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Despite the harsh cuts facing rural communities, there’s hope for conservation

I sit on the boards of two public bodies, so I have considerable sympathy for ordinary public sector workers who are facing a worrying future. In recent years, the State was expanded to such an extent that we can no longer afford it. While the private sector plunged into recession, State spending soared by 10 per cent over the past two years alone. Public spending went from 44p in every pound in 2007, to 51p in 2009. When you remember that, in essence, the private sector funds the public sector, the problem becomes clear. Unfortunately, the solution is going to be painful for a lot of ordinary, hard-working people who have devoted themselves to public service.

It?s not quite so painful, however, for members of the ?quangocracy?, or for their political friends. The former will get truly massive payoffs and fatcat pensions, while ex-ministers have trousered ?hardship? payments of up to £20,000 each as compensation for losing their lucrative ministerial posts. Most will now have to scrape by on their measly MPs? salary of just £65,738 (plus expenses, of course).

One of the peculiarities of the current financial situation is that ? whisper it softly ? livestock farming is doing quite well. Naturally, this doesn?t stop those of us who own farms from moaning. But the evidence is there in strong livestock prices and the burgeoning cost of farmland. It is true that many hill farmers, in particular, struggle on tiny disposable incomes, but even then, if they own their farms, they are probably sitting on a pile of capital. So, you can understand why public empathy has worn rather thin. Why should a council house tenant help to subsidise a rural property millionaire?s holiday-let conversion scheme?

This is hyperbole, of course, but you can see how a person struggling to pay the mortgage on a small house might feel about farm subsidies. And the same farmers who complain bitterly about the lack of affordable housing for their own offspring are all too ready to split up the farm and sell off the farmhouse to wealthy incomers when retirement beckons, thus exacerbating the rural housing shortage. In short, it cannot go on. The cuts are coming for farming, as elsewhere. Some commentators are predicting that direct farm subsidies will be chopped by 40-50 per cent when the EU imposes reforms from 2013 onwards.

Moreover, bodies such as the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and the RSPB are concerned that payments for beneficial land management, such as environmental stewardship, will also face big cuts. This would be caused in part by a simple lack of public money to fund the schemes, but also because buoyant farmgate prices mean that farmers naturally wish to maximise agricultural yields, so are less likely to enter land into schemes.

Fieldsports to the rescue

So, if State funding for nature conservation is going to be crunched, who will
step in to the breach? Step forward the fieldsports community. Fishing, shooting and hunting interests have always provided the dynamo that drives practical nature conservation. Just remember that Langholm Moor, of hen harrier fame, was only protected from government-sponsored afforestation in the 1960s because of the grouse shooting interests of the Buccleuch family.

Today, grouse shooting conserves more heather moorland than any conservation charity. As for the lowlands, a large proportion of small woodlands have been planted for gameshooting. Historically, hunters planted and preserved many fox coverts. The work of anglers in river conservation is beyond questioning. Gamekeepers look after far more wildlife than all the wildlife trusts put together. Wildfowling clubs create and preserve important habitats. As politicians talk of the burden being taken up by ?the big society?, fieldsports may have a unique opportunity to show their true value.