To protect birds, conservation charities should invest in gamekeepers, not nature reservesby Matt Ridley / May 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
Easy prey: curlew eggs and chicks need protection from crows and foxes
To walk the Pennine Way in the early morning in spring is to enjoy a symphony of the best bird song imaginable. The woodwind crescendo of the curlew, the piccolo refrain of the golden plover, the zither diminuendos of the peewit, even the violin glissandos of the dunlin—moorland waders fill the air with exquisite sound. Yet a walk over other hills—in Wales, the Lake District or Dartmoor—will yield no such result. The reason has almost nothing to do with pesticides, farming, habitat management, legal protection, or even climate change; the usual villains of animal charities. Instead, wading species thrive on Pennine moors because of an unlikely friend: the gamekeeper.
All such birds see their eggs and chicks eaten by the crows and foxes gamekeepers keep at bay. An unusual experiment near Otterburn, Northumberland, designed and run by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, whose findings were published in March, proved the point. For nine years the breeding of curlew, lapwing and golden plover were studied on plots either untouched or managed by gamekeepers. The results were startling, ranging from a tripling to sextupling of breeding success when the gamekeepers were around. Meanwhile, another long-running experiment at Loddington in Leicestershire has shown that gamekeepers double the probability that song thrushes and yellowhammers will successfully rear their chicks.
Gamekeepers, of course, receive no subsidy to help plovers and curlews. The good they do is a side effect of protecting the red grouse that hedge fund managers like to shoot. But the Otterburn study has still been greeted with embarrassed silence by the charities and government agencies that together form the conservation establishment. The vast sums they secure for habitat schemes for waders and the purchase of nature reserves look likely to have been wasted.
Go to Lake Vyrnwy in Wales, a bird reserve that is overflowing with lovely habitat, and you will struggle to find more than a few meadow pipits to watch. But there is just one patch in the bird-rich Pennines where waders are scarce: Geltsdale, an area managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds since 2000. It has since become something of a black hole for waders, victims of the RSPB’s soft policies on crows and foxes.
So what does the RSPB blame for the decline of upland waders? Climate change, of course. “Warmer…