The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s chief executive, Teresa Dent, explains how she came to the role and why the organisation’s scientific research is key to protecting both shooting and the environment

The GWCT is headquartered just outside the charming Georgian town of Fordingbridge, untouched by Starbucks or Costa. Once this backwater might have been appropriate for the GWCT but today the organisation finds itself deep in the mid-current of conservation and environment politics. In her 21 years as chief executive, Teresa Dent has kept the organisation right in the swim of the debate. She recalls: “When I took over in 2002 I was delighted to get the job and was made to feel welcome. All the same I was on a big learning curve because, although my degree is in agriculture, the GWCT is all about the most stringent scientific research.”

Dent has loved the countryside and its people since childhood. “I grew up surrounded by fields and the country way of life,” she says. “When it came to choosing my university, I discovered that Reading offered a degree in agriculture and that sounded rather interesting.” While studying Dent did vacation work at Strutt & Parker’s Salisbury office. It was the ideal mix of rural life and business: “They offered me a job after I graduated. Although there were not many women then, I became a partner on the farming side. At Strutt & Parker people were a vital element.

The GWCT is in the swim of debate

“When I joined the GWCT I found that it was the same constituency, and I understood land management and achieving conservation- based environmental outcomes. At the GWCT we focus on the people on the ground who make conservation work.” She fell in love with the job and with her office looking out over the River Avon. “I can look out over what I call ‘my bend in the river’. You can see the kingfishers and the changing seasons. We have water meadows here that we manage. As the river goes through Salisbury, it is a bit of a responsibility to know we have to protect the cathedral.”

While at the GWCT, Dent has found herself plunged into a fierce spate of rural controversy. “The ban on hunting came in soon after I arrived, and with it serious concerns that shooting would quickly follow.” So the existing long-term scientific research at the core of the GWCT took on a sense of urgency. The organisation’s flagship Allerton Project had been going on at Loddington estate in Leicestershire since the 1990s but now additional research was needed on driven shooting release. Dent remembers: “We raised funds and started on an important piece of work about gamebird releasing densities on driven shoots, looking at what would be sustainable.”

Dent found herself plunged into rural controversy

Today this study is well recognised as part of a sensible approach to rural conservation but at the time it was quite daring. “Many people thought we would come up with very low release densities,” says Dent. It could have been a tricky moment for the relationship between the GWCT and the country sports community but the science showed answers that shoots found reasonable. “It was entirely truthful,” stresses Dent.

“The GWCT talks to everyone and it was a great result that everybody responded well to. We published guidelines and they were adopted immediately. It meant that I could go to the relevant government ministers and show them the evidence in action.” This early success confirmed the position of Dent’s GWCT at the heart of the debate. Her work takes her to Fordingbridge but also the organisation’s bases in Scotland and Wales, the English uplands and the long-running Frome fishery study.

Science in action drives the GWCT

Despite the traveling time, Dent finds time to take in the various game fairs, where her smart navy wellies are much admired. “I did the tweed ribbons round the tops myself,” she smiles. “The tweed matches my favourite skirt.” While her ‘in wellies’ work takes her out to meet country people, she is often in London discussing research and contributing to white papers and strategy plans.  Dent is proud of the GWCT position at the centre of rural policymaking. “Lord Curry came to visit the Allerton Project and saw how our research was put into practice on the ground.

Teresa Dent of the GWCT photographed by a river

The GWCT has been in the swim of the debate under Teresa Dent

He said, ‘This is what the outcome of policy should look like.’” Dent points out: “The Government is going to need a lot of help in reaching its targets. The RSPB has said that 8% of the land is managed within nature reserves. It is not possible to reach the targets solely from these areas, so it has to be the 70% of UK land that is managed by farmers and landowners who provide the support to meet them. That means the GWCT role is now really important as the most trusted organisation among farmers.”

Teresa Dent CBE

Fortunately the GWCT initiatives with farmers are already showing positive results. “We invented the idea of ‘farm clusters’: groups of farms working together to improve their land management for nature. Our mission is to use science to inspire the people who own the land to make it a better environment,” she explains. Dent is personally delighted but this science in action is far from a subjective achievement. The numbers provide rock-solid proof. For example, its project at Langholm Moor in Scotland has shown that when grouse moor management was restarted, curlew numbers rose by 10% per year, golden plover by 16% per year and snipe by 21% per year, on average.

If Dent’s GWCT can continue to achieve such evidence at a time when thought-free sentimentality has seized the environmental agenda, then the CBE she was awarded in 2015 should be followed by a damehood. She does worry about a future where farmers are expected to save nature with little support from the government: “I am keen that farms and land managers should be fairly rewarded. So many of the people I work with are dedicated to good environmental outcomes but they are less good at explaining to the outside world what they are doing. We have to tap into their willingness to invest in their own heritage, to do something today that will benefit their grandchildren.” Thankfully, that action is unlikely to be glueing themselves to the nearest bit of infrastructure.

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