They shoot foxes, don't they?

As a species, the human race can be quite despicable at times. Being omnivores, there will be animals killed to meet our nutritional needs. We also justify the killing of animals that we do not intend to eat as they sometimes pose a threat to our food supply – thence we label them pests or vermin rather than what we should more rightly call wild animals. It is when our killing goes beyond being explainable that we become true pariahs, no more so than when it is carried out for the protection of our sporting interests.

This was brought home to me forcibly in a Press Release put out by RSPB Scotland at the turn of the year when a preliminary analysis of their survey work indicated that a massive cull of red kite was going on in Scotland. Their estimate is that two-fifths of the birds fledged between 1999 and 2003 have been poisoned, and a further nine per cent were shot or otherwise killed (1). That’s approaching 200 birds in total when the red kite was only re-introduced to Britain some 17 years ago (it was persecuted to extinction in Scotland 150 years ago) and there may only be 20,000 breeding pairs left in the whole of the world.

The exceptionally dumb thing about this is that the kites aren’t really the target of the poisoning as they are carrion eaters. The baits, poisoned with agricultural pesticides, are left out in open countryside to kill crows, birds of prey and any other species that are judged as a threat to grouse and other game birds. It’s an illegal practice since the early 1900s, but it appears to be endemic in Scottish upland areas since there have been over 200 other confirmed cases of poisoning during the period 1996 and 2006 for birds of prey, such as peregrine, white tailed eagle, golden eagle, hen harrier, goshawk, sparrowhawk, buzzard and ravens.

Killing for money

This extinction of wildlife is not a recent phenomenon, tied as some think to a rise in nineteenth century game keeping interests. A book reviewed in the Observer recently showed that millions of birds and animals, such as hedgehogs and water voles, choughs and dippers, were systematically slaughtered in England and Wales under a Tudor law (2). In the book - Silent Fields: The Long Decline of a Nation's Wildlife - author Roger Lovegrove (an ex-director of the RSPB) describes the consequences of the Preservation of Grain Act. Passed in 1532, it made it compulsory for all citizens to kill as many creatures as possible that appeared on an official list of “vermin” that included wildcat, pine marten and hedgehog as well as the chough, woodpecker, shag and kingfisher. The intent of the act was to overcome food shortages and the spread of disease caused by a series of bad harvests and an abrupt rise in population. Thus a penny bounty was put on the head of a kite or a raven, and was as much as 12 pence for a badger or a fox, a considerable sum by the standards of those times. The head of a wildcat was also valued at one penny, but they were so hated that church wardens would increase the bounty to a shilling. Almost 5,000 bounties were paid for wildcat heads in England and Wales in the 17th century. No wonder there’s only a handful of them left, isolated in the Highlands of Scotland.

The Act wasn’t repealed until the mid-18th century when the impact it was having on the wild fauna of Britain had begun to be recognised, but repeal would only mean the loss of financial reward for the slaughter – I am sure it did not dissociate the need for killing in people’s minds, especially when you consider that the Act had condemned many animals to death merely because they were disliked for spurious or superstitious reasons.

Killing for Sport

Getting back to contemporary times and sporting interests, the League Against Cruel Sports brought out a report in 2003 in which they claim that more than 12,300 animals are killed by gamekeepers on British game bird shooting estates each and every day (3). They revealed this information in a report entitled Killing for Sport, which details the little known and often highly illegal program of predator control by gamekeepers who snare, trap and poison wildlife to protect the millions of game birds shot every year by wealthy businessmen and others with a bloodlust. Badgers, foxes, hares, stags, owls, kestrels, and even domestic livestock and pets fall foul of the snares, traps and poison. Few prosecutions are ever brought, even considering that legally protected wildlife is being slaughtered, but where the slaughter takes place is usually in the immediate vicinity of game bird pens, and so the gamekeeper’s excuse of contributing to wildlife conservation rings very hollow.

The League followed this up in 2005 with the first in a series of reports about the blood-drenched business of game bird shooting - the cover has a particularly disturbing picture of a snared fox, hung up on a fence post (4). They conclude that the very survival of British birds of prey is threatened by the out of control activities of shooting estate employees, whose poisoning is believed by many (including RSPB, Natural England) to be the reason for the failure of many predatory birds (raptors) to recover and increase their numbers.

Who gets to choose who lives and dies?

Predation is a sore point with wild bird enthusiasts as well as it is with the game estates. The charity, Songbird Survival, put out a press release in July last year about a review of farmland bird predation carried out for them by Prof. Roy Brown of Birkbeck, University of London (5). Brown assessed the effects of ten common mammals on the populations of fifteen farmland bird species, based on data (much unpublished) covering 115 farms and other areas in England, Scotland and Wales. He found that mammals account for between one third and three quarters of all predation losses of songbirds, with the main culprits being grey squirrels, domestic cats and increasing rat populations. He also remarked that “uncontrolled numbers of stoats can wipe out local populations of Skylarks”. On the back of this, Songbird Survival makes the rather sweeping claim that “uncontrolled predation threatens our biodiversity and that mainstream conservation organisations avoid the issue”. They want Brown to carry out a similar study on the impact of avian predators followed by a “programme of experimental predator management to establish the total impact of predation in the environment”.

While we may sympathise over the predation caused by our stupidity in introducing non-native species in the grey squirrel and the rat, a domestic moggie is but an analogue for the wildcat that we extirpated outside of Scotland, and what right have we to persecute the stoat for doing what a stoat does? I am worried that Songbird Survival seem to want to set themselves up to make decisions on who should live and who shouldn’t, based on the fact that they want their beloved songbirds to be the winners. Their imperial attitude is perhaps summed up by their Vice-Chairman, Robert Middleditch, who said:
“We have never subscribed to the popular view that predator and prey achieve a balance; that is pure wishful thinking”.

I don’t want to get into that argument now, suffice to say that the human species has been by far the most efficient predator in causing extinctions. Let’s take the example of the capercaillie, an essentially inedible turkey-sized bird, but whose speed and power made it an attractive target for sports shooters. It was once common in the Scots pinewoods of the Highlands, but was over-hunted to rarity until the last pair were shot in 1758, reputedly for a royal wedding banquet at Balmoral. Decrease and fragmentation of their habitat may also have contributed as capercaillie are pinewood specialists, feeding off needles and cones in winter, making use of the shrubby understorey for breeding and nesting, and for feeding on the berries and insects associated with it. (6,7)

Unsuccessful attempts were made to reintroduce the capercaillie for sport at Mar Lodge early in the nineteenth century. In 1837, however, capercaillie from Sweden were successfully reintroduced at Taymouth Castle, paving the way for other reintroductions. Thus the population climbed again, producing a record shooting bag of 150 birds in one day during 1908, and reaching the 20,000 birds that were thought to exist just 30 years ago.

Population numbers began to decline again. Capercaillie suffered the misfortune of being on the “Quarry List” of wild creatures that were fair game to be legally shot by sport hunters. There are now fewer than 1,000 Capercaillie left in the entire country, less than half the numbers recorded in 1994. The continuing decline led 10 years ago, to a voluntary moratorium on shooting, removal from the Quarry List, and protection from disturbance of females, eggs and chicks under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. There has also been a rise in the iconic status of the bird in conservation circles.

Many causes are blamed for the continuing decline: prolonged cool weather in spring prevents the females from feeding well enough to get into breeding condition; wet summers chill chicks that are already struggling to find enough food to grow rapidly to adult size in one short summer; a third of all adult deaths are caused by collisions with deer exclosure fences; at least a quarter of all first-year birds are killed on fences as they disperse to new areas in autumn; and the ‘edge effect’ of habitat loss has provided greater access to the pinewood habitat for an increased numbers of predators, such as foxes, stoats and crows.

The issue of the fences was taken up by the Forestry Commission, who gave grants to estates for removal of surplus fences and the marking of others (8), and it would not surprise you that some landowners quietly got on with shooting foxes in an effort to reduce predation. Except that you may be surprised to learn that the RSPB in their estate at Abernethy are one of those landholders and, in the main, they receive support and praise for this from sports and other organisations (Birds and Country Sport, Tooth and Claw, The Scottish Gamekeepers Association). Thus as part of a plan to improve capercaillie breeding success, the RSPB have controlled foxes and crows on the Abernethy National Nature Reserve. We only get to know much about this because of evidence given by Prof. Steven Harris to the public hearings that DEFRA held in 2002 into hunting with dogs (9). Harris (Environmental Sciences, Bristol University) had worked on a ten-year research study for the RSPB, peer-reviewed and published, which examined the impact of predators on farmland birds. Predation was not identified as the main cause of decline for any of the 11 species. Habitat/management changes were identified as the main ultimate causes for decline for all species. Moreover, Harris stated that “There is no evidence that foxes need to be controlled” and “no method of fox control has had an impact on the fox population”.

Harris advised that this was reflected in the RSPBs attitude to the need for fox control on their reserves, which was expressed to him as “overall fox predation is not a significant problem at our 176 reserves” and predation “usually stops when the control is precise and small scale”. He was told that the RSPB shoots foxes where necessary and places “great emphasis on getting their habitat management right at reserves of sufficient size so that they can accommodate a full range of predators and prey”. Previously, Harris had written that preliminary results from fox shooting may indicate that capercaillie chick survival had improved, but he felt it is not possible to separate out the relative effects of predator control and habitat improvement (10). So are the RSPB still shooting foxes at Abernethy?

Aren't there principles involved?

There’s a bit of a smell sticking to the RSPB when on the one hand they condemn gamekeepers for poisoning red kites, but go out and shoot foxes themselves. It seems that the RSPB also have quite a few game bird shooting and wildfowling friends too. A quick trawl found the following: 200 brace of grouse are shot annually on their Abernethy Estate; and they have wildfowling tenants on their reserves at Frampton Marsh (RSPB, Lincolnshire), Ouse Washes (RSPB, Cambridgeshire), Tetney Marshes (RSPB, Lincolnshire) and they let sporting rights at the Langstone Harbour RSPB reserve to Langstone & District Wildfowling & Conservation Association. You just know that some RSPB toady will justify all this by saying that it is good for relations with other country pursuits, but I wonder what RSPB members think?

What do they also make of the news that RSPB Scotland used dynamite last autumn to blow up the crowns of nine Scot’s pine in Abernethy, ranging from 100-200 years in age, ostensibly to increase the amount of large-volume dead wood in the forest (11)? Some would say there is enough deadwood already in the RSPB in an organisation grown so big that it is said that it needs to pull in £60million a year just to stand still. Their apparent lack of principles and their increasingly bizarre actions show the interfering hand of man writ far too large. If they must seek a solution to a supposed problem of predation by foxes, why not allow Mother Nature her role and support the re-introduction of lynx, an ambush predator known to take foxes in northern Sweden (12)?

Mark Fisher 24 January 2007

(1) Illegal persecution of red kites still a massive problem in Scotland, RSPB Scotland Media Release, 2 January 2007

(2) Tudors drove wildlife to the brink, Observer 7th January 2007,,1984575,00.html

(3) Wildlife slaughter revealed in shocking new League report, League Against Cruel Sports Press release, 7 October 2003

(4) The Killing Game – out of control predator control, League Against Cruel Sports, 2005

(5) New study exposes predator threat to songbirds, Song Bird Survival Press Release, July 2006

(6) Trees for Life - Species profile: Capercaillie

(7) Support the work of RSPB to save the Capercaillie, The Journal of the Scots Heritage Society

(8) Wild woods capercaille, Forestry Commission

(9) Is the fox a pest?, Campaigning to Protect Hunted Animals, 2004

(10) Problems – Are Foxes Pests?, National Fox Welfare Society

(11) Explosive conservation brings life after death to ancient forest, RSPB Scotland, 20 October 2006

(12) Helldin, J.O., Liberg, O. & Gloersen, G. (2006) Lynx (Lynx lynx) killing red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) in boreal Sweden – frequency and population effects. Journal of Zoology 270: 657–663