As I write this, rain is pelting at the window, driven by gale-force winds. The fields are soggy. Braided rivulets of water are running down the fellside. Here in my part of Northumberland, marginally west of the central spine of England, we have had an unremittingly wet and windy winter, following on from a sopping summer.
On my desk is a national newspaper whose front-page headline is warning of drought in southern and eastern England. What a paradox! The United Kingdom is, by global standards, a tiny country, yet we have a startling diversity of landscape and micro-climates. In inhabited areas, the annual rainfall may vary from as little as 15in to more than 70in ? and a great deal more than that in mountainous localities.
The wettest parts of our country tend to be the least populous. The result is a fundamental mismatch between supply and demand. A lot of the water used in the drier parts of the UK comes from underground aquifers. Over recent decades, however, the water-holding strata below parts of the South-East have been depleted. So, the real problem that parts of the UK face is not that there isn?t enough water, but rather that it isn?t always in the right place. This disconnection is exacerbated by the inexorable rise in human population.
Objective research and action
The water issue illustrates some wider, underlying principles. If we define ?conservation? as wise and sustainable use, then game, like water, is a natural resource that we must not take for granted. Natural resources need to be managed.
The problem of people tending to think of shooting as a destructive activity and somehow against nature is based on misconceptions that are similar to those about water. Few, except the hardcore antis, would deny that fishermen care deeply about the quality of rivers and lakes, so why doesn?t the same acceptance transfer so readily to shooters?
Part of the answer is that we live in a highly urbanised society, where people seem to think that pheasants simply appear each autumn, woodlands plant themselves and it?s just fine to use drinking water to wash the car on a Sunday. Given this, it may not be an altogether bad thing if the current water crisis brings a jolt of reality to the way we use natural resources.
I was interested in Steve Redpath?s piece on the value of science (Have your say, 22 February). I have to agree that objective research is incredibly useful. It has always struck me as rather odd that bodies such as the RSPB seem so shy of spending more of their huge wealth on primary research into predator/prey relationships. Perhaps they fear the answers might be inconvenient.
And in relation to the specific issue of buzzards, which Professor Redpath mentions, there is a danger that sensible calls for research will be used by others driven by ulterior motives. These might include, for example, a wish to obfuscate the current licensing system, which is supposed to be available for dealing with individual problem buzzards in the same way that it is currently applied to cormorants ? a vastly less numerous species with exactly the same legal protection as the buzzard.
To be blunt, we don?t need years of research to tell us that buzzards don?t live on tofu. Nor that they can, in certain cases, cause real problems for gamebirds, just as cormorants do for gamefish. Nobody can deny that there are many more buzzards today than in 1979, which is the key threshold for the relevant legislation. And given that there is no question of mass buzzard culling, it is hard to see why at least a few buzzard control licences should not be issued in cases of last resort.
So, by all means let us have some research ? but please don?t allow this to be used to kick buzzard licences into the long grass.
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