The UK landmass extends to 93,600 square miles (24.3 million hectares). Approximately 69% of this land is used for agriculture although the UK produces less than 60% of the food the population eats. A report written in 2014 by the Public and Corporate Economic Consultants (PACEC), commissioned by 17 shooting and countryside organisations, identified that management of some 14 million hectares of land is the responsibility of shooting providers.
Active management by shoot organisations occurs on almost 2 million hectares of this land which equates to 12% of the UK’s rural land. Additionally, the forestry commission manages 0.86 million hectares of woodland from a total UK woodland coverage area of 3.19 million hectares. As can be seen therefore, the areas of land that are likely to be actively managed from a conservation view point is significant. At the end of the day shooting is conservation.
The PACEC report states that shooting providers within the UK spend nearly £250 million on conservation work with a deal of this being implemented solely for the sake of conservation. The RSPB by comparison own and manage in the region of 159 ,000 hectares of land and spent approximately £34 million on conservation in 2018.
The composition of the UK’s wildlife has evolved over hundreds of years. Whilst blame can be allocated to historic cultures and events, we live in the present and not the past. That’s not to say that efforts to renew sustainable populations of species that have significantly reduced in number, or disappeared completely, from the UK countryside should not be undertaken. However, it’s essential that the species that are supported and re-introduced are ones that can naturally exist in the current environments as well as co-existing with man. Re-wilding is an admirable ambition but the environment that exists in the UK today is very different to that of the past so not all species that can be re-introduced will likely prevail if they are. Whilst human – wildlife interaction can be legislated for it doesn’t mean it will always be achievable as changing the attitudes of people is often an impossible task.
Dealing with the current situation, from a wild game perspective, the UK is well provided for with regards deer, wildfowl, game birds, pigeon, rabbits and hare to name a few. Additionally, species that can be termed pests in certain locations, include foxes, corvids (crows, jays, magpies) and badgers which are equally quite strong in number. To the contrary, badgers, whilst protected, are not an at-risk species in the UK.
This isn’t to say that some species’ populations haven’t declined in recent years and that positive activities to protect a regrowth in these populations doesn’t have to be undertaken. They have and work needs to be done to see them grow once again especially with regard to some wildfowl species and hares. Interestingly, whilst re-wilding is a key conservation technique today, the RSPB give no conservation status to bird species that are not native to the UK. This seems slightly odd, and selective, if we consider it from a wildlife welfare perspective!
Other species of animal and insect are unfortunately often overlooked by the general public. For example, the UK honey bee population has dwindled by a third in the last decade. Worse still, that’s a good number compared to the rest of the world where the decline has been much worse. Whilst the honeybee is small, its importance to humankind is not. It is claimed that Einstein once said “if all the honeybees disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live”. True or not it’s a sobering thought.
The responsibility for conservation in the UK lies with all of us. However, the official government body charged with its management is the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). DEFRA in turn sponsor Natural England which is an executive non-departmental public body responsible for advising the government on the UK’s natural environment. DEFRAs annual budget is circa £3 billion. This funding however is for all areas under the Department’s responsibility. Farming and marine fisheries therefore take a significant percentage of the budget. In 2016/17 UK public sector funding spent £445 million on UK biodiversity which equates to 0.02% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In the same period NGOs, with a focus on biodiversity and conservation, spent £234 million but how this was allocated and whether it was all spent on projects within the UK is unknown.
Why the focus on number? Well, essentially bio-diversity and conservation are tightly aligned with funding and cost. As an outfitter operating in Africa once said “if it pays it stays” meaning that animals need to be able to pay their way to exist, i.e. have a value. This isn’t to say that animals are only viewed as a commercial revenue generator but it does mean having a commercial value leads to protection of a valuable resource. Whilst this is very sad and an indictment of the world in which we live today it shows that organisations which can generate significant funding such as those within the hunting, shooting and fishing fraternity, may well be the best protection and conservation measure wild animals have. Does the means justify the end? When you are out of options then maybe it has to.