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Have the charity conservation sector given up on waders?


We are not given to hysteria. We generally leave the shroud-waving to the likes of the RSPB. They have the resources to do it at scale. We, and our moorland worker friends, are too busy doing real conservation to run around looking for people to blame for the absence of storks or unicorns or whatever the latest fundraising fad is.

 

Unfortunately, we feel the need to break this habit to point out something beyond serious.

 

We believe the conservation industry has decided that ground-nesting birds in general, and waders in particular, are a lost cause. We believe these birds are being quietly abandoned to their fate as unfortunate collateral damage to bigger strategic imperatives.

 

The first problem is one of success. But it is a success the conservation industry actively detests: that of well-managed grouse moors and their ability to produce lots of fledged wader chicks. This does not please the RSPB, but they have always known the advantages of grouse moor management over the alternatives.


 

That is why the RSPB was involved in the Langholm Project, intended to find a way for a good population of hen harriers to share a moor with driven grouse shooting. Obviously the RSPB would not have been involved had it not recognised the environmental, economic, societal and cultural advantages of grouse moor management. The data shows that one of those advantages was the success of all ground nesting birds and in particular waders.

 

Even some antis will admit that grouse moors and their hinterlands, which benefit from keepering, can consistently produce fledged wader chicks at levels exceeding replacement rates and across huge landscapes. They don't like it though. Chris Packham, when forced to admit that grouse moors outperform the conservation industry in curlew chick fledging, dismissed it as contemptible 'curlew farming'.

 

Adding to that the fact some regulators have started suggesting wader numbers on grouse moors may be 'artificially inflated' and might reasonably be allowed to 'stabilise at a lower level' it begins to look as if they don't like to be shown to be massively outperformed by grouse moors.

 


The difference is both large and critical. Grouse moor keepers often produce four times the number of chicks as wildlife reserves. Indeed the alternative is so bad that when the RSPB did research at six English upland sites, two where they did habitat management, two where they did what they call predator control, and two where they did nothing, the sites where they did nothing outperformed all the rest. In other words, if you are a curlew your eggs are more likely to hatch if the RSPB don't try to help.

 

The conservation industry has very low expectations when it comes to curlews. A multi-million-pound project funded by the EU intended to conserve curlew at five of the RSPB's best curlew sites had as its target that the numbers of breeding birds would not decrease as a result of RSPB spending millions.

 

So what are the grounds for saying that waders are doomed if things don't change and that the conservation industry is in large part prepared to watch it happen?

 

The first, relatively minor indication is that they know grouse moors and effective keepering are vital to keeping vibrant wader populations at scale. Yet they still seek to hamstring shooting estates by acquiescing to the removal of one essential predator control tool after another.

 

They know that humane cable restraints (HRC) and dogs are essential to fox control in wide, open upland landscapes. The Burns Inquiry recognised how difficult it is to shoot foxes in such landscapes.Yet when the use of these essential tools is threatened,  many in the conservation industry merely look the other way or say they don't feel that they can use them. As a result, HRCs are now lost in both Wales and Scotland. What a pity that the RSPB did not tell the Scottish government that most of the foxes caught during its Langholm Project were done so by a less sophisticated precursor of the HRC and that it suggested more than once the keepers were not catching enough.

 

But that is a minor matter compared to the greatest indication of their complicity. Silence. Pure, unadulterated silence.

 

They know perfectly well that the current madness of covering prime wader habitat with trees or allowing short vegetation to turn into scrub will result in the wholesale loss of wader populations. They know because it has happened over and over again. They know what is happening all over Upland Scotland will result in one local extinction of breeding waders after another.  

 

When Kielder Forest was planted it was a catastrophe for upland birds. For a few years there was a boost in numbers of some species: short eared owls and hen harriers prospered briefly thanks to a temporary increase in vole numbers, and black grouse often do well in young plantations. But these few good things came to an abrupt end when, after 15 years or so, the forest canopy closed.

 

This saw the finale of the extinction of an entire ecosystem which, having survived since time out of mind, was wiped out in a decade and a half. The losses were almost too great to comprehend: 1750 pairs of curlew, 1200 pairs of golden plover, 200 pairs of dunlin, 25 pairs of merlin, 11,600 pairs of red grouse, all the larks, meadow pipits, ring ousels, and on and on. A similar calculation for the moorland habitat lost to forestry in Galloway put the lost curlew alone at 5000 pairs.

 

 

Along with the birds goes the rare and rich mix of vegetation and invertebrate communities which rely on the heather-dominated moorland with its multiplicity of micro habitats, interlinked, always subtly changing, always different but always the same.

 

This catastrophe is now being repeated all over the Scottish Uplands. It is justified by the need to meet arbitrary targets for tree planting, based on a desire to turn the globally rare and naturally acquired largely treeless landscape into a second-rate version of a habitat that runs virtually unbroken from the west coast of Canada eastward around the Northern Hemisphere to Manchuria.

 

Add to this the craze for anything that can be badged as rewilding. The impact of such schemes ranges from abandoned scrub to full blown forestry depending on the funder. Whatever it is, the only certain outcome is the waders will be lost.

 

It is a clear government strategy, it is supported by the conservation industry and its outcomes are as inevitable as they are well known.

 

The conservation industry is perfectly aware that totemic species, such as curlew, lapwing, redshank, snipe, golden plover and dunlin, will be obliterated as breeding birds across most of their core mainland breeding range. Their silence speaks more clearly than we can.

 

The RSPB, for example, knows perfectly well what is happening and they appear to have no intention of saying anything, or doing anything to stop it. They will not upset what, in Scotland, has been a compliant government providing them with funds and, at least as far as grouse moors are concerned, happy to do their bidding.

 

Nor will they risk appearing off trend by saying anything critical about rewilding or carbon or planting trees on landscapes that have been naturally treeless for millennia, and they sure as hell won't say anything about effective legal predator control being an essential element of wader conservation.

 

That is the root of it. Organisations like the RSPB know predator control is essential but appear to be prepared to see these birds slide towards extinction rather than have the courage to do and say what they know to be right. If you want evidence, just listen to their silence.


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