(Still) shooting itself in the foot…….. (Part 2)

Firstly if you’re a landscape or wildlife photographer wanting to hear my opinions on the latest piece of kit or technique – my apologies. I’ll get back to photography in due course. But the first part of this post (see here) has proven to have been read by far more people than anything else I have written in the past eight years, and I have a couple of updates.

Firstly, a comment on my piece from Tony Johnstone went like this:

Wild Justice did not win their case at all, this is false news put out by a failed attempt to stop Game Shooting. DEFRA issued an open licence with regard to EU SSI’s and all other UK SSI’s are already covered by existing UK laws. Please get your facts right.

I didn’t suggest that Wild Justice “won their case” but nevertheless Tony Johnstone did have a point. The case did not get as far as court because prior to the hearing DEFRA agreed that gamebird shooting should be subject to licensing (in England, inside and within 500 metres of a site protected by European law). I realised that I needed to understand more about gamebird shooting and the law. In particular I needed to know what “open licences” were, or “general licences” as they are actually called.

A general licence is deemed to be held by anyone, providing certain conditions are met, without needing an application to be made. A general licence is required to control agricultural pests such as crows and woodpigeons, plus introduced species like canada geese; or to protect endangered wildlife species or human or animal health. Please note, however, that this is a very condensed version of the situation and I Am Not A Lawyer. For more complete details see the Guns on Pegs website.

DEFRA is making general licences available for the 2021 -2022 shooting season as a temporary measure. More research will take place meanwhile on the actual impacts of gamebird releases on the environment. When that has been completed, decisons will be made on what new conditions to impose on the gamebird shooting industry. Wild Justice have a list of actions they expect to be considered in setting up a new licensing scheme. Whether they “won their case” or not depends on how many of these ultimately turn out to be included. For more information see this post.

The second thing I’d like to mention here is this: on November 12th I walked up the Llyfnant valley to observe the shoot that was taking place on that day. I kept a very low profile, carefully using public rights of way (where they weren’t blocked) and open access land. I left my van at the end of the public road adjacent to the entrance to Cwmrhaiadr. When I returned I found that two of my tyres had been slashed.

NB 1: Guns on Pegs is a shooting website but their summary of the situation is far more straightforward than, for example, the BAS(C) website, with all its spin and prejudice.

NB 2: Following the DEFRA decision, which is only valid in England, the Welsh Government is opening a consultation on the subject of gamebird shooting.

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(Still) shooting itself in the foot……..

The Upper Llyfnant valley (with newly bulldozed tracks)

Living in west Wales as I do the issue of gamebird shooting has rarely raised its unpleasant head. I knew there was a shoot on the Dyfi estuary but it didn’t really seem like a problem. That all changed in a big way over the summer.

Cwmrhaiadr had been farmed in a fairly wildlife-friendly way for decades, is much loved by local people, and is stunningly beautiful. It consists mainly of the Upper Llyfnant valley, which runs north-south along the Ceredigion / Powys boundary, a few miles from Machynlleth. The river then swings westwards and flows into the Dyfi estuary. It is short but sweet. At the head of the valley is Pistyll-y-llyn (“waterfall of the lake”), down which the infant Llyfnant plunges from the Cambrian Mountain plateau into the lowlands. The farm was purchased by a businessman from Essex, who sold the shooting rights to a Shropshire-based company, and began turning the valley into a commercial game-bird shoot. New roads were bulldozed throughout. It was lockdown so few people knew what was going on.

The valley has been renamed “Dyfi Falls”. The cost of a day’s shooting? A staggering £2640 (+ VAT).

The moorland at the head of the valley is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI); this includes the cliffs and steep hillsides at the head and upper reaches of the valley. Another SSSI lies a few miles downstream. It is deciduous woodland, a remnant of the “temperate rainforest”; rich in lichens, bryophytes and invertebrates. It would be susceptible to changes in the quality of the water running through it, and the air surrounding it..

In their early publicity the shoot company (Cambrian Birds) boasted about releasing 40,000 birds or more (pheasants and red-legged partridges) into the valley. Imagine that! Although this figure seems to have disappeared from their website they have never denied it. Certainly if you walk there (or anywhere within a few miles) you are continually tripping over pheasants, and I saw flocks of partridges totalling at least fifteen hundred birds. The shooting industry itself has estimated that only 35% (on average) of released birds are actually shot. At Cwmyrhaiadr that leaves 26,000 to die of starvation, predation, disease, parasites or being run over by cars. And of the estimated 57 million released annually in the UK – yes, you did read that correctly – 37 million will die similarly unfortunate deaths. One may view the shooting of birds for pleasure as unpleasant but these figures show that in every way the industry has a callous disregard for living creatures.

Now, regarding the SSSI. It is quite clear to anyone visiting the valley that the gamekeeper (under orders, no doubt) has placed most of the feeding hoppers as close as possible to the SSSI boundary. A trail of feed has illegally been laid – inside the SSSI – along the footpath from the valley bottom to the top of the waterfall. Cambrian Birds’ publicity states –

“The steep sided valleys will allow us to present high-flying birds flying straight back to their home at the centre of the estate”

And on their social media pages they excitedly tell us –

“Can’t wait to see these [pheasants] flying off the tops of those hills!”

The trouble is, those hills are the SSSI and (supposedly) protected from the release of non-native birds. Cambrian Birds may be (largely) respecting the letter of the law but certainly not the spirit. Or as one planning officer I spoke to put it:

They are very good at pushing the boundaries“.

For many years the RSPB has been equivocal about gamebird shooting. It accepted that in agricultural lowland Britain woodland was retained for the rearing and release of gamebirds. This provided habitat for many other species of wildlife and would otherwise probably have been felled to increase agricultural production. However the Society now recognises that the nature of gamebird shooting has changed, saying in a recent report –

there are substantial negative environmental consequences from the industrialised form of this shooting, including the direct and indirect impacts that released birds can have on other wildlife. ” 

It has now told the industry that if it does not put its house in order within 18 months – reducing the quantity of birds released, for example – it will call for statutory regulation of gamebird shooting. The RSPB is a powerful organisation and this may bear some fruit. But we should also remember that the landowning class has its own political party which is currently in power with a very large majority.

Meanwhile the pressure group Wild Justice is pursuing a legal case against the government in the High Court, arguing that it is failing in its duty to protect native species in the UK from the excesses of the shooting industry. . The industrial quantities of non-native birds released into the countryside amount to “a very serious ecological assault” upon it, Wild Justice says. The biomass of pheasants and red-legged partridges released every year “exceeds that of all native UK birds put together“, it adds. The Court case will be heard in early November.

What of the shooting industry itself? The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) portrays itself as the voice of the reason in the debate. It has a series of “guidelines” for the industry, for example, and a “policy” of zero tolerance over the killing of birds of prey. As for the RSPB’s new position on gamebird shooting, the BASC says –

 if the RSPB really wants to regain some good will and positive influence with the shooting world, they would do well to start formally recognising and celebrating where and how things are going right.”

The problem is that this has been the RSPB’s position for many years already. Self-regulation has failed to keep the shooting fraternity in check. Raptors continue to be killed on shooting estates, for example, and many believe that the industry is completely out of control. Hence the RSPB’s change of heart. So will the shooting industry begin to mend their ways? If the example of Cwmrhaiadr is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding “no”.

Edit: Prior to the Wild Justice case reaching Court DEFRA has agreed that pheasant and partridge releases should be subject to licensing. However, at present this only seems to refer to wildlife sites designated under European legislation (ie SPA’s and SAC’s). How it relates to SSSI’s and the wider countryside is not clear. And the statement may not relate to Wales, either, which has its own rules and regulations.

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