Comment: Leave conservation to the experts

Robert Frewen, a rural surveyor for CLA North
Robert Frewen, a rural surveyor for CLA North
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FARMERS AND land managers are often on the frontline of wildlife issues as they work to maintain the balance between feeding a growing population and preserving biodiversity on their land.

Over the past 25 years a number of schemes designed to encourage good stewardship of the countryside have been entered into by almost all farmers and landowners. Supported by the increasingly popular Campaign for the Farmed Environment initiative, miles of new hedgerows have been planted and wide field margins are now commonplace.

This work is subtle, scientific and long-term focussed, unlike recent high profile and heavy handed attempts to introduce new breeds of animals to our island.

Beavers are being introduced in Devon despite the problems they are causing land managers in Perthshire. Sea eagles have been introduced in Scotland and it is being mooted that wolves should be next. Now, a small but vocal lobby is determined to see the lynx, a powerful large cat, introduced in spite of the fact that it died out in this country, almost certainly without any persecution by man, over a thousand years ago.

The theory is that the lynx will regulate the wild deer numbers, principally roe deer, but I for one am hugely concerned that the law of unintended consequences will kick in. Lynx will almost certainly hunt for sheep, but it is likely to take both dogs and cats too. In one of the proposed release sites, Thetford Forest, proponents suggest the lynx will primarily kill muntjac deer, which is displacing the roe. The concept that these predators will hunt selectively according to local requirements strikes me as naive in the extreme.

True conservation is about maintaining a balance. Too many stoats, foxes, rats or raptors can spell disaster for other species. And sometimes there are difficult conundrums: what do you do if a badger decimates an avocet nest or a buzzard kills stone curlews? There are no simple solutions.

Gamekeepers are often blamed for the hen harriers’ demise but a grouse moor at Geltsdale, Cumbria, operated by the RSPB, has no harriers and far fewer upland species – such as curlews, lapwings, golden plovers and ring ouzels – than moorland managed by gamekeepers.

Gamekeepers on estates across Yorkshire are some of the unsung heroes of our countryside. They see every day the delicate balance of nature and have a deep understanding of conservation. But the contribution they make to the diversity of the countryside is often overlooked.

This is why one of the most popular elements of the CLA Game Fair, which returns to Harewood House near Leeds on July 31-August 2, is the long service awards for gamekeepers. Open to those who’ve served for 40 years on no more than five different estates, it’s a rare opportunity to publicly recognise those few who have dedicated their life’s work to preserving our natural environment.

Sadly, such moments of glory are few and far between. The reality of their life is a pragmatic, day after day approach to maintaining natural balance, knowing full well that our own success as a species on this small island has put enormous pressure on every other living creature. That is why we have a duty to manage what is left for the benefit of all animals, not just the fashionable and the adaptable.

Robert Frewen is a rural surveyor for CLA North.