Guest blog – Disturbing conservation by Ian Parsons


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

Ian has written many Guest Blogs here and you can access all the others through the Guest Blog Archive – click here.

Disturbing Conservation

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?


30 Replies to “Guest blog – Disturbing conservation by Ian Parsons”

  1. I agree with much of this but I have to take issue with one sentence and sentiment:

    “Yes, some of our wildlife tolerates some human disturbance, but for most, human disturbance is a bad thing.”

    There are roughly 70,000 species of animal, plant and fungi in the UK and surrounding waters. In addition there is a literally (or figuratively) innumerable variety of microbial life. Most of this 70,000 comprises invertebrates and fungi.

    Human disturbance as defined by the author, which appears to mean people walking about, with or without dogs, affects a small number of ground-nesting (and other) birds, and a handful of mammal species. Dog defecation and its associated impacts affect rather more – a small number of plants and fungi associated with very low fertility soils. But to suggest that the human act of walking about, with or without dogs, affects most species in the UK, is incorrect.

    Disturbance comes in many shapes and forms. As I wrote on these pages a couple of weeks ago, there is not anywhere near enough disturbance in the countryside now. And given that the original agents of disturbance, the mega herbivores, have been extinct for a long time, it is down to us to recreate or mimic their activities.

    1. Agree.
      And it’s complicated. E.g. 30 years of CBC and song data for Midhurst Common (immediately accessible to 5,000 people — many are dog walkers), suggest that human disturbance has little effect on numbers or the amount of song. By comparison, go to some woodland nature reserves and they are boringly quiet.

      1. But perhaps all those people do have an effect on species diversity? I don’t think woodlarks breed on Midhurst Common these days?

        1. Correct but nightjars breed despite the frequent dog walkers.
          The point about places like Midhurst Common is that they take huge pressure off slightly more remote commons with their Dartford warblers, Wood larks etc.
          MC is an everyday, knockabout place brimming with interesting wildlife – OK, no great rarities. It’s doing lots of people lots good in lots of different ways.
          I’ve forgotten what the scientific definition of diversity is but I think good numbers of lots of non-rare species comes into it.

    2. You are right, Miles. Most of the species in an ecosystem are not significantly affected by us walking about – unless we actually step on them. However, those that are most liable to disturbance are often the top predators; and we now know that they have very important influences on the whole ecosystem right down to the lowest trophic levels. You only have to look at the immense effects of reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone Park – even the vegetation was changed.
      I am not sure that I have any answers, but I think this is another aspect that has to be included in our considerations.
      Disturbance is particularly a problem in Britain because of the very high human population density. But that is a separate problem! [Not one that should be forgotten, though.]

  2. That’s a really intelligent and thought provoking piece. I’m a really keen rambler and the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak was devastating to me (personally). I felt caged, but I recognise how good this would have been for the wildlife left undisturbed throughout that Spring. I think we are very lucky that the Countryside & Rights of Way Act 2000 gave us Open Access to the countryside, but to be honest I use it sparingly. It is just reassuring to know that I have that right if I choose to and I think it is useful in that it means that there are know caring members of the public gaining access to places that were once out of bounds and where who knows what sort of game management was in place. It was a hard won right and though it took the best part of 70 years (more in many cases), it gives me heart that one day we will see the other changes we are campaigning for like a ban on driven grouse shooting. I don’t know what the answer is on public access, but it’s good to start the debate. The worries expressed about the CROW Act were largely unfounded, most ramblers still stick to the well established paths, but we do have that tension still, because I recognise that not everywhere should be accessible.

  3. Thanks Miles. Fair enough, the statement you highlight may well be a bit broadbrush! But to be equally fair I didn’t define human disturbance as just walking about with or without dogs. In fact, I didn’t define it at all other than mentioning a few examples which also included large scale events. Human disturbance from public access comes in a whole multitude of guises, making it very hard to actually nail down a decent definition.
    I completely agree that disturbance comes in many shapes and forms, but I was referring to disturbance caused by public access, rather than the disturbance that you referred to in your last paragraph, perhaps I could have made that clearer.
    I could have included many more examples of how human disturbance through general public access has affected other species including invertebrates – traditional large Wood Ant nests being one that springs to mind – but I would still be writing the blog if that was the case!
    Like I say in the blog, rewilding is a great conservation idea/policy, but if it is on public owned land or it is to be funded by public money (which, as I said, often brings public access conditions with it), then the impact of public access on this rewilding has to be part of the discussion and so far I don’t think it has been.
    Thanks for your comment and I am glad that we are discussing it!

  4. Interesting blog, Ian. I, too, take issue with this statement, though:

    “Yes, some of our wildlife tolerates some human disturbance, but for most, human disturbance is a bad thing.”

    I suppose it depends on the consequences of all this disturbance. For example, I walk along the path at Snettisham, flushing pied wagtails as I go; I head onto the beach, and almost squash a ringed plover chick. I’d argue strongly that I’ve disturbed both the pied wagtail, although he only landed three metres back on the path behind me…..and the ringed plover chick (which has probably now been eaten by the carrion crow I flushed as I crossed the rabbit grazed field, where I also sent the rabbits dashing for cover.) Actually, I’ve caused a lot of disturbance here – but it was consequential for just one of my four species. I could expand the list to include the fox, deer, buzzard…….and thereby reduce the proportion of consequential disturbances overall. I’d argue that cases where human disturbance is actually having an impact on a local species population, or its national population size, are rather few, and those few aught to be subject to careful management. We should close off more bits of the North Norfolk coast to allow ringed plovers some breathing space, but there’s no need to close off sections of footpaths to give the pied wags some respite.

  5. Thanks Ian – yes that’s a fair point. disturbance caused by public access also has many facets. I used to get very worked up about motorbikes scrambling; and while it’s not a pleasant experience to have a group of scramblers go past on the same green lane as you’re walking along, in the great scheme of things they probably create valuable habitat as much as they damage valuable habitats. Mountain bikers are another example – last week I watched a group of mountain bikers descend the chalk downland-clad steep ramparts of Maiden Castle. They werent disturbing any wildlife, but were they doing damage? I couldn’t come to a conclusion.

    Here in Dorset we have a proliferation of SANGs (suitable accessible natural greenspaces) as a result of attempts to address the impacts of public access on our European protected heathlands, by luring dog walkers and others away from the heathland in the hope that Nightjars will be able to nest; and Sand Lizards will not be squashed or eaten. An incidental benefit of the SANG aproach is a net increase in the area of public greenspace – which must in itself be a good thing, regardless of whether they work as intended or not.

    I am a firm believer that people need to get out and see more nature, more of the time and in more places – nature needs to be part of everyone’s every day lives. There is one overriding reason in my mind for this – because people care about what they know and will be more willing to act on its behalf. I don’t think this means they have to visit more nature reserves. As the FC has shown, extremely well, people can enjoy and benefit from nature on sites with relatively few species.

  6. Ian, thanks. But the countryside is empty compared to 100+ years ago. Then there were people everywhere — working in it and exploiting it. Plenty of biodiversity and no conservationists.
    Nowadays it can be unsafe to walk alone without a phone — if you have a fall nobody will hear you.

  7. Great post, Ian – well done !

    A couple of thoughts: scale is hugely important – those HH that succeeded in Kielder Forest this year (2 out of only 3 in England) were protected simply by distance in a huge forest area. And, if you have the scale, you have the space to zone – but not by keep out signs, rather by carefully planning where you put your trails for walking and for mountain biking. The habitat makes a huge difference: wetlands tend to protect themselves, open habitats like heathland are by far the most vulnerable and dog disturbance in particular is an indisputable problem, whereas when I asked how mountain bikers might disturb nesting Pied Flycatchers there was a long silence.

    Your comments about naturalists are spot on – and a problem for conservationists, where there is still a visceral tendency towards ‘keep out’ – subject of course to the advocates being excepted because they are ‘experts’. A huge proportion of the access problems with rare species are caused by the small group of people who are interested in them – from birder disturbance at the mild end, to egg theft and illegal killing at the extreme.

  8. Great blog Ian.

    One interesting aspect of disturbance is in ancient woodland rides, where flowers such as orchids thrive and are impacted by many moving feet widening the rides and trampling seedlings. And movement of large numbers compact the soil and may affect how trees get nutrients through their routes, (see Derek Niemann’s A Tale of Trees for these and more examples, and also Oliver Rackham’s The Last Forest for a discussion of the challenges of managing access in Hatfield forest). So there may be a range of impacts on a surprisingly wide range of taxa and species, although uneven in extent and severity – and our most delicate and threatened habitats are most likely the most vulnerable.

    Perhaps the answer lies in managing access very carefully and possibly rotating it (e.g. temporary closure to allow recovery of an area – sort of like a ‘fallow year’ or two?). A deep understanding of what problems access could cause in a particular reserve and how this could be mitigated would be a start.

    As someone said, very interesting and thought provoking post and extremely well written, thank you.

  9. All interesting stuff. I must admit I’d not really considered the issue of similarities or differences between human disturbance of wildlife or wildlife disturbance of other wildlife before in quite this setting. You start off considering how our presence in a (semi)wild landscape disturbs wildlife and especially if we bring our pooch along with us (I don’t have a dog… but my kids when smaller operated in a similar fashion!). We as humans are only an unnatural disturbance by our own definition… i.e. we consider ourselves as something other than natural (loads of writings on this by the likes of Sarah Whatmore and Noel Castree if you’re at all interested). As for our dogs, those of us who have them (and our cats?), then are these then acting as analogues for our missing predators (wild cat and wolf)? Clearly not in the same way, but hopefully you see where I’m coming from here, in maintaining a “landscape of fear” in the absence of our natural top predators that we have extirpated over the centuries. Where the conflict arises is in the number and pattern of our visits to the countryside, most of which is disturbed anyway by hoof and plow, and how we disturb what little is left of our original wildlife making their continued presence even more parlous.

  10. Ranger Parsons is right about closing the UK countryside to the publicly being politically unacceptable -in the short term at least- simply because of UK history being what it is. Shutting people out of the British countryside has always been the goal of the landed gentry, something that many continental countries have had a history of dealing with sharply -and at neck height-, and there is no doubt that any attempt, no matter how well meant, by UK wildlife authorities will simply result in those leeches of the moneyed classes subverting it to make the countryside their own private playground again. It is something they are working hard at already, even with theoretical open access and rights to roam, so public intrusion needs to be encouraged for the next couple of hundred years at least simply as a matter of keeping an eye on the bastards.

    How do we keep the countryside open but keep intrusions to a minimum then? Dedicated trails help, banning and fining people who let dogs off the leash (which could help with funding) although that would mean perhaps cctv networks on trails, more dedicated observation posts to keep people confined while still getting good views, encouragement of drones and using the cctv as night vision cameras, issuing farmers with go-pros and giving them an obligation to wear them and upload footage as a pre-condition of subsidy, banning driven game shooting, and of course a sharp reduction in mountain biking tracks in the countryside (which everyone agrees is tremendously disruptive and damaging to nature as well as danger to pedestrians). And of course, funding, funding, funding. Maybe requiring farmers to do work under ranger direction as subsidy prerequisite and the same for estate workers too would help there.

    If all else fails, why not have a revolution and put the rich bastards in rags and chains and force them to do it at gunpoint? Well, I can dream anyway.

  11. A couple of points

    Surely farming practices are some of the main “disturbances” to wildlife. Mono crop,chemically sprayed farmland is hardly an ideal wildlife area.

    Also people tend to walk in the honeyspots, those remaining parts of the environment not totally damaged. I can say from experience that walking through and around some of those above mentioned mono cultures is not my idea of a great walk. We can argue over the “sheep wrecked” hills of course.

  12. A great article. I’m sure for many of us who love the natural world, if we’re honest, the appeal of “rewilding” is driven as much by our desire to experience that wilderness ourselves as it is by the conservation value of such a project. The idea that we might have to deny ourselves the enjoyment of what we’ve created for such a project to be truly successful is a challenging one!

    Just a couple of thoughts on this issue…

    1) The prevailing idea in the UK that a nature reserve, National Park or similar should be a great place to walk the dog is certainly not one shared the world over. Travelling around other parts of the word, particularly New Zealand and California I’ve noticed that the majority of parks there either A) ban dogs altogether; or B) limit them to campgrounds and front-country areas and insist they be on leads. For example in New Zealand the entire 1.2 million hectares of Fiordland National Park is off limits to dogs without a permit, primarily due to the threat they present to the resident kiwis (the birds, not the New Zealanders!). I realise the public outcry that would be aimed towards any land manager brave enough to try this in the UK, and I also understand that any bans or restrictions are only effective if the manpower is there to enforce them. I do think the debate needs to be had as to whether a right of public access should generally include a de facto right to bring a dog along with you, on or off the lead, in areas of high conservation value.

    2) Assuming any site selected for rewilding is of a decent size, there should be ways of at least concentrating human disturbance within a small area without officially closing parts of it. There will always be some people who see access land as an opportunity to go off the beaten track and explore some of it’s wilder corners (and yes, I’ll put my hand up as being one of them from time to time!) but in my experience the vast majority of visitors just want to walk for an hour or so on a level path that isn’t too muddy and then head off for some lunch. I live just down the road from Ian’s old FC beat (in fact I now help manage the dormouse box scheme he established there) and we are lucky enough to have large areas of access land a few minutes drive away in all directions, some managed by the FC and some by various other conservation NGOs. My experience in almost all of them is that if you walk more than 15 or 20 minutes from a car park you can go for hours at a time without seeing another human being, even at weekends. So perhaps break a site down into zones – a honeypot area around the carpark with surfaced trails, bird hides, kids activities, a buffer zone with unsurfaced, unmarked trails, and then a true wilderness area with no trails at all. Rather than fencing the area off, use natural obstacles like fallen trees, dense scrub etc. to deter people subtly without confronting them with the sight of a barbed wire fence and signage.

  13. Brilliant piece Ian, again. An issue that has bothered me for sometime and I suppose could be tacked on to the access issue is certainly another form of disturbance. There’s been a definite tendency, and I suspect especially when a lower income group is involved, for community involvement projects in local woods to be pushed away from education and conservation towards some ‘commoditification’ (if not a real word hopefully you’ll get what I mean). The most obvious example is wood for fuel, there’s always been an issue of people removing deadwood for their wood stoves/fires now obviously that’s much worse with the push for ‘green’ fuels. None of this helps the conservation of already extremely hard pressed species that need the dead prone and standing timber that should be a significant feature of any wood, but very, very rarely is thanks to ‘management’. We should be pushing for better public education re the need for deadwood and raising awareness about woodland ecology in general but it actually seems to be getting pushed aside in the drive to sell woods to the public as places they can get cheap fuel (as well as nice places to walk the dog because all the scary bushes have been ripped out) – reduces the real value of woodland and to me there is quite an implicit statement that the hoi polloi aren’t smart or selfless enough to appreciate woods and wildlife for their own sake. As a 1970s council estate boy it worries me that kids in similar situations today may not have the encouragement I had to develop a love of nature because some NGOs want to ‘buy’ their parents with promise of cheap fuel (and as an ex worker in the field of fuel poverty I know there are FAR better ways of keeping people warm than burning local trees – not a real solution for most). I might sound a bit pedantic, or a Cassandra, but my gut instinct is screaming that this is what is actually happening and the more I see the more my misgivings are being confirmed. Better education, including re the damage dogs do when they are off lead, should make a big difference, but where is it happening anywhere in any form? Public consultation and ‘involvement’ aren’t the same things unfortunately.

  14. Ian,a really interesting blog but I think you would find that as a retired farmer we all know that BTB is spread animal to animal while in all probability Badgers do spread it as well.
    You ought really look up all the regulations placed on farmers before they can move any bovine animal except in the case of going for slaughter.
    Obviously the idea is that if recently tested for BTB and found clear then there should be no risk of spread.
    Surely you would have to agree on that and there is little if any chance of bypassing these requirements and anyway would any sane person buying bovines not make sure those tests were in place.
    Sadly BTB is a blight to bovines,badgers and farmers but in my opinion it suits conservationists to say animal movements are responsible but probably on the many many times I have said on the internet what is wrong with the rules for farmers no one explains the faults.
    Do hope you look up the rules which I am sure must be obeyed and surely are the law.

    1. I’m not sure what this article has to do with bTB and cattle? But as you have raised it I think all farmers should know (and really should bother to find out) what the limitations of the SICCT skin test for bTB are and take note that 20% of all her breakdowns are picked up only at slaughter. And these are cattle with visible lesions. Clearly 20% of cattle being moved (possibly more) are not clear of bTB despite being tested.

      There has never been any scientific study proving how or how frequently badgers infect cattle. We know how cattle infect (blight) badgers and it’s in the same way they infect all other wildlife species – environmental contamination. And this, albeit inadvertently, is an issue you have raised that does impact on the article here. Does public access increase the risk of diseases being spread?

      Prior to the discovery of bTB in wildlife (and badgers specifically) a MAFF report from the 60s indicated that dogs were not considered a vector for the disease but that there was concern about humans, particularly farm workers, spreading bTB. I suspect that whatever the case the risk from environmental infection is very low and so the ‘problem’ of access to land is dwarfed by the continual movement of cattle that farmers have been told are ‘clear’ when the evidence from slaughterhouses clearly indicates that a significant proportion are not.

  15. Good thoughtful piece on effects of disturbance to wildlife where human pressure is high – however, I can see a lot of this being taken out of context and used by those who want to have a free hand to “manage” to death those species they dont like. As someone who relied on reports from walkers to give information on illegal activity, it was almost always provided by a walker who had strayed off the path/taken a shortcut back to the road..however, very importantly, I am talking about the huge empty [of humans] areas of land which occur in the Uplands and northern regions of the UK. Those areas are desperately in need of rewilding/reforesting, which must include greater human usage to provide employment and long term sustainability – without that, rewilding will merely copy the errors of the past and will never be supported politically. The nettle which has to be grasped here is that any such large scale change [whole river catchment afforestation for instance] will lead to a drop in total population of some species [and of course increases in others] but the all important fact is that these populations will be stable and not subject to the boom and bust we presently get in our grazed to bits, eroding and burned hills and moors…To sum up, we need to look at each wildlife important area’s unique needs and avoid sweeping generalisations and answers…oh yes and there are many trained and careful people monitoring our rarer species under licence – real experts, lets not copy the appalling US example of dissing people with knoledge and skills, lets not destroy that system by idiocy’s like giving untrained gamekeepers exclusive licences to monitor raptors, as appears to have happened recently, in England.

  16. On a recent trip to Donana National Park, southern Spain, I was heartened to find that public access is very highly controlled. The area is one of the few remaining areas for the Iberian Lynx, which is very endangered. You are allowed access to specific areas with a ranger in a park vehicle or on foot. You don’t have the freedom to roam, but I feel this is a small price to pay to enable the essential conservation measures which are in place to help this species. This includes habitat creation and restoration, which is all part of the whole picture for rewilding. Wildlife and the natural environment should be appreciated for its intrinsic value. It should not always have to be justified or commodified for its value to us as humans.

  17. I doubt we will ever see ‘rewilding’ of large tracts of land in the UK, it’s just too small a country with too large a human population.
    And as for preventing human disturbance, well, in my opinion that’s just not going to happen.

    What I think we need, at least as a starter for ten, is for a much less intensive way of land use.
    For example, every agricultural field should have a rough boundary; many I walk through are cut right up to the wall or fence, and sprayed to prevent nettles and other weeds from growing.
    Wildlife has no chance in these areas.
    Laws should be made to include ‘beetle banks’ on all farms, not just the wildlife-friendly ones.

    Another classic example is of a current application by developers to convert Hellifield Flashes, an area of wetland and sheep-grazed land close to where I live.
    The ‘Flashes’ hold many species of wildfowl and waders, many of which are species under threat.
    The latest proposal (there have been planning proposals fought off this site previously) is for a leisure complex with three hundred lodges, and all the usual stuff that comes with a leisure site.
    This would be disturbance on a grand scale, far greater than a few locals who currently walk in the area.
    This type of development is the cancer of our natural environment.
    We do all we can to prevent cancer in humans, we need to do the same for our nature.

    Wet areas need to remain wet, we do not need any more drainage.
    Wet, rushy fields full of lapwings in the spring are becoming a thing of the past.
    I have noticed lots of rushy grassland quietly transform into ‘nice’ green fields where at least one crop of silage is take every year.
    Much of this is down to farming subsidies; more payment for more land used.

    Much of the upland in my area, the edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, is quietly being ‘improved’.
    An example of this is a farm that was previously managed in a less intensive manner (about ten years ago) has changed hands to a ‘bigger landowner’, and the moorland area of the farm, which used to hold many ground nesting birds, Skylarks and Meadow Pipits being two species in relative abundance, and breeding hares too, has been treated with all sorts of industrial waste over the last few years, paper pulp, sewage sludge and abattoir washings, and is now slowly becoming just another green pasture without any ground cover.
    I have contacted the RSPB, DEFRA and the Environment Agency over this type of industrial waste, used as a so-called ‘soil conditioner’, but it appears that all is legal and above board with such practices.
    There’s much money to be had from industries requiring to rid their waste in a less-costly way.
    I do not believe that ‘soil conditioning’ is the main priority of many takers of this waste; fat cheques appear to outweigh the soil goodness.

    I am convinced that I could be seeing many more relatively rare birds of prey if grouse moor management wasn’t so rife in my area.
    There has been enough said about illegal activities on grouse estates and it is high time the laws were changed for the better of our majestic raptors.

    So, as for human disturbance, yes, we’re always going to be disturbing our nature in many different ways, but surely by stopping practices that actually prevent the wildlife from breeding in the first place then human disturbance would be a secondary problem to our natural heritage.
    Walking a dog through a wildlife habitat has got to be far more acceptable than the types of real disturbance I have mentioned.

  18. Excellent and thought provoking piece Ian, I could write at length on all the points you make, but I’ll try to restrict it to just a few. In the Peak District an awful lot of work goes on to make sure recreation is sustainable. National park officers, National Trust, water companies, NGOs and private landowners are all involved. The Peak is the most visited and most heavily used national park in the UK. All the moorland is SSSI, SPA and SAC protected and any event using this land must get a license from Natural England and keep to existing paths in the nesting season – no access to open moorland.

    I can see that dog owners get a lot of pleasure from taking their dogs into the countryside and letting the dogs off the lead. Unfortunately on moorland, dogs are universally disliked. Last year one group with dogs hadn’t checked the Open Access website to see that a year round dog ban was in place – the gamekeeper fired his shotgun over their heads and told the dog owners to get off his moor. Rather than contact the police this was dealt with by national park rangers. Apparently the gamekeeper described a persistent problem with dogs on his land.

    Last Saturday found me on a remote moor in the north east peak. The only other person around was a gamekeeper, with gun in his ATV. He had been putting down medicated grit. When I was a sufficient distance away, he started firing his gun. The only wildlife I’d seen were Golden Plover (who obviously thought it was spring) and mountain hare. Also on the moor were large diggers involved in a lengthy moorland restoration project. The keeper and contractors accessed the moor along a recently resurfaced bridleway (funded via HLS). Sections of the bridleway are now completely trashed by vehicles so this resurfacing has been a complete waste of public money. The vehicle damage continues across the SSSI moorland to the regeneration areas with sphagnum destroyed and large ruts in the soft peat. The supposedly low pressure ATV was causing visible ruts and tracks wherever it went. This problem has been ongoing and NE didn’t answer my email on this matter.

    I agree with Andy Holden – yes I have an impact, but this is absolutely minimal compared to what else was going on in this area. I can supply photos if Mark would like to post them.

  19. Ah the lovely gamekeepers of the Peak District. If someone fired a shotgun over my head because I’d strayed into their garden with my dog I’m sure they’d be an armed police presence within minutes. Yet a gamekeeper sees it as a legitimate tactic rather than say speak to the person concerned? And why are national park rangers allowing incidents of shot guns being fired in anger and to intimidate the public go unreported to the police? Discharging a firearm in the direction of members of the public is a serious issue. I don’t believe firearms licenses are granted for this purpose? Appreciate this comment is off topic but the problem with wildlife in the UK is summed up in that episode.Landowners want only certain types of wildlife they can shoot and they will shoot everything else even directing fire at people who commit the crime of bringing Fido on a walk!

  20. Thanks for a very interesting and worthwhile debate on this thorny topic. My thoughts are these:

    ‘Disturbance’ is an inescapable part of life for all creatures and we shouldn’t think that it’s only mankind that is responsible for it. How often do we notice the birds in our gardens suddenly disappear among a cacophony of alarm calls just before a sparrowhawk appears fleetingly? How often do we see buzzards mobbed by crows and rooks? Rabbits scatter as the fox walks by?

    Disturbance isn’t permanent, either. Decades ago there was a spat between the pheasant shooters and the hunts, the former complaining that the hunt and their hounds were driving away (‘disturbing’) their birds from the copses and coverts they were being reared in to the detriment of their ‘business’. Subsequent trials revealed the startling fact that the pheasants were driven away but returned shortly after the hunt and their hounds were gone! Equally, I regularly walk my dogs on Selsley Common near Stroud along with numerous others (even in foul weather) and often amongst grazing cattle yet this doesn’t seem to affect the permanent population of skylarks nesting there.

    There are even instances where human activity has the opposite effect on wildlife, where it is attracted to rather than repelled by it. Badgers are particularly attracted to cattle pasture as it makes ideal foraging ground for their primary diet of earthworms. Equally, people feed birds, insects, foxes, badgers and all sorts of creatures in their gardens, put up nest boxes etc. Foxes in particular have adapted brilliantly to the urban environment where they perform a magnificent (free) service cleaning up discarded food and human detritus, not to mention keeping the urban rodent population in check. Peregrine falcons have adapted to nest in skyscrapers in big cities and thrive there along with numerous other species.

    Wildlife is disturbed by all sorts of things, mostly other wildlife and it seems to be a natural part of life. It may even be vital for survival as creatures need to learn caution if they are not to be easily predated. As someone else has pointed out, humans are part of this process and their dogs may will be providing a useful proxy for the kind of predators made extinct my man a long time ago. That is not to say disturbance by humans isn’t a problem in some cases but that it is perhaps unavoidable in the main and that only in cases where extreme rarity of a species is involved should we take measures to prevent it.

    The real problem is that wildlife has been driven out of the vast majority of land in this country and is therefore concentrated in pockets where survival for certain species is more prone to failure or where populations become critically small. But it is not only wildlife that has been driven out of the countryside but humans also, and to compound this problem the areas where humans are allowed to go are pretty much the same as the areas where wildlife has sought refuge or is forced to exist. The more humans are forced into these small areas to get the recreation and space they need the more they are forced into contact/conflict with wildlife.

    This raises the question of whether a more generalised ‘right to roam’ would mitigate the pressure of human visitors to wilder areas where critically endangered species are trying to recover? The farming and bloodsports community aren’t going to like that but it would add more eyes to see what is happening on farms and shooting estates these days and maybe also add pressure on them to improve their practices. Maybe even the National Parks wouldn’t like it either as it may reduce visitor numbers in the short term but I suspect visitors to these areas go for more reasons than just to look at wildlife. Equally I suspect that an increased opportunity for recreation and seeing wildlife closer to home would increase the number of people seeking ’special experiences’ in the National Parks over time.

    I don’t think we should delay rewilding those parts of Britain where it could be easily achieved but in parallel we need to look at the issues of land use and access across the whole country. That means a good look not only at how subsidies and markets affect the space available for recreation and wildlife but also how specific agricultural practices such as spraying, fertilisier use, hedegrow and tree removal and cultivation processes are contributing to the problem.

    Equally I do not believe there is any place for the ‘recreational killing’ industry (bloodsports) in our country and the claimed (grossly exaggerated) economic ‘benefits’ of it do not justify its continued existence. Not only is killing ‘for fun’ an act of personal depravity but the environmental and social disbenefits greatly outweigh any other consideration. On top of that, the continued existence of these activities is holding back a far greater economic and ecological boom that would result if they weren’t there and which we urgently need.

    My last observation on humans and wildlife interaction are as follows: my local badger sett is in a copse in farmland with two public footpaths running through it. It’s land where the hunt operates and I know there is some low-level illegal persecution of badgers on surrounding farms. Whilst trying to observe them I have noticed that they are particularly alert to my presence and any slight hint of noise or scent from me sends them running away. A few miles away is another sett I visit but this one is in a large-ish area of National Trust woodland, also with many footpaths through it. The badgers here are frequently ‘disturbed’ by walkers but are not persecuted and, to my delight do not disappear as soon as I appear. The behaviour of wildlife on being disturbed or observed by humans is informed by the amount of danger they associate with our presence. That is to say, when we stop killing and harming wildlife their level of concern occasioned by us disturbing them will diminish.

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