Thursday, 3 December 2015

The Validity of the "Understanding Predation" Project

This is a post by Patrick Stirling-Aird, the Secretary of the Scottish Raptor Study Groups, who is a founder member of the Moorland Forum.

Following the Edinburgh seminar on 12th November (a useful event in itself) I have been thinking about the rationale and indeed as a consequence the validity of the "Understanding Predation" project. My feeling is that there is a need to go back to basics, as they say, and to look at the whole question of predation afresh rather than through the medium of this project, which concentrates on the issue through too narrow a prism.

Patrick Stirling-Aird
What I mean is this: collectively we should recognise that we live with, and have thus become used to, habitats that in many cases have been degraded well below their potential; we should set about restoring that potential, to better mesh in improved habitats with current land uses, which in themselves need modification; and once that goal has been achieved, at least to a significant extent, if felt necessary we can come back to considerations of predator/prey interactions in a more satisfactory, in reality a more healthy, environment than the one in which we find ourselves at present. In a sense, I am not putting forward a totally new approach, since on 12th November the theme, "what sort of countryside do we want?" was raised although, unsurprisingly perhaps, no clear answers emerged.

In practical terms but taking only a broad-brush view at this juncture as detailed prescriptions can come later, we need to rein back on the more intensive, extractive forms of land use that prevail here and now. Biodiversity on lowland farmland is in many places a meagre shadow of what it was formerly. A large extent of the uplands has been plagued by over-grazing and probably excessive burning too, with the various problems caused by intensive and semi-intensive red grouse management becoming ever more apparent. Forestry has been going in a better direction (the supertanker having been turned around, as it has been put) but no doubt there is room for some further improvement here, for example through an additional expansion of native woodland.

There are vested interests which will probably oppose such moves, with the call going up "jobs will be lost." That need not necessarily be so but the jobs themselves, some of them anyway, are likely to be different. Scotland (and the remainder of the United Kingdom) is a very rich country by comparison with most of the rest of the world so is well able to pay for a large-scale move towards a more benign (one might say nature-friendly) environment, if the will is there. I cannot envisage widespread public opposition to such a move if it is explained adequately. Instead, there might be a lot of enthusiasm for it.

It is in these contexts that I feel that "Understanding Predation" is misplaced and premature. This project's present approach puts the cart before the horse. On any long-term view it does not make sense, ecologically or even socially, to draw conclusions about predation in the context of land uses which we know are distinctly sub-optimal but which can and should go in a better direction. Instead we should go back to the drawing board, improve habitats first which will mean ameliorating certain land uses and only thereafter have a fresh look at predation if there is then an apparent need so to do. As part of this approach, we should be contemplating at that stage predation in the light of a healthier wildlife community incorporating top predators, both avian and mammalian, with a predator/prey balance (a genuine one, not the contrived "balance" that is constantly being advocated by some) that will flow from this.

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