Is protecting wildlife a political issue?

Viewers of BBC’s Winterwatch last week were treated to some wonderful coverage of the private lives of key Scottish Highland predator species such as the golden eagle, fox, and pine marten and a species of particular interest here, a non-predator, the mountain hare. Mountain hares as their name suggests live in upland areas and this includes grouse moors. A grouse moor is an odd environment that at first sight looks natural but is in fact intensively managed in favour of a single species, the red grouse. The perceived villains here are the predators such as the crow, fox and weasel that take a share of the grouse eggs and chicks earmarked for a demanding clientele during the shooting season, and many such predators are routinely removed by gamekeepers in order to maintain artificially high numbers of grouse. However it may come as something of a surprise to learn that the inoffensive mountain hare is also high on the gamekeeper’s hit list. The mountain hare’s crime is to be a warm blooded mammal and therefore a potential host for the ticks that transmit louping-ill disease (don’t ask) to the hapless grouse.

Because the mountain hare is believed to transmit disease to the grouse it is intensively culled. In December 2014, Scottish National Heritage alarmed by the destruction, led calls for grouse moors to exercise ‘voluntary constraint’ on excessive mountain hare culling and last year a group of ten conservation groups in Scotland called on Scottish National Heritage to upgrade this to an immediate three-year ban to allow a breathing space for the conservation status of the species to be accurately determined. And this is the point of the story, the grouse moor manager is entitled to cull the mountain hare without restraint on little evidence other than supposition, whereas the conservationist has to scientifically prove beyond reasonable doubt that protection of the species is justified. The dice are therefore loaded; the jury is rigged. A far higher burden of proof is required to protect wildlife than that needed to destroy wildlife.

The plight of the mountain hare is not an isolated case, but a part of a pattern that we see repeated to the drum beat of David Cameron’s ‘people before wildlife’ policy, a policy that favours supposition over evidence and economic interests over ecological ones. The list is a long one: extending the badger cull despite evidence that it is probably ineffective, the easing of restrictions on farmland river dredging despite the evidence that it destroys habitat and may contribute to flooding downstream, caving in to pressure on neonicotinoid insecticides in farming that affect key species such as bees despite a European ban, suppressing evidence on the toxic effects of lead ammunition that causes the deaths from lead poisoning of thousands of wetland birds in order to protect trivial shooting interests, conspiring to undermine fracking restrictions affecting national parks and sites of special scientific interest, on it goes.

So does any of this matter? If politics is concerned primarily with the wellbeing of people, i.e. with the important things in life such as jobs, health and education, is David Cameron right, should wildlife always be sacrificed in the face of an expanding human economy?

* Phil Aisthorpe has been a Lib Dem member since September 2015 having previously been a life-long Labour supporter. In a previous life, Phil worked as an IT planning manager and business strategy manager with a leading UK financial services organisation.

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  • James Baillie 3rd Feb '16 - 1:29pm

    I think the “wildlife vs people” debate is simply wrong-headed framing and often cover for the government doing something that benefits neither.

    Take dredging as the obvious example. The government agencies have been telling ministers that dredging is a hopeless solution for years, and that what is needed in the long term is better management of upper rivers and subsidising farmers to replace meanders and permit more floodplain flooding. Dredging forces more water into a still-inadequate space, in a shorter period of time – it actively worsens downstream flooding. However, to push for a dredging-first strategy, mainly to protect upstream estates from having to let fields flood, the Prime Minsiter has used “people vs wildlife” rhetoric and claimed that dredging was only opposed on grounds of wildlife protection (which is either ignorant of their own advice, or disingenuous, or both).

    It is clear that on many such issues (pesticides and badger control being other examples) the Liberal Democrat position should surely be to side with the scientific evidence; with badger culling it is not only bad for badgers but unfair to farmers and taxpayers generally to waste money on “solutions” that could end up spreading disease faster. This may mean us pushing forward policies that are more expensive (expanded funding for vaccination programmes for badgers) or shift economic incentives (moving from dredging to subsidising floodplains), but if that is the case so be it. We cannot and must not support the government’s reluctance to base policy on the evidence.

    The more difficult aspect of the issue is planning, though even for this it’s not as complicated as it seems – we need both stronger protection for SSSIs AND the freeing up of more poor-quality agricultural land for house building, and the two are not mutually incompatible. Again, we need to oppose the government’s “rip up the rulebook” approach and ensure that we have a pro-active planning strategy that ensures houses get built and wildlife gets protected; the market, without effective financial incentives toward long-term settlement suitability or wildlife protection, is failing both people and animals in this area.

  • Thanks for the article. I have been concerned that the focus on climate change displaces attention on many other crucial environmental issues. Thanks for highlighting them.

  • Phil Aisthorpe 4th Feb '16 - 8:37am

    James Baillie, totally agree with you. To me it is self evident that we have a duty of care to respect and protect wildlife and I struggle to understand the view that the natural world has no intrinsic value outside of the value that humans ascribe to it.

  • Phil Aisthorpe 4th Feb '16 - 8:47am

    John Innes, I too often think that there is too much emphasis placed on long-term strategic environmental issues. We also need to focus on solvable issues that people can readily understand and that can deliver tangible improvements.

  • Phil Aisthorpe 4th Feb '16 - 2:09pm

    Rodney Hale, thank you for kind words, and good luck with your reintroduction project.

  • Peter Watson 4th Feb '16 - 3:23pm

    @James Baillie & Phil Aisthorpe
    I agree with both of you.
    I am concerned though that in recent years, from the outside, on the issues you raise it has looked like the direction of travel for Lib Dems has been in the opposite direction.

  • Ruralworker 4th Feb '16 - 6:56pm

    Phil Aisthorpe, well done! Yet another attack on Grouse moors. Rather than bothering to actually get out there and look for Mountain hares, which incidentally are thriving on Grouse moors, you believe the hype and are convinced that hares are being culled at an industrial level. Many moorland managers are at the forefront of working towards an effective counting method in order to show that hares are doing well. By the way spent all day on a Scottish grouse moor today and observed 37 hares, on a small area.

  • Phil Aisthorpe 4th Feb '16 - 9:05pm

    Ruralworker, their is no hype in this article, no claim that the mountain hare is threatened with extinction from industrial scale culling, and no attack on grouse moors. It is based on published facts. This is what the Scottish Wildlife Trust published last April:

    “The Trust and a group of nine other high profile wildlife and conservation organisations are calling on the Scottish Government to impose a three year ban on all mountain hare culling on grouse moors until safeguards are in place to inform sustainable management, and to meet our international conservation obligations.

    The mountain hare is Britain’s only native hare and plays a vital part of the complex ecosystem of Scotland’s uplands and moorlands, including acting as an important source of prey for golden eagles, one of Scotland’s most famous birds.

    Mountain hares are often found in good numbers on grouse moors with their large expanses of heather and are protected against indiscriminate methods of killing under the European Union’s Habitats Directive. The Scottish Government has a legal duty to maintain their population in a state of good health. However, mountain hares are now routinely culled on a large scale on many grouse moors in Scotland. This practice has developed relatively recently in the belief that it protects red grouse against the tick-borne louping ill virus, despite the lack of scientific evidence to support this claim.”

    Note that last sentence – culling takes place based on a “belief” that the mountain hare is a threat to the grouse “despite the lack of scientific evidence”. So grouse moor managers can undertake large scale culling based on an unproven belief, but the conservationists need to undertake three years of research to determine if this culling is justified. I’d say that represents something of an imbalance in the weight of opinion.

    And by the way I have been out on the uplands of West Yorkshire on many occasions to observe mountain hares at first hand and I have witnessed grouse shooting at close quarters without becoming hysterical.

  • Ruralworker 4th Feb '16 - 9:46pm

    Many thanks for your swift reply. I’m just trying to understand why grouse moors are under such pressure? I spend my time on grouse moors especially in spring and summer due to the unrivalled wildlife which can be found there. I think while these areas are getting such bad publicity it should also be noted that they are the last stronghold for many species, hence the reason why I enjoy the unrivalled bio diversity that they produce.

  • Simon Banks 4th Feb '16 - 11:21pm

    People care about wildlife, so just from a purely human-centric position we should still be concerned; and of course it’s a political issue.

    However, I think one of the challenges for modern Liberalism is to evolve from a purely human-centric philosophy to one that makes real a belief in the value of biological diversity and of other species.

    As for the mountain hare, another reason to oppose culls is that global warming is likely to put pressure on its British populations.

  • Neil Sandison 5th Feb '16 - 3:55pm

    One of the largest local community organisations in my area is the wild life trust with many others supporting the woodland trust and other wild life organisations we would be silly to ignore having close connections to these organisations .With so many local councils having to find 5 year land supplies to meet their local plans issues like biodiversity off setting ,retention of local wild life sites and protection of ancient woodland and vintage swing into focus .Liberal Democrats should champion a quality and sustainable environment alongside housing growth the 2 are not mutually exclusive and should be reflected in your local plans.

  • Ruralworker – in support of your search for understanding of the grouse moor reality Mark Avery’s book Inglorious gives a good run down and is very readable. I fear that while uplands are generally great spaces the current biodiversity is certainly ‘rivalled’, challenged, and ecologically unbalanced. Keep eyes and ears open as you experience a wide range including those without grouse shooting and a very different picture emerges.

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