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The environment’s unsung heroes

David Cameron came to power promising to deliver the greenest government ever and this week saw the Government publish its long-awaited White Paper on the natural environment. The Natural Choice, the first White Paper on the natural environment in 20 years, promised a plan to ensure a flourishing future for the natural environment.

The Natural Choice is undoubtedly a good start. It promises to repair the damage that has been done to the environment in the recent past and to encourage everyone to get involved in helping nature prosper ? the ?Big Society? in action. The Countryside Alliance (CA) would argue that shooters, farmers and land managers have been the Big Society in the countryside, long before it became a fashionable slogan.

The moorland miracle

Thousands of shooting people across the country, many of whom are volunteers, have worked to restore and maintain sustainable habitats for many species. The total number of people connected with shooting organisations does not come close to the numbers associated with the RSPB, yet the amount of conservation work done by those involved in shooting towers above that of the RSPB. This is because shooting people are not driven by donations, subsidies and targets, and because those who work in the countryside have a stake in it.

The countryside is not an experiment or recreational area; it is a functioning and evolving environment that covers our country in its many varied forms. Management has to be locally specific in order to remain sustainable and cannot be dictated by a centrally set target. This has always been the ethos of the CA, to empower people to take care of their own environment and to reap the benefits of their labours.

So when it comes to halting declines in habitat and species, one need look no further than the uplands of the north of England. Heather moorland that is managed for grouse shooting has been responsible for making the greatest contribution to the improvement in the environmental health of the country?s top wildlife and geological sites. Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) cover more than two million acres of the land surface of England, and provide vital refuges for wildlife and essential free natural resources for people. Today, 96 per cent of grouse moors are in favourable or recovering condition, compared with only 25 per cent six years ago. The support of upland landowners and grouse moor managers has been crucial in achieving this goal, with moorland managed for grouse shooting accounting for some 850,042 acres of uplands from the Peak District to Northumberland, and nearly a fifth of all England?s SSSI land.

At their own expense

What is often either not known, or overlooked, is that the majority of that management has been carried out at the private expense of landowners. Over the past 100 years, considerable areas of heather have been lost through overgrazing, afforestation and bracken encroachment, and since its formation 25 years ago the Moorland Association?s members have regenerated and recovered 217,000 acres. 57,000 acres of that has been in the past decade, smashing the overnment?s 2010 conservation target by 170 per cent; achieved thanks to what is now an annual expenditure of £52.5million, of which 90 per cent is privately funded. Though there remain some 250,000 acres of heather moorland still to be re-generated, grouse moor owners have shown that they have the ability to achieve it, at their own cost, with the Government?s backing. Once completed, and with keepering put in place, that would be quite some wildlife corridor, more like a wildlife motorway!

It should come as no surprise that, thanks to the passion, hard work and private investment of the shooting community more than 60 per cent of England?s upland SSSIs are managed as grouse moors. Many are also designated Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation for rare birds and vegetation respectively.

This kind of conservation work and commitment to the natural environment is evident in the day-to-day work of shooting people ? with shoots on all scales from large operations to small DIY syndicates ? devoting the majority of their year to providing habitats for gamebirds. These covercrops also provide food and shelter for numerous other bird species. This, combined with legal predator control, shows how much positive impact those gamekeepers have on an extensive range of wildlife.

Taking due credit

It is time the shooting community shone a light on its conservation work. The White Paper talks about facilitating greater local action to protect and improve nature, establishing local nature parks and creating nature improvement areas, all of which form the foundation of the conservation work already carried out by shoots up and down the country.

A missed opportunity

The White Paper claims that nature is sometimes taken for granted and undervalued, but this is simply not the case for those individuals who love the countryside and have a vested interest in its future. The Government has missed an opportunity to support the Big Society that already exists in the countryside, with rural communities, including Shooting Times readers, undertaking hundreds of millions of pounds? worth of unpaid conservation work each year. It is our belief that the Government should make it a priority to support them in this role.

Robert Gray is the deputy chief executive of the Countryside Alliance