James Swyer explains how the latest GWCT research shows that well-run shoots can make a positive contribution to local habitats and wildlife

credit: Matt Limb OBE

As the debate on how the countryside is managed continues, the impact of releasing game birds on local habitats and wildlife has been in the spotlight more than ever recently. A new paper by Dr Rufus Sage, head of lowland research at the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, delves into the effects of released pheasants and red-legged partridges on wildlife and the environment. It provides a summary review of what is and is not known, along with an overall analysis of whether game bird releases are having positive or negative effects on either the habitats around them or the other species that share the same fields and woodland areas.

Although there have been other reports about game birds lately, most notably from the RSPB, this is the first peer-reviewed paper to be published on this topic. The authors used the literature itself to define important topics and then attached a simple categorisation to each (positive, neutral or negative), which could then be compared in the context of other factors, such as the size of a release or the scale at which an impact might operate.

credit: Archant

What did we learn?

Habitat management for game birds can have a positive ecological effect; for example, there are more songbirds in game woods, as well as more bees and butterflies at their edges. Woodland is more likely to be planted on or retained, where game birds are part of the landholding – and also better managed. In and very close to release pens, the pheasants themselves can have direct negative effects on plants, the soil and invertebrate communities. But there was little evidence for negative effects away from release sites, although mosses and lichens on trees may be affected away from the pen.

On open land, the presence of hedgerows, game crops and supplementary feeding is positive for farmland birds. However, game birds may have a negative impact on the hedgerows, on invertebrates in locations where released birds congregate, and possibly on local reptiles, too. Game birds tend to remain close to their release site, with 90% remaining within 1km. In general, negative habitat impacts are localised, whereas benefits from habitat improvements can influence the whole woodland or farm.

The paper explores more complicated indirect issues as well, such as the potential effect of game bird releases on predator populations and the illegal killing of birds of prey. The first of these is not yet well enough understood for conclusions to be drawn – we need more research looking at this in the context of a range of land uses (for example, different livestock farming systems). The extent to which raptors are killed alongside releasing is unclear, but any cases have a clear negative effect, and this must stop. Overall, assuming an average shoot in terms of both size and adherence to good practice, the review found that ecological positives and negatives are approximately balanced with 10 positive outcomes, 12 negative and three neutral.

It is important to note that any modern economic land use will have negative ecological effects, and many have relatively few positive ones. This paper finds that the balance is relatively even for release-based shooting, and the ecological seesaw can easily be tipped either way. Where shoots overstock pens, or site them in particularly sensitive areas, more negatives may occur; but where shoots keep to appropriate stocking densities in well-sited pens, supporting their birds with ecologically valuable game crops for the winter and so on, the positives will outweigh the negatives, and the shoot will deliver an overall biodiversity gain.

This is encouraging, as it suggests that increased awareness of the potential ecological effects, along with education around best practice guidelines, can help shoot owners improve their ecological profile with relative ease. Efforts in this area, such as GWCT advisory visits, courses and publications, can all help tip the balance. We don’t need leaps in technology or a complete overhaul of the sector: we already know what makes a well-run shoot, and how these can be good for the countryside.

The message is simple: a well-run shoot that is guided by best practice and abides by the law can make a positive contribution to local habitats and wildlife.