Shooting for conservation: Does it help ?
In both the press and social media, there has been substantial feather ruffling and outrage about the large-scale shooting taking place on moorlands around Scotland. The aim, I imagine, is to prevent game animals such as grouse from being hunted by prey animals or, as I’m sure the gamekeepers would label them, pests. Some authors on the wildlife articles blog appeared in disagreement, some stating the shooting is entirely unneeded, while the other side pointed out the requirements for keeping the sport of hunting grouse profitable. While I tend to agree with both aspects, I think the premise of hunting for conservation is totally thoughtless. I shall explain my reasons for cases when it is advisable and when it isn’t.
To me removing an invasive species or even a native that is out on control never really succeeds with greatest results. I spoke recently with an ecologist who told me that she had removed large invasive fresh water crayfish with nets for a whole year. Her intentions were to remove the larger breeding sized crayfish so they couldn’t breed and reproduce, allowing the native one to gain back territory. A sound method right? Wrong. After speaking to another ecologist she realised she should just leave the river as it is and her actions were doing more damage than good. You may ask surely taking them away is good? But counter intuitively it doesn’t help. The larger crayfish predate on their own young and the young of others keeping numbers down. When you remove the larger crayfish there is nothing eating the larvae. Thus removing the large animal’s means that the larvae now have a whole ecosystem with zero competition, the resulting outcome is an explosion of numbers. Now, she said, she does nothing and monitors them only because attempting to control them herself only makes things worse.
Time for guns?
The example above obviously has no need for guns; it was an example from personal experience; however a more contentious issue does. Badgers. Another persecuted animal with various shootings taking place across the country to control numbers. However, I feel it is completely useless. The same principle of the crayfish applies. If you remove one badger set by organised shooting and/or poisoning it only removes that one badger set, creating a large void, effectively sending a leaflet to neighbouring badger families inviting them to move in. The only outcome for this particular badger set would be to reproduce and diversify faster because of a lack of competition.
Grey squirrels are another species in the firing line. They are taking full control of the entire country away from our more native and smaller red squirrels. I again feel disillusioned to the concept of shooting some tiny rodents. Using simple logic it is clear that shooting a few would only result in more habitats for other grey squirrels. Unless there is removal of the entire population instantly the idea just doesn’t add up. The only way I see to control badgers and grey squirrels is a naturally approach through rewilding but the length of time that could take to carry out, makes it implausible.
Time for change?
Now turning to the original discussion of the heathland. There managed for grouse and smaller heathland birds, which on the outset sounds good. However, the shooting and persecution of stouts, raptors, etc. simply because they eat grouse that we humans want to shoot is pathetic. I totally agree with James, that conservationists and game keepers do need to work together, but I think that these activities are actions of the past. Fox hunting, badger baiting and other barbaric acts no longer sit in our society. The grouse moorlands therefore are a museum piece holding on to memories of the past. To illegally remove raptors to support this seems like a lot of effort. How many grouse or wild fowl can they physically capture and eat? I can understand to a degree why stouts need controlling, as they eat the eggs of many ground dwelling birds, but I’m sure the raptors would love to sink there talons into a stout or two. If they worked with conservationists as James suggest I think they would maintain a much healthier ecosystem. Yes, from the perspective of the game keeper they want money and money only, some may have more ethics, but overall profit is key. However to remove all predators cannot be a good thing and must also be costly. The buzzards and hawks would pick off the weakest animals, increasing the overall health of the wild fowl. This would then keep us, conservationists and the keepers themselves, happy with more healthy wild fowl for game shooting and a variety of birds of prey for us to see.
I am coming into this discussion as an outsider because I don’t live near or have the heathland persecution directly affect me. However shooting for conservation is taking place across the entire nation. I have tried to highlight some, like the badgers, but also examples where simple removing invasive species by hand simply has no benefits. Simply managing a particular 10km x10km area for one particular species is impracticable. Heathland areas cannot be managed for one bird; wildlife doesn’t have boundaries or barriers. If we as humans put up invisible barriers and kill anything within it that affects our profit it will result in the complete destruction of falcons, buzzards and other birds of prey as they will stray into new terrain. This is obviously something we don’t want.
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