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The fine balance between predator control, habitat and food supply

The ‘balance of nature’ isn’t always as it seems, says David Whitby, and predator control must work alongside habitat and food supply

A friend of mine was recently walking on his farm when he happened upon a lady with an off-lead dog, a long way from any of the many footpaths that transect his land. He politely pointed out both misdemeanours, adding the scare tactic of ‘snares set’ rather than request for the dog to be kept away from ground-nesting birds and roe kids, appealing to a concern she may have for her dog rather than her obvious lack of it for wildlife. However, the lady simply robustly berated him for killing foxes.  

Never one to back away from a fight, my friend related the tale of the dead ducklings he had found the day before because a fox had killed the brooding duck. “That is nature’s way,” the irate lady replied, but is any of the scenario really nature’s way? 

If she meant that it is quite natural for a fox to kill a duck then yes, it is ‘nature’s way’, and any tugging at the heartstrings over the death of orphaned fluffy ducklings did not work. Indeed, it is only fair to say that there are no creatures more capable of serious heartstring tugs than fluffy fox cubs that would inevitably also be orphaned if my friend got a chance. 

The lady added that the ducks would only be shot anyway, and she would rather the fox had them. Quite possibly true about the shooting and she is very welcome to her preference of the ducks’ eventual demise. Here, I have to say, my friend made a simple mistake — with many people it does not work using any of our quarry as a reason for controlling predators or limiting the access of people and dogs. 

Good predator management programmes go a long way in helping our more vulnerable species


Threat to lapwings

He would have been far better pointing out the threat to nesting lapwings, skylarks and curlew, creatures whose populations are in serious decline. It might even be argued that the 60 million or so gamebirds released each year may be helping by providing an easy and plentiful food source for predators, possibly taking pressure off ground-nesting species. On the other hand, the plentiful food supply is also boosting predator numbers with their larger litters/broods and a higher survival rate of young.

If, however, the lady in question meant that the fox/duck scenario was all part of the ‘balance of nature’, then I must take issue. This balance of nature or balance of ecology is the theory that nature is self-regulating, that if conditions cause a spike in one species, they will eventually self-regulate with a spike in something else, bringing it back to equilibrium. 

I think of the example of Yellowstone National Park: deer and bison in the absence of wolves were overpopulated and confining their grazing to the rich growth areas along the riverbanks, which in turn was causing all sorts of problems. The wolf, as an apex predator, was reintroduced. Packs started to hunt and moved populations of deer and bison around, which gave trees, shrubs and grasses a chance in the overgrazed areas, and other wildlife began to flourish. The old and young of prey species were hunted and an equilibrium was reinstated.

So, if the balance of nature has been restored by bringing back an apex predator that humans had wiped out, why not try the same here in Britain? Why not leave all wildlife to return to a healthy equilibrium by reintroducing some of our long-removed apex predators? 

The ‘why not’ is quite simple really. Yellowstone National Park is over 20 million acres of natural, unspoiled land. There are only 1,000 residents within the park, and most of the land is completely natural and uninhabited. To bring this into perspective, Yellowstone is nearly half the size of Wales, practically uninhabited and enjoys little or no human influence. 

Skylarks are in serious decline across the UK, suffering from habitat loss as well as predation

There is nearly no area of Britain that is not managed, influenced or farmed by people and/or their livestock. Our forests and fields are manicured, populated and planted with non-native or domestic species solely for human benefit. All of Britain displays the touch of human intervention. 

Apex predators are generally quite intelligent; they will not waste energy chasing a fleet-footed deer when sheep are close at hand. They are unlikely to confine themselves to areas of Scotland where crofters would have to be paid not to farm — they will roam and move to places of easy picking. Given a free hand, our way of life would greatly suit introduced apex predators, just as it suits the predators that are already with us.


Essential requirements

Every living creature has three essential requirements: food, shelter and protection. The foxes for which the lady had shown such concern have found that we have provided so many of them with all three essentials. This applies to not just foxes but many other predators: feral cats, the entire crow family except for choughs, badgers, rats, grey squirrels and even certain raptors. They are happy with scraps from the bin, roadkill, street waste, sheep and cattle food, rubbish dumps and indeed all manner of waste. 

They will nest in a tree in your garden, give birth in an earth below your shed or a set in the local park. They thrive among us — we provide food, shelter and they are safe from their only predators by living among humans. Even when certain garden birds attempt to breed within an urban environment, the likelihood of success among 10 million cats and a host of overpopulated, urbanised ‘uglies’ is minimal, if not impossible.


Predator increases

Where many predator species have enjoyed massive population increases, sadly the opposite applies to so many prey species. Unable or less willing to share our space, they have witnessed enormous decreases in both habitat and food. When we add to this the increase in their predators, it is small wonder that so many creatures are rapidly disappearing. 

I am told that the RSPB has at last recognized the futility of providing the right environment in terms of food and habitat when all eggs and chicks are predated by an overpopulation of foxes, crows and other opportunistic feeders. It is attempting a cull and doubtless being pilloried for it by those who simply do not understand the current imbalance. 

Foxes are thriving in urban Britain, enjoying a plentiful supply of easy food and shelter

There is an increasing move in places to rewild certain areas — wonderful. Agricultural land soon reverts to an oasis of wildflowers, seeds and tree regeneration, becoming home to the creatures that depend upon such. Once the specific food and habitat is reinstated, surely the birds will return, feed and nest, but that is only part of the equation. Just as the RSPB is finding that two-thirds of the equation is not enough, so protection must accompany rewilding, or our three-legged stool of requirements topples over. 

For RSPB reserves, rewilding areas or just my friend’s farm, to help endangered life there has to be one more addition: the gamekeeper.