Hunting Helps Expand U.K. Wildlands, Study Says

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
May 28, 2003
Dead foxes and pheasants are the main aim of the exercise, but farmers
who manage their land for hunting and shooting also help to conserve
many wild animals.

This is the finding of an independent study into the motives behind habitat conservation work carried out on farms in central England. And researchers conclude that the importance of hunting and shooting to wildlife conservation is highly relevant to the debate over whether fox hunting with hounds should be banned in Britain.

While 76 percent of Britain is covered by farmland, national nature reserves make up only half of one percent. So farmers, not conservationists, manage the vast bulk of the country's available wildlife habitat. Yet their record as custodians of Britain's natural heritage isn't impressive.

Monitoring of farmland birds by the British Trust for Ornithology shows populations have plummeted 40 percent since the 1960s. The conservation charity says these changes are reflected in the fortunes of other species, with 56 percent of butterflies and 50 percent of mammals suffering significant declines on arable farms.

This trend is also mirrored by habitat loss linked to the development of intensified farming methods over the last 50 years. For instance, half the country's farmland hedgerows have been removed since 1945.

In a study published this week in the science journal Nature, scientists from the University of Kent in southeast England say farmers who hunt and shoot can help restore Britain's lost wildlife.

Government agencies have already been trying to encourage environmentally sustainable farming practices through habitat improvement grants. So far, however, success has been limited, according to the University of Kent's professor of biodiversity management, Nigel Leader-Williams.

"Firstly, the amount of money available is relatively limited," he said. "Secondly, uptake is up to the farmers and it isn't wonderfully high."

Leader-Williams says an extra incentive is needed to encourage landowners to get involved with these voluntary schemes. The study found that hunting and shooting provide such an incentive.

"According to our research, it's people involved with country sports who take up these subsidy schemes," Leader-Williams explained. "They plant new woodland because they want foxes and pheasants to live in it."

Three Hunting Areas

Researchers focused their study on three traditional foxhunting regions in central England—the Berkeley, Suffolk, and Warwickshire hunts. By comparing habitat improvement work undertaken on hunting and shooting land with adjacent areas not managed for foxes or game birds, they were able to determine which farms were likely to attract the most wildlife.

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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