlife from public access, be they about dogs affecting breeding success of lowland heathland birds, to organised large scale events causing nest desertion. The trouble is, this subject never seems to get the airing it deserves. The NGO conservation bodies that manage land for wildlife in Britain also encourage public access to it, on the one hand that is a brilliant thing, but on the other, you have to ask whether this is the best thing for the wildlife on that land. If you turned up at a reserve managed by an organisation that you paid money to belong to, only to be told that you couldn’t go on it, how would you feel? These organisations need to offer the public access to gain the public support. In my opinion, they often shy away from discussing the impacts of doing so.
I can understand why they do, it is a very difficult and thorny issue and I really don’t know what the answer is, crikey, it is an issue that I end up arguing with myself on! But what I do know is that it is an issue that needs to be talked about, not avoided. The pressure on British wildlife is immense and disturbance is very much part of that pressure.
Going back to February 2001, on the day Foot and Mouth was confirmed, I was at a conference on wildlife reintroductions, inevitably much of the talk focused on Lynx and Wolf, both are animals that have very low tolerance of human disturbance, yet public access and all that it brings was not mentioned. Rewilding is a brilliant conservation policy, but can an area be truly rewilded if it is being disturbed?