....every conservation body worth its salt will assure you, where man intrudes, wild life is on the retreat.
It is a message that is applied not just to the Himalayas but to the hills and moorland of Britain. It bolsters the ethos and the coffers of impeccable organisations like the WWF, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and government-sponsored bodies such as English Nature and its Scottish and Welsh equivalents. Their running theme, rarely challenged in public, is that, where wild birds and animals are in decline, the hand of man, whether farmer, landowner, forester or sportsman, can be detected. Intensive farming, commercial exploitation and leisure pursuits such as hunting or shooting have driven some species to the point of extinction. Unless these human activities can be reined in, goes the story, the future for wildlife is bleak
It is a deeply flawed message — at best a half-truth, at worst a deliberate distortion. Past masters at selling it are the RSPB, which last week issued yet another grim account of persecution, this time in the Peak District, which is to be the subject of an adjournment debate in Westminster Hall today.
Peak Malpractice, as the report is titled, claims that birds of prey, such as goshawk, hen harrier and peregrine, are in steep decline because of “illegal persecution”. “The scale of decline is shocking and to bird-of-prey experts, there is no natural explanation,” an RSPB statement says. English Nature is blunter. It places the blame firmly at the door of grouse moor owners. “Areas where protected species have been affected coincide with driven grouse moors,” it says. “These include some of the most important conservation sites in Europe.”
You will find any number of similar stories on the RSPB’s website. What you will not find are some very inconvenient facts, based not on propaganda but on science, which have been issued by the Game Conservancy Trust. Its own report, Nature’s Gain, presents a very different picture. It shows that on land that is managed for shooting, whether moorland, woods or pasture, wildlife is thriving. Over the past ten years, on grouse moors, for instance, golden plovers, curlew (pictured) and lapwing, which are under threat in so many parts of England and Wales, have multiplied by up to five times. The merlin, Britain’s smallest bird of prey, is twice as common on grouse moors as elsewhere. In the North Pennines area, which the RSPB complains about, curlew have increased by 18 times more than in the Berwyn Special Protection Area, which is managed as a bird reserve.
Pheasant shooting, widely condemned by conservationists, has done wonders for small birds such as robins, blackbirds and finches. The cultivation of woods and verges and the planting of game crops have resulted in wild bird numbers quadrupling in some areas. On one sample farm, in Leicestershire, where modern farming goes hand in hand with shooting, song birds, brown hares and harvest mice have shown dramatic improvement. The explanation is simple. In these places, nature is “managed ” to encourage wildlife. Heather is burnt, which stimulates new growth. Vermin are controlled. Predators such as foxes and crows are kept down.
Contrast this with the RSPB’s own lamentable record. On Langholm Moor, where the society, allied with Scottish Natural Heritage, presided over an experiment to withdraw all gamekeeping, the number of birds, including hen harriers, grouse, waders, and all songbirds, has crashed. It is now, to all intents and purposes, a desert area. On Lake Vyrnwy, a reservoir area in Mid-Wales managed by the RSPB, curlew, plover and lapwing have declined to near-zero. Black grouse, which once thrived, are being wiped out, not just by foxes, but, embarrassingly for the RSPB, by the goshawks that they so much favour. Data for other species, like stonechats and short-eared owls, are simply not recorded — perhaps because the results are so bad.