Thursday, November 28, 2013

These Sporting Times

I like to think of myself as a “proper” birder. Like most dedicated bird watchers I made a contribution to the just published British Trust for Ornithology BTO Bird Atlas 2007-2011, the very latest in a long line of awe inspiring BTO publications. This is the culmination of four years of fieldwork whereby over 225 million birds of 578 species were recorded online. 

 The Bird Atlas 2007-11 -  BTO Bird Atlas

There are seriously worrying statistics in this book, many related to declining farmland species which I mention frequently on this blog in an attempt to draw attention to their plight in the part of Lancashire I live. I make no apology for returning today to a couple of those species and a topic which concerns me greatly. 

On Wednesday I discussed with a fellow birder whether he should enter into his notebook the 7 Grey Partridge he’d seen that morning. Knowing of both the serious local decline in Grey Partridge plus the fact that numerous partridges are now released for sport by the shooting fraternity, most if not all of the releases undocumented, I suggested he err on the side of caution. As recently as 2011 in the final year of the Atlas surveys, I was recording Grey Partridge, but I no longer do so locally as I believe that our native species is to all intents and purposes locally extinct. 

Grey Partridge - Photo credit: Langham Birder / / CC BY-NC-ND

The BTO Atlas tells me there has been a 91% population decline of Grey Partridge in the UK between 1967-2010, during the Breeding Atlas of 1968-72 and the Breeding Atlas of 1988-91. “Local extinctions may be masked in some areas by the release of captive-bred birds onto shooting estates: about 100,000 captive-reared Grey Partridges are released in Britain each year”. The Atlas gives no figures on the number of captive-bred birds subsequently shot for sport; neither does it give any indication of how any surviving birds impact upon any truly wild Grey Partridge population. Given that the species is in any case a secretive and difficult species to study, any such investigation would by now be almost impossible to conduct. 

The problem is further complicated by the release into the same environment of Red-legged Partridge, a picture I know only too well from local farms.  

"As more farms diversify into shooting, the number of Red-legged Partridges released has increased and this is illustrated by the National Gamebag Census, where numbers shot quadrupled between 1990 and 2005 (Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust 2013). It is estimated that 6.5 million partridges (Grey and Red-legged) were released across the UK in 2004, and 2.6 million were shot. There has been little research on the impacts of released birds on native species, but there is some evidence that shooting operations based on large-scale releases of Red-legged Partridges could be implicated in local extinctions of Grey Partridges.” To my unscientific but daily birding eyes that last sentence would seem to be a gross understatement. 

Red-legged Partridge

Turning to the non-native Pheasant, the Atlas tells me that the numbers of captive-bred Pheasants released into the wild has increased fivefold since the early 1960s to around 35 million birds annually. Some 15 million Pheasant are shot annually. “High densities of Pheasants potentially have negative effects on native species, but these have been poorly studied. Indirect effects possibly include modification of the structure of the field layer, the spread of disease and parasites and competition for food. Recent research indicates that infection with caecal nematodes from farm-reared Pheasants may be contributing to the decline of Grey Partridge.” When I watch hordes of young Pheasants thundering through late summer fields and woodland edge there is no doubt in my mind that their effect on the environment is wholly negative. 


The entire picture is a sad and sorry one worthy of proper debate but the BTO cannot be seen to take sides in this matter. 

“The BTO is an independent charitable research institute combining professional and citizen science aimed at using evidence of change in wildlife populations, particularly birds, to inform the public, opinion-formers and environmental policy and decision-makers. Our impartiality enables our data and information to be used both by Government and NGO campaigners. Our long-term monitoring data on the status of UK birds sets the standard worldwide for understanding the effects of environmental change on wildlife. Over 40,000 volunteer birdwatchers, in partnership with professional research scientists, collect high quality monitoring data on birds and other wildlife. The combination of professional ecologists, long-term datasets some in excess of 50 years, and volunteers participating all over the country gives the BTO a unique, impartial and knowledgeable voice in nature conservation.” 

I’m left trying to think of an organisation that might be willing to take on the vested interests of landowners and the sporting fraternity in ending what is a national disgrace? 

Browse sample pages and then buy a copy of the BTO Bird Atlas 2007-11 here. 


The happy wanderer. said...

That's depressing reading, Phil, and unfortunately seems to be symptomatic of what's happening in different ways in so many places in the world. It's good to know that there is long-term data available, and we can only hope that it is used, and used to produce more balance in the natural world, which ultimately benefits the world.

eileeninmd said...

I do the same here, our bird Atlas is similar too. Since I enjoy all the birds I have a hard time watching the struggles going on between the non-native and the native birds.

Matt Bishop said...

Thanks for the great summary. It is surely a responsibility of the Land Owner that releases the birds to count them all 'back in'. I can't think of any other example of such a casual release of animals / birds into the wild that would occur without some form of control. I'm sure my local farmers would start complaining if I started releasing thousands of rabbits from my back garden. I will no-doubt have to run the risk of further pheasant fatalities this weekend.

Pete Woodruff said...

This is an excellent post Phil. We need to have our attention drawn to this kind of issue and to make our views known at all levels and at every opportunity.

I'm making a link to your post from mine on Birds2blog tomorrow Friday.

Christian Perrin said...

A real eye-opening post there, Phil. I didn't even realise that the RL Partridge and the Pheasant weren't native to the UK, so I'm sure it's news to the non-birder too.

I think as the liberal and environmentally-aware movement of the 70s ends and we come into a neo-conservative era, there's this idea that natural areas have to 'earn their keep'. In Australia, it's common to hear people rage against National Parks because they 'lock up our land', as though an area is wasted if it's set aside solely for conservation value. Maybe there's a similar mentality in the UK?

The happy wanderer. said...

Just a comment on Christian's statement that 'In Australia, it's common to hear people rage against National Parks because they "lock up our land"'. I've never heard such a view expressed, and there a great many people who do value them, join Friends of National Parks groups giving time and effort for them, and that many others enjoy being out in them, without necessarily being nature lovers or Greenies. It may be because we live in different parts of the country.

Camila Rafaela Felippi said...

I already had a Pheasant like your photo. He was angry, very angry. I had a male and two females. He fought with them. After they fled, they climbed over the fence and I never saw them (the females). And he became mooooore angry! When I leave the house he "attacked me" like I was intruding :/ He knocked on my dogs, cats and other chickens. So I made a fence and put him inside, but he broke the fence. A week later he also fled. Well, he was so beautiful but I don`t miss him so much :B

Christian Perrin said...

To The Happy Wanderer - I am someone who loves National Parks and I know many people who also love them. However, with New South Wales opening up their National Parks to hunting and Queensland opening up theirs to farming livestock, as well as to four-wheel drives, dirt bikes and fishing, surely you'd agree that there is pressure on National Parks to forsake their conservation goals in favour of human usage? All of the above activities damage the environment that National Parks are meant to protect, and the first argument you'll hear when you try and stop them from taking place is that you're 'locking up the land from the public'.

Alan T K Lee said...

Well done on your contributions, and thank you for the summary. Aren't the RSPB working rather overtly to bring the hunting community in line with good land practise?

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