Persecution Without Solution: The Recent Controversies of Predator Control Across Europe

Co-existence concerns between predators and humans are spreading like climate-induced wildfires across the UK and EU, with recent headlines repeating stories of culls, conflicts, and illegal hunts; causing frustration and worry among ecologists and wildlife enthusiasts. Let’s review some of the recent controversial acts and policies surrounding predator persecution, and have a deeper look at the continuing war on wildlife and disputes between people and predators.

Lock, Livestock and Two Smoking Barrels

Let’s start with birds. Rearing gamebirds, like pheasants and grouses, in cages for release and shooting has been a popular sport in the UK since the 1830s. Its popularity has been rising sharply since the early 1980s, with an estimated 30-60 million birds being released annually for recreational hunting. As a result, many of the UK’s wild spaces are heavily managed for the shooting of gamebirds, resulting in continuing conflicts between hunters, ecologists, and wildlife.

Due to such ongoing conflicts, both sides of the debate are keen to keep up to date with the latest legislation surrounding gamebird hunting and the use of such wild spaces. However, there is one question surrounding the sport which to many remains a point of confusion; are free-roaming gamebirds livestock, or not? According to the UK’s 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act (Section 27(1)), livestock is any animal which is kept for:

  • the provision of food, wool, skins or fur;
  • the purpose of its use in the carrying on of any agricultural activity; or
  • the provision or improvement of shooting or fishing

So ultimately, if being used for shooting, yes, game birds ARE livestock. Yet recently, due to clarity demands by gamekeepers over whether game birds are included in this act, a new re-wording of the definition was introduced by the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Now, livestock are defined as animals which are ‘free roaming but remain significantly dependent on the provision of food, water or shelter by a keeper for their survival’.

The common pheasant Phasianus colchicus (Image Credit: Gerard Blokhuis, CC BY 3.0)

Firstly, this definition is arguably laughable considering much of the UK’s wildlife is in such a dire situation that most species require (at minimum) provision of food. Secondly, it sets a dangerous precedent, as it is legal in the UK for gamekeepers to shoot wild birds including jackdaws, magpies, and rooks, for the perceived protection of livestock. Many are concerned that the new rules may lead to the increased illegal persecution of protected predatory birds, with some experts agreeing that this definition change could lead to an increase in the killing of wild birds to protect game birds.

However, many others are optimistic that the new terminology will not increase the number of predatory birds shot. Some even see the news as a positive, believing that the decrease in jackdaw and magpie populations will reduce nest predation on some of the UK’s threatened songbirds.

Yet it is clear that illegal bird persecution remains a huge problem for the UK, with the most recent headlines covering the suspicious deaths of two white-tailed eagles, and one gamekeeper given £1000 fine and 12 month suspension for killing 2 buzzards. However, when shooters are paying well in excess of £1000 per gun for a day’s shooting, such a light fine is unlikely to act as a permanent deterrent.

Keep The Ban For Fox’s Sake

As well as raptor persecution, the UK headlines are currently packed with stories surrounding illegal fox hunting, with instances of unsafe handling of deceased animals, illegal hunts, and trained animal abuse. The pursuit of wild mammals with dogs has been banned in the UK since the 2004 hunting act, with only dogs that follow scent trails still a legal option for hunt enthusiasts. Repeated evidence has demonstrated that many of these trail hunts are used as cover-ups for illegal pursuit hunting.

The recent abundance of evidence of such hunts has led to multiple convictions and the banning of trail hunting on National Trust land, yet there’s no evidence that the hunts have stopped. Headlines have recently moved the focus of illegal hunts from the danger to wildlife to the treatment of the horses and dogs involved in the ‘sport’, with current verdicts highlighting serial animal abuse and poor housing conditions.

Fortunately for the fox, and other illegally hunted mammals, the power of social media and video recording is increasingly seeing justice served to those who continue to break the 2004 hunting act. Yet just like with raptor persecution in the UK, fines for those found guilty are often far too low to deter hunters in the long term. One wonders who those administering the fines are…

The irony of hunting regulations comically exemplified in an episode of Futurama (Image Credit: Futurama, 20th Century Fox)

Wolves in the EU

Over in mainland Europe, the persecution story continues, as Norway plans to cull wolf populations by 60% this winter, to maintain an embarrassing 3 breeding pairs in the country. The wolf was persecuted to extinction by 1760 in Britain, and it is likely that repeated culls and the climate and biodiversity crises will eventually lead to similar extinction of the wolf in many parts of Europe in the near future.

5% of Norway is a wolf protection zone, outside of which wolves can be shot if they pose a threat to livestock. However, the 25 wolves due to be culled this year are within the protection zone. Concerns regarding conflicts between wolves and people in populated regions where the animals exist is often used as an excuse for the justification for predator culling.

The cull is not good news for the population, with previous works by NRI Finland demonstrating that healthy genetic diversity in wolf populations requires a population of ~500 individuals. Already at risk from inbreeding, low farmer tolerance, and poaching, the new cull certainly brings the steadily growing population far below a sustainable level.

Norway’s wolves are descendants of Finnish individuals (Image Credit: Per Harald Olsen/NTNU, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

Coincidentally, the cull has been announced as hunters increase demand for larger moose populations, with the concern that wolves pose a threat to such populations. In reality, hunting is the largest threat to moose mortality in the country.

Not all the recent news on wolf conservation is bad however, as over in the US federal courts have recently reversed changes to wolf protections brought in by the Trump administration, protecting them once more and offering a small moment of relief alongside Europe’s protection failures.

Concluding Thoughts

If we want to move towards a society more integrated with our natural surroundings, as resolving the climate and biodiversity crises requires, we cannot persecute on perceived proximity-based risks. In addition, we cannot continue to place recreational shooting as a priority over protection of native wildlife, and we require systematic change to the way in which wildlife crimes are punished, to act as more permanent deterrents to those involved in illegal acts. In the UK in particular, building wild spaces for predators could heavily reduce conflict, and reduce persecution.

As is often the case, there is far more information on this subject available than covered here. Check out the links below or those included in the text to learn more.

RSPB – Raptor Persecution

Keep The Ban

Conservation Of Wolves in Europe

Charlie Woodrow is a PhD student at the University of Lincoln, UK. He is interested in the evolution of animal communication and ecology, and is currently researching the morphological and functional variation in katydid ears. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieZoology, or read more of his work at his Ecology for the Masses profile.

Title Image Credit: ‘ Fox hunt’ by Winslow Homer (© Joseph E. Temple Fund)

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