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very exciting project for the National Trust

Legal control of crows, foxes and stoats

a superb management strategy

foxes often chew transmitters

These animals disappeared for a reason, because they were competing with our own needs

learning the lessons of successful moorland management from its neighbours and concentrating on habitat management and predator control

The lack of woodland management has led to rapid declines in specialist woodland wildlife, like the rare and beautiful Pearl-bordered Fritillary

Grey wolves in the northern Rocky mountains are thriving and no longer need protection - see the Addendum August

The RSPB does not have any axe to grind against any sport unless it affects the conservation issues and then we would be very much against it


Lisa Hawthornthwaite, the only cowgirl in Britain, rides out for the National Trust, Simon de Bruxelles, Times 30 October 2008

This is such a charming story of a young woman and her rugged pony, out in all weathers in the cause of nature conservation. It even made the national news on Friday morning television. However, what you will not see in this newspaper report, or the news release from the National Trust (1) is the real reason why this woman is being employed to move cattle around a Dorset heath. Yes – it’s a heath, and moreover it’s heath on a registered commons that has the multiple designations of NNR, SSSI, SAC and SPA.

There is the usual diversionary excuses that it is to prevent the cattle from straying on to the road that bisects the heath, and also that the National Trust won’t have to use a quad bike or Land Rover on the heath to round up the cattle. Thus the cow herding by horse is a cute way of minimising that hazard as well as the impact from machinery, but why do the cattle need herding? Well, the cattle are there to apply grazing pressure – “conservation grazing” – in the orthodox ideology of maintaining the heathland habitat, as notified in the numerous designations. Our conservation "experts" put a value on the wildlife of heath, the stress tolerant open landscape species that coexist in this kind of artificial habitat derived from agricultural use, and hence why modern "nature conservation" is wedded to maintaining agricultural landscapes.

Unfortunately for the National Trust, such a small number of intended cattle will be unreliable in this large heathland expanse (631ha) in obtaining an even grazing of the landscape. They will have to be herded around, in the same way that sheep are close herded with dogs on Ashdown Forest - another multiply designated heathland commons. The simple solution, as was originally intended at Ashdown Forest, would be to fence off the heath into smaller compartments, which enforces the grazing in those fenced areas, and then moving the cattle between the compartments. Except that by law registered commons cannot be split up and enfenced. Many commons have come under intense pressure recently to have fencing enforced on them in the cause of conservation grazing – the National Trust itself being a party to this, but fencing on commons requires an application to DEFRA. It is not surprising that local people object to the loss of open character that results from these applications and demand that a public inquiry be held.

David Hodd, the Studland countryside manager for the National Trust seems to be caught up in the enthusiasm of his own propaganda when he is reported to have said: “It is a very exciting project for the National Trust” But more telling is the admission in the National Trust news release that the cattle are there to prevent the heathland from becoming overgrown with trees:
“Without grazing animals, the heath would eventually lose most of its rare wildlife, and become a more mundane birch, willow and pine woodland”

Note the obligatory denigration by conservation professionals of natural regeneration of woodland in a degraded, agricultural landscape.

(1) Conservation Cowgirl, National Trust Latest News

2 November 2008

New study links loss of waders and hen harriers to loss of gamekeepers and grouse, Game & Wildlife Conservancy Trust News 27 October 2008

Langholm Moor is part of a private estate in Dumfriesshire, SW Scotland. During the 1990s, public money was poured in there, as it was the main site of the Joint Raptor Study that investigated the relationships between hen harriers, peregrines and red grouse. The study showed that the number of hen harriers and peregrines rose under the usual regime of habitat management from heather burning, and through control by gamekeepers of predators of ground nesting birds such as foxes and crows.

It has to be said that what was probably unique about this study was the undertaking by the estate not to illegally control hen harrier numbers (they have been protected since 1954). This was likely to have been the covert practice because of their predatory effect on red grouse. Thus good news on two counts for the hen harriers with predation by both man and wild animal removed, except that the numbers of meadow pipit, their main prey, plunged as did skylarks. However, curlew and lapwing numbers actually increased in spite of the rise in hen harriers. The increased number of hen harriers did however result in a dramatic decline by half in the number of breeding red grouse. In 1998, a year after the study finished, grouse shooting was no longer commercially viable on the moor, and so gamekeeping was withdrawn by its owners (1,2).

Guess what happened then? As this news release says, hen harrier numbers plunged back down again, and lapwing were virtually lost, whilst snipe and carrion crow increased dramatically - the latter by four-fold. The assumption also was that foxes returned in the absence of their control by gamekeepers, and it is they along with crows that got the blame for the drop in hen harrier numbers, as well as the lapwing. What is not clear from this source, or others, is what happened to the grouse population during this unkeepered period, nor of the curlew population.

In these situations, everyone is keen to draw their own lessons and which fit with their particular vested interest. Thus the RSPB are keen to highlight that hen harrier, one of their iconic raptor species, is not to blame for losses of wading birds such as curlew, lapwing and golden plover. The Game & Wildlife Conservancy Trust is keen to show that predator control through gamekeeping is essential in maintaining high numbers of hen harriers, and therefore has a role to play in wildlife conservation as well as in maintaining game shooting. But there is still the tricky problem that hen harriers gorge on red grouse.

Public money is now being poured into Langholm Moor again - £973,491 from Scottish Natural Heritage, and £168,052 from Natural England – under a programme entitled the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, a continuing exploration of how to resolve conflicts between moorland management for raptors and red grouse (3). Gamekeeping was restored a year ago, and the “huge backlog” of heather burning was under way last March and April. Also resumed is the “Legal control of crows, foxes and stoats” which is now routinely carried out again. Already it is claimed the results are apparent as this year has seen the best breeding success in five years for hen harriers. The new wheeze in this project though is how they are going to mitigate the effects of a flourishing population of hen harriers, whilst at the same time running an economically viable grouse shoot. The solution they have come up with is diversionary feeding, which was successfully trialled there before (4). Thus hen harrier breeding pairs this year were given carrion (dead rats and day-old chicks) in order to reduce their predation on grouse.

You may be asking yourself why public money is being used to restore a grouse shoot on private land? Well, the project is being delivered by a newly formed company, the board of which is made up from the various funding partners, including SNH and NE. The company employs the gamekeepers, and the eventual income from the reinstated grouse shooting will fund the continuing scientific monitoring, as well as the habitat management and predator control. Thus it would appear that it is not purely a profit motive, but here’s the real reason – Langholm Moor is designated as part of the Langholm – Newcastleton Hills Special Protection Area (SPA). To no surprise, the species for which it is designated for protection under the EU bird directive is the hen harrier, and the data form for the SPA says the site has 2.7% of the breeding population of Britain. The SPA designation was applied in 2001, during the period when no game keeping was taking place, and it puts an obligation on our Government (which approved the designation) to ensure that the land in the SPA is managed in a way that favours the hen harrier.

Thus the decision has been made by our statutory conservation agencies to use public funds to reinstate the routine killing of foxes, crows and stoats on private land through the vehicle of reinstating the management and use of the moor for grouse shooting. How do you then get shooting interests to stop the illegal persecution of the hen harrier? By someone going out and dropping dead rats and chicks near the hen harrier nests so that the hen harriers don’t eat the grouse.

So let’s add this all up. Obviously, the dynamics of wild nature in determining species populations is not to be given any chance here. Instead we have dead foxes, crows and stoats. Then we have dead rats and chicks that are bred somewhere else and delivered on site. And we also have dead grouse, not from the predation by hen harriers, but from the idiots who like to go out and shoot birds. Any of this meddling with nature on a grand scale make any sense to you?

Isn’t this just the usual numbers game in both game and wildlife conservation: maximising grouse numbers so that they can be shot at, and maximising hen harriers at the expense of foxes, crows and stoats. And do you think that more than a £1m subsidy of public money to restart a shooting business is good value when in all likelihood it will equate to over £50,000 per extra breeding hen harrier? And isn't this a bit two-faced for SNH? Last year, it reduced its annual grant to the National Trust for Scotland's Mar Lodge estate because some of it in previous years had been used to help finance shooting days for private clients instead of for conserving and protecting the estate's natural environment (5).

(1) Case Study: Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, Scottish Estates Business Group

(2) New study shows hen harriers and waders can live together, RSPB news August 2008

(3) Langholm – one year on, Game & Wildlife Conservancy Trust News 21 October 2008

(4) Management Trial to reduce Hen Harrier predation on Red Grouse at Langholm in 1998 and 1999: the effect of providing hen harriers with supplementary food, Scottish Natural Heritage Report No. F99AC419 2001

(5) Anger at National Trust grouse shoots triggers withdrawal of public money, Scotland on Sunday 8 April 2007

31 October 2008

Bold move to save mire, Forestry Commission News Release No: 11035, 20 October 2008

The spread of invasive introductions can be quite overwhelming for our natural environment. The ancient woodland around me suffers from Himalayan balsam that in places overwhelms the ground layer. Balsam bashing is an emotionally satisfying activity, but it has to be at a sufficient scale, and repeated over a number of years. But bashing can put native plants at risk, and so it is better sometimes to clear balsam seedlings on a targeted basis. I have done this for three consecutive years within a large patch of yellow archangel, and to see that flourish and flower well now makes the effort very worthwhile. If I stopped now, it would a few years before the balsam eventually came back to the extent it was.

This news release is about the invasive spread of parrot’s feather, a South American aquatic plant, in one of the mires in the New Forest. The Forestry Commission describe the mire near Brockenhurst as “priceless”, but you might then expect them to spell its name correctly – Hincheslea Bog and not Hinchelslea Bog. The concern is that the parrot’s feather, which has already colonised a 700 square metre area, would romp through the entire 20 hectare of the bog.

This however is a good news story because a Dutch environmental student, spending her summer working with the Forestry Commission, has come up with a “radical plan” to get rid of the parrot's feather – described by Forestry Commission ecologist Simon Weymouth as “a superb management strategy”. Except that this radical plan of using herbicide is nothing new.

Guidance on parrot’s feather stresses that mechanical control has to be done with care as it can regrow from fragments. Since only the female form is present in Britain, then vegetative growth is its only way of it spreading. It is thus a question of repeated effort that is needed to control it. However, short-term clearance by herbicide is the recommended approach based on its efficiency and ease of effort (1,2). Our Dutch student’s rationalisation for the use of herbicide is that while it will kill all the vegetation of the mire, the seed bank of native plants will ensure their return, whereas the parrot’s feather is eradicated. But is it as simple and risk free as that?

The news release says that the herbicide was applied two weeks ago, and that visitors should not be disturbed at seeing a large brown patch of dying vegetation. No information is given on which herbicide has been used. If we assume that it was not the relatively benign glyphosate, as the guidance says that it is largely ineffective for parrot’s feather, then it was either the diquat herbicide Reglone, or dichlobenil. These two work in different ways, but both are residual herbicides as they are very persistent in water and soil, degrading very slowly. This will obviously set back the regeneration of the native plant species as they emerge. Moreover, the use of these herbicides is not risk free to other species: Reglone is toxic to aquatic life (especially invertebrates and algae) as well as livestock, dichlobenil is known to affect caddisfly, midges damselfly and mayfly, as well as soil micro-organisms (3,4).

So much of our contemporary “nature conservation” seems more to be about convenience, as well as the destruction that it wreaks. To have this highly dubious “superb management strategy” wrapped up as a good news story is just nauseating.

(1) Myriophyllum aquaticum - Parrot’s Feather Information Sheet, Centre for Aquatic Plant Management, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology 2004

(2) Parrot’s feather, Invasive non-native species fact sheets, Conservation, Environment Agency

(3) Reglone Environmental Information, Syngenta Crop Protection UK Ltd
(4) Dichlobenil herbicide factsheet, Journal of Pesticide Reform/ Spring 1997 • Vol.17, NO. 1

27 October 2008

Massive radio-tracking study links predators to bird declines, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust Press Release 18 September 2008

The manipulation of nature for our academic, conservation and commercial vested interest in Britain is staggering. Thus over 850,000 birds are ringed every year, giving rise to the fascinating information that an artic tern that was ringed on Anglesey in 1966 was found to have travelled over 18,000km to Australia.

This news story is not about ringing, but about the radio-tracking of hen pheasants. It reports on a 15-year study during which radio transmitters were attached to nearly 900 hen pheasants on six study sites, allowing the location of almost 450 nest sites to be found. The researchers checked these nests three times a week looking for signs of predation from such as foxes, carrion crows and badgers, and found that 43% of nests were lost from predation.

You might be interested to know that the researchers were able to identify which mammal was the culprit by recording “characteristic field signs”. Thus badgers are assumed to trample vegetation around nests, whereas carrion crows are said to leave characteristic peck marks in eggs. This is pretty exacting research! But what really impresses is that the last of the trio of culprits is recognized by the fact that “foxes often chew transmitters”. I suppose we have to assume that the foxes have also chewed the hen pheasants.

From this rigorous research, the conclusion is that foxes and carrion crows were responsible for a quarter of all nests that were lost. However, on sites where predator control was carried out, nest survival was doubled. It must be assumed that the sites studied where predator control was carried out were not slaughtering badgers – as that would be illegal, wouldn’t it! But 234,000 carrion crows are shot each year in the name of pest control, and to that we can add the 80,000 foxes shot and the 36,000 that are snared each year, also as pest control. While we are at it, lets also throw in the 54,000 magpies, 134,000 jackdaws and 335,000 rooks that get killed as well. And this killing is in the cause of a few people who want to do more killing, by shooting at such as pheasants!

It should be noted that pheasants are not a native species to Britain, and yet we allow this slaughter of our native, wild species in the cause of an introduced, foreign species. The press release does say that the study shows that targeted predator control is an effective conservation tool, which could help to boost populations of our declining ground-nesting birds. Anything to show that their slaughtering to ensure good gamebird counts has worth outside of their vested interest. But what many advocates for predator control fail to address is that our native ground nesting species, such as lapwings, skylarks, corn buntings and yellowhammers all co-evolved with our native predators surrounding them, and yet they survive to this day. And in the case of lapwings, a more extensive study of nest failures found no correlation with predator control, even though the control resulted in a 40% decline in adult fox numbers and a 56% reduction in territorial crows (1).

Are we so removed from wild nature that we can’t ever allow it to follow its natural course?

(1) The impact of predator control on lapwing Vanellus vanellus breeding success on lowland wet grassland nature reserves in England and Wales, Source Bolton M., Tyler G., Smith K. & Bamford R. (2007) Journal of Applied Ecology 44, 534–544

26 October 2008

Beavers to be reintroduced to Scotland - Conservationists believe the mammals will help create a healthier and more varied habitat, but the proposals are likely to be opposed by local farmers, Guardian, 18 August 2008

On initial reading, this comes across as a good news story, but delve deeper and it reveals a depressing trail of what is wrong with British nature conservation. The premise of the article is that another location is being considered for the release of beavers into the wild. The first site eventually got approval from the Scottish Executive, and it was because its woodland location in Knapdale, west of Glasgow, is far removed from potential trouble spots that could derail the successful acceptance of the re-introduction, such as farms and salmon fisheries. The second location, of Insh Marsh nature reserve, near Kingussie, is considered to be a test of the wider acceptability of beavers since it rests within mainstream farmland. In fact it is a National Nature Reserve (NNR), owned and managed by the RSPB and which, when I saw it, is an underwhelming landscape for an NNR, except of course if you are birdist. It is just wet farmland, and is managed as that.

Scottish Wildlife Trust advanced the reserve as a possibility for the re-introduction of beaver, but there is nothing in the article to suggest that the RSPB are enthusiastic about the idea. Instead, Jamie Williamson, who farms next to the reserve, gives full vent to the typical prejudice of farmers when they consider wildlife is in any way a threat to their livelihood:
"These animals disappeared for a reason, because they were competing with our own needs. We will have to be very careful about putting in something which could impede or effectively destroy our ability to make a living from the land"

There it is in all its revolting truth – that farmers wish to continue to exercise a veto on any credible rewilding of land. Should the RSPB carry on with their apparent policy of rapprochement with farming interests, as does every other nature conservation organization in the voluntary sector? Shouldn’t they instead be seeking to contribute to the will of the Scottish people for re-introduction of beaver, as exemplified by the policy decision of the Scottish Executive? After all, their reserve is given the protected status of a NNR, something that is mostly only conferred on land that is in public ownership and control. Their so-called “beneficial ownership” of a NNR means nothing if it does not aspire to the policy of Scottish Natural Heritage that says that nature always comes first on NNRs”

Truly wild land hasn't a hope in Britain if we expect it always to co-exist with farming, and if we always give farming a veto. When are we are going to accept this lesson and move on?

RSPB accused over birds on flagship reserve, Charles Clover, Daily Telegraph 23 April 2008

The RSPB has backed itself into a corner in the way that it faces in opposite directions at the same time on the issue of predator control. In effect, it is a nature conservation organisation that paradoxically has set itself up to be the arbiter of which species get to live and which are persecuted to death. It is perhaps not surprising that game keeping interests do this all the while as they have no qualms about killing off the inconvenient to their livelihood, even when it works outside the law, and which the RSPB are quick to criticise (1). But the world begins to turn on its head when game keeping interests attempt to take the high ground by accusing the RSPB of inefficient predator control in the cause of nature conservation.

I have heard this criticism before. This article sheds more light by revealing that a recent survey by Natural England of 17 moorland SSSIs had found that the RSPB's 12,000 acre reserve at Geltsdale, Cumbria, had lower-than-average densities of important moorland birds when compared to neighbouring keepered moors. Thus Lapwing numbers were lowest on the Geltsdale reserve, and golden plover, curlew, black grouse, snipe and redshank on Geltsdale were second to last amongst the list. The one bird that was more plentiful on the RSPB's moor were carrion crow. These are routinely culled on most grouse moors.

These results gave ammunition to the Countryside Alliance to counter the criticism its members receive for the illegal persecution of predators such as hen harriers that eat grouse chicks. Adrian Blackmore, moorland policy officer of the Countryside Alliance, said:
"The RSPB's position is hypocritical and increasingly unsustainable….. When the RSPB can show the sort of breeding success on its own land that is apparent on grouse moors it might be in a position to join the debate. In the meantime it would be better off learning the lessons of successful moorland management from its neighbours and concentrating on habitat management and predator control"

Andre Farrar of the RSPB responded that Geltsdale had only been in their possession since 2000, and thus their management approach had yet to take affect. He countered on the persecution of the hen harrier by noting that there was only a low base of 14 pairs across the North of England, but then he revealed that:
"We do control foxes and crows at Geltsdale but this is targeted at the moorland edge because of the parlous state of black grouse”

Like the capercaillie in Scotland, where the RSPB cull foxes on their Abernethy reserve, black grouse is another iconic species for the RSPB, measuring their success as a conservation organization by their success in maximizing numbers of these icons. In the North Pennines, it has grouped together with other organizations in a 12-year North Pennines Black Grouse Recovery Project, funded by Natural England, and to which more money is being given to fund an expansion of the project (2). We are to be pleased that because of our public funding, the English population of Black grouse has risen by 33% to 1029 males in the eight years to 2006 (3).

But at what cost to other wildlife?

From Morag Walker, of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, a joint lead with the RSPB on the UKBAP for black grouse, we get the identity of another wild species persecuted in this game of choice when she revealed that stoats are also culled to protect the black grouse, along with carrion crows and foxes (3). I am grateful to Ms Walker for putting this into some sort of perspective when she says that there are already little, isolated pockets of the grouse in Northumberland and Yorkshire - "but they are tiny, tiny amounts compared to sparrows, for example, which are two-a-penny". You get the feeling she would offer up any amount of sparrows for the kudos of a black grouse (4).

In some irony, a letter appeared in the Times from an RSPB member a few days after this 'good news story' for black grouse. Mr Murray had been a member for more than 20 years but felt that the RSPB had fallen into the hands of extremists who are obsessed only with birds of prey” (5). He thought there was an over-emphasis on protecting iconic avian predators when little thought was given to the species that they kill, such as lapwings, oyster catchers, redshanks, goldfinches, bullfinches, chaffinches, sparrows, dotterels, golden plovers, curlews, skylarks, meadow pipits, black grouse, red grouse and ptarmigan. A counter argument in a letter from another RSPB member came in days when Dr Garcia said that the number of predator birds in much of Britain were still far below the carrying capacity of their habitats due to their persistent persecution, and thus it was no time to start killing them again.

Predator prey relationships, especially in the bird world are fraught because most people find it hard to accept the stark reality that there is a whole food chain out there that exists in wild nature, and which we shouldn’t presume to manipulate away from its optimum. Perhaps RSPB members could be more attentive in their reading of their membership magazine, as an article on sparrowhawks showed that the population of one of their prey, blue tits, is stable in spite of the fact that upto six out of eight chicks each year is taken as prey. The author says that small birds rear many young each year precisely because so many will die (7).

I would also like to note that while the heated debate revolves around persecution of iconic avian predators such as hen harriers, I don’t see anyone of these people giving any thought to the slaughter of foxes, crows and stoats. Is this another unintended consequence of the destructive driving forces behind the UKBAP, or are we happy to allow our nature conservation to be based on someone making choices about which species get to live and which get to die?

(1) The RSPB Birds of prey campaign

(2) Launch of expansion plan gives rare black grous a boost, Natural England 30 April 2008

(3) Black grouse numbers rising in northern England, James Meikle, Guardian 30 April 2008

(4) Black grouse boost spreads wings, BBC News

(5) Preying on the mind, K. C. Murray, Letters page, Times 3 May 2008

(6) Raptors’ reception, Dr Ernest Garcia, Letters page, Times 7 May 2008

(7) Learning about sparrowhawks, Ian Peters in BIRDS, RSPB membership magazine, Summer 2006, ppg 73-78

12 May 2008

Help save vanishing creatures, Salisbury Journal, 20 March 2008

This reports a forthcoming public meeting of the Tytherley Woods Project near the Hampshire-Wiltshire border. It’s a promotional project to encourage woodland owners to re-institute woodland management with the aim of improving the habitat opportunities for butterflies. In this, it is part of the larger South East Woodlands Project of Butterfly Conservation that I commented on last year after it received whopping sums of money (see Bringing sunshine into the woods should stop decline of butterflies).

Butterfly Conservation start out from the usual premise of the conservation industry that their favoured wild species fare better in the managed landscapes that we can create. Thus because many woodlands are not worked for product nowadays, then they may have less open habitat. Hence the reason why conservation professionals roll out the very familiar management prescriptions for woodland of reinstituting rides, glades and coppiced areas, irrespective of whether there is a use for the resultant woodland product.

To Dr Kate Dent, the Project Officer, "The lack of woodland management has led to rapid declines in specialist woodland wildlife, like the rare and beautiful Pearl-bordered Fritillary” Well, yes, there has been a decline in the national population of this butterfly, but what does that mean for these woods at Tytherley? Since the Pearl-bordered Fritillary has a distribution that covers the whole of Britain, why should the woods near West Tytherley and others in the project area in SE England bear the brunt of an interventionist program for the maximisation of butterfly numbers?

I just don’t think Butterfly Conservation are capable of seeing the woods from the trees in this situation. Perhaps the lack of management of these woods has instead given rise to an increase in other woodland specialists such as the flowers and lower plants that favour the shade, moisture and lack of disturbance? Thus in that sense, the lack of management has been a positive rather than a negative, and does not warrant their consistent use of the pejorative term “neglect”.

In the aims and objectives of Butterfly Conservation, their ultimate goal is nothing less than the restoration of a balanced countryside, with butterflies and other wildlife returned to the profusion they, and we, once enjoyed” If that is the case, then I wonder why, if Butterfly Conservation is so concerned about the lack of managed woodland nowadays, that they don’t leave our established woodlands alone and instead consider putting their money where their mouth is and buy up some farmland, plant some new woodland and then wait a few years so that they can then coppice the life out. In fact, why isn’t Butterfly Conservation supporting a campaign for an overall increase in woodland cover in Britain? But of course that would mean them taking a strategic view that is not just centred on butterflies. Would this ever be a part of their balanced countryside?

Perhaps it is unfair just to single out Butterfly Conservation because there is so much public and charitable funding sloshing around nowadays - which seems only too keen to support UKBAP targets for things such as butterflies - that every part of the conservation industry is out to bag some for themselves. Last December, Kent Wildlife Trust pocketed £2.3m of Heritage Lottery Funds to support a four-year promotional and management program in the renowned woodland area of Blean near Canterbury (1). The trust has plenty of prior form for interventionism, as it has been coppicing away on some areas of the 2,600 acres that it manages since 1987. A project officer has been appointed to the Blean Conservation Complex project, and the intent of what the trust hope to achieve is signified by the fact that Mike Enfield is a butterfly specialist. Would it have been too much to hope that a woodland specialist would have been appointed for what is a large area of woodland, because trees aren’t really wildlife to a butterfly specialist, and will as usual end up being disposable.

There is often a convenient lack of intellectual rigor apparent in many of these conservation programs, relying as they do on simplistic, unimaginative approaches that win approval because they fit the current orthodoxy and are supposedly cost effective. There are many butterfly species associated with woody scrub plants – thus there are 296 butterflies and moths, and 124 true bugs that feed on willow and similar numbers on birch - but you have to ask yourself how it is that the lives of these butterflies now seem dependent on our intervention? Where would their natural habitat be? It certainly isn’t the manufactured artifice of a coppice, the often inappropriate harshness of which is never questioned and which does present difficulties for other woodland creatures.

The aim of coppicing is to manufacture a supply of pseudo early successional woodland edge and shrubby habitats, but the biodiversity benefits of a large-scale return to coppice management are very questionable. As we know, a coppicing approach limits the amount of old dead and dying wood, a key feature of a varied woodland ecosystem. Large-scale coppicing renders extensive areas unusable for up to five years because they eliminate any element of the woody species until re-growth has occurred, and because it creates open ground that the smaller animals are reluctant to cross. The latter can act as a barrier to such as Dormice reaching their important food resources, putting a pressure on individuals and reducing a population to vulnerable levels. In addition, it is generally recognised that re-introduction of coppicing is only successful in woodlands that have been coppiced in the last 50 years and where areas of open space have retained their woodland edge species. Thus, while we may associate certain species of invertebrates with coppice woodlands, it is not the management system that they are attracted to but the open space or shrubby habitats which they require.

Other than species specific requirements, butterflies are associated with woodland for the physical structure that it affords, and to the biotic and abiotic conditions which this imparts. It is the greater diversity of microclimates available (i.e. sunny and windless) and the architectural complexity of woody growth that provides a greater diversity of feeding and egg-laying sites, hiding places from enemies, and overwintering sites than do structurally simple plants such as the forbs.

It is foolish for us to think that we are the only agency capable of achieving these conditions, especially since they are already present in wild nature in the various scrubland landscapes we have (2), and which are likely to be a truer natural habitat for butterflies. Scrub exists as an ecotone between woodland and open habitats. It can be found as an integral mix of scrub species, or of a single species at different seral stages, and provides a complexity of three-dimensional structure far in excess of coppice or grassland communities. In general, a close-knit mosaic of vegetation age, structures (including edges) and species is more useful to invertebrates than large uniform blocks. Scattered scrub may support different invertebrates to mature scrub. Large, isolated bushes may be major sources of food for nectar and pollen feeding insects, and provide favourable conditions linked to architecture such as shelter, in addition to supporting their associated communities.

As a report on the nature conservation value of scrub in Britain from a few years ago laments (2):
”A major constraint on the conservation of scrub and its associated species is the widely-held opinion that scrub is of low conservation value and primarily a threat to other more valuable habitats”

I despair at this. Where is this much vaunted landscape scale approach of the conservation industry? Will it ever have the more valuable vision of more woodland, more scrub, and much more wildlife in “the profusion they, and we, once enjoyed”. Will these conservation professionals rise to the challenge of maintaining species-rich scrub mosaics without falling into their old, simplistic and destructive habits? Thus the complex mosaics and edge structures that develop during the successional growth of scrub are rarely evident in scrub that is managed by rotational cutting, which is effectively just coppicing it. Regrowth from the cut stumps of felled scrub is never going to be as valuable as the varied and natural regeneration as new scrub develops at woodland edges, in woodland openings resulting from tree fall, and in open landscapes such as wetland and grassland.

Because the opinion that scrub is of low conservation value is widely held within the conservation industry, it is vitally important that there is a challenge to the assumptions of these big funding projects: firstly on the basis that they lack ecological rigor, but also because it is our public money that ends up being used to unnecessarily persecute woodland.

(1) £2.3m boost for wildlife area, Kentish Gazette, 24 December 2007
(2) The nature conservation value of scrub in Britain (2000) JNCC Report Series 308

26 March 2008

Howls of protest as America declares open season on grey wolves, Robin McKie, The Observer, 24 February 2008

The threat to remove Federal protection of the grey wolf in America has rumbled on for years in the face of repeated protests from ranchers whose hunting originally brought them to the brink of extinction. Then finally last year, the population of grey wolves in the western Great Lakes area was removed from the protected species list of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). With this report in the Observer, the protection is now going to be taken off in the northern Rockies as well. According to Lynn Scarlett, deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior “Grey wolves in the northern Rocky mountains are thriving and no longer need protection”  

Ranchers have always had the option under the ESA to obtain a Federal licence to hunt wolves when they could be proved to be killing livestock, but now in these two areas the rancher need only apply to local state authorities who are considered to be more willing to issue them. As would be expected of US wildlife groups, there is anger and sadness that grey wolves should be in danger since all the evidence indicates that man is a greater threat to wolves than the wolves are to livestock and, anyway, ranchers are compensated for any such attacks (1).

The grey wolves that now roam the woods in Minnesota got back there from hopping over the border from Canada, as did the wolves in Montana, but there is a sense of tragedy about the loss of protection in Wyoming and Idaho. It was in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that the grey wolf was successfully reintroduced in the mid-90s, and the population may not be large enough yet to be resilient in the face of renewed hunting, prompting environmental groups to consider bringing a lawsuit to reverse the decision. See the addendum below

There is another good reason why efforts should be made to have this loss of protection reversed, and which is not covered by McKie in his Observer article. The grey wolf is the key element of the trophic cascade in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that has brought about a recovery in the population of pronghorn antelope. Recent studies have shown that wolf packs keep coyote numbers in check by killing them outright and by causing them to relocate out of wolf territories. Since coyotes—but not wolves—prey heavily on pronghorn fawns, the fawns have higher survival rates when wolves share their ecosystem (2).

In an afterword to a new edition of his famous book on wolves in North America from 1978, Barry Lopez considers the current state of knowledge and the recent efforts to reintroduce wolves to their former habitats in America. He believes that “In the reintroduction of wolves we have demonstrated that we are more capable now of living in a give and take relationship with the natural world than we were”. Unfortunately, Barry tempers that thought with some caution since he had been around to many of the farmers meetings in Idaho that he went to long before the reintroduction of the grey wolf - he said he had heard the same tired old arguments about wolves from farmers that he had heard many years before (3).

These arguments have also been heard from farmers in Britain in their responses documented in a recent study that advocates reintroducing wild wolves to the Scottish Highlands, where they were hunted to extinction in the late 1700s. The authors of the study say wolves would benefit local ecosystems as they would prey on red deer, rebalancing the ecology and giving tree and bird species a chance to establish themselves (4). The study also notes that the public are generally positive to the idea whereas farmers hold more negative attitudes, but far less negative than the organizations that represent them. Thus a spokesperson for the National Farmers' Union in Scotland, said: "The reintroduction of wolves into the wild would present significant problems in terms of sheep predation, and that is the reason why it is not widely popular among farmers" (5)

If not wolves, then maybe the reintroduction of lynx in Scotland would be a better bet since they are considered to be more elusive in the landscape than wolves? In the same way that wolves have benefited the ecological balance in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – and could benefit the ecological balance in the Scottish Highlands – the reintroduction of lynx would also have potential benefits for ecological balance since the main prey in the lynx diet is made up from roe deer, of which there are sufficient in Scotland to support a viable population of lynx (6). However, I see a parallel here in the vested interest that will protest the re-introduction of the lynx for fear of predation on sheep, but research into the effects of lynx reintroduced in Switzerland shows this is to be a temporary transition, the number of sheep taken each year declining as the lynx establish themselves (7).

There is also another reason why lynx should be considered for re-introduction in Scotland, and it is because lynx prey on red fox (8,9,10). Results from a study in boreal Sweden suggest that the lack of large carnivores over most of their former ranges may have resulted in an over-abundance of red foxes in many areas. Allowing large carnivores such as the lynx to reestablish may thus be an effective natural way of limiting fox populations (10).

With this benefit in mind, it does makes you wonder why the RSPB is not backing lynx reintroduction on their Abernethy reserve in Scotland since predation of foxes by lynx may ease the pressure on their beloved capercaillie, and I would rather have the lynx making a meal of a fox than an RSPB worker shooting them (see news item below).

(1) New threat as wolves make comeback, Julian Berger, The Guardian, 29 December 2005

(2) Unafraid of the Big, Bad Wolf, Saving Wildlife, Wildlife Conservation Society, March 2008

(3) Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez (2004) Scribner Classic ISBN 0684–16322-5

(4) Wolf reintroduction to Scotland: public attitudes and consequences for red deer management, Nilsen, Milner-Gulland, Schofield, Mysterud, Stenseth & Coulson (2007) Proceedings of the Royal Society B 274, 995-1002

(5) Wild wolves 'good for ecosystems', BBC News Online 31 January 2008

(6) Using prey densities to estimate the potential size of reintroduced populations of Eurasian lynx, Hetherington & Gorman (2007) Biological Conservation 137, 37-44

(7) Damage statistic Lynx, KORA - Coordinated research projects for the conservation and management of carnivores in Switzerland: lynx, fox, wolf, bear

(8) Diet of Eurasian lynx, Lynx lynx, in the boreal forest of southeastern Norway: the relative importance of livestock and hares at low roe deer density, Odden, Linnell & Andersen (2006) European Journal of Wildlife Research 52, 237-244

(9) Prey spectrum, prey preference and consumption rates of Eurasian lynx in the Swiss Jura Mountains, Molinari-Jobin & Breitenmoser (2000) Acta Theriologica. 45, 243–252

(10) Lynx (Lynx lynx) killing red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) in boreal Sweden – frequency and population effects, Helldin, Liberg & Gloersen (2006) Journal of Zoology 270, 657–663

24 March 2008


Endangered Species Act Protections Reinstated For Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Population, Press Release 08-48, US Fish & Wildlife Service, 22 July 2008

The delisting of grey wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains has been overturned as the Press Release confirms:

"The U.S. Federal District Court in Missoula, Montana, issued a preliminary injunction on Friday, July 18, 2008, that immediately reinstated the Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains. That area includes all of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming; the eastern one-third of Washington and Oregon; and portions of north-central Utah. This injunction will remain in place until final resolution of this case. The Endangered Species Act provisions reinstated by the court are those that were in effect before wolves were delisted on March 28, 2008. Any and all permits issued by the States under their authorities while wolves were delisted are null and void as of 4:04 p.m. on Friday, July 18, 2008."

However, the US Fish & Wildlife Service have not changed their mind about there no longer being a need to protect wolves there, and signal their intention in this press release to seek to have the injunction lifted.

RSPB criticised over shooting on reserve, Paul Eccleston, Daily Telegraph 11 January 2008

I am indebted to Al Franck, a local RSPB member in SE England, who emailed me last December complaining of the sour side-swipes that I take against the RSPB on such things as their hypocrisy over the shooting of foxes on their reserves (see They shoot foxes, don't they?) when the RSPB in turn complain about game keepers using poison bait to kill raptors (see the latest in 1). Mr Frank has explained the RSPB logic to me that seems to be very conditional in which species get to live, and very much depends on it being the RSPB's choice. Thus according to Mr Franck, even though the fox is a native mammal, it can be culled without regret as a pest (see Nature grooming - killing all the wildness in nature, Your Contribution):
"To anyone other than an animal rights extremist, of the type who thinks it OK to release minks into the wild despite the catastrophic effect on the local wildlife, it’s a complete non-issue"

What this article in the Daily Telegraph shows is more proof of RSPB hypocrisy. Robert Hill, a keen birdwatcher and conservationist, is reported to have been horrified when he discovered a dead widgeon covered in pellet wounds at Langstone Harbour near Portsmouth, one the RSPB's reserves. He subsequently found out that the RSPB allows the Langstone & District Wildfowlers & Conservation Association to shoot between September and January on two of five islands in Langstone Harbour. He said:
"I don't think it's acceptable. It's a blood sport. I can't see any justification for it. It's a macho, egotistical, self gratifying act and I think it's disgusting. No-one owns wildlife. These poor animals come in for sanctuary and end up getting blown out of the air"

When asked to comment, Barry Hugill of the League Against Cruel Sports, said:
"How on earth can it be a sanctuary if someone is going to come and kill the birds that are resident there simply because they enjoy killing things?"

As would be expected of an organisation that thinks it walks with the angels (more likely, walks on water!) the RSPB brushed off the criticism. In a bizarre piece of logic, Chris Cockburn, RSPB warden for Langstone harbour, defended the leasing of shooting in the harbour by saying:
"The RSPB does not have any axe to grind against any sport unless it affects the conservation issues and then we would be very much against it"

I wonder what all the dead widgeon and other wildfowl think about that when they were supposedly sitting out the winter in safety on this reserve? Let's hope they come back and haunt Mr Cockburn. Sour enough for you Mr Franck?

(1) Poisoning by gamekeepers blamed for loss of rare birds of prey, Times, 28th January 2008

1 March 2008