Conservation can take many forms, some far more palatable than others. The Gamekeepers of old would use the analogy of the ‘3-legged stool’ of conservation: habitat, food, and predator control. Just like a 3-legged stool, without one of these legs in place, the whole thing collapses.
Here is a photo showing the 3-legged stool in practice: Larsen trap, squirrel control box, bird box and hungry gap supplementary feeding.
At Overbury, the shoot is constantly managing habitat for game (pheasants and partridges) but also holds wildlife in mind. This approach has been scientifically proven to enhance the countryside for wildlife such as butterflies, insects and wild birds. We contribute to this by erecting hundreds of bird boxes for tits, owls, and kestrels and our game cover 100 acres of plots which are planted and managed with both game and small birds in mind. Through the winter months they have been shown to hold over 100 times the number of small birds than the adjacent arable farmland. (Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust study). https://www.gwct.org.uk
Throughout the winter months we provide around 10 tons (yes tons!) of wild bird food to some of our most threatened and declining species, where the food is placed in a network of hopper feeders and spread on headlands, farm tracks and roads. We ensure that all habitats are fed, to encompass a wide species portfolio.
The last part of the jigsaw is reducing the number of predators throughout key times of the year (breeding season) to ensure that declining species are not overtly impacted by the ever-increasing number of ‘generalist predators’ (i.e Crows, Magpies, Foxes etc) that inhabit our countryside.
As you can see by the population graphs above, generalist predators have increased dramatically over recent years whilst more specialist species have seen rapid declines. I have selected 4 here, but the trend is similar for a significant number of species. More information is available at:
The predators’ side of the story is less well understood. Many people will have a bird feeder in their garden or erect a ‘bug hotel’, but few will actively control predator numbers. The killing of certain species, however humane the methods and despite the scientific evidence of its benefit, is just something many people could not bring themselves to do, which I completely understand.
In a recent study, upland wader nesting success was increased by 66% by the addition of predator control (GWCT Otterburn experiment - https://www.gwct.org.uk/media/249256/waders_on_the_fringev2.pdf ). This was consistent with a meta-analysis of 20 other studies, which found that in 12 out of 14 bird species, hatching success was improved and the post-breeding numbers were significantly higher in the presence of predator control (Côté & Sutherland 1997). We also know that moorland that is managed by gamekeepers has 3 to 5 times the number of Curlew, Lapwing and Golden Plover than moors managed by the RSPB (Aebischer, N.J., Ewald, J.A. & Tapper, S.C. (2010).
At this time of year, the Keepering team have been running a network of Larsen Traps to control the numbers of Carrion Crows and Magpies. These two species eat considerable numbers of wild bird eggs during the spring months and have been shown to have a negative impact on wild bird populations (Carolina Bravo, Which predators eat eggs of nesting birds in farmland landscapes? - https://www.cebc.cnrs.fr/wp-content/uploads/publipdf/2020/BSTE744_2020.pdf ).
The Larsen traps (named after the Danish gamekeeper that invented them) use a live call bird in one half of the trap to elicit the territorial instinct of other Magpies or Crows. They are lured down to the trap to ‘see off’ the call bird that they perceive to be invading their territory. The birds are caught in two live catch compartments. This allows the Keepering team to dispatch the caught birds in an entirely humane manner, but also to release any ‘non target’ species that happen to be caught.
The call bird is fed and watered, it has cover from the elements, a perch and room to spread its wings, all of which are legal requirements.
We are all to blame. Farming practices driven by the requirement of cheap food to service an ever-increasing population and Landfill sites offering free meals to any scavenging animal or roadkill to feast on…the list goes on, and none of us can exonerate ourselves from having an impact.
I recently had an experience on the Hill where two avid birdwatchers were very pleased and excited by the feeder I was towing, watching the Yellow Hammers, Chaffinches and Linnets eagerly flitting from the hedgerows down onto the track to fill their bellies on a cold morning.
But when they noticed the Larsen trap in the back of the vehicle the smiles turned to frowns. I took the opportunity to open a dialogue, and it was useful to have an honest and open discussion and I hope that by the end of the conversation, the reason for having a Magpie in a cage was far better understood.
I cannot speak to everybody (but would love to!) so I thought a short and simple explanation of a very complex subject might be of use to you by way of this blog and I hope you understand a little more about it.
So, please enjoy the Hill and everything it has to offer whilst enjoying the results of how it is managed. You can ‘do your bit’ by sticking to the footpaths and always keeping all dogs on leads. The Hill and its wildlife will thank you for it.
By Head Keeper at Overbury Enterprises – Paul Gillett, May 2021