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Curlews are under threat. The Game and  Wildlife Conservation Trust says in some areas of the UK their population is declining by 17% a year. But the GWCT says that on land managed  by gamekeepers, their numbers are increasing by 14% a year. Roger Draycott of the GWCT says: “The curlew is the bird that’s probably our bird of highest conservation priority in the UK. Their populations have declined significantly, and they are really only hanging on in many areas.“ 

He says there is one area where the curlews continue to thrive and that’s on land gamekeepers manage.

Red listed birds such as curlews thrive on land managed by gamekeepers

Gareth Dockerty of BASC says it’s sad to think that the curlew could be extinct in the next 20 or 30 years. He says: “Generations to come may not hear that iconic call from Britain’s largest wader. The reason the curlews do so well on land managed for shoots effectively is that we offer them protection.”

He says the work done by gamekeepers means that the birds can safely raise their chicks which creates sustainable populations.

He says: “The other thing they get is the wet areas to wade in and forage in.  We’ve created an environment which is absolutely perfect for the curlew and many of the red listed birds.”

Curlew in snow
“The reason the curlews do so well on land managed for shoots effectively is that we offer them protection.”
Gareth Dockerty
Work done by gamekeepers encourgaes biodiversity

It’s a great example of how gamekeepers are the guardians of the countryside.

A 2019 report that studied the activities of nearly 1,000 gamekeepers identified the often-unrecognised high level of conservation that this group of skilled and knowledgeable land and wildlife managers undertake nationally. The gamekeepers who responded to the survey by the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, manage more than four million acres of land across England, Scotland, and Wales.

Richard Bailey, of the Peak District Moorland Group, says areas that aren’t managed by gamekeepers are proclaiming that they have fantastic fledgling numbers with no active predator control and limited habitat management. He says: “Often when you look into it, these areas are surrounded, or they benefit from their neighbours who are actively managing predators and habitat.”

Gamekeepers' work shapes the countryside

Gamekeepers undertake a variety of conservation work, including planting wild bird cover. 

Gareth says the countryside landscape has been shaped by shooting and fieldsports activities. He says: “Without this work we wouldn’t the woodlands and the birds that live there. We wouldn’t have the glades; we wouldn’t have the open patches in areas which are suitable for reptiles. We wouldn’t have the invertebrates. We wouldn’t have the protected hedgerows.”  

He says thousands of hectares of cover crops that are planted each help create biodiversity and feed different species in winter. He says: “The gamekeepers do a lot of hard work feeding those birds. They’re making sure that in December and January, when birds are struggling to find food they keep feeding them.”

“The gamekeepers do a lot of hard work feeding those birds.”
Gareth Wyn Jones
Shoot manaement provides habitat for birds

Roger says the woodland management undertaken to support pheasant shoots delivers tremendous biodiversity. 

He says: “Small farm woodlands have little economic value, but shooting often provides the incentive to manage these areas. Opening up the canopy, encouraging the shrub layer then develops to provide habitat for the pheasants. And that’s where most of the wildlife is in woodlands. So, the butterflies, pollinators, and songbirds thrive in managed woodland.”


Gamekeepers carry out vital conservation work

The study found that, during winter and after the shooting season, gamekeepers feed game and farmland birds.

Sir Bill Wiggin MP says  that gamekeepers have a vital role in rural conservation. He says: “Gamekeepers do so much more than just organise a shoot day or lead a group of local people in a beating operation or control predators or release birds. They do so many jobs.”

“Gamekeepers do so much more than just organise a shoot day or lead a group of local people in a beating operation or control predators or release birds.”
Sir Bill Wiggin MP
Welsh farmer Gareth Wyn Jones

One area of conservation work that is essential to protect red listed species and vulnerable animals is predator control.  Welsh famer Gareth Wyn Jones says birds need protecting. He says foxes can be lethal for vulnerable birds and animals. 

He says: “Once they start to take them out of the nest they will just go back and kill them all.  If a fox goes into a chicken coop, it doesn’t kill one chicken, it kills every single chicken. That’s its nature. It’s a good-looking mass murderer.”

He say foxes need to be controlled to help ground-nesting birds.

Guns pay for gamekeepers who produce conservation: the Countryside Alliance says proposals to licence gamebird releasing in Wales will harm shooting and conservation

The conservation work done by gamekeepers is under threat as new legislation could jeopardise shoots which employ many of them. In Wales, government proposals to licence game bird releasing could devastate shooting. Rachel Evans, of Countryside Alliance Wales, says that work undertaken by gamekeepers on land managed for shooting benefits many species, not just the birds that end up on kitchen tables. She says: “This must be taken into account. It is proven that red listed species such as the curlew, for example, have done better on grouse moors and on land managed for game shooting.”

She says that if the Welsh government goes ahead with its proposals to license the release of pheasants and partridges, it will result in less shooting.  She says: “That means less land in Wales will be managed for game shooting and it will mean that we will have less gamekeepers. So, we will not have the same volume of conservation work that has been undertaken under the banner of good shoot management.”

“Butterflies, pollinators, and songbirds thrive in managed woodland.”
Roger Draycott
Gamekeeper Steven Musk

In England, a change to the general licences is wreaking havoc. Gamebirds were exempt from the general licences, which was set up to protect migratory birds, until Boris Johnson’s government included them.

Norfolk gamekeeper Steven Musk has applied for a licence as his shoot is close to a special protection area. He says the protected birds in his area include the stone curlew,  nightjar and woodcock. He says: “If the license is rejected then all the conservation work that goes along side of shooting would be lost. This will potentially harm all those bird species.”

Stone curlews in Norfolk will be under threat if GL43 licences aren't approved

Since 2019, when Natural England temporarily cancelled the general licences, the various UK environment departments in Westminster, Wales, Edinburgh and Belfast, have imposed strict limits on shooting some scavenging birds, such as corvids and gulls.

On English grouse moors, gamekeepers employ a variety of tactics to protect wildlife and crops from gulls, including using gas guns to scare the birds. Natural England is reluctant to hand out individual licences to control gulls which, the department maintains, is a sea bird, so should not be controlled inland. 

Red-listed and amber-listed birds – oystercatchers are amber-listed – rely on gamekeepers for food over winter

Gareth says gamekeepers are great conservationists. He says: “Without the shoots underpinning the social interaction and the economic stimulus, there is a real concern that, from a biodiversity point of view. we will seriously suffer. That includes protected sites and red listed birds. We’re extremely concerned that restrictions on shoots or shoots not being able to function would mean that effectively biodiversity will suffer in the long term.”

Gamekeepers are the unsung heroes of conservation as their work ensures the countryside and its wildlife are protected for future generations.


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