Having completed almost a full year of local gleaning and browsing I thought I’d round off this series with one of the best of all wild foods – one that can be found widely, if rather sparsely, across most of the country.
If they are not quite a match for the taste of wild strawberries (though these things are highly personal) the plants do at least produce good-sized fruits, approaching the size of the smallest cultivated raspberries. This similarity leads people to believe they are escapes from cultivation, even when found well away from civilisation. To the contrary, this is a genuinely wild, native plant, with a long history, and is all the more enjoyable for that.
The plants are not defended as heavily as brambles and the small thorns are less likely than their thuggish relative to shred your skin, or even your clothes, during the gathering process. Another advantage is their early season. The ripe fruits appear well ahead of the ubiquitous blackberry, from late June onwards in a good year. Now is the perfect time to look out for them in sunny woodland clearings, and along tangled, overgrown hedgerows.
Finally, any guesses as to the identity of this plant as described in three recently-published books on wild food?
‘…leaves and shoots make an excellent addition to fresh salads or can be cooked with spinach and other vegetables.’ (2018)
‘Don’t worry about their furry texture; this disappears completely during cooking. […] The young leaf spears, picked in March…make excellent salads, not unlike sliced cucumber.’ (2012)
‘…it is now considered to be quite seriously poisonous, causing dangerous liver conditions and even liver cancer.’ (2010)
It was very sporting of GWCT to send me a copy of this book to review (I had to ask, but they sent it very quickly).
Readers of this blog may well have their own copies of this book already but I thought it worth a brief review for those whose bookshelves lack it at the moment.
This book is attractively produced with good layout and illustrations and is reasonably priced for its size and amount of content. Much of the content is, however, word for word, downloaded from the GWCT website and therefore isn’t anything new, or that you can’t get for free. And occasionally it does feel like a cut-and-paste job where a few existing pieces of text have been stuck together rather strangely rather than re-written, and shortened, to make a more easily-read, better-structured, whole.
It sticks to lowland issues so you won’t find anything about grouse shooting here – which is just as well given GWCT’s poor attempts at the subject in the past (and here). And it’s hardly a guide to conservation, it’s a bit of a hotch-potch of guides to sporting etiquette, good practice, conservation and the law.
So it’s mostly about Pheasants and partridges although I was particularly interested in what it says about Woodcock and lead ammunition.
Around 43 million Pheasants are released into the UK countryside every year – it’s good to have the GWCT ‘official’ estimate as numbers bandied around by all sorts of people vary widely. Having said that, the 43 million figure is for 2012 and that’s hardly up-to-date. The text recognises that there is controversy about whether this massive input of a non-native species (which predates a wide variety of animal species) provides a net conservation benefit or loss, but comes nowhere near answering the question. However, the recognition of the issue is a good thing and more than one would get from some other pro-shooting organisations.
Also, in these pages was the first time I have come across the GWCT voicing concern about how shoots treat released Pheasants (and other gamebirds) after the shooting season. In particular, the phrase ‘Failure to look after birds after the season finishes is currently one of the biggest ethical issues in shooting‘ leapt out at me as I don’t recall seeing it before (and I couldn’t find it on the GWCT website even with the help of a well-known search engine). This text is very strong on the unacceptibility of ceasing or reducing feeding of birds at the end of the shoot season and states that food should be provided right up until the end of May when natural food becomes more available. The text also points the finger of blame specifically at shoots aiming for large January bags as being responsible for overstocking and potentially for these welfare issues. It’s good to see this highlighted here and it would be difficult for any shoot manager not to get the message.
Rather more feeble is the faint suggestion that ‘Shoots should generally avoid releasing birds into sensitive woodland habitat, in particular reptile breeding or hibernation sites, …‘. Generally eh?
I think that Pheasant shooting feels under pressure and maybe this booklet is partly a response to that. Interestingly, the Wales environment minister, recently wrote to Natural Resources Wales to say that the government ‘does not support commercial pheasant shooting or the breeding of gamebirds‘ because of ‘ethical issues‘. It seems that many are concerned about current practice in Pheasant shooting because of ethical issues, and those ethical issues should include the impacts on the conservation of native species.
Around 9 million Red-legged Partridges are released for shooting each year – a figure that is eye-wateringly large for a non-native species which is rare or absent from much of the uplands and the north and west of Britain, and largely from Northern Ireland, but which goes without much comment because it is so dwarfed by the scale of Pheasant releases. The text mentions a study, by GWCT, to consider impacts of Red-legs on Adonis Blue butterflies which sounds quite interesting if, it appears, not completely conclusive.
The Grey Partridge, the GWCT’s logo bird, of course, and the species on which GWCT’s former scientific reputation was based, is a sad case study. The shooting community, if it is any sort of community, has failed to implement the research findings of the GWCT widely enough and so the Grey Partridge has declined very greatly despite us knowing how to conserve it. I was interested to read here that there is a paper, soon to be published (no details are given), that shows that Grey Partridges have increased on sites where Grey Partridges are shot (and counted in the GWCT Partridge Count Scheme), have declined a bit on sites where they are not shot (but are counted in the GWCT PCS) and have declined greatly in the wider countryside (according to BTO figures). What this actually means is that only people who care about Grey Partridges count them, but because most shoots have completely neglected Grey Partridge shooting and have instead switched to put and take Pheasant and Red-leg shoots, the shooting community has done a poor job for the bird that is hailed as the ‘Barometer of the Countryside’. This booklet does not suggest that switching from the dubious benefits of releasing Red-legs and Pheasants to a greater emphasis on ‘our native gamebird’ would be a major positive realignment of shooting with nature conservation – it would be, but it won’t happen.
The Woodcock gets 11 of this booklet’s 212 pages but the text is rather confused and I struggled to discern what GWCT want shoot managers to do. It’s quite a contrast to the clear message on big January Pheasant shoot days earlier on. The UK Woodcock breeding population is largely resident and is declining – probably for a variety of reasons of which shooting might be one of them, though not, probably, the main one. This population is joined by a much larger number of continental birds each winter and the European and Asian population is (probably) not declining. So, life would be simple if you could tell the difference between the immigrants and the residents, but one can’t and so any large Woodcock shoot (and you might be surprised at how much Woodcock shooting goes on see here, here, here and here for examples (some of which appear not to know the legal shooting dates for this species)) may be adding to the problems of the resident population. Quite deeply embedded in this text, and contained under a heading which relates to cold weather, is an apparent plea not to shoot Woodcock before 1 December when many, but not all, immigrants will have arrived. The wording is utterly feeble, ‘Whilst every shoot will be different, generally, we recommend not shooting woodcock before 1st December‘. It’s hard for me to take this seriously and it will be even more difficult for anyone who wields a shotgun in anger or in placid calmness to find these words or believe that GWCT are actually serious on this issue.
And so to lead. There are 8 pages on lead which add up to ‘It’s all very complicated so keep pumping poison into the environment and food if you like‘. Given the number of people in shooting who will say privately that lead is on its way out, and some will even say that they wish government would get a move on and do something on this subject, it is pathetic that GWCT dodge the issue here. Obviously, the flouncing out of their outgoing Chair from the Lead Ammunition Group has painted the scientists in GWCT into a corner. They may have felt that despite the strong scientific evidence for doing so, they could hardly state here that removal of lead ammunition is a good idea, but they should have moved a lot further towards making just that case. It’s an example of the organisation’s science being compromised by the views of its trustees and membership in my view.
Most of the references in this book are by GWCT staff, even where others have done important and sometimes better work, which gives the impression of an organisation looking very much inwards.
The list of questions, at the end of each chapter, that shooters should ask of shoots, to establish how well run they are, is a good idea. I hope people use it to good effect. I wonder whether they will?
So, this is a mixed bag. This isn’t a book about nature conservation – despite its title. But it is quite interesting as a window into some aspects of lowland shooting. Despite some strong messages on some aspects of bad practice in game managment other issues were ducked. Given the book’s title, The Knowledge, I wondered whether having read it I would be calling for a ‘Taxi for GWCT!’ but it’s not that bad. It does feel to me as though it was a missed opportunity for GWCT to claw back some respect from some outside the shooting crowd who would like to see GWCT recapture its lost reputation as a leader of good practice rather than an apologist for terrible practice in shooting. But this didn’t quite do it.
The Knowledge: every gun’s guide to conservation by the GWCT is published by the GWCT.
This is a Hawk Owl landing in a tree top in Sweden that I took in May this year. They occur at low density in the boreal forest zone right across Europe, Siberia and North America. I think that they are the only owl that is most active during the daytime. Other daytime owls are crepuscular, being most active at dusk and dawn. They eat small mammals and birds and I saw this one bring in a small vole which was probably Grey-sided Vole (Myodes rufocanus).
My column, Naturally Opinionated, in the August British Wildlife is about National Parks.
It should drop through your letterboxes around 18 August – subscribe here.
More on this subject when the magazine is out.
Full details of the North of England Raptor Forum Hen Harrier Day event – a catchily-titled Raptor Persecution Awareness Open-Day – are now published. There is no need to get a ticket and no need to book – so just come along between 10am and 2pm on Saturday 11 August.
That’s probably where I’ll be that day – 4 weeks from now.