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Defra not giving Woodcock the protection they need

Defra and Woodcocks – government won’t protect Woodcock so we must

The government recently responded to an online petition to ‘Limit the Shooting Season of Woodcock’ launched by Wild Justice (Mark Avery, Ruth Tingay, and Chris Packham). I’ve already blogged about this petition and my hesitancy to sign it but in case you don’t have time to read more than the headline, petitioning to legitimise a ‘season’ to kill a declining bird species simply because, according to the shooting lobby group GWCT, it “ adds interest and excitement to shoots” is wrong in my opinion. I signed – reluctantly – because I felt that it was broadly preferable to retaining the current ‘season’ and was a step in vaguely the right direction (though not the one I and Protect the Wild wants, which is an outright ban).

Contrary to what many people believe (especially a particularly whiny subset of shooters) Wild Justice is not opposed to shooting per se. Their petition was based on scientific data that Woodcock are declining fast, a situation already acknowledged in 2015 when the species was added to the UK’s Red List (a list of all species of the highest conservation concern, there are now 70 birds species red-listed – more than double the number listed in the first report in 1996).

Now, if you’re thinking, ‘Shooters have trouble enough justifying the killing of birds as it is, surely no one could excuse the continuing killing of a declining one?’ may I introduce you to the government’s own shooting lobby group, Defra…

The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs has had to respond now that Wild Justice’s petition has passed 10,000 signatures (it has all but ground to a halt, presumably because anyone interested in protecting Woodcock has read Defra’s reply and given up trying to talk with them – more on that later). Defra has an absolutely appalling record when it comes to protecting wildlife (this is the department that is overseeing the absolute cluster***k that is the badger so-called ‘cull’ after all) and in answering this petition it has typically sided with shooters. Amongst a wish list of environmental improvements that will not take place, there is not a single line in Defra’s response looking at the petition’s request to shorten the shooting season, a stance that even the GWCT admits makes sense.

 

Did Defra actually read the petition?

Defra actually has a long history of not responding to the subject line of a petition, instead providing justifications for the status quo that could just have easily been written by the NFU, Countryside Alliance, or most any pro-hunting or shooting group. Their response (which you can read in its pitiful entirety here) is full of unlegislated ‘commitments’ and ‘promises’ that will never be properly funded, and highlights legal protections that actually look set to be removed as the incoming government of Liz Truss has threatened to scrap or weaken existing environmental laws.

The response, for example, lists “a number of measures already in train” including a commitment to ‘the recovery of species in England’. As Defra knows, this woolly statement contains nothing about specific individual species like Woodcock but vaguely aims for overall biodiversity improvements. As Wildlife and Countryside Link put it in June, “It would be absurd to set a target that could be met simply by increasing the numbers of a few species, while other wildlife fades away—a surfeit of pheasants is not ecological recovery”.

Defra also suggests that providing grants to create woodlands will help woodland-breeding Woodcock (they say in the response that Woodcock “will benefit from a number of woodland grant schemes funded by both the Countryside Stewardship scheme and the Nature for Climate Fund, some of which specifically target management for declining woodland birds”). Yes, more habitat will help Woodcock – but what will that ‘habitat’ actually look like? My suspicion is that shooting groups (who Defra repeatedly tell us are actually conservationists) will pile in and snatch up as much money as possible to create pheasant nurseries while claiming they will increase ‘biodiversity’ (see WCL’s comment in the paragraph above) and carbon storage.

For Defra’s claims in this response to be convincing, there would need to be a legal requirement that any woodlands created with public funds are not managed for shooting and that woodlands are specifically designed for Woodcock – there is no such requirement that I can find. As so often, shooting gets to make extraordinary claims about ‘conservation’ efforts when in fact benefits to wildlife other than the live targets they breed are incidental (does anyone actually believe that planting cover crops for non-native pheasant and red-legged partridge is really designed to help birds like finches and buntings through the winter, or that if they discovered that Curlew predated grouse eggs they wouldn’t turn on them with the viciousness it usually reserves for Hen Harriers?).

Without targeted legislation, creating woodlands won’t help Woodcock in any meaningful way (and won’t stop those same groups from killing any Woodcock they do accidentally rear anyway).

Defra states that the “government’s current view is that the woodcock population is more likely to be influenced by the extent and quality of habitat, rather than shooting” while admitting in its response that “further work is needed to enhance our understanding”. What shape will that ‘further work’ be likely to take? Given that they clearly have no intention of shortening the shooting season and currently rely on data largely obtained from bag counts, my guess is that they will carry on regardless.

dead woodcock

Whatever happened to the ‘precautionary principle’’?

The science says Woodcock are declining. The figures are unequivocal and uncontested. A government department that actually cared about Woodcock and that wasn’t so closely aligned with the utterly pointless killing of huge numbers of wild birds for a momentary thrill might – for instance – impose a moratorium on shooting until it knew precisely what was going on or until it could be 100% certain that the decline had been reversed. Not Defra, though. They don’t know for sure what’s happening. They think it’s perhaps to do with habitat loss or degradation, but why should birds suffer additional and unnecessary shooting pressures while they find out? They shouldn’t but Defra show no inclination whatsoever of curbing the selfish greed of shooting estates and their paying customers.

Another point that needs to be acknowledged is the impact of the climate crisis – not only here but across the Woodcock’s Eurasian range (shooters often justify killing Woodcock because they say the birds they target are immigrants from larger European breeding populations). Woodcocks breed in damp woodlands (they need damp areas to probe for food – if the ground is hard they can’t feed) and heathlands, two habitats increasingly at risk from a warming climate. Heathlands are turning into tinderboxes, and a rapidly warming climate is drying out huge areas of forest and accelerating the likelihood of fires in areas that were previously too wet (over the last few years fires began raging across large areas of Europe when many woodland birds were still nesting). There is no way on earth that Defra can factor in the impact of climate change on the European breeding populations of Woodcock as they don’t have the data and the situation is changing so quickly anyway. Allowing the shooting to continue is utterly perverse.

Finally, Defra uses the dread phrase “We are currently considering the next steps”. What does ‘consider’ actually mean? As ecologist Dominic Woodfield said in the ‘Badger Culls, Biodiversity, Birds, and the High Court’ interview I recorded with him and Tom Langton on the ‘Next Steps’ Badger Cull Policy, ‘consider’ could mean little more than a tick-box exercise that involves as little as ‘thinking about something’ for a few moments. It certainly doesn’t necessarily mean a series of inputs and discussions resulting in a detailed, well-thought-out decision. In fact, it could mean simply writing a response that ignores the question and tacitly supports the killing of a Red-Listed bird species.

 

Where does Defra’s refusal to act leave us?

Defra will argue their way out of statutory duties to conserve biodiversity at every turn so where does that leave us?

Frankly, if we believed that Defra would answer any differently then we were being hopelessly naive. When I signed Wild Justice’s petition, I argued that I hoped it would at least spark some sort of debate about the shooting of Woodcock. It hasn’t really done that, at least not publically (perhaps our larger wildlife charities are right now wondering how they can continue to call themselves conservation bodies without condemning the killing for ‘excitement’ of a Red Listed species?).

As far as I’m concerned, this feeble response proves to me yet again three core problems:

  1. shooters have no interest in moderating their killing, especially while they appear to have blanket support from the government;
  2. our nature NGOs and wildlife organisations MUST get off the fence and work together to ban shooting;
  3. the public is largely either unsympathetic or unaware of issues like the shooting of Woodcock.

 

We have got to stop pandering to shooting and ‘hope’ it will see sense when it comes to biodiversity loss or the impacts of climate change on at-risk species – it will not.

We must (as I’ve said before) be unequivocal about shooting and work hard for a ban. Conservation organisations that give tacit support to shooting must be sidestepped.

Arguments that a ban can’t be obtained have to be ignored – where would the environment or animal and civil rights movements be if campaigners had simply set their sights lower and accepted what they were offered? We’d be right where we are now with Woodcock: half-arsed promises from government, vague commitments that mean very little, and pro-shoot lobby groups working to maintain the status quo despite the evidence.

Easier said than done?

Critics will say, ‘easier said than done’ especially when it comes to persuading the public. Actually, I disagree. The ‘public’ are generally protective of wildlife. Not always in a proactive sense, admittedly, but mostly inclined to support wildlife IF they know about the problems. That’s especially true of younger people – the people who will have to deal with our lax attitudes to our crashing biodiversity and the power of lobby groups that actively work against wildlife protection and animal rights. Most people have never heard of a Woodcock, but I’m willing to bet that when they are told the truth and asked if they support this type of killing, they don’t – they want it stopped.

In my opinion, our nature organisations have largely not been providing the kind of information or leadership I think they should have been. What we have needed and need now are clear statements about an intention to remove shooting’s stranglehold on our countryside, an organised coalition working to counter shooting lobby groups, and far stronger public information campaigns. Those campaigns must reference science, yes, but must also be strong on ethics and morality: there is no justification whatsoever to use a bird – any bird – as a live target on a day out. There is no excuse to blow a sentient being out of the sky for a laugh. Many people will understand and sympathise with that viewpoint – IF they get to hear it.

This year’s pheasant shooting season is partly on hold because of the danger of importing disease along with millions of intensively-reared birds. Moorland shooting estates are being hammered for setting fire to huge areas of carbon-storing uplands to raise grouse for the gun as the climate crisis spirals out of control. It’s wrong to say that we can’t work for a ban on killing declining species like Woodcock because shooting groups will oppose it. They are under pressure like never before. What they do is ethically wrong, scientifically illiterate, and should – if we can get a government in place that actually supports environmental law – become increasingly legislated against.

Shooting knows it is up against the wall – those of us who care about wildlife now need to step up and finish it off.