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A Window into a World of Abundant Wildlife

Updated: Jun 28, 2022

A while ago I listened to an online talk by Alistair Driver the CEO of Rewilding Britain and one of his slides remained in my mind. A rather shocking table of gamekeeper kills in the Scottish highlands. I have now found a source for that, or perhaps a similar table, in the Collins New Naturalist series book Mountains and Moorlands. The table is reproduced below.

Table reproduced from Collins New Naturalist Series , Mountains and Moorlands, W.H.Pearsall, Bloomsbury books 1989.

I have been unable to find out the total area of the land on which the kills above were recorded, but the current Glen Garry and Aberchalder estates comprise 32,000 acres or 13,000ha (for reference West Berkshire is 70,000ha).

Glen Garry is in the western Scottish highlands and the River Garry flows down from Loch Quoich and Loch Garry into Loch Oich in the great Glen at Invergarry. The human impact upon the predator populations outlined in the table above is clearly unsustainable and many of the species listed in the table are now extremely rare or are extinct in Scotland. There may only be about 100-300 Scottish wildcats left in the whole of Scotland. Roughly the same number as was killed in 3 years on one relatively small estate back in 1837-40.

The interesting idea that Alistair mentioned in his talk is the fact that for this area of land to support these numbers of predators the prey species – fish, voles, mice, hares, rabbits and birds must have been present in very large numbers. Apparently, an Otter eats approximately 1.1kg of food per day. So to sustain the 48 otters killed, for one year, would require 20,000 kg of prey species.

The abundance of wildlife present in the Scottish highlands during this time (before we got to work) is now almost unimaginable. The other key thing to consider is that predator and prey would have been in balance. Vole populations, for instance, would have been controlled by predators. This would have allowed trees to regenerate naturally. Without the predators it is likely that trees would have struggled to regenerate (In the highlands introduced sheep and too many deer also stop this regeneration). So not only were predators removed but the balance in the landscape was likely to be affected.

This small window into the past for one estate in Scotland makes me think what was West Berkshire like in the mid 19th century before pesticides, fertilisers and industrialised intensive agriculture. Did we have what would seem to us now, a super abundance of wildlife? How many swallows, swifts and house martins arrived each spring to feed over our insect rich farmland. How large were the flocks of seed eating finches. Did every river have its own population of otters and were the Berkshire Downs swathed in species rich chalk grassland. Do we have a record for this time that would give us a similar inkling of what we have lost? Should we compile one?

Given the changes about to be made to the agricultural payments system, the belated recognition of climate change and the catastrophic recent loss of wildlife how much should we expect or demand (bear in mind we will continue to heavily subsidise agriculture) back? What is a reasonable amount of wildlife given that we do still need to produce food?

There will be a new payment system for farmers, the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), which will enshrine the principal of public money for public goods. This new scheme needs to seriously move the UKs agriculture to a more sustainable model that incorporates; Biodiversity enhancement, conservation and extension of important existing habitats, the regeneration of soils, carbon capture and storage (should farming be aiming for carbon neutrality on a farm by farm basis?), protection of water courses, and perhaps a general move towards a more mixed farming regime.

Do we need to guard against a rebadging of existing schemes and tools which have been in use for the last 20 years and have not delivered the outcomes that are needed?

PS if anybody is interested in researching what Berkshires’ countryside was like pre industrial revolution I would be interested to hear from them.

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