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.

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