To save British wildlife we need to understand and appreciate those who own and manage the land, says Teresa Dent, chief executive of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust.
A FARMER’S INSTINCT
A farmer instinctively has a different attitude. It is his job to be the human activity on his piece of land. His attitudes are rooted in his husbandry skills. He is simply not interested in having oystercatchers on his land that do not produce chicks; he would almost consider it a waste of his time. If you husband something well, you make it productive and there is no merit in poor husbandry. Gamekeepers and riverkeepers have a similar approach; they produce abundance, enough for a harvestable surplus, and also believe in husbandry. They do not regard themselves as observers of nature but participants in it.
The differences in philosophy are largely responsible for the politics and many of the confusing messages behind wildlife conservation. Farmers get frustrated and de-motivated when they are asked to save lapwings but feel the organisation making the request is in denial about the impact of predation from, say, foxes, crows or even buzzards or badgers.
When British scientists first flagged up declines in wildlife in the Fifties, the government gave legal protection to rare species to try and save British wildlife. It was a useful start but the laws did little for the threatened species themselves. A couple of decades later, the voluntary conservation bodies fired up and they tried a different approach. Their mantra was to help nature by providing habitat. This is essential but habitat alone has provided insufficient succour. In the same three decades our farmland birds – a primary target for massive spending – have continued to fall or have failed to recover.
Our desire to save British wildlife has created much of our modern legislation; our ability to manage it tends to be enshrined in older law. Both approaches have been important in getting us to where we are now. Raptor protection has saved them from the organoclorine chemicals once used in farming, and from the intolerance of gamekeepers. Conversely, the love of shooting and the hope of again shooting wild grey partridges in England has saved them from probable extinction. A game-keeper’s approach to producing abundance is our only hope for recovering lapwings nationally because the species cannot recover unless we protect its eggs and chicks from predation.
If wildlife conservation is a human activity, one has to ask why we look only to ecology to achieve it. We have to understand human psychology as well. Take agri-environment schemes – a wonderful product prone to bad selling. Someone says to a farmer, “We have a new agri-environment scheme we’d like you to go into.” The farmer says, “I don’t really like schemes.” The response is, “But you get paid for it.” The farmer is not a foolish businessman, so he says, “How much and what do I have to do?” It risks not being about wildlife now, but money. In that hypothetical exchange may lie the roots of most of the criticisms levelled at agri-environment schemes: that farmers are only in them for the money, do as little as possible, put prescriptions in but don’t look after them, that the focus is on outputs (grass margins, say) but not outcomes (more wildlife). But are such schemes a bad thing? No. They have been a huge force for good. But perhaps the first question should be, “What wildlife do you want on your farm?”