This is the time of year when guns plan their next season’s sport. If their sporting rights are rented from the National Trust, that process might be tortuous. Thanks to decades of donations from country people, the National Trust is the biggest private landowner in the UK, with holdings estimated at 630,000 acres. Only the Forestry Commission is bigger (for now), with 2,571,270 acres.
The Trust’s relationship with the countryside is ambivalent. Many applaud its protection of the coastline and its custodianship of our great houses. But its attitude towards fieldsports has been less than comfortable. Yes, it supports fishing, but its opposition to hunting was trenchant. No one in the countryside has forgotten the Trust’s decision to ban staghunting at its Holnicote estate on Exmoor in April 1997, against the express written conditions of the donor. This took place even before the election of Tony Blair’s first Labour administration and the eventual hunting ban in 2005. Now there are new fears surfacing over the National Trust’s stance on shooting.
Just before Christmas, two of the three shoots which operated on the Trust’s 13,000-acre Wallington estate, syndicates known as Delf Burn and Catcheside, were told their leases would not be renewed for the new season this autumn. Instead, the Trust will encourage more walking and cycling on the land.
A third syndicate, known as Combo, can shoot next season but the Trust’s officials have already served notice that plans for the estate “will impact on every shoot over time”. Phil Procter, a local government officer, who has been a member of the Delf Burn syndicate for 16 years, said: “People feel really aggrieved, especially as Wallington is the biggest agricultural estate owned by the Trust. They’ve dropped two shoots and there is a possibility the third will go, so there may be no shooting at all in this area. I am a National Trust member and my first thought was to rip up my membership, but now I’ve decided it will be better to fight from within and campaign for a better deal for shooting on Trust land.”
On 1 February the RSPB announced in a press release titled, grandiosely, “Nature’s heavyweights join forces”, that “an historic agreement by the National Trust and the RSPB will see the two charities co-managing a piece of land for the first time. They will manage the Eastern Moors, on the outskirts of Sheffield, which is one of the major gateways to the Peak District National Park, for the next 15 years.”
This alliance did not warm the hearts of those who are sceptical of the RSPB’s track record with ground-nesting birds’ breeding success and suspicious of its attitude towards shooting, which has grown increasingly hostile in recent years, despite its Charter obligation to remain neutral on the subject. Two years ago it announced: “We suggest that DEFRA assesses the merits of introducing a compulsory licensing scheme for all game-shoots – both upland and lowland – in England and Wales. Failure to adhere to agreed standards, including legislation governing the protection of quarry species and birds of prey and use of lead shot, should result in courts having the option to withdraw a shoot’s licence to operate.”
The two charities share a Blairite background. Two former RSPB chief executives were honoured by Labour: Barbara Young sits in the Lords as Baroness Young of Old Scone and her successor, Graham Wynne, is a knight of the realm. Fiona Reynolds, director-general at the Trust, ran Tony Blair’s Women’s Unit in Whitehall and was made a dame. If they both come to share the same cosy attitude towards shooting, the countryside and conservation will be a great deal poorer.
There are 59 leases and 106 licences to shoot on Trust land, and this year one lease and 66 licences are due for renewal. Some shoot tenants are now being confronted with a National Trust policy which states that there is “a presumption against the shooting of reared birds”.
The outcry over the closure of the Delf Burn shoot, rented from the National Trust on the Wallington estate, is still resonating around Morpeth in Northumberland. Shooting at nearby Gibside has also been terminated.
Trust officials are also in talks with a number of families who hold the rights for shooting on its land. These are historic rights retained by descendants of individuals who handed over their properties to the Trust, yet it is Trust policy to acquire these rights wherever possible.
Some suspect that the Trust wants to acquire the shooting rights so the sport can either be stopped completely or curbed. Not so, says Peter Nixon, the Trust’s director of conservation, “We only want control so that we know what’s happening on our land. We want to know who is using firearms on our property, and that all guns and wildlife conservation laws are complied with.”
So why, therefore, does the Trust in its shooting agreements make clear “there may be a presumption against the shooting of reared birds”? Nixon says people should not pay too much attention to the precise words and insists it is a general statement of principle. However, he concedes: “There is a presumption against very intense rearing of birds and shooting on a highly commercial basis. Our general policy is low-key shooting. We are not saying there should be no release of birds, but we don’t want intense commercial activity. We want flexibility so we can address local circumstances and that decisions are made on a local basis.”
Nixon is adamant there is no agenda against shooting, but he concedes that the Trust’s other underlying principles to promote wider public access and safeguard nature conservation may bring conflicts which mean that shooting has to be curtailed or ended on specific tracts of land.
Robert Gray, deputy chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, made clear that the Trust is not seen in the same anti-shooting league as the RSPB and Woodland Trust but observed that the organisation “seems to be holding its nose whilst the sport takes place on its land”.
There is a growing view that the Trust is autocratic, not just in driving shoots off its land so it can organise activities with appeal to a more urban public, but also in its interpretation of conservation good practice and its diktat on the species that can be shot on its land.
Mark Walsingham, the Trust’s head of rural surveying, disclosed that shooting agreements generally allowed the control of pheasants, red-legged partridges, mallard, Canada geese and feral greylags on its land. For all other species approval is required from the Trust’s head of nature conservation, David Bullock. Walsingham was unable to provide me with a complete checklist of species allowed to be shot on Trust land, nor could the Trust’s press office. “It is not as simple as having a definitive list,” a spokesman insisted. “A lot depends on local populations of certain species and our rural surveyors will negotiate with tenants on licenses and leases.”
The Trust also insists there is no sinister motive behind its actions but that it has a duty to ensure conservation programmes are protected and that there is also no threat to vulnerable species such as the brown hare, grey partridge or snipe.
The Trust also stresses it does not want activity on its land to breach European directives in regard to certain species or habitats. “We want to check we have got it right on a particular piece of land, that the land is not in an SSSI or other important environmental area, and that the status of particular quarry species in a local area has not been changed,” said Nixon.
Shooters complain that these stipulations from the Trust show a distrust of the sport. Of course, shooters know pheasant release numbers must be controlled and that too many birds can affect ground flora and damage woodlands.
They also look with astonishment at the Trust’s recent decision to ban one of its Wiltshire shooting tenants from killing crows and magpies despite research from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) that shows benefits to farmland birds. In the lowlands this has helped the grey partridge and blackbird, and research is continuing to nail the benefits to the lapwing. In the uplands, however, control of predator carrion crows has already seen a significant upturn in numbers of lapwing as well as curlew and golden plover.
Rather than shooting being bad for conservation, scientific evidence says otherwise. Ian Lindsay, a game-shooting consultant and GWCT education adviser, said, “We have shown how game habitats have positive biodiversity benefits for wild grey partridge and a range of farmland birds, while over our pheasant woodlands we have a higher proportion of rises and shrubby edges which benefit a range of flora and fauna.”
The pearl-bordered fritillary is one of the butterflies found to have prospered from coppicing and ride cutting, while songbirds such as blackcaps and willow warblers are more often found in game woods.
“A prima-facie objection to reared game would strike me as a potential barrier to the conservation that can be derived from pheasant shoots and release of birds,” he said.
His tone articulates the mood among shooters, which has largely been created by the Trust’s public statement on shooting policy on its website. This policy is more than a decade old and comes from a document entitled “Recreational Activities at National Trust Properties”. The policy remains un-changed and continues to be applied to all shooting on Trust land.
Shooters are angered, however, that the document takes such a negative line on their sport and refers to the “serious impacts” of shooting on nature conservation and “to control more closely” the use of Trust land for the sport, as well as “the presumption against the shooting of reared birds”.
They also object to being portrayed as wildlife criminals, apparently going around deliberately poisoning birds with lead shot. The Trust includes the “poisoning of non-target species (especially wildfowl and waders)” by lead shot in its list of concerns about the impact of shooting, although the use of lead shot on non-wildfowl species is perfectly legal. There is also an instruction for the Trust to monitor shoots. Being granted a licence to shoot on its land means that officials record shoot data and keep a tally of the birds shot.
Despite the policy’s content, Nixon appears perplexed that the tone of the policy should be interpreted as “anti-shooting” and suggests the words should not be taken “too literally”.
He also vehemently disputed any suggestion that the Trust regarded the GWCT research as tainted, and attempted to clarify the policy: “We know their study shows that gamebirds can be a good thing, but what we violently oppose is that it should not be a free for all on release of birds.”
He was having no truck with concerns over lead shot, and accepted that it could be used in game-shooting but it should not be deployed if there were any risk to wildfowl and wading birds. “Shot is toxic and gets ingested by birds, and also shot once spent and lying on the ground poses a risk to other wild birds. So it should not be used near or over wetlands. We are not saying it should not be used at all.”
REASON TO BE FEARFUL
The Trust appears ruffled that it is being seen as anti-shooting, and Nixon emphasises there is no anti-shooting agenda and that policy is unchanged since the late Nineties.
“We are very much aware of the importance of this country-side tradition. The Trust allows fieldsports to take place on its property provided they are within the law and are compatible with the Trust’s core purposes, which include public access and protection of rare birds, animals and fragile habitats. Intensively reared birds in sensitive woodlands affect fauna and flora and often also attract vermin due to the amount of feed left out for the birds.”
The Trust says that as it seeks to attract more people to the countryside there will be places where it will not be possible to reconcile shooting and public access because of safety.
Mark Walsingham underlines the Trust policy: “We are not anti-shooting and welcome as wide an access to activities as possible on our land. Our starting point is to look at every opportunity to maintain an existing shoot.”
That is not how shooters see it. They have every reason to be wary when, despite protestations from senior officials, the Trust’s shooting policy maintains its “presumption against reared game”.
The fate of public woodlands and the 620,000 acres owned by the Forestry Commission is unclear and could still fall under Trust control. It may be time for the Trust to update its shooting policy, and faced with the challenge from the guns Nixon conceded it was “very old and may need updating”.
Yet the Trust has no plans to do so, but there is time for the shooting community to mobilise its Trust membership and table a resolution for debate at this year’s AGM.