We often boast that shooting leads the way in wildlife conservation - but we could all do more to improve our biodiversity credentials, says Mike Swan
Shooting is good for conservation, right? Yes it is, and if I were not convinced of that, I would not still be part of the GWCT advisory service.
Helping shoots to deliver better conservation and biodiversity from shooting is what drives me after almost 40 years in this business. But — and it’s a very big but — there is plenty of scope for bad practice to undermine the good.
I strongly suspect that if we were really objective, we might find that what we do for game and shooting is not quite as wonderful for other wildlife as we would like to think. We also need to understand that good conservation is often a complex process and, whatever we do, there will be losers as well as winners.
Bland sweeping statements such as “all wildlife benefits from gamekeeping” will not convince a sceptical audience, and they are not true anyway. You only need to stop for a moment and think about the species we need to control to limit predation to realise that. Magpies, for example, are part of our native wildlife but I’m not sure they like gamekeepers.
Let’s not delude ourselves. We may love our pheasants, but most conservationists could not care less about them. Suggesting that they would die out but for our efforts is not an argument in our favour.
Pheasants are not native and many people would consider them an undesirable alien, even if they are not actually invasive. The argument we need put forward is that our management of game for sport is a force for good in the countryside, which supports wider biodiversity.
If you were to sit down and read through all the scientific research that has been published around conservation and game management, you would discover some pretty negative stuff.
You might question the objectivity of some of this but, being realistic, there is plenty of good science about negative impacts from game management. Aside from the obvious example of illegal persecution of protected species, there is plenty on other topics, such as the way in which game feeding encourages rats and grey squirrels.
That said, if you think about most of these topics in greater detail, it is usually not that hard to work out ways in which improved practice could reduce or eliminate the problem.
Grey squirrels damaging timber is a case in point. If, rather than just feeding them through the lean times of winter, we use the fact that we have gathered them at feeding sites to our advantage, we can turn the tables. Switching off the food supply for a few days in February, and running an intensive trapping campaign is a well-known strategy for getting them under control that should be much more widely practised.
Biodiversity from shooting
The answer to this is obvious: maize is an excellent cover crop that holds pheasants and redlegs very well. Indeed, you might say it is the very backbone of many of our most successful shoots.
However, you could look pretty carefully for any broader biodiversity appeal and struggle to find much. Maize grains are too big to be much help to most seed-eating farmland songbirds, but they are a great resource for various pest birds such as woodpigeons and rooks. Add in rats and grey squirrels, and you begin to realise that making a biodiversity case for maize is quite hard — in fact the one against is rather strong.
Most of the problem with maize comes from all that left-over grain, and if you remove that, the balance is much more neutral. Once upon a time, we used to value the cobs as game feed, but with modern varieties, most are so far up the plant they are out of reach of pheasants and partridges, and so of little value.
So why not consider growing ‘cobless’ maize? Most of the specialist game cover seed suppliers will offer a late-cobbing selection, which is unlikely to form ripened cobs in our short summers. These are slow-ripening grain varieties, rather than the usual forage maize grown for cattle feed in the UK. They also have the advantage of having a more fibrous stem, which means they will stand well and offer good cover later in the season.
Rotating cover crop
Another answer to the low wildlife value of maize — and indeed some other crops such as sorghum and forage rape — is to grow a bit of seed mix instead. I’m not suggesting that you should give up maize completely, simply that an acre or two of mixture would enhance the overall wildlife value of your game crops.
In fact, for bigger areas, splitting them up with a strip of something different probably adds to the attractiveness for game, too. If you are afraid of the inevitable build up of weeds that mixtures bring, remember that this is at its worst when the mix is grown in the same place each year. Rotating your cover crop area means that most of this problem is solved.
Half a century ago, in an effort to warm up woods, there was a fashion for planting non-native shrubs such as snowberry and Japanese evergreen honeysuckle in the belief they offered better cover than native species. In new woods there is probably some value in this, but I keep coming across clumps of aliens in old native woods where they are suppressing native flora and fauna. The natural stuff is usually still clinging on, and if we removed the alien shrubs they would probably recover, especially if accompanied by thinning of the canopy to allow in extra sunlight.
For this challenging article, I asked the National Trust, the Countryside Alliance (CA), the RSPB, the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust…
These are only a few examples of the many things that we can do to improve our conservation and shooting biodiversity credentials without undermining the viability of the shoot. There are many more, too, and often the improvements will also bring benefits to game — we just need to be a bit more imaginative.
The GWCT advisory team is always on hand to help, offering bespoke tailored advice to fit your exact circumstances. Game management does a huge amount to help and support our treasured native wildlife, but we can all do a little bit more for biodiversity in shooting if we try.