Snipe, Sniping and Snippy Tweets

Snipe (adjective) – to criticize a person or persons from a position of security

The Shooting Times published a snippy tweet this morning, taking aim at their favourite (non-feathered) target, Chris Packham.

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This isn’t the first time that shooting waders has led to cross words. Chris Packham has previously criticised UK shooters for continuing to shoot a number of species that are in decline, including snipe and woodcock. He has sometimes got his facts wrong, most famously when he wrongly accused sportsmen of shooting lapwings and had to issue an apology. Lapwings happily enjoy full legal protection, but amber-listed snipe and red-listed woodcock do not and continue to be shot legally, in season, despite the fact that both species have suffered significant declines in recent years.

Snipe breed in wet moorland and damp pasture. They have declined most severely in lowland areas (declining 61% in just 20 years between 1982 and 2002), principally as a consequence of the intensifying management of grasslands where damp, tussocky meadows have been cut, rolled and drained to improve grazing for livestock. They have fared better in the uplands but may also be declining here, most especially where similar intensification of moorland management has seen peatlands dried out and degraded by repeated burning.

The UK’s resident woodcock prefers damp woods, but they are doing just as badly with a survey in 2013 revealing a severe decline in occupied sites of 51% in southern Scotland and overall just one in three woods yielding encounters with these charismatic little birds.

Snipe and woodcock nests probably suffer from occasional predation by corvids, mustelids, sheep, deer, pet dogs and even hedgehogs. Of course, some nest predation is natural, but when the system strays too far from its original balance and where the quality and extent of an animal’s habitat is declining, negatively impacting on recruitment can be the final nail for a struggling population.

But it is the loss of adults that is always more challenging than the loss of young. If each animal only replaces itself once in its life then a population can remain stable. But shooting adult birds chips away at the breeding population, targeting a demographic that is far more critical to the overall survival of the species than the loss of chicks predated in nests.

However, The Shooting Times were unrepentant today, shooting back at their critics on Twitter, claiming that those who shoot snipe “often lead the way in protecting their habitat.” And then they went further, claiming that “the small number that gets shot has not been shown to impact on the population over the long term” and that shooting Snipe thus followed a “responsible use model”.

Similar claims are sometimes heard by those defending the shooting of woodcock, with the added complication that the UK’s declining resident woodcock are swelled in number by hundreds of thousands of European and Siberian birds whose population is considered to be stable. “What’s the problem with shooting these birds?” say the gunmen.

Now I am not exactly a fan of all things labelled “responsible use”, but I am a defender of the principle. I can see the expedience in trophy hunting for example. In Africa far more habitat is protected in hunting concessions than in national parks used solely by photographic tourists. Ban trophy hunting, as so many seem keen to do, and you risk losing all that habitat to people and cows. It’s already happening and its why scientists and conservationists are urging politicians to refrain from well meaning but ultimately ill-informed populist calls for a ban. Never mind that many might question what business any of us have telling people in Southern Africa how to manage their wildlife. There are those in Africa who view it as a form of neo-colonialism.

But the case of woodcock and snipe in the UK is not exactly analogous to the case of shooting lions in Africa. Lions are actually increasing in many areas where hunting them is permitted, while they are declining in Kenya where hunting them was banned more than 40 years ago. In other words, a ‘harvest’ of a few lions from healthy and even increasing populations may be distasteful, but it is in my view defensible as an example of genuinely sustainable use.

This is simply not the case with either woodcock or snipe. Both these birds are suffering active declines and although DEFRA have stated that “It is unlikely that hunting has had a significant impact on recent population trends for woodcock, snipe and golden plover; trends are likely to be influenced more by the quality and extent of habitat,” we might reasonably wonder whether shooting might be adding to the problem. DEFRA hardly have an untarnished reputation amongst conservationists these days, having issued all sorts of nonsensical statements in recent years, and even this one is couched in caveats. Who says it is unlikely? Where is the science? And what is a “significant impact” in this context? Meanwhile the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust state:

“We do not believe that a ban on woodcock shooting would help recover our resident woodcock, in the long term, for three reasons. First, there is an indication, at a national scale, of a reduction in hunting pressure over the last 20 years, with many people deciding voluntarily that they no longer wish to shoot woodcock. Second, a ban might remove the motivation for many landowners to manage their woods in ways that will maintain suitable habitat for woodcock. Third, parts of western Britain have no history of breeding woodcock, but host large numbers of migrants, so shooting in these areas does not put residents at risk except during cold spells when residents might move south and west.”

These arguments seem rather thin. Firstly, arguing that a ban isn’t needed because people aren’t shooting them so much any more isn’t an argument. So long as some people are shooting them then there is a potential impact. Secondly, it is a sad inditement of landowners if they are purely motivated to look after habitat so that they may have a chance of shooting a few snipe. We are not talking about subsistence farmers needing compensation for the real and opportunity costs of living with elephants and lions! In any case, stewardship schemes already exist for those who need more motivation. Thirdly, it may be true that those woodcock shot in some parts of Western Britain today are mostly non-residents and hence part of the large stable population of migratory woodcock which may indeed be able to sustain a degree of “harvesting”, but the data on this seems patchy and even the GWCT admit that resident birds may move West in cold snaps, increasing the risk that they are accidentally targeted by shooters believing themselves to be safely shooting birds from an unthreatened population.

In short, the precautionary principle should surely be being applied. Rather than crowing that there is no scientific evidence that shooting waders is contributing to their decline, The Shooting Times would do better to argue that in the absence of convincing evidence that the UK’s most embattled birds aren’t negatively impacted by shooting them their readers might be well advised to curb the urge to shoot them. After all, we so often hear about the sportsmen’s fondness for their quarry and many countrymen still work hard to protect black grouse without any opportunity to shoot them. Might we not hope that individuals would continue to care about snipe and woodcock, even when not allowed to shoot them? Indeed, some forward-thinking country sports enthusiasts have already sworn off shooting these birds.

We live in a time of discord. A nation divided, with incivility increasingly normalised. It’s about time everyone stopped sniping at each other and focused on finding common goals before we all charge merrily into the abyss, still calling each other names, united only by our mutual disdain. Not all shooting is bad for the environment, and although some people may object to killing things on principle, I would suggest that they choose their battles carefully. Shooters meanwhile should appreciate that their sport is under scrutiny like never before. If they want to make a convincing case that it has a future then they need to look much harder at what should constitute acceptable practice. Happily, some already are.

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