ECOS 38 (6): Lies, damn lies and nature conservation

Wildlife and game groups should find more common ground. Between them they could bring complementary skills and experience to better manage nature.

Game and nature conservation – the routine squabbles

I am a part of two social groups that seem to be locked in endless and fruitless conflict: the field sports community and nature conservationists.  The protagonists and antagonists stay the same, whatever the particular battleground they happen to be fighting over at the time. There was the conflict over cormorants on inland waters during the 1980s and we have all witnessed the more recent exchanges over buzzards and badgers.

In recent years petitions have been issued by the poster-boys of the birding world to ban all grouse shooting, along with calls to end the release of pheasants for sport shooting. Non-governmental organisations such as RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts are vocal in their opposition to “killing for fun”. Meanwhile, game shooters claim that they are the real conservationists because they provide an economic function for natural habitats and a trained manpower to effect ‘wildlife management’.

Switching to rivers, game fishers insist that our waterways are safest in their hands. They have formed ‘river trusts’ and catchment partnerships, sponsored by the Environment Agency, to protect their interests.

There can be collaboration between more amenable individuals from both game and conservation camps, but it tends to happen in safe spaces such as  debates about agri-environment schemes. The small outbursts of peace rarely divert the two sides from the general state of uninterrupted warfare.

Deer stalkers hunt for truly wild deer.  Photo: David Blake

Petty politics?

At the root of the schism is I suspect, a social divide. This may include  mistrust between people whose actual identity includes their mistrust of the other side and their willingness to antagonize opposing views. It is evident in the discussions I have about badgers. I hear the same words and phrases being used to describe the other side. Phrases like “they don’t know what they’re talking about” and “they are just cherry-picking the evidence to suit themselves” could come from a dairy farmer describing his or her local Wildlife Trust or a consulting ecologist describing the farming press.

Our natural world is failing because we are failing it. This is happening at a time of intense political, social, and economic pressure on nature and when global landscapes are all changing. We have a set of clear and present dangers to our natural world in this time of upheaval and instability, and yet we have unparalleled opportunities to make things better. Yet two major groups are spending time and treasure point scoring. All the big numbers in biodiversity relating to habitat quantity and quality, species diversity and population abundance are dropping like stones, but we (I include myself in both groups) are too consumed with throwing stones at one another to do anything useful about it. How much more effective could we be in conserving and improving our natural environment if peace broke out?

Lessons from Cecil the Lion?

A first step in creating a resolution to the conflict is greater honesty, particularly about where we have failed. In order to advance the cause of nature further and faster, I propose that both sides need to be far more honest about their many and diverse failings rather than constantly trumpeting their occasional and obviously inadequate successes. 

For instance, in 2015 an American dentist shot an African lion with a bow and arrow. There was a huge and justified outcry from conservationists that was echoed by many of us in the field sports community. We said that the hunt had been unfair, the animal was semi-tame and this was no better than the infamous ‘canned hunting’ that we abhor. Moreover, the hunt was illegal and the method was inhumane. Our outrage was unfeigned. After all, it went against everything we hold dear as sportsmen, didn’t it?

Yet this was coming from British game shooters who are, in ethical terms, no better or much worse. In the UK the most popular type of game hunting is driven shooting, where purpose-bred birds are flushed so that they will fly over a line of carefully positioned sportsmen. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not easy to hit the birds. We make it as difficult as possible for ourselves to give a veneer of ‘fair chase’ to the shoot, but that sporting chance also serves to greatly increase the wounding rate; so there is an element of known inhumanity built in. When I trained as a gamekeeper, we still promulgated the (largely) fictitious idea that all releasing was to supplement the wild stock of game. According to what I have been able to ascertain from various (and variously unreliable) sources, game shooters now release about 48 million pheasants and 40 million red-legged partridges in to the countryside each year and this is growing at about 1 million a year for each species. Far from this being in any way a supplement to the wild population of game, we are getting more addicted to an increasingly artificial and ethically questionable form of sport, which is really no better than our American dentist grinning to the camera, perched over his trophy lion.

Our wildest hunting is being gradually degraded. We have already lost the wild quarry that was once the staple for every shooter: grey partridge, brown hare and even the humble rabbit are all disappearing from our countryside. Many grouse shoots, once looked upon as the pinnacle of British sport shooting, now exist financially by virtue of the red-legged partridges that are released alongside the moor without which there would be insufficient revenue to sustain the staff and equipment needed to manage the moor for the grouse.

Cutting the corners on red deer

Scottish estates, with their great traditions of sport stalking that attract guests from all over the world, have always had the problem that red deer do not develop well on treeless mountains with only heather to eat: so the trophy ‘heads’ are small in comparison to further south or on the Continent. Some less scrupulous operators can now guarantee that you will shoot a hugely antlered stag that will certainly win a trophy medal. They know this because they buy large stags from English deer parks, transport them to Scotland and release them onto the hill for the stalker to shoot just before he arrives. You can’t get much more ‘canned’ than that.

Murky waters?

Fishing is no better. For example, in a river close to where I live, there have been attempts to increase the population of Atlantic salmon. Largely funded by the Exchequer (ie. the tax payer), fishing clubs and riparian owners have increased the amount of breeding habitat and improved habitat for the young fish (parr). Fishing clubs have instituted a catch and release policy to allow adult salmon to reach the upper river breeding areas unmolested. Barriers to their journey, like weirs and sluices, have been removed, again largely at the public expense. This is all good stuff, but when the young fish prepare to journey to sea (smoltify) they must pass downstream through two estates where trout are released into the river for fishing. These stocked trout are, on average, 75cm long. That is a very big trout. On one estate, 400 of these large fish are put in the river each year and this activity is licensed by the same government agency that pays for the habitat creation (Environment Agency data supplied). Such fish could never naturally grow to that size in this small river. They would starve if they were not fed with high-energy food pellets thrown into the river.

The fishery managers who ‘feed the river’ in this way are breaking the law (The Water Act forbids putting any biologically active substance into a river without a licence) and they know it. The Environment Agency knows it goes on as well, but have no wish to upset fishermen who they see as corporate partners and a source of revenue. An Environment Agency officer, when I asked him why this is not followed up, said “how is that different from a coarse fisherman chucking in a bit of ground bait?” My response was that a few handfuls of ground bait are very different from the 100kg of fish food, rich in nitrogen and phosphorous deposited into the river every day (personal communication) on one such fishery. How can the 10cm long smolt pass through a section of river where those huge hungry mouths are waiting for food? So all that effort in habitat creation upstream, all that tax-payer treasure, all that goodwill and enthusiasm on the part of fishers and landowners, goes straight down the ugly gullet of an undeserving rainbow trout.

A small wild brown trout from a southern chalk stream.  Photo: David Blake

A sterile landscape?

Our countryside is now designed around the introduced species that were brought in to replace the wild quarry. Rather than sustain their habitat, and along with it that of so much farmland wildlife, we brought in the pheasants, red-legged partridges and rainbow trout that could be emptied out from their breeding cages onto an agrarian factory-floor largely devoid of native wildlife. The gamekeepers and waterkeepers are no longer the expert naturalists of years gone by. Their job is to rear birds and fish, release them into the countryside and then feed them for a few months or weeks until they are shot or caught. They have no need for knowledge of wild plants, insects and native birds, fish and mammals beyond the pests and predators that they imagine (rightly or wrongly) threaten their game. What a mistake of monumental proportions and what a shame we cannot admit to it.

Nature conservation’s failing influence

Of course us nature conservationists have the moral high ground, don’t we? We do not go around gleefully killing things and if we have to ‘cull’ a population of deer or invasive species for instance, we do it with a teary eye and we certainly do not dress up in tweeds, comedic hats or red coats to do it.

The State of Nature Report 2016 had 12 ‘headline’ findings from 50 nature conservation organisations. Each finding was evidenced and the report highlighted the serious state of our natural world, its continuing decline and what that means for all of us. The causes of this decline were (for the most part) laid at the door of modern agriculture. Not surprising as the price paid by the natural environment for the agricultural revolution of the last 60 years is well documented, not least in this publication. The role of wildlife reserves in preserving habitat fragments and the last populations of certain species are described. The successes in cleaning up rivers and restoring species once lost are all celebrated. But nowhere in the report can I find recognition of nature conservation’s own shortcomings and a sense of mea culpa.

Even though all those 50 organisations would claim that ‘saving nature’ and conserving wildlife is their role, either wholly or in part, it is quite apparent that they all think that their general failure is someone else’s fault. Over the last 40 years, as our wildlife populations fell away and many disappeared all together, the very people who had tasked themselves to save it busily blamed other people.

Surely, we should have won the argument by now? Even if we were only 50% inept we should have been able to convince everyone of the need to take care of our wildlife, husband our shared natural resources for the benefit of all and generations to come. Considering the huge advantages we have in the UK, we should be world leaders in nature conservation.

Consider the following advantages we have in advancing the cause of nature conservation in Britain:

1. Some of the first nature conservation organisations in the world were British. We had the first ever nature reserve (Walton Hall, West Yorkshire, 1821). The Plumage League, forerunner of the RSPB, was one of the earliest wildlife pressure groups.

2. The science of ecology was born and raised in the UK. Luminaries such as Elton, Tansley and Evelyn Hutchinson forged the science upon which so much modern philosophy is founded. On the shoulders of giants such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, British scientists have been leaders in the natural sciences.

3. For 40 years, the BBC Natural History Unit has been making and broadcasting the best natural history and wildlife films in the world. They constitute some of the output that receives the greatest audiences and they are the most saleable of the BBC’s output world-wide. The best known film-makers, from Hugh Falkus to David Attenborough, are household names and some even become that most exalted thing, a ‘national treasure’.

4. We have been blessed with an unparalleled inheritance of amateur and voluntary involvement. From Gilbert White’s wonderful notes on the natural history of Selbourne in Hampshire, to the modern contributors to iRecord and Living Record or the thousands of folk who keep our scrub bashed, our coppices cut, our cattle watched and do all manner of jobs for free. Very few other countries can claim such a host of supporters.

5. Nearly every county has a dedicated Wildlife Trust (there are 47 in the UK) that owns and manages nature reserves that constitute many of our best known and best loved bits of countryside. Millions of people visit them every year. They often have close ties with local authorities and, over the years, have received many millions in grants from Landfill Tax distributors, Lottery and other charitable funders.

So, why don’t people care enough to vote into power parties of government that espouse our message as a matter of course? Why don’t people know that we are close to losing so much of our remaining wildlife?

I wrote much of this article sitting in the Natural History Museum. It was packed with families on their Easter holidays (seemingly most of its 5 million visitors a year), the children alive with enthusiasm and glee. So intense was the learning about natural history that I took refuge in the Member’s Room over a cup of tea. The Museum has been celebrating nature and guiding young minds for over 200 years and has been getting better at it all the time. The visitors support over 350 research scientists who comprise experts in every taxon the world over, with access to over 80 million specimens.

But, we have not been able to build upon all these advantages. The successes and triumphs of the last half century have not turned the tide. We should have no trouble in winning over the people with whom we have so much in common. Shooters and fishers like to think themselves naturalists even when they are not, so surely they are an audience of ‘low hanging fruit’ ripe for the picking? Yet they have become our bête noir, the enemy against whom we rail and upon whom we heap blame.

From mistrust to building trust

If the mud-slinging between the field sports community and nature conservationists is to stop, then a certain amount of trust needs to develop between the two sides. I am not talking about the kind of trust that comes from familiarity (such as, “I trust that if grouse shooting is on the telly, there will be letters to the BBC”); but rather the avoidance of point scoring and adopting some humility, allowing the other side to listen in the spirit of achieving a better outcome for wildlife. Meanwhile nobody is winning the argument, but our natural environment is certainly losing.

The first step in building trust is honesty and openness about our failings. Both sides must recognise their weaknesses and the other’s strengths if we are to heal old wounds, build trust and combine our strength for the good of our beleaguered environment. If both sides could hear each other being open and honest, in public and without fear or reservation, then trust would grow.


A deer stalker and seasoned nature conservation practitioner. These views are very much his own.

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Blake, David “ECOS 38 (6): Lies, damn lies and nature conservation” ECOS vol. 38(6), 2017, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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