Tuesday 4 June 2013

Upping the game

The recent issuing of licence to destroy buzzard nests to protect released pheasants demonstrates that some very uncomfortable truths about the game-shooting industry need to be outed but also that there is a lack of research evidence about the impacts of large-scale gamebird releases.

Do we know the real figures for the number of gamebirds released in Britain every year? It is estimated that between 40 and 50 million birds (that is pheasants, red-legged partridge and a smaller number of grey partridge) are released into Britain's countryside annually.  While the industry has carried out research into the benefits to the countryside from shooting, perhaps the research has been a little selective? It is all "a question of balance" (the title of a Game Conservancy [now the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust] publication about its research), so here are my research questions on the impact of these releases, and associated activities (including predator-culling), relevant to wildlife, farming and human health.

1) What is the impact of providing all this extra easy food on predator populations: i.e. fox, stoat, buzzard
2) What is the impact of predator-culling on their prey; and if this has an impact on those species, what is the effect? e.g. rabbit populations and impact on agricultural crops, whether grass or arable; is there an economic impact, if so, what is the cost and who bears this cost?
3) How many road traffic collisions are caused by drivers crashing into or swerving to avoid released gamebirds? What are the death and injury statistics? (I sadly remember a 17-year old who died because he swerved to avoid a pheasant when on his motorbike). What is the cost to the insurance industry and to the NHS? What are the social and economic costs to the impacted families who have been bereaved or injured?

Raptors have increased, but the recent request for a licence to destroy buzzard nests is just the beginning of what the game industry really wants, which is to get rid of more buzzards, shortly followed by ravens (nicely recovering after a century of absenteeism from large swathes of Britain) and red kites. In some parts of the countryside foxes are already very scarce, as shoots do not tolerate them and it is very clear from this that a substantial number of gamekeepers and shoot managers (and their landlords) will only be happy when they can see no raptors in the sky. Where will it stop? Surely, it's time to put the brakes on the game industry, not recovering wildlife. It is now time for those who love the countryside and its wildlife to up their game.

Friday 12 April 2013

Signs of spring

Hooray, those sharp east winds have disappeared for the time being. This year's prolonged winter has many implications for wildlife, farming and food production. First, the wildlife. Spring migrants are late to arrive but I heard the first chiffchaff on Wednesday. Their arrival is about two weeks later than normal. The wild daffodils, usually at their peak around 8 March, were still at their best last weekend - one month later than normal. The cold weather has kept them in splendid 'suspended' animation. Barn owls will probably be suffering. At this time of year the females need to be nice and fat, ready to lay eggs, but insects and voles are probably scarcer, so the barn owls will either delay breeding, lay fewer eggs or perhaps be less fertile.

Farmland wildlife may also benefit from the huge acreage of uncultivated land that was too wet to plant last autumn and now, it is is too late to plant for this year. Many fields will need to remain fallow or planted up with a green manure, so will not be producing wheat, barley or oilseed rape this year. A lot of the oilseed rape has also failed - either eaten by slugs or pigeons. Meanwhile, take a minute to think about the challenges faced by upland farmers who have had to dig their sheep out of 7-foot snowdrifts.

For those of us with veg patches or allotments it has been too cold to get seeds going, so our growing season may be shorter - unless we have a nice mild autumn. Time will tell but I plan to get digging this weekend, (followed by a visit to the local  back man on Monday!).