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 weather pummels plovers,” said a 2009 RSPB press release. Warm summers are drying up bogs, it explained, leaving fewer daddy long legs to feed the birds. “This is the most worrying development that I have found in my scientific career,” said James Pearce Higgins of RSPB Scotland at the time.
Oddly, the study of Peak District golden plovers on which this research was based found declines neither in golden plovers, nor in daddy long legs. Rather its conclusion was based on mathematical models of future temperatures, predicting the extinction of golden plovers in the area if temperatures rise by six degrees celsius—an outcome many decades away, even on the most alarming forecasts.
Meanwhile, recall the lesson of Otterburn: you can hugely increase the breeding success of golden plovers just by killing off crows and foxes. Truth be told, the RSPB knows full well the importance of predator control, learning the hard way that the quickest route to extinguish ground nesting birds is to make a protected area around them and leave nature to take its course. For many years it has been quietly killing predators, while trying to avoid telling its members that it does so.
But all of this is to disguise the real problem facing wild birds in Britain, one often ignored by charities keen on nature reserves: “subsidised predators,” or those provided with extra food by humans. Take the case of the tortoises of the Mojave desert in California. In the late 1990s their numbers started dropping, largely because of a huge increase in the population of predatory ravens, fortified by the remains of big Macs from nearby landfills.
The same is now happening in Britain. Carrion crows are thriving as never before, now one of the commonest of all birds. Their numbers, along with rooks, jackdaws, magpies and gulls are sustained through the winter by human activities—roadkill, litter, or landfills. The newly numerous crows are especially menacing, with their habit of eating the eggs of ground nesting birds in the spring.
Today, Britain’s 1.5m breeding crows and 1.1m magpies far outnumber our peewits, curlews, golden plover, red grouse and black grouse. The government has a legal obligation (under the EU Birds Directive) to do something about the retreat of these latter birds. But its response has been to set up new “special protected areas,” something the Otterburn research shows is futile, and irrelevant.
Conservationists in general prefer to castigate gamekeepers, largely because of what they allegedly do to birds of prey. Historically, gamekeepers were one of the reasons some birds of prey died out, and others became scarce, in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, the RSPB demands on its website that gamekeepers “stop the killing now.” Yet at least three species of falcon, three of harrier, two of hawk, two of eagle and one each of buzzard, osprey and kite are today far more numerous than in the 1970s. Only the kestrel, which gamekeepers never kill, has declined. There is a rich irony that the conservation establishment reckons a few rogue human predators can threaten raptors, while a million and a half crows cannot threaten golden plovers.
Clearly, a compromise is called for—one brokered by a sudden eruption of common sense at government bodies like Natural England, and charities like the RSPB. It is here where the Otterburn experiment could do the most good, for an obvious pact indeed suggests itself: the more gamekeepers foreswear the killing of birds of prey, the more conservationists should step up their killing of crows and foxes. If Westminster politicians can do it, why not the conservation establishment too?
Matt Ridley’s new book, The Rational Optimist, is out now (£20, Fourth Estate)