Today's blog is by Dr Jen Smart, Head of Species, England.
The RSPB remains neutral on the ethics of shooting, but we are concerned about the environmental impacts of its more intensive forms. During the last year, we have consulted our membership and a wide range of stakeholders on their views of gamebird shooting, and we have also reviewed the evidence relating to the impacts of gamebird shooting and associated land management. This work has informed a wider policy review of RSPB’s position on shooting in the UK. We want to see a future where shooting, along with other land use, is compatible with the climate and ecological emergency.
We pride ourselves on being an evidence-based organisation, so a key focus has been to review the evidence for the impacts of driven grouse shooting and the large-scale release of non-native pheasants and red-legged partridges for shooting. This blog will focus on the latter of those reviews for one very good reason. While we have been conducting our review, of which I was one of the authors, a partnership between the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) and Natural England (NE) commissioned a review of the ecological consequences of gamebird releasing and management on lowland shoots in England, which was published online by NE in August. A really useful summary of this work can be found in this twitter thread.
For ease of writing, I am going to refer to these reviews as RSPB or BASC/NE as the work was commissioned by these organisations, but I fully appreciate that the authors of both have different affiliations (RSPB = RSPB and a former RSPB scientist now based at the University of Kent; BASC/NE = Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust & University of Exeter).
Parallel reviews, same literature, same time-scale – different scientists
The publication of two reviews of the same body of science, carried out independently and concurrently, provides an interesting opportunity to compare the outcomes of both. It is normal when a piece of science gets published that the authors identify knowledge gaps that need to be addressed with more science! It is also normal that most people are only interested in the conclusions of a piece of science and they may only read the summary to get a feel for conclusions and knowledge gaps. I am going to start by looking at the conclusions and knowledge gaps identified by these parallel reviews before considering the key points of difference.
There are a few areas where the scope of the two reviews differed: the BASC/NE review did not consider the effects of lead ammunition on wildlife or humans, or the social and economic dimensions of shooting, while the RSPB review did not consider the releasing of mallards. These topics therefore won’t be mentioned further, because there are no comparisons to make.
Where do the conclusions align?
What are the key knowledge gaps?
The range of key knowledge gaps identified by these reviews are listed with 1-7 identified by both, 8-9 identified by BASC/NE and 10 onwards by RSPB:
What are the key differences between the reviews?
The key difference between the reviews is in the methods used to assess the literature.
The BASC/NE review used a rapid assessment method to categorise the literature according to study quality (highly relevant = treatment versus control or relationships across gradients in release or scale; moderately relevant = quantitative assessment; weakly relevant = qualitative assessment). A framework was used to visualise the direct effects of gamebirds (e.g. foraging, competition, disease), the associated effects of the actions of those releasing the gamebirds (e.g. land and predator management, shooting) and the indirect effects on the environment and native biodiversity.
The RSPB review identified 6 primary and 19 secondary themes. The primary themes were game estate management, shooting practises, illegal persecution, direct impacts of gamebirds, disease transmission to wildlife and impacts on predators and predation. Ecological impacts were scored on a scale from -2 to 2 accounting for the direction, strength and reliability of evidence with scores of +/-2 indicating strong, reliable evidence for a population-level impact, +/-1 indicating weaker evidence or a more local impact, and 0 indicating no evidence of impact. Using a statistical approach, this review analysed scores across themes to establish the weight of evidence for positive and negative effects.
It is re-assuring that these reviews came to broadly similar conclusions. Numbers of gamebirds released in the UK each year continue their inexorable rise, with the current scale of releasing unlikely to be environmentally sustainable. There is clear evidence of positive impacts of gamebird management on the range and quality of mainly woodland and farmland habitats. There is growing evidence of potentially serious negative ecological impacts of gamebird release, and further research funding is urgently needed to address these growing concerns.
The hope now is that the various stakeholders in this issue can work together to agree, prioritise and plan how to resource the filling of the most important knowledge gaps. Who should pay for this research is an interesting question – taxpayer, shooting industry or NGOs? There is also an urgent need for stakeholders to work together to use the available evidence to agree what sustainable gamebird shooting might look like in future. There will no doubt be a range of views from stakeholders about how to address these environmental concerns but at our recent AGM, the RSPB has outlined our views which you can read here.
Madden J.R. & Sage, R.B. (2020) Ecological Consequences of Gamebird Releasing and Management on Lowland Shoots in England: A Review by Rapid Evidence Assessment for Natural England and the British Association of Shooting and Conservation. Natural England Evidence Review NEER016. Peterborough: Natural England.
Mason, L.R., Bicknell, J.E., Smart, J. & Peach, W.J. (2020) The impacts of non-native gamebird release in the UK: an updated evidence review. RSPB Research Report No. 66., RSPB Centre for Conservation Science RSPB, Sandy, UK.
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