The woke eco-politics that leads to extinction

We stand to lose our most vulnerable species unless land managers and conservationists agree on tough strategies for their survival

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“The law is holding these birds back”: There are just over 1,100 capercaillie left in Scotland, down from 20,000 in the 1970s (©Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Five miles north of Aviemore, in the shadow of the Cairngorms, sits Kinveachy Lodge. According to conventional thought, even if I’d visited in the 19th century, when the seventh Earl of Seafield was building the crow-stepped mansion, I would already have been too late to see Scottish capercaillie in its native habitat. The extinction of the largest of the grouse family in the 1700s has long been blamed on  overhunting and deforestation. However on an early summer morning 300 years later, the head gamekeeper on the 84,000-acre estate casts aspersions on that accepted chapter in Scotland’s natural history.

Ewan Archer, who started working at Kinveachy two decades ago, doubts whether sportsmen with primitive firearms could have hunted the birds to extinction. He is also doubtful that Scandinavian capercaillie, which were reintroduced to Scotland in 1837, could have made it 70 miles north to the upland pine forests. In the 1970s, according to Scottish Natural Heritage, capercaillie numbers were as high as 20,000, but that figure plummeted during the 1980s and ’90s and the bird faces extinction in Scotland once again.

Ewan tells me there are 210 capercaillie on the estate, which represents over a fifth of the country’s total population. He believes increased predation is one “very simple” factor driving the precipitous population decline, and stresses any success in stabilising local numbers has relied on “intensive predator control”, utilising “every legal option”, including shooting feral cats. Less controversially, crows and foxes are well-known predators of capercaillie nests and are managed accordingly. “We shoot up to 100 crows a year,” Ewan explains. “We haven’t wiped them out. We just do the same thing every spring.”

Just prior to my visit, following a challenge mounted by the broadcaster Chris Packham and Dr Mark Avery, the former head of conservation at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, shooting crows was banned in England. For Ewan, the consequences of that happening north of the border are unthinkable. “Don’t take tools away from us if you want sustainable conservation,” he tells me brusquely.

After finishing our Nescafé, we head out into a snowy May morning and climb into a pickup. A little terrier leaps onto my lap and we wind our way up the hill to where an underkeeper spotted a male capercaillie that morning. “Davy told me it was about here he saw the dead bird,” announces Ewan, as we slow to a crawl. After two failed calls to Davy, Ewan suggests it was maybe just stunned and concludes: “It must have limped off into the forest.” Seafield’s forestry provides food and shelter for capercaillie. During the Great War, to meet an insatiable demand for timber, trees were plundered and floated south down the River Spey. Ewan is devoted to its regeneration and tells me he wants to create “a forest for the future”. Last year, footage emerged of hares, which eat young trees, being shot on the estate. In response, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon expressed very public anger, which went down well with Scottish National Party supporters to whom private land ownership is anathema. Paradoxically, Ewan feels he is “conserving capercaillie for the nation”.

I ask how hopeful he is about the future. After some thought he replies, “If we don’t do anything about pine martens and badgers [two legally-protected capercaillie predators], I’ll be very worried. The law is holding these birds back.”

On my way south, at Dunkeld, where the Highlands roll out into arable country, I receive bad news. The RSPB’s head of godwit conservation, who I am due to see a few days later, has cancelled. I can’t help thinking about an email some weeks previously from Professor Rhys Green, formerly at the RSPB and now at the University of Cambridge. He had heard, erroneously, that I had been commissioned to write this piece by a well-funded PR operation called You Forgot the Birds, which seeks to improve the image of grouse shooting. People had clearly been talking and they wanted to know which “side” I was on.

The following morning, rain had set in across Dumfriesshire as I climbed a tussocky hill with Patrick Laurie, a farmer-cum-writer who for the past decade has been devoted to alleviating the decline of the black grouse, a species that was once ubiquitous across the county.

His Damascene moment came when he was just 20 years old, and stopped after a party to have a bleary-eyed look at part of his family farm he had never previously explored. The hill wasn’t as silent then as it is today because of a reasonable, albeit diminishing, population of black grouse. Patrick recalls being at a “vague and directionless” ebb in his life and suddenly being “given a purpose”. As we wander through the smirry rain, a pair of red grouse burst from the grass in front of us. They aren’t what we’re hoping to see but we watch as they wheel round on the wind. At the top of the hill we look down on a herd of European cattle that belong to the tenant farmer. Patrick explains they are part of the problem. European cattle are lucrative because they grow quickly, but they aren’t able to eat coarse grass and require feeding every day. Slow-growing native breeds such as Riggit Galloways, which Patrick champions, have adapted to thrive on moorland. Their grazing encourages grass regeneration, and green shoots provide sustenance for black grouse.

News of the English ban on shooting crows, something Patrick has done in the past to prevent them predating grouse nests, has reached Dumfriesshire,  but he is reluctant to discuss it. Those behind the ban 
“would love to think of us up here talking about them”, he tells me. We break out some Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers and discuss Patrick’s new book, Native: Life in a Vanishing Landscape, to be published by Birlinn next year. In it, he considers the totemic virtue of native birds. The King’s own Scottish Borderers went to war with black grouse feathers in their caps, and in the 14th century the infamous Black Douglas kept a black grouse wing with him when he was fighting in the Scottish wars of independence. When those birds become extinct, Patrick believes part of  the region’s identity will die with them. “And in 50 years, do you think there’ll be any left on the hill?” I ask. His expression suggests it’s a stupid question: “In 50 years’ time there won’t be any left in this country.”

Five days and 366 miles later I’m in Berkeley Square, Mayfair, at an event being hosted by Chris Packham. I spot him up at the front and, seizing my chance, I ask whether he believes his recent legal action has politicised the countryside and if so, how he feels he can remedy the situation. He answers tersely that it was “necessary”. “What about gamekeepers?” I continue. “Could you work collaboratively with them?” Chris slips into a combative tone and people around us start looking up. “We’ve been trying for 20 years,” he says emphatically. “What would you do if someone had killed a member of your family?”

When I recount the conversation in farmer and gamekeeper Graham Denny’s Suffolk kitchen the following morning, he tells me with a smile: “Well, I’ve certainly never had him on the phone. But I’d gladly show him what I’m doing.” Since 1902, Graham’s family has lived at Brewery Farm, a rolling 77 hectare holding, and for 25 years he’s been putting conservation before profit. Graham’s first love is turtle doves, which have declined by more than 90 per cent since 1994, thanks in part to the destruction of their habitat. “There were no hedges for them after the war, because they were all torn up so we could get the country out of rationing.”

Unlike pigeons, turtle doves tend to eat only seeds. Because of agricultural changes and herbicide use, there are fewer of those than ever before. Graham has being working with the RSPB testing turtledove feed mixes and he feels their staff have a lot to learn. Recently, he’s been at loggerheads with one of their turtle dove advisers, who wanted to use sunflower seeds. These, says Graham,  attract rooks, which predate on turtledove nests. “It’s not her fault she’s been brainwashed by the RSPB that you shouldn’t control some birds to save others,” he says. “Predator control is a necessary evil. Control a few jays and magpies and you can keep your iconic birds. If you don’t control them you eventually lose everything.”

Walking across Graham’s farm is like stepping back into a prelapsarian England. Partridges flutter across scrubby field margins and hares abound. Turtle doves are famously reclusive and you often only hear rather than see them. Graham pushes his way through dense scrub ahead of me and stops at the edge of a pond. By the time I draw level, he’s looking skywards. “Hear that,” he whispers. Somewhere above us there’s a mournful purr. It ceases and Graham bursts into avian song, calling back to one of his beloved birds.

A week later, I’m on the Isle of Sheppey in an old barn at the Elmley nature reserve. On the sofa across from me is Mary Colwell, who had a long career at the BBC and in 2016 walked 500 miles across Britain to find out what’s happening to our curlew, a journey that became her first book, Curlew Moon (William Collins, £16.99). I am at the 3,200-acre reserve to talk about lapwings, which have declined by 80 per cent across Britain since 1960. Like turtle doves, agricultural intensification has been a serious blow for the iridescent ground-nesting birds. When a farmer cuts hay early, in the hope of being able to take a second cut later in the year, lapwing nests are often destroyed.

Mary explains that predation by foxes and crows is also a factor. She believes that not enough predator control is being carried out, but recognises the complexity of persuading the public that such action is necessary. “We’ve become detached from the natural world,” she laments. “We are being told the natural world is disappearing, so the reaction of a lot of people is, if there’s not much left, why the hell are we shooting it?” She understands that point of view, she says, and stresses that crows “are amazing things” but believes  that such kneejerk reactions  must be tackled “through education”.

Ian Newton, formerly chairman of the RSPB’s council, is listening. His presence perhaps explains Mary’s reluctance to
discuss the extent to which she believes the RSPB fails to carry out adequate predator control. Interestingly, though, Ian is keen to make the point that when he was young, “people used to keep chickens” so they understood what a marauding fox was capable of. I am keen to know his verdict   on Chris Packham’s views. He suggests that Chris, who is vice-president of the RSPB, has some ecologically unsound opinions but points out that gamekeepers have historically been responsible for “the extinction of five species” including ospreys.

We head out into the sun and wait for Gareth Fulton, who farms Elmley, to come and show us round. As we drive across the bleak landscape in his truck, lapwings twist and turn in the sky. Gareth tells me they previously had an issue with Hammersmith Council in London rehabilitating injured foxes and dropping them on the island. They lacked country fox cunning and were quickly dealt with. There are no badgers on Sheppey and I’m interested to know what impact their introduction would have. “The birds would have no chance,” he replies. Suddenly we stop. “See that,” says Gareth, pointing to a bit of grass, “she just got off the nest.” He gets out and Mary and I follow. Over his shoulder I see four speckled lapwing eggs, the next generation of a species in crisis.

Dr Mike Swan: “They’re frightened of a vociferous minority” (©TI MEDIA)

In the mid-May heat I drive next to Hampshire to meet Dr Mike Swan, Head of Education at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT). According to Mike, curlew taste delicious: when he was young he shot them on wildfowling trips with his father. In the 1960s, however, people noticed numbers were falling and in 1981 they gained protected status. Despite that, they have become one of the UK’s most rapidly declining birds, with the British Trust for Ornithology estimating we have lost more than 48 per cent since the 1990s. Like lapwing, curlew suffer from agricultural intensification. They, too, are eaten by foxes and crows.

Mike tells me the GWCT works with the RSPB, but often shies away from discussing the predator control they carry out for fear of losing members. “I think they’d be pleasantly surprised at what proportion of their membership think they’re doing the right thing,” he suggests. “They’re frightened of a vociferous minority.”

When I question Mike about the reluctance of some conservationists to work with gamekeepers, he tells me he isn’t entirely surprised: “Keepers have a history of persecuting protected species, and that’s quite wrong.”

He believes those involved in land management and conservation need to talk to one another and put the past behind them. “The keeper we’re going to meet later is rigorous when it comes to controlling curlew predators, but I can’t imagine he’s breaking any rules,” he says. “I’m convinced the likes of Mark Avery would find him to be a really good bloke.”

We drive south to meet Rupert Brewer at the Bisterne estate. Rupert is a fourth-generation gamekeeper who “was born on a grouse moor”. By combining sympathetic farming with 21st-century predator control, Bisterne has managed to retain a number of curlew. The foxes Rupert shoots are sent away to have their stomach contents analysed so it can be determined which species they’re hitting hardest.

Rupert tells me he finds conservation empowering. “People are concerned by the loss of elephants, but I’ve got an endangered species right here and I can make a difference.”

We don’t find any curlew so we head towards the New Forest. On the way, we talk about Chris Packham. He smiles. “You can’t interact with someone like that. He’s not going to meet you halfway.”

We climb out of the truck and head for a copse where ponies are sheltering from the sun. “There was one there yesterday,” announces Rupert, pointing towards a tussock. Raising my binoculars, I see a curlew standing up on the nest, alert to our presence. Mike, who is hunkered down beneath a tree, starts whistling a plaintive curlew call. Some time passes and then an elegiac cry comes back to us, the sound of a British landscape almost lost.

Stuck in London traffic that evening, grinding my way back over the Hammersmith flyover, I am struck by how depressing my journey has been. Not because of what we’ve lost but because of how much more we’re set to lose if we don’t educate the public, reconcile conservationists with land managers, and depoliticise the countryside.