Conservation at Work

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We know how to protect our much-loved ground-nesting birds – just let us get on with it!

3rd April 2024

What does ‘boosting biodiversity’ actually mean?

The question is important because it underpins government policy, funding, regulation and priority actions, via Defra and Natural England, and plays a major part in the prevailing attitude to gamekeepers and landowners in the uplands.

Put simply, it means ensuring that native species in the UK survive and thrive.

Even more simply, it means that society wants to ensure that rare, upland-specialist species (like curlew, short-eared owl and merlin) can breed successfully and not just vast quantities of species like gulls and crows, which are already common in the lowlands.

In the uplands, gamekeepers’ work to help encourage wild red grouse provides an extraordinary boost to other rare ground-nesting birds, such as curlew, lapwing, snipe, dunlin, golden plover, black grouse and merlin.

Habitat conservation, controlled burning and predator control are three of the main conservation actions that support successful breeding by vulnerable ground-nesting birds.

Of these, predator control is the most important, as reported in numerous scientific papers (here and here).

The GWCT has documented an average three-fold increase in the breeding success of lapwing, golden plover, curlew, red grouse and meadow pipit where there is predator control in place.

Most conservationists privately agree that without control of key predators, such as foxes and crows, it is nigh on impossible to achieve a recovery in many ground nesting bird populations.

Dr Barry McMahon of University College Dublin concluded in 2020 that: “Current legislation is clearly insufficient to prevent widespread declines in ground-nesting birds, and this is the case across Europe, in Britain and Ireland. Ignoring the role of generalist predators in modern landscapes may lead to further declines and losses.”

Grouse moors, with their high quality natural habitat and predator control, have always provided a stronghold for rare species that are in decline elsewhere.

We know how to protect ground-nesting birds and thereby boost biodiversity, but time and again we face opposition from bodies such as Natural England which fail to recognise the fundamental importance of action to control abundant predators in order to boost our native biodiversity. It may come as surprise to some that Natural England does not actually have a policy on predator control.

In the Forest of Bowland, land managers watch helplessly as vast numbers of lesser black-backed gulls take the eggs and chicks of rare and red-listed species such as lapwing, curlew and oystercatcher. Government policy has not kept pace with the vast expansion in gull populations in our uplands now that many landfill sites have been closed.

Interestingly, back in 2017, the RSPB published the results of its seven-year study of wading birds on the Norfolk Broads, which found that, while historically habitat loss had been considered the most serious problem, more recently it was not habitat loss, but the increasing number of predators that kept wader populations at a low level, even in places where there was conservation action in place.

The study, led by Dr Jennifer Smart, pointed to increasing numbers of foxes having an impact on species such as curlew, lapwing and redshank, and also mentioned the ‘conservation success story’ that is the increasing number of birds of prey.

Although we don’t hear this kind of endorsement from RSPB regularly, these are points with which most of us will certainly agree.




Did You Know?

75% of Europe’s remaining upland heather moorland is found in the UK – but this area declined alarmingly over the latter part of the last century. The Moorland Association was set up in 1986 to coordinate the efforts of moorland owners and managers to halt this loss, particularly in England and Wales.

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