Here’s something a little different; a very chunky 4,000 word article I wrote on the scientific case for rewilding, taking a broad look at a variety of benefits that rewilding could produce for society and the environment!
SHOULD WE BRING WOLVES BACK TO BRITAIN
– WHAT IS THE SCIENTIFIC CASE FOR REWILDING?
Rewilding is a relatively new word, describing a relatively new concept, but one that has already caused huge controversy among the public. This is partly due to differing opinions regarding the aims of rewilding. Some look fondly on Britain’s patchwork landscape and claim that this is what the countryside has looked like for hundreds of years, and is therefore what it ‘should’ look like. Others see it for the ecologically broken, nature-depleted land that it has become, and perhaps would go so far as to say that we should bring back the species that we drove to localised extinction hundreds of years ago. Is there a defensible case for this approach? In this essay, I will attempt to set out the scientific case for the potential benefits of rewilding in its formal definition -– i.e., ‘the restoration of land to its natural uncultivated state’, including arguments for the reintroduction of lost species, which I see as an integral part of the definition and of the process.
The most obvious benefit of rewilding is preservation of biodiversity. The state of wildlife populations nationally and internationally is critical: the absolute number of animals on Earth has dropped by 40% since 1970 (1), and the extinction rate is 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural level. We lose dozens of species every day.(2)
The single largest factor in this decline is habitat loss and degradation (1), so it logically follows that halting and reversing this trend will be a critical component of population recovery. Restoring natural habitat is, by definition, is what rewilding entails. There is such little ambiguity here that I don’t feel it requires scientific justification.
Perhaps more controversially, I believe that returning lost species to those landscapes is an essential part of the rewilding process, and is not only needed to improve the conservation status of those focal species but is necessary for full biodiversity recovery of the countryside into which they are introduced. Without certain key links in the complex web of interactions that make up an ecosystem, we can never hope to achieve a self-sustaining, optimally biodiverse landscape. Keystone animals – those that have a disproportionately large effect on their ecosystems relative to their abundance – are of particular importance; unfortunately, many have been lost from Britain, (and most of Europe) over the last thousand years, as man has driven them to local extinction. In their absence, we have established a different state of ecological equilibrium, known as a catastrophic shift. The consequence of this state is that re-establishing the original, thriving, biodiverse ecosystem by simply leaving the land to its own devices would take thousands of years. Counter-intuitively, mankind needs to lend a hand in the process of returning land to a state without human activity, through the returning of our lost species.
Benefits to Biodiversity of Keystone Species Reintroduction
The beaver is a prime example of a keystone species. Hunted to extinction in Britain in the 16th century, they are often described as ‘ecosystem engineers’ –with their capacity to influence landscapes rivalled only by elephants. The largest beaver dam in the world is twice the length of the Hoover dam, and can be seen from space (3).
But even the smaller, ordinary dams and lodges change tame, fast-flowing waterways into a complex network of ponds, meadows and channels, thereby creating a far more varied, natural and ecologically valuable habitat. And because of the tendency of beaver dams to fail over time, triggering natural succession processes; beaver-modulated habitat is not only geographically but also temporally heterogeneous, creating a dynamic, ever-changing landscape, which only serves to increase the biodiversity and ecological health (4). For example, a Scottish reintroduction of the European Beaver, Castor fiber, was shown to increase the abundance of 88% of species recorded during the study (5), from every class of vertebrate as well as numerous invertebrates and plants. Only a minority of species (lotic habitat specialists mainly) were negatively impacted. The clear value of the beaver is reflected in the Scottish government’s decision to give it protected status after illegal reintroductions across the country.
One of the most famous examples of species reintroduction, however, occurred at Yellowstone National Park in America (6). In Yellowstone, the main problem – from an ecological perspective – was the high density of elk. The absence of wolves had removed a huge predatory pressure from them and enabled their populations to reach over 19,000 individuals. In consequence, the vegetation was over-grazed, both through the sheer numbers of these large herbivores and due to the fact that they no longer had to remain on the move to avoid wolves, allowing them to graze certain areas more intensively.
Wolf reintroduction had a dramatic effect: the numbers of elk eventually dropped to below 4,000 individuals, and they were forced to be more mobile to evade predation. This in turn allowed over-browsed willow to recover, providing a previously scarce food source for the local beaver populations. Beaver colonies in Yellowstone increased in number from one prior to wolf reintroduction to nine, with the population expected to continue growing. This beaver activity, together with the increase of vegetation around river banks, also drastically changed the hydrology of the landscape.
In addition, increased abundance of willow and aspen following the reduction in elk provided habitat for songbirds, whose populations have recovered significantly. Other apex predators like bears and mountain lions have also increased (8), but it is unclear as to whether this is related to the wolf reintroduction or some other external factors.
The magnitude of the impacts of the wolf reintroduction was unexpected, and many of the subtler outcomes are still only being realised. We can use the Yellowstone reintroduction as a loose indication of what might happen should we reintroduce wolves to Britain – it stands to reason that we might see similarly exciting and unforeseen responses.
That said, the Yellowstone wolves were reintroduced into a habitat that was already almost ecologically natural – an ecosystem virtually complete with the simple exception of the wolf, allowing the reintroduction of that species to cause the impressive trophic cascade that was witnessed (and even then some ecologists argue that the landscape had lacked wolves for so long that the damage of their removal hasn’t completely been reversed ). However, in mainland Europe and Britain, unspoilt areas on the scale of Yellowstone are virtually non-existent. The reintroduction of wolves would have to be coupled with the reintroduction of other missing fauna for the process to work – namely, large herbivores.
The Value of Large Herbivores
Until recently, closed-canopy theory was accepted as the original, natural state of our land in Britain and Europe, perceived as vast stretches of unbroken forest from coast to coast (with the exception of the odd mountain and lake). This is understandable: conservationists have been accustomed to seeing naturally regenerating European land turn into just that. However, that completely ignores a vital factor – the presence of large herbivores.
These animals would have grazed the land, maintaining a balance of forest and grassland and creating an overall landscape described as ‘wooded pasture’. This is truly what European wilderness would have looked like – evidence can be found in pollen records in soil (9). And unsurprisingly, being the surroundings that our native European fauna have adapted to, this is the optimum state for maximum biodiversity on a landscape scale.
Rewilding projects run by Frans Vera on mainland Europe and the Knepp project (9) in Britain have demonstrated the ecological importance of these large herbivores.
Both initiatives had to use proxies for some of the wild species that we have driven to extinction: Heck or Longhorn cattle were used as substitutes for the Aurochs that originally roamed the plains of Europe, and Konik ponies replaced the Tarpan. Other ungulates involved in the aforementioned projects include Tamsworth pigs and native deer such as Roe and Fallow. Each was found to have its own ecological niche and specialist functions; whether ‘rooting’ the ground, grazing on grassland, browsing on small shrubs, naturally coppicing trees or spreading seeds on their coats and through faeces, the specific services of each herbivore were essential to generate a balance of vegetation and maintain a varied habitat (which, as noted above, is crucial for biodiversity).
Even the carcasses of these animals are of vast importance to scavengers and insects that feed on carrion – a key feature of our ecosystems which doesn’t seem tolerable any longer under health and safety regulations (9).
Tackling Invasive Species
Another interesting and unexpected benefit to biodiversity of reintroducing species is the elimination of non-native invasive (NNI) species. With increasing globalisation, NNI species have become ever more common, and threaten what biodiversity we have left. Invaders such as Parakeets, Japanese Knotweed and Grey Squirrels have colonised the UK in vast numbers, often displacing other native species in their wake. Their relentless spread has seemed almost impossible to halt – but in some instances, species reintroduction could provide a solution. For example, reintroducing Pine Marten to Wales and England could help Red Squirrels recover their former range (10); Pine Marten predate on both red and grey squirrels, but whilst the former has evolved over millennia to avoid marten predation, the latter has not, so the reds benefit overall.
To date, we have only looked at rewilding as a macro-level concept, but a novel thought on consequences of rewilding can be offered in the fast-growing field of epigenetics. If we modify the environment, returning it to a natural state, will that trigger previously dormant, inactive genes in current wildlife populations (or indeed ourselves) to be expressed? What effects might this have?
Epigenetics explains the existence of phenotypic plasticity – the ability of one genotype to produce multiple phenotypes. A system of chemical markers are overlaid on our histones, which determine which genes are expressed by compressing or decompressing the chromatin, and thus either allowing or disallowing the code to be read.
Many variables can change these epigenetic markers: diet, chemical exposure, and even social experiences (11). Studies have shown that even relatively subtle environmental changes can influence the epigenome enough to produce a noticeable variation in phenotype. For example, butterflies of the species Vanessa urtica and Vanessa io were found to grow larger when raised in dark conditions, and develop more intensely coloured wings upon exposure to red light during development (12).
Surely then, the relatively extreme environmental changes that would occur in a rewilding context will be significant enough to alter the phenotypes of organisms.
We may, for example, hypothesize that deer experiencing heightened levels of stress due to wolf presence may inhibit the expression of a gene that affects the amount of a digestive protein that they produce, and thereby lead to an increase in undigested material in the animal’s faeces and increase chances of seed dispersal for various plants. There is no evidence to support this example – it is purely imagined – but hopefully illustrates the wide variety of potential consequences, which may at first seem inconsequential but could alter ecology significantly. The activation of the ‘wildome’ is an area that could provide some fascinating potential for research in future years.
In reality, rewilding for nature’s sake will not meet current politicians’ motivations. Luckily for rewilding proponents, the restoration of natural landscapes has proven to have a huge variety of economic and social benefits.
Our agriculture is in a dire state, with dependence on intensive farming and food imports to sustain our ever-increasing population. However, rewilding has shown potential solutions to the myriad of problems that we face. Knepp Estate (9), a farm in Sussex, exemplifies these benefits, and therefore is used frequently in this subtopic as a case study.
We have a soil crisis in Britain. Intensive farming has removed soil organisms and degraded soil structure, causing water and nutrients to leach away, and topsoil to erode. As a result of this, we have only 100 harvests left in most of Britain (13). This problem is fast-growing on the rest of the world too: estimates suggest that 80% of global farmland is moderately or severely eroded (9). Until recently, it was widely believed that this soil layer would take years to reform. Now, however, data from Knepp suggests that soil can regenerate much faster than expected – when subjected to rewilding. 13 years since the rewilding project began at Knepp, 18 species of worm have returned to the soil. Microrrhizae have spread rapidly through the soil, showing their presence in the form of fruiting bodies of fungus, and anthills, some over half a metre high, have become abundant. All of these are indicators both of good soil health and of diminishing concentrations of pollutants. But they are also key actors in the restoration of soil themselves. Worms, for example, concentrate the organic constituents of the matter that they consume in their casts, providing patches of soil that are high in nutrients. They also aerate the earth, improving drainage and oxygen availability for the roots of plants. Finally, they have a fantastic ability to expand the topsoil – one study found that under favourable conditions, worms add up to 5mm per year simply by leaving their casts on the soil surface. Another trial found that they may regenerate 18cm of soil within 30 years (14). And this is just one aspect of rewilding’s agro-economic benefits. It can also increase numbers of pollinators, introduce natural, biological pest control and return nutrients to the soil.
Consequently, it has been suggested that we need to take a more holistic approach to Britain’s land use. A field rotation system (on a larger scale than traditional farming practice used to employ) could be implemented. A ‘pop-up Knepp’ would be left to rewild for 20-40 years; during this time, it would provide alternative forms of economic income (together with subsidies), while neighbouring fields are managed for food. This ensures that there is always a balance of land for arable farming and habitat for wildlife, while allowing each field to regenerate its soil quality. Looking further ahead, wildlife corridors could then be set up between these larger patches of wild land to connect the populations of animals, maintaining genetic variety and allowing populations to move depending on resource availability.
As well as benefits to agriculture, rewilding provides other ways of making a profit: Knepp generates a proportion of its huge income through ‘glamping’. They now turn over £50,000 of profit from a single 10-acre field – a third of their annual income for the whole 3,500 acres before the project started. And bear in mind that this is in Sussex –an area little known for ecotourism.
Rewilding areas all over the country have the potential to generate immense economic income from ecotourism. In Scotland, over 1 million trips are made annually primarily to see wildlife, worth £1.4 billion to Scotland’s economy (15). And considering that around one-fifth of Scotland is grouse moor, where wildlife persecution is rife and the land bare and ecologically dead, consider how much that value could increase with rewilding.
People would come simply to see wilder landscapes, but I think profit would be maximised through the reintroduction of iconic species. For example, a case study in the Harz Mountains, in Germany, showed that the presence of Lynx in those mountains was a major factor in the decision of more than half of all tourists to visit the area, despite the improbability of seeing such an elusive predator. This is estimated to bring £8-13 million to the Harz Mountains each year (16). Similarly around a quarter of all visitors to Mull in Scotland consider the presence of White-Tailed Eagles to be an important factor in their decision to visit the area. In Cors Dyfi Reserve in Wales, a single pair of ospreys brings in £350,000 every year, and a single dolphin on the Moray Firth in Scotland, by calculation of the proportion of annual income it generates every year, could be worth £4.5 million over a lifetime (17). These examples demonstrate the significant financial potential of species reintroduction.
Rewilding could make an important contribution to public health. The true development of a tamed, urbanised environment has only occurred in the last couple of hundred years – definitely not on an evolutionary timescale. We are still primarily adapted to a natural environment, and the consequences of being increasingly removed from it are manifold. Here in Britain especially, where over 40% of children never play outside at all and ¾ spend less time outside than prisoners (18), the effects of an urban lifestyle are profound. Poor air quality causes 29,000 premature deaths in the UK every year (19). Furthermore, the noise and air pollution from busy roads has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, heightened blood pressure and increased risk of stroke. People who live in urban environments are also less inclined to exercise, and therefore suffer higher rates of obesity and obesity-related diseases. Children, less inclined to play outside, spend more time on screens, leading to insomnia and, in many cases, myopia (20).
Local, small-scale urban and suburban rewilding would increase the health of city residents. Indirect benefits would be numerous (21): vegetation reduces noise, increases the amount of physical exercise that people perform, school children’s concentration improves, helping them attain higher grades; it cleanses the air of pollutants and reintroduces air-borne antigens which benefit the immune system. The NHS have even found that hospital patients need fewer painkillers after surgery and recover faster if they have views of nature from their beds (9).
As well as these physiological benefits, interaction with nature has been showed to play a crucial role in mental health. 1 in 6 in the UK suffer from depression, anxiety, stress, phobias, suicidal impulses, obsessive compulsive disorders, or panic attacks. This costs the NHS £12.5 billion, the economy £23.1 billion in lost output, and thousands of people their lives. Spending time outdoors in a natural environment has been shown to reduce severity of all these mental illnesses (9).
Why should nature be so good for our mental health? EO Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis suggests that we have an innate desire to connect with the natural world as a product of evolution, and that denying ourselves that causes us stress and mental discomfort. Ulrich elaborates on this in his psycho-evolutionary hypothesis (22): being in an unthreatening natural environment, he says, activates a positive affective response, leading to a subconscious inclination to seek or remain in such environments. In any case, although the precise mechanism of nature’s benefit to mental health remains unclear, the evidence for it is building. The advantages of such interactions with a natural environment are so widely recognised now that they are being prescribed by some branches of the NHS (23)
Perhaps the single most important benefit of rewilding, and the one which presents the greatest case for its absolute necessity, is to combat global warming. As George Monbiot said in a talk at the national Rewilding Conference in Cambridge this January, it is no longer enough to simply cut out carbon emissions – we have to start actively sequestering it in order to meet targets and avoid the worst impacts of climate breakdown. Already, even if we limit global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, a rise in the Arctic of 3-5 degrees Celsius is ‘locked-in’, due to thawing permafrost releasing huge quantities of stored greenhouse gases (24). Arctic summers will be iceless by the 2030s. The urgency of this crisis is hard to overestimate, and rewilding is (as George would argue) our only hope of avoiding the worst impacts. For example, the world’s farmlands, if properly managed, could capture up to 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year– more than the annual carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere. Similarly the Carbon Farmers of America estimate that increasing the amount of organic matter in the world’s farmed soils by only 1.6% could ‘solve global warming’ (9).
Degradation of natural habitats has contributed to the global warming crisis. When we destroy salt marshes, for example, we create a significant greenhouse gas source (20). Conversely, restoring these wetlands to their natural state – rewilding them – would not only negate that huge source of emissions, but actually remove equivalent quantities of gas. We would be creating an extremely effective carbon sink. And, while coastal wetlands offer some of the greatest potential for carbon sequestration, rewilding offers other carbon-capture opportunities. Converting the 5 billion hectares of degraded grassland worldwide to functioning ecosystems could terrestrially sink 10 gigatonnes of carbon and return the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide levels to pre-industrial concentrations in only decades, according to Alan Savory, a Zimbabwean ecologist (25).
Similarly, given that over 70% of land in the UK is farmland, improving its management through rotational rewilding – the ‘pop-up Knepp’ system — could help the UK to meet the Paris climate targets. Why invest in expensive artificial carbon-capture technologies when we can sequester carbon in a natural way, that..
Rewilding is an extremely exciting concept, for me at least, and something that fills me with some optimism that we can reverse the damage that we have inflicted on our scarred landscapes. So when I was offered the opportunity to volunteer at the Rewilding Conference 2019 in Cambridge, I leapt at the opportunity.
The event was hosted at none other than the David Attenborough building – an impressive venue with its modern vibe and wall of living plants that spans all four floors.
As a volunteer, I had to help the event run smoothly as a first priority, but thankfully the volunteering team was sufficiently large that I could listen in on almost all of the talks that I wanted to.
And increasingly, as the conference progressed, I realised just how little I actually knew about rewilding. The lectures were so varied, including subjects such as restoring Europe’s lost landscapes, the realities of rewilding small patches of private land, the balance of farming that we need on our land, and the unplanned reintroductions of beavers and wild boars.
I was particularly impressed to see farmers not only accepted into the conference but actively invited to give talks. Different viewpoints are something that we are increasingly detached from in a world of social media that chooses to only echo back to us the news that mirrors our own perspective, and this is not healthy for anyone. As was mentioned multiple times, rewilding is as much about people as anything else, and if matters remain so polarised no progress will be made at all.
If I had to give some highlights, this would probably be the top few:
Isabella Tree – KNEPP ESTATE
For Christmas I got this lady’s book, and although I haven’t got round to reading it yet (I have a lot of books to get through and saving the best until last!) I was very much excited to see the author give a talk. It was, put concisely, inspirational. She told the story of how they turned Knepp Estate from a standard highly intensive farm that was losing more and more money every year, into a pioneering rewilding project, bringing back declining turtle doves, nightingales, and much more.
It was a hugely optimistic and exciting vision for how we can rescue our depleted farmland, potentially restoring nutrient-dead fields in a rotation across the country, allowing each to recuperate, and wildlife to move in, before reconverting it to more productive farmland as the animals move into the neighbouring land.
George Monbiot – REWILDING TO COMBAT CLIMATE BREAKDOWN
Although it’s far harder to be optimistic about climate change – or ‘climate breakdown’ as George suggests we should refer to it, this talk was absolutely fascinating. In it, George explained that it is no longer enough for us to simply cut carbon emissions – we need to start rewilding schemes to restore landscapes that can better sequester carbon. And while our declining habitats are releasing more and more carbon as they degrade, he points out that simply through better management we can start to turn things around quite significantly. After reading many of his articles and watching his video about the impact of wolves in Yellowstone, it was great to hear George speak in person.
Frans Schepers – REWILDING EUROPE
Featuring awe-inspiring visualisations for the return of Europe’s lost landscapes, this talk encapsulated all of what appeals to me about rewilding. The return of huge, beautiful areas of wilderness and all of the fantastic animals that once roamed them. Frans showed how the rewilding movement, despite being only seven years old, is already spreading so rapidly across the continent and all of the brilliant projects that Rewilding Europe is already coordinating.
Peter Cooper – BEAVERS HOT, BOARS NOT?
Although those faced with some of the less appealing realities of the unplanned reintroductions of some of our native fauna feel differently, there is something undeniably awe-inspiring and wonderful about lost species returning to where they belong. Peter gave a well-balanced talk on some of the issues surrounding the beavers and boars that are starting to make a comeback in small pockets of our country. I feel that it is one of the most exciting aspects of modern conservation, and has potential to be used to engage the public in the rewilding movement extremely effectively.
Besides these highlights, I really enjoyed the whole event – seeing the passion of all of the delegates and the enthusiasm with which they threw themselves into workshops and discussions really struck me as a common mindset that could achieve things.
I also loved meeting all of the other volunteers, some of whom I knew already but most were completely new faces. Attending events like these seems to be the best way to reinvigorate my passion and enthusiasm for conservation, which is otherwise trampled down by the perpetual negative news stories that flood the media, and I certainly left this one feeling inspired.
Meanwhile, I have several new books to keep me going on the topic: Isabella Tree’s ‘Wilding’ and George Monbiot’s ‘Feral’ for starters!
Ever heard of the hook-nosed little sea pig? Wondered what the largest land-breeding animal in the UK is?
I journey up to the Norfolk coast to witness one of the UK’s greatest winter spectacles – the Grey Seal pupping season.
Cute footage GUARANTEED!
Last week I wrote an article for Mark Avery’s blog on why young people have the potential to be hugely influential and how I’m planning to maximise the last few years of my ‘teenhood’ to make the most of that extra influence.
This year Wildscreen Film Festival and Earthwatch Europe teamed up to produce the ‘Young Earthwatcher Competition’ – a environmental documentary-making competition for teenagers.
It looked like a really fantastic opportunity, and right up my street, so I spent the first couple of weeks of school trying to juggle filming with A levels. The video had to fit the specification: 2 minutes long, explaining an environmental problem and presenting a positive action that people could take to help combat it.
These things always take longer than you expect to make, and in the end it came down to the day before the deadline that I was making the final adjustments.
Here was the finished result:
EARTHWATCHER James Miller entry 2018 - YouTube
If you want to see more of my documentaries, please visit my documentary page. Hopefully more coming soon!
I was lucky to make it to the final three entrants and was invited to come up to the Wildscreen Film Festival in Bristol for the awards ceremony, hosted by none other than CBBC’s Naomi Wilkinson.
The entries were all screened to the audience and the judges, who then offered their thoughts on the videos. Sam Barcroft, Wendy Darke and Lizzie Daly discussed the positive attributes of each video and offered advice on how to improve, before announcing the chosen winner.
Unfortunately the competition was fierce and I came runner-up, but the second prize was not too shabby at all – an underwater camera and a beautiful book of elephant photography. Besides, I still got to speak to Naomi Wilkinson and Lizzie Daly, both big inspirations of mine.
WILDSCREEN by @JonCraig_Photos
It’s great to see such film-making skill and passion for environment in my generation, and I hope that the continuation of this competition will encourage more young people to discover a talent in that area.
Thanks very much to Wildscreen, Earthwatch Europe and all of the sponsors of the competition. Definitely one of the highlights of 2018 for me!
Besides Christmas, birthdays and school term dates, there is one occasion that pronouncedly marks my calendar every year – the Birdfair. It is a brilliant event, unrivalled in Europe and possibly the world. Thousands flock to Rutland on the third weekend of August to listen to talks, buy equipment, see friends and meet inspirational figures from the world of conservation.
This was my third Birdfair, and unlike the previous two, I was there for all three days and not tied down to a stand, so I had plenty of opportunity to get around and take full advantage of all that the weekend had to offer. Despite this, it seemed that I was busier than ever.
I arrived on the Friday with a friend (Alex Bayley – @AlexNaturalist on twitter)) to find the event in full swing already, with huge marquees filled with wildlife tourism companies, conservation organisations, artists, book stalls and more. After a rest and a bite to eat (a 5 am start and 6 hour train journey takes its toll) I set off and paid a visit to all the NGO stands where I suspected most of my friends would be volunteering.
In the afternoon I popped into Beth Aucott’s talk on A Focus On Nature (a youth nature network – click the link to find out more), then raced off after that to catch a plastics debate, the topic being ‘Can We Save Our Seas, and Ourselves?’. When I say ‘debate’, it was really a Q and A session with the audience, but the same topics came under discussion from different members of the panel, so the aim was achieved. It was great also to learn about what some of the amazing individuals on the panel have done to impact on the problem, from engaging in media campaigns to ridding restaurants in Cardiff of plastic straws. Equally notable was the fact that, by coincidence or not, the panel was entirely female, the first of its kind in the Birdfair’s 30 year history. Seeing as conservation and naturalism seem to be very much a male-predominated area, this is a brilliant occasion and will hopefully inspire more young women to go into that career path. I believe there are plans to build on that idea next year. It’s great to see the Birdfair engaged in more than one form of positive change.
Saturday seems to be the day that everyone turns up for, and unfortunately the best talks all seem to concentrate around Saturday lunchtime, so you can’t go to everything you want to. I spent the morning wandering around and speaking to a load of new people who hadn’t turned up for Friday. I also happened to spot another familiar face on the schedule; Bret Charman, who used to go to my school and since leaving has taken up a career in wildlife photography and tourguiding. I turned up to his talk on wildlife encounters in Zambia, and was awed by some of the photographs he’d taken there.
At midday I got to the events marquee ten minutes early to queue for Chris Packham and Ruth Peacey’s talk, having learnt from last year when I couldn’t get in because the marquee was too small to accommodate everyone. This time I got in in plenty of time to get a seat, but again the marquee was packed, with people standing all around the sides. The event gave some mixed news as to the bird slaughter situation in the Mediterranean – Cyprus seems to be starting to get its act together with the British military base making a more concerted effort to rid their land of illegal traps, but Malta still needs a lot of work. There was also an appearance from Springwatch’s soundman Gary talking about how special nightingales are to him and how devastating it would be to lose them, and Joe Harkness talking about how birdwatching has helped his mental health significantly, and why it’s so important to get outside.
As soon as the talk ended, I raced across the Birdfair’s grounds (hard to navigate -everywhere looks exactly the same) just in time to slip in to AFON’s youth conservationist debate – ‘Should we Work for Nature or Should Nature Work for Us?’. I knew a couple of people on the panel and those who had organised the debate, so I thought I’d go and support it, and find out more about what the panellists were doing. I found it really interesting, and a good source of inspiration as to what I could be doing when I’m a similar age. I hope that this kind of event is done again next year.
After that, I went back to the events marquee for the unveiling of the Bird Photographer Of The Year’s winners. Last year there were some absolutely stunning finalists, and this year didn’t disappoint either. If you haven’t seen the winners, you really should check them out.
It overran slightly as Chris Packham got a bit carried away with constructive criticism, so I had to dart out halfway through in order to get to the AFON youth meetup that happens at the Birdfair every year. Unfortunately I also missed the next talk on rewilding wolves for this, but it was a sacrifice worth making to catch up with friends that you only see once or twice a year.
Sunday was less busy but even better. In the morning I popped along to the Ask The Experts session, which was fascinating, although slightly dominated by one farmer who got asked the majority of the questions.
Afterwards I popped along to Speyside Wildlife’s stand, to catch up with Iolo Williams who was coming along to pick a name out of a hat for their annual competition. I first met him and the Speyside Wildlife team up in Scotland in 2015 as a prize for winning a competition, but now I see them every year at the Birdfair.
Credit: Sophie Miller
Unfortunately I had to dash off from that soon, as I was giving a talk at 1.00 as part of a panel of young conservationists chaired by Dominic Dyer. There were some fantastic people on the panel – see left to right: Beth Jennings (@talktotheclaws) Georgia Locock (@georgialocock) Kate Stephenson (@kateconsrvation) Dominic Dyer (@domdyer70) Bella Lack (@bellalack) Me, and Alex White (@appletonwild).
I’d met Georgia and Alex before, but it was great to meet the others, who I’d known from social media already.
We gave 5 minute presentations about ourselves and how we are involved in conservation, then answered questions from the audience. It was really interesting to get to know what the others were up to, and variety of skills that they are putting to use to make the world a better place.
After the talk I also got to have a brief chat with Jess French, a bit of a role model for me in that she manages to balance such a dedicated profession as veterinary with presenting, writing books and raising a child. I’ll be very pleased if I can manage to do something similar when I’m her age.
All in all, a brilliant weekend, and I can’t wait until next year.
Yesterday, the 12th of August, is known as the ‘Glorious 12th’ – the day when the driven grouse shooting season starts. This blog post is intended to highlight the key problems with the driven grouse shooting industry for the layman who has little or no prior knowledge about the matter.
There is a major problem with our land. A problem with over 17, 000 km squared, a quarter of all our uplands, and nearly 20% of Scotland. A problem that contributes to climate change, kills tens of thousands of mountain hares every year, and is driving one of our most iconic raptors to the verge of extinction in the UK.
It’s not agriculture. It’s not housing. It’s not manufacturing, infrastructure or conifer plantations.
It’s a ‘sport’.
Specifically, it is a type of bloodsport called driven grouse shooting. It involves a line of beaters driving red grouse towards shooters, who then kill them as they fly past. The focus is on killing as many individuals as possible, and people who pursue the sport pay extortionate amounts of money to for a day’s shooting on a moor where there are the densest quantities of grouse.
This encourages the landowners to manage the land to optimise Red Grouse numbers – the stem of all of the problems.
Artificially managing land for any one species is going to be environmentally damaging, and magnify this up to the huge area that the moors cover and there will be a significant effect on wildlife nationally.
Grouse eat young heather and nest in old heather, so the groundsman’s job is to create a patchwork of these two types of heather. To do this, the moor is drained and then burned to encourage growth. If you were to look at a grouse moor in Scotland you would be likely to see huge blackened strips across the mountainside – this is known as muirburn. The burning is becoming gradually more intense; the proportion of rotationally burned heather in national parks doubled between 1970 and 2000 (from 15 to 30%).
Burning destroys the heather (albeit temporarily) and exposes peat to the elements – to dry out or be washed away. UK peat stores about 5.5 billion tonnes of carbon – 31 times the UK’s annual emissions – and damaging it in this way releases 10 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere per year, and prevents that land from being used as a carbon sink. Thus land use on grouse moors contributes to climate change.
Draining the land lowers the water table, damages the peat and reduces invertebrate populations. It dries the land and makes it more susceptible to fires, such as the Saddleworth Moor fire in Greater Manchester on Jun 27th, which was described as an accident ‘waiting to happen’. While it is very difficult to set woodland on fire, drained heathland is a tinderbox. Such fires break out regularly, some started naturally, others artificially started to burn the heather but got out of control.
Creating drainage channels also makes the area more susceptible to flooding, because instead of the ground holding the water the channels quickly take all of the water away (as they are meant to) so they reach rivers faster and increase the maximum water output of the river. This is why in Yorkshire, residents of Hebden Bridge protest every year, because they blame their frequent and devastating floods on how the land above their town is being managed.
But there is also an intrinsic problem with keeping this moorland, in that it is not natural, and designing it optimally for grouse turns it into a monoculture of heather. Because such huge quantities of moorland are managed in this way the biodiversity of the uplands is severely restricted. Whether moorland is attractive or not is a matter of debate, but I think scenes such as the one below would look better if those hills were covered in trees. But driven grouse moors are perhaps most infamous due to their reputation for predator control.
In order to maximise grouse numbers, a logical (although unpleasant) step is to remove all potential predators of the grouse.
This is done in a variety of ways, both legal and illegal; shooting, poison on carcasses, snares and traps etc.
This is both a conservation and animal welfare concern. Whilst you may not think that a gamekeeper’s activities on his patch of moorland can have significant impacts on national wildlife populations, they can.
Here’s an example of animals killed on a single estate over 3 years, between 1837 and 1840:
1,413 Hooded Crows
275 Red Kites
301 Stoats and Weasels
And some true rarities by modern day standards…
27 White Tailed Eagles
15 Golden Eagles
63 Hen Harriers
and, most shockingly, 198 Wildcats! With estimations of wildcat populations left as in the low tens, this is jaw dropping.
These figures just go to show how much our wildlife has plummeted – these figures are unimaginable by modern day standards. Driven grouse shooting isn’t the only culprit, but it is certainly one of them.
Of course, not as many animals are shot today, but that is because there aren’t nearly as many left to shoot.
And, disturbing to even those with little care for conservation, is the method in which animals are killed. Film footage evidence was produced this year of a ‘stink pit’ – where killed animals are left strung up from trees or in a pile, which attracts scavengers such as foxes, which then get caught in snares around the edge of the pit and eventually die, adding to the pile of rotting flesh. It’s a horrific sight.
Some of biggest uproars about have been in relation to mountain hares. It is estimated that 25 000 were killed in 2006-7 alone, and the species is in great danger, with an overall decline of 34% in 18 years, between 1996 and 2014. Clearly this level of culling is unsustainable. The SNP are even getting involved, calling the culls ‘unacceptable’ and considering legislation to protect the mountain hares.
The greatest opposition has stemmed from raptor persecution. This is one of the illegal activities carried out on moors – raptors are all protected by law. However, this doesn’t stop them being shot, poisoned and trapped by gamekeepers to prevent them from feeding on the grouse. Most birds of prey are in decline, but none are in more trouble than the Hen Harrier, whose populations reduced from 18 to 4 in England since 1988, while there is potential in the England for over 330 pairs. Scotland could also house 1300 more than its current population.
2000 Hen Harriers are missing.
Is it necessarily grouse moors that are causing this decline? It’s almost certain. A quarter of all Hen Harrier nests are on grouse moors, but despite the abundance of prey, they are the least successful nests, raising an average of 0.8 chicks per nest compared to 2.4 on normal heather moorland. The nesting ratio would have been similar between the two sites if all of the ‘failed’ nests were discounted; these nests were often attributed to persecution, because of evidence of trampling, shotgun cartridges, or the nearby body of an adult.
Annual female survival on grouse moors is HALF of that on otherwise similar moors.
Satellite tagging raptors has provided evidence that illegal persecution frequently happens. Shooting communities claim that it is just a few ‘bad apples’. The declines that we see show that either many estates are killing comparatively few raptors per year or a few are killing very many. Either way, the impact on the population is the same and must be stopped. The trouble is, it is currently very hard to convict anyone, and a prosecution is rare.
Vicarious liability has been suggested, whereby land owners are held legally accountable for the actions of their gamekeepers, providing more incentive for the owner to ensure that his moor is managed legally. This would still, however, require successful prosecution to work, and wouldn’t get rid of other environmentally detrimental practices.
Another option would be to get rid of this practice entirely, however this would require a lot of effort and public opposition.
The main arguments that the pro-grouse shooting lobby put forward are that it:
a) Is economically important to the country (the government subsidises grouse moor at £56 per hectare because they are managing valuable land – as there are 1, 700, 000 hectares of moor, that’s a lot of taxpayer money. Estimates put money generated to the economy by driven grouse shooting at around £150 million (although estimates vary widely). So it either generates a minimal contribution, or in fact a slight drain. Far more could be generated by improving the landscape and increasing tourism in the uplands.)
b) Is important for waders ( True. But this isn’t a reasonable price to pay for the destruction of a vast amount of other important animals that are vital for a healthy ecosystem.)
c) Housing and industry would otherwise occur on the land and ruin the landscape (this is not the most likely outcome and in fact freeing up this land could have huge benefits for reforesting Scotland, rewilding the landscape and improving the ecotourism industry)
What Can You Do About It?
There are several ways that you can help.
As always, you can email your MP to express your concerns.
In addition, there have been numerous petitions to ban driven grouse shooting, the 2016 one reaching over 123, 000 signatures. Here’s a current one to ban it on Yorkshire Water -owned moorland.
A thunderclap has been set up by Findlay Wilde to spread the message and highlight public opposition – unfortunately this has now ended but on a positive note it reached over 8 million people -an incredible achievement. Keep an eye out for future thunderclaps.
Similarly it is now to late to attend this year’s Hen Harrier Day (on the ‘Glorious’ 12th of August that marks the start of the shooting season) to show support for the cause, but it is never to late to spread the message! Use social media to help spread the word.
A fantastic book that explains the issue in detail and the progress that has been made in combating the practice.
A very active blog by the author of the above book delving into the issue in detail and keeping up to date with all news.