ECOS 39(6): The people’s polemic for wildlife: A divisive and shouty manifesto

ECOS 39(6)

The People’s Manifesto for Wildlife fronted by Chris Packham seeks to divide people on topics like game management, to shake salt into already sore wounds, or pour petrol on fires that are already raging.

A campaign march or a stroll in the park?

Gaining political support for a campaign is hard work and expensive, which is presumably why the organisers decided to depend on the popularity of a TV celebrity to replace grassroots understanding and trust. What they have presented is a series of personal rants accompanied by a list of top-down proposals to be imposed on an unsuspecting public. The march that was intended to give this manifesto a triumphant launch turned into a gentle ramble through central London. A few people I know attended and met up with their friends which was nice, but the media stayed away and the image of Chris Packham on a podium, with clenched fist raised like Martin Luther King, had to be close-cropped as presumably the gathering was a bit sparse.

An inclusive agenda?

The text seems written for the edification of an elite cadre, designed carefully to exclude anyone who might dissent. Throughout this polemic the first person plural is used; but who is meant by ‘we’? This is never defined but the contents reveal that several types of people are definitely excluded: most farmers, anyone who hunts anything, anyone who is ‘corporate’, anyone who works for a Non-Departmental Public Body such as the Forestry Commission, … the list goes on. Despite Chris Packham’s promise to “let bygones be bygones” and to put his ego back in the box as he stands shoulder to shoulder with Everyman, he and his fellow editors and authors cannot resist cheer-leading the baying crowd as they go out of their way to alienate a broad range of key people and organisations.

Packham et al assert that there is a “war on wildlife” and that “we” must martial our forces against the “shifting baseline syndrome” and its evil perpetrators the NFU, agri-businesses, poachers and bat persecutors. This manifesto is a call to arms that relies on the amoral premise that the end justifies the means.

Image: Richard Allen richardallenillustrator.com

No sense of proportion on game management

I was asked to focus my review on the Manifesto’s coverage on game issues. I do not disagree with much of what is identified as problematic in game management, but game shooting is not a wildlife crime. In fact, much of what goes on in the name of game management is environmentally and socially positive to some extent: improved woodland management that benefits invertebrates, higher crop diversity that benefits species such as brown hare and (as my own research showed) the provision of organised outdoor recreational opportunity that is peculiarly accessible. Where it fails to be so is at the more intensive end of the sector. As soon as you intensify any land management activity, you tend to lose the benefits that a more holistic, comprehensive approach can bring and run the risk of causing long-term harm. For example, restoring coppice regimes to ancient woodlands where there is a high diversity of lichens can be catastrophic for that group, or cutting reed beds for thatch thereby halting seral change to a more diverse reed fen or carr community. As you intensify your game management, you run into some serious environmental issues that are poorly understood by game managers, such as localised impact on ground flora around release pens and changes in species composition along hedgerows. There is a massive difference in the environmental impact of releasing 1,000 pheasants from four carefully sited pens and releasing 100,000 pheasants from four enormous fenced areas.

I would describe the main issues in game management as such:

  • The biomass of the annual release of game birds and the disruption it causes in food chains;

  • The effect of the feeding and the fact that only about 40% of it is consumed by game birds, the rest by non-target species such as rats, mice and grey squirrels;

  • An increase in predator populations as a result of large game bird releases that could negatively impact ground nesting bird populations;

  • Naturally-occurring winter bird food such as seeds and berries may be depleted by pheasants; and

  • Direct predation by game birds on amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates.

All of which raises interesting questions, but there has been very little actual research done on any of it. These issues are complex, have no simple answers and simply banning all shooting will certainly not resolve them. To present these issues as if they have simple answers is deeply disingenuous.

As a long-term critic of game management practices in Britain, I regard the proposals in The Manifesto as disproportionate, impractical and unnecessarily divisive: the authors have gone for the man, not the ball. There are much better, more cost-effective, ways of regulating the environmentally negative excesses of game shooting and fishing through existing processes: the planning and tax systems for instance. Packham et al propose large amounts of government spending, wielding an extremely expensive sledgehammer to crack a pretty simple nut:

* Funding programmes to subsidise salmon farming even more than it is now;

* New “Big Brother” processes for reporting and recording legal activity thereby removing the right to privacy for certain people who are disliked by the authors;

* Regulation and enforcement of hare culling, licensing of land ownership; and

* New primary legislation to resolve minor legal matters such as biocide use, rather than using existing legislative frameworks such as the Control of Pesticides Regulations for which the Health & Safety Executive is the regulator (or are we to believe that HSE are also part of the great agri-business / government / corporate conspiracy?).

The authors, considering their experience, should really understand what these measures mean in practical terms. This level of operational public spending is a thing of the past in big important departments, let alone minor departments like Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or Communities and Local Government.

A free pass for fishing

Where is fishing in all this? Why is it that there are no concerns about the welfare of stocked fish, the impact of fish stocking in rivers and still waters, the impacts of fishery management on riverine and lacustrine habitats, the denudation of littoral and riparian habitats around managed fisheries, or the practice of ‘feeding the river’ that is so clearly an offence under the Water Act? Has fishing been left out of the manifesto because the authors are ignorant, or are they frightened of the backlash from a far more numerous and popular constituency than would ever go grouse shooting?

The misconnect of animal welfare

How has animal welfare (and a pretty extreme version of it at that) worked its way into a document about nature conservation? There are two possible answers to this. First, I have got this whole thing the wrong way round and the manifesto is just another anti-hunting and anti-shooting polemic

that uses the context of nature conservation as a vehicle to gain credence. The conflation of extreme animal rights activism with the science and application of nature conservation does wildlife conservation nothing but harm, but it gives the extremists’ cause a veneer of authenticity.

Or, this was the price that had to be paid to gain publicity. Wildlife crime is a popular theme with the media: one of the few types of wildlife stories that gets regular attention in national and regional press. Chris Packham is particularly fond of this hobby-horse as is well known so I don’t expect that he would have lent his support and name to this manifesto if it had just been about habitats and species and the mundane business of trying to slow the juggernaut of extinction.

There are serious animal welfare concerns in many areas of nature conservation and the actions we take as conservation managers. The solutions we find are often controversial and always difficult. There are also times when there is an aspect of conservation concern to an animal welfare challenge. However, getting these things so confused that you think they are the same thing brings nothing but polarisation and inertia.

The data delusion

Lastly, the manifesto is riddled with facts and figures in an effort to make it look proper and robust. In certain sections the figures seemed to be conjured from thin air. For instance, the cost of the badger cull has been more than doubled but no justification is given for using that multiplier. The numbers of game birds released into the countryside each year is a “ballpark working estimate” or in other words a complete guess. I’ve got a pretty good idea of what the numbers are and the trends in those numbers, and they are not way off with pheasants although the numbers quoted for red-legged partridges are ridiculous (which is probably why there is no reference for it). If you don’t know, say you don’t know. If you have no idea who to ask, then ask yourself if you are the right person to be contributing to this document.

 

DAVID BLAKE

David Blake works for Landmarc Support Services as a rural adviser in South West England (although not speaking for Landmarc in this case), he blogs at wessex wildlife and takes the occasional photograph.

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