Hunting Helps Expand U.K. Wildlands, Study Says

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Almost 100 percent of landowners who participated in both hunting and shooting were found to be planting new woodland, compared with 37 percent of those not involved in these sports. Similarly, analysis of aerial photographs showed that hunting and shooting farms averaged 7.2 percent tree cover, while farms without a sporting interest were just 0.6 percent woodland.

Wildlife living on hunt farmland was also much more likely to benefit from new hedgerows. Planting was undertaken by all foxhunting landowners who belonged to the government-funded Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group. Less than half of group members not involved in hunting followed suit. In addition, existing hedgerows on hunt land generally contained greater plant diversity.

Stephen Tapper, director of policy and public affairs at the Game Conservancy Trust, a charity that encourages wildlife-friendly game management, is not surprised by these findings. He says hunt groups prefer hedgerows to wire fences for holding livestock. While barbed-wire or electric fences are cheaper and easier to maintain, hunters on horseback would rather jump a hedge.

Tapper also agrees that it's people involved in these sports who tend to support government efforts to conserve farmland wildlife.

He said: "These woodland and hedgerow grants are only a contribution towards planting and don't cover the full costs. Those who are prepared to stump up the remainder are more likely to do so if they have a sporting interest."

And once the planting is done, Tapper believes subsequent management will favor wildlife living on land where country sports occur. He uses pheasant shooting as an example.

He said: "Current management regimes include making wide rides down the middle of woods to provide access for shooting parties in winter and daylight for pheasants released in the autumn.

"These rides provide an edge through the wood where you get layers of different shrubs and herbs. They attract species such as fritillary butterflies and songbirds which typically find life difficult around the outside of farm woods because they are subject to things like agricultural spray drift."

Management For Foxes

Woodland management carried out by foxhunts, such as opening skylights and thinning trees to enhance sporting opportunities, have similar advantages, according to a survey part-funded by the Game Conservancy Trust.

Researchers discovered that five wood-dwelling butterflies found in southern England—the marsh fritillary, silver-washed fritillary, brown hairstreak, purple hairstreak and white admiral—showed a marked preference for hunt land.

A seven-year project run in the 1990s by the Allerton Research and Educational Trust showed how farmland birds also benefit from pheasant shooting.

Game-bird management was introduced to a farm in Leicestershire in central England using a mixture of traditional gamekeeping and conservation methods. These included vermin control, planting crops to provide winter food, reduced pesticide use, woodland creation, and allowing wildflowers to grow around field margins.

Pheasants weren't the only birds to respond well. Populations of farmland species classed as "nationally declining" rose over 100 percent during the project period. Linnet numbers jumped 20 percent each year, while song thrushes and willow warblers increased 16 percent annually.

Leader-Williams believes the natural link between country sports and conservation can be harnessed by government schemes designed to help reverse declines in farmland wildlife.

He said: "Our work has shown that if there's an interaction between conservation and some sort of self-interest, and there's an agri-environment scheme to help pay for it, then you're going to get a greater uptake."

Yet the study comes at a time when politicians are debating whether to ban one of these "self-interests"—foxhunting. Leader-Williams says it's a debate that's ignoring the potential benefits foxhunting can bring for many species.

"This is a gap which has not been addressed," he said. "We've addressed it and now the information is down on the table."

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