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Conservation lost in the Wilderness

The wild is a place that remains as much as possible untouched by the hand of man, where plants and animals exist in harmony, the air is clean and the water pure. It is a place that is free of modern encumbrance and offers the full force of nature’s beauty, such as Denali State Park, in Alaska. Wilderness can also be a little less welcoming, an empty expanse, devoid of life, such as the Gobi desert. These are places that we should all cherish, protect and preserve.

However, any vision of wilderness is full of buts. Nowhere are there more questions than in the “British wilderness” debate. The first question that we need to deal with is a big one. Do we have any true wilderness or wild areas left to cherish? If our measure is of an area untouched by man then the answer is no, not really. The hand of man is everywhere in Britain’s landscapes. For example, the UK has 90 per cent of the world’s heather moorland, a habitat often considered wild and of such global conservation value that it was identified at the Rio Biodiversity conference in 1992. But grouse moors are a “man-induced climax community”. In other words, they are associations of plants held at a particular point in their transition from bare ground to forest by fire and grazing. Disappointed? You shouldn’t be, because what we have in Britain instead of wilderness are managed landscapes that are the envy of the world. They are often unique and sustain rare collections of plants and animals. The most intensively managed heather moorlands sustain 18 times as many curlew as the least managed, and management for grouse has protected more than 90,000 hectares of heather moorland from loss over the past 50 years.

The good news for the British public is that much of our countryside still feels wild. In 2006, the Scottish Government’s own research found that the managed landscape of heather-covered hills and glens with red deer was what the Scottish public rated most highly as countryside. So it should be possible for those who work and invest in these landscapes to explain that, in Britain, “wildness” is not unfettered, but actually benefits from farming and shooting management.

Benefits of management

There is a wealth of evidence that shows there are three key public benefits (or ecosystem services) where land management for game conservation has vital roles to play. We know it maintains economically viable rural communities through private investment. It is also clear that the practical delivery of diverse and unique landscapes, habitats and species is already best done by land managers including farmers, keepers and foresters. Finally, there is a case that productive land management delivers other core ecosystem services, including food, carbon storage and the delivery of clean water.

In the lowlands, over the past 40 years food production has been seen as the main public benefit of our countryside with conservation playing a secondary role. Despite this, agriculture and game conservation interact to ensure that there is still a wildness to enjoy. Standing in a searching wind on the foreshore waiting for the first pinkfoot to show means you know you are in the wild. Yet the UK’s internationally important numbers of geese are benefiting from potatoes and cereals growing inland. Feast your eyes on a stunning autumnal woodland scene and you could be forgiven for thinking this is a truly wild place. But the wood is probably there because pheasant shooting in the late 19th century became the main reason for planting and retaining lowland woods in Britain. And pheasant shooting and stalking have become the vital reasons for maintaining these woodlands’ butterfly-rich glades this century.

The uplands are also productive, with grouse, deer and sheep being the sustainable crops. Critically, these crops require management such as predator control, which we know produces other public benefits. Indeed, moorland is a case study of how game conservation is wildlife conservation. Grouse conservation and extensive food production (sheep) have become the motive force behind many iconic UK landscapes. At the same time, the economic, species conservation and even the carbon storage benefits flowing out of upland game management are increasingly understood. And it is encouraging that both Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and Natural England (NE) recognise these positions.

But the future for some of our countryside, notably the uplands, and the public benefits that they could offer in the future is subject to a debate. In one camp are those private individuals and organisations who believe that the current uplands management system, developed over several hundred years, provides a robust balance of social and environmental benefits. The second camp are “re-wilders”, those who believe that the uplands should be allowed to revert to a wilder state in which they may contribute more to the environment and be of greater benefit in social and health terms to a largely urban society.

Species reintroduction

Re-wilding has a number of facets, only one of which is the release of “missing” species to act as apex predators (wolves) or landscape engineers (beavers). Another critical facet of re-wilding to address is that lower- intensity management in the uplands and other places will secure environmental benefits, particularly as regards carbon storage, water quality and, in the longer term, species diversity. Re-wilders feel that it is acceptable for jobs and tourism relying on landscape to be considerably reduced when game conservation is deintensified. It is thought that what is lost will be replaced by high-quality wildlife and environmental tourism as well as less tangible returns from systems such as carbon trading possibilities and renewable power. The significance of such a lower-intensity management policy becoming an accepted upland management norm is that it would probably render driven grouse shooting unviable. Considering the research conducted by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) over the past 25 years, the consequences of this seem obvious — a loss of value in terms of capital, culture, revenue opportunity and environment.

A considerable challenge is that some of this re-wilding debate has been driven by UK interpretation of EU legislation. The EU Habitat and Birds Directives were worded so openly as to allow a broad interpretation of the core theme of “maintaining and restoring” as conservation objectives. Contemporary legislation has been more prescriptive, notably the Water Framework Directive, which is likely to have major implications for all land managers. So Government agencies have an important role to play.

We recently heard from NE that it does not intend to create a “post-glacial
theme park” complete with beavers, lynx and aurochs. And yet we see SNH releasing beavers in the face of criticism from fishery conservationists and land managers. This is despite Dr Peter Bridgewater, chairman of a Government advisory body, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), indicating recognition of the importance of keepers and farmers when he said: “We will not save biodiversity in the face of climate change without well-managed peripheral areas.” He added that, “There is no point in having protected areas if local communities see them as a menace.” These are useful acknowledgements of the GWCT’s position that countryside management for agriculture and game, when well practised, can deliver high conservation value to the UK public.

There remains a compelling need for evidence that can be used to examine whether contemporary best practice game management is as good as or better than lower-intensity alternatives. Such evidence, available only through research, must be produced so that we can inform current and future politicians at Westminster and Holyrood. Without such coherent evidence of linked public benefits and perhaps some improvements to land management, a winning game formula could become lost in the wild wood.

Dr Adam Smith is the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trusts’s Scottish policy officer.