According to research published recently in the Journal of Applied Ecology, an RSPB study has found that the number of curlews on open ground is positively buoyed by the presence of a gamekeeper. No real surprise there, but the study goes on to look at the impact of woodland encroachment on hill country, revealing as empirical fact that curlews struggle to breed successfully within a large radius of woodland. In order to combat this and retain populations of wild birds at a constant, gamekeeping pressure needs to be increased where woods are present, since predators favour the trees.
In a world where nothing is “fact” without first being statistically proven (a maddening environment for the amateur naturalist to deal with), it is lovely to see straightforward common sense finally put into a format that professional conservationists actually recognise. In my experience, science has recently become such a self-enclosed deity that the observations of anyone without a degree in ecology are patronisingly branded as “anecdotal” – another brick in the wall to remove the people from the working face of conservation.
It increasingly seems that conservation policy emerges from some disembodied (and usually laughably impractical) megaphone mounted in some obscure university or publication where the only people who will ever see it are equally theoretical and absent from the real world. These policies are pedalled by those with access to government funding, so that they are able to progress from idle daydream to multi-million pound reality without anyone ever subjecting them to logical criticism. When science fails to engage with the people on the ground, whimsical and fantastic theories become the order of the day.
So if woodlands really are hotbeds for predators (and these predators are having an appreciable effect on birds in the surrounding moorland), how on earth can conservation charities and woodland managers justify a total lack of predator control while professing an interest in the conservation of “iconic” species like black grouse?
The Chayne has a five mile boundary, marching (bordering) with eight other properties. Six of these properties are managed for commercial woodland, making the Chayne a pit of open country in an otherwise uniform sea of spruce tops. This new study demonstrates just what harm those plantations have caused to the Chayne during the past forty years. Elsewhere, land adjacent to plantations is deliberately left unmanaged for fear of damaging the woodlands, making habitable countryside turn rank and unviable. All the while, predators emerge from the woods to scour the hillsides.
When the first squeals of concern started to ring out over the extensive afforestation of Dumfries and Galloway three decades ago, people were getting worried about the land that has been planted. 25% of the county is now under softwood plantations, and for these many thousands of acres, an atomic bomb may as well have been dropped upon them. What people didn’t realise at the time is that the very nature of these huge plantations is so noxious that the surrounding moorland has been devastated in precisely the same way, simply by proxy. Unless you like crossbills and goshawks, the only thing worse than planting up your own ground for commercial woodland would be for your neighbour to do it on his.
When windfarms are built in beautiful places at the cost of local wildlife, the local community is now lavished with financial compensation. If there was any justice in the world, commercial woodland would be held accountable for the absurd levels of irreparable damage it wreaks on the local environment, which is incidentally far worse and more damaging than any windfarm. Wouldn’t it be lovely if foresters had to compensate neighbouring landowners for effectively ruining the conservation value of their land? Sadly, when anti-windfarm campaigners kick up a storm about turbines “ruining” the Galloway countryside, they seem to ignore the fact that the Galloway countryside was ruined far more comprehensively by trees forty years ago than any number of turbines can ruin it now.