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News for June 2000, Birds and Country Sports

Bird On! News
5th June 2000

David Tomlinson

Few birdwatchers ever consider the connection between country sports (such as shooting and hunting) and birds, and judging by the correspondence columns of the various birdwatching magazines many would like to see country sports banned. However, I doubt whether those who want to see hunting or shooting outlawed have thought the subject through with any care. Intensive farming threatens the survival of many of our birds here in Britain, for farms that are used simply as food factories support little in the way of wildlife. In contrast, on farms where shooting or hunting takes place, there is invariably much more in the way of cover and habitat for both birds and animals.

I both shoot and hunt, and am also a passionately committed birdwatcher, yet see no contradiction between my various interests. Thus I was delighted to read in Chris Mead's excellent new book, The State of the Nations' Birds (12.99 from Jacobi Jayne on 0800-072-0130), a fascinating discussion on country pursuits.

Chris (best known as the British Trust for Ornithology's spokesman for many years) writes that "to many people the idea that charging across country on horseback chasing foxes, or shooting pheasants, might be important ecological factors actually helping bird populations seems bizarre. Indeed one of the species under severe threat is the grey partridge and yet the birds are doing best in areas where they are shot. The reason is very simple and, when you think about it, quite obvious. Farmers control the land for farming and they may think of this as just their objective. However, many of them have other aims more or less in view. These may be to do with nature conservation or landscape, but, over a very large area, they are to do with country sports. The features that are needed for good hunting, for pheasants and partridges, for hares and other ground game are also features that assist birds and insects. They are there for the benefit of all the wildlife on the farm but they would often not be there without the sporting interest."

However, hunting is currently under heavy attack, though the reasons are based more on politics and class warfare than anything to do with animal welfare. This month, the findings of Lord Burns's inquiry into the implications of a possible ban on hunting with dogs will be published. At the time of writing there have been no indications of what Lord Burns has concluded, but there is no doubt that if hunting is banned it will be a major blow to Britain's birdlife.

Country sports is just one of many topics discussed in Chris Mead's book; the bulk of the text is a species-by-species account of how Britain's bird are faring. A variety of symbols are used so that you can tell at a glance whether a bird is doing well, or declining, while each major account concludes with an italicised synopsis of that bird's prospects. Thus for stone curlew we read "prospects excellent whilst the money to look after them is forthcoming" while for willow tit "the dull black cap of the willow tit recalls the black cap of a judge pronouncing the death sentence - it can't be true, can it?" Willow tits are undergoing an unexplained decline throughout much of their range in Britain. Once quite common in my parish, it is now some months since I last saw one.

Chris concludes his book with a list of the 20th century's Top Ten winners, and the Bottom Ten losers. Enjoying No 1 slot in the first list is the red kite. We are reminded that in the 1930s just one breeding female remained in the UK, but we now have 300 pairs, with a forecast of 2,500 by 2010. As the No 1 loser Chris has selected the red-backed shrike. This handsome migrant was common over much of England and Wales a century ago but is now all but extinct in the UK.

Ironically, I have just returned from a birdwatching trip to Hungary and Slovakia, where red kites have declined and are exceedingly rare (I didn't see one), but where red-backed shrikes are still very common (I saw lots of them). Nobody has come up with a satisfactory reason why these shrikes have declined on the western edge of their range, but it is encouraging to know that they are still so common to the east.

Perhaps surprisingly, the corncrake doesn't feature in the Bottom Ten, though it is one of our most endangered birds. Here in Britain the only viable breeding population is in the Outer Hebrides. We do know why the corncrake has declined, for it is unable to cope with modern farming practices such as mechanised hay cutting or (even worse) silage making. Yet in Slovakia, where the farming remains old-fashioned and unsubsidised by the CAP, corncrakes still utter their strange, rasping call from damp pastures and hay fields. I heard several but, despite trying hard, failed to see a single one, for no bird is more secretive.

On the day I flew to Hungary, The Times published an extraordinary article on corncrakes by Ian Mitchell. In it he criticised the Royal Society for the Protection of Bird's attempts to help corncrakes in the Hebrides, accusing the Society of using the corncrake as a money-making ploy. It was evident from the tone of the piece that Mr Mitchell wasn't interested in corncrakes, either, but he clearly hates the RSPB. Quite why the paper's editor thought the article worth publishing must be a mystery, but it was good to see Derwent May write a follow-up piece defending the RSPB and its corncrake policies.

Like all large and successful charities the RSPB has its fair share of critics. Some of the criticisms aimed at it are fair, but on the whole the RSPB does a huge amount for Britain's birds and wildlife, which would be a lot worse off without it. The fact that the RSPB has more paid-up members (1 million) than any of our political parties speaks for itself. I believe that anyone with an interest in birds should be a member.

There are times when the RSPB does seem to be too scientific, or too politically correct, in its attitude. A classic example was the Society reluctance to control predators on its 30,000-acre Abernethy estate in the Scottish Highlands, despite declining numbers of capercaillie. The capercaillie is the world's largest species of grouse, with mature cocks the size of a turkey. They have been declining fast for several years and clearly need all the help they can get. Now, not before time, the RSPB has decided to start controlling certain predators at Abernethy once again. This is not only good news for the capercaillie but also for the RSPB's image in Scotland.

Though many people find it difficult to accept, we live in a largely man-made environment in Britain, and to keep the balance right (or to create maximum biodiversity) we do have to manage and manipulate the environment. Birdwatchers visit Abernethy to see capercaillie, not hooded crows and foxes. There now seems little doubt that if the capers are to thrive, then the latter will have to be controlled.

According to a recent press release from the BTO, the crow family is the one group of birds that is thriving in Britain today. Jackdaws have enjoyed a threefold increase over 30 years, while numbers jumped by 20% between 1998 and 1999. Magpies underwent a major increase from the late 1960s until 1990, since when numbers seem to have stabilised. Carrion crows have "increased consistently and quickly over the last 30 years, and by 12% last year".

These population figures all come from the BTO's long running Common Birds Census, which monitors breeding numbers of common birds in Britain. The BTO attributes the crows' success to their intelligence and resourcefulness - the carrion crow, for example, is a scavenger "that is ideally suited to exploiting the bodies of dead animals killed on the roads". Though the BTO states that magpies are often blamed for declines in small birds, its research "suggests that there is no such link". However, no one has yet completed a serious study of magpie predation in suburban gardens, where the impact of marauding magpies is likely to be most noticeable.


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