Mountainous issue

There is something quite startling when we compare the American and Canadian models of hunting and conservation to our own. Wildlife and conservation seems to play a greater role on the other side of the Atlantic; for many of us, it’s hunting first, conservation second. True, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust puts a great emphasis on conservation, but in many ways it sits on its own in terms of operation. The ‘wildlife first‘ model in operation across the pond is worth taking a good look at. We are very happy as individuals and organisations to bandy around the notion that we as hunters are conservationists, but how much time and effort is truly focused on this?

We all know the many positive side-effects of driven grouse moor management, but simply partaking in the harvesting of grouse is not enough. The same is true with stalking; just because you have ethically killed a deer and put it in your freezer doesn’t make it conservation. Wild meat has indeed been harvested, but unless you are monitoring population dynamics you have no idea what a harvestable surplus should be, or indeed what animals need to be focused on for the good of the population. It is disingenuous to suggest that the act of harvesting wild game alone is conservation.

In the USA, Pheasants Forever has done tremendous work improving pollinator habitats to coincide with cover for pheasants. Ducks Unlimited has raised and spent millions of dollars restoring wetland habitat and grasslands, among many other projects. Look at the website of these organisations and find their conservation tab and you will see an impressive list of on-going projects making a real difference, not just to game but to many other species as well. Do the same for our UK-based organisations and it should be disheartening to find that many will not even mention conservation, and those which do offer little more than advice. Action and projects are not there to be found.

The bighorn ram benefits from thousands of days of organised conservation work every year

Let’s look at the Wild Sheep Foundation as a case in point. In the century leading up to the 1960s, big horn sheep populations and their range had declined markedly. In 1974 a group of wild sheep enthusiasts founded the Foundation of North American Wild Sheep, with the sole intention of restoring wild sheep populations across the continent. In 2008 the name was changed to the Wild Sheep Foundation.

Since its formation, the Wild Sheep Foundation has raised and implemented more than $115m for conservation initiatives. The result? A staggering success story for conservation, increasing the sheep population threefold thanks to the efforts of the hunters at the core of it.

The decline of wild sheep and goats across North America started in the 1800s during the rapid period of increased human settlement. It has been suggested that there were in excess of two million Big Horn sheep prior to the 1800s, but fewer than 25,000 remained by the mid- 1950s. Unregulated trade hunting, disease and grazing competition from domestic livestock, as well as the encroachment of human populations, affected a naturally fragmented population. This facilitated a rapid decline of Big Horn and many other species.

Through a combination of population transplants, research, water development, predator management and educational outreach (to name just a few of the WSF’s initiatives) the numbers of Rocky Mountain Big Horn sheep increased from just 25,000 in the 1950s to more than 85,000 today. Some states have seen population growth of 200 per cent and Oregon has seen a rise of 2,000 per cent in wild sheep population.

The WSF provides not only funding, but labour and political support to aid in the restoration efforts for wild sheep. It has also focused much time, effort and funding on habitat enhancement. As is true of all species, without suitable habitat there is little chance of a recovery or long term survival for wild sheep. From prescribed burning and water development, to noxious weed control and fence modification, the foundation is focused on action and wildlife.

Although well-known among North American hunters and those with a particular fondness for the pursuit of sheep, one of the most important aspects of the foundation’s initiatives has been in the effective separation of domestic and wild sheep.

Think about your hunting activities. Are you truly participating in conservation?

Just as the Native Americans were impacted with the arrival of European settlers with a lack of immunity to certain diseases, so too were the wild sheep of North America when domestic sheep and goats were introduced. The predominant problem lay with respiratory diseases caused by bacteria, and today still remains the single biggest barrier to wild sheep population restoration.

In Big Horn sheep this bacteria can cause substantial mortality, with anything from 75 to 100 per cent of a herd dying in a short period after being in contact with domestic sheep and goats. Examples have occurred as recently as 2009-2010, where nine separate Big Horn sheep die offs, over five separate States, resulted in an estimated 1,600-1,700 sheep deaths. That represents more than 1 per cent of the population in a single year. With this knowledge, the importance placed on spatial and temporal separation with domestic livestock becomes clear. This too is the reason so much weight is put on disease research and the science behind it. Look up the employees at the Wild Sheep Foundation and you will see a very different CV spectrum when compared to their counterparts in the UK. They predominantly are people of science, research and conservation with a hunting interest. That’s not just true of the WSF – Pheasants Forever employs more than 100 wildlife biologists.

I could write at length about the various initiatives driven by hunting organisations in the US and Canada. The wildlife has to come first. I ask you as a hunter, and Sporting Rifle reader, to ask the question: what are we truly doing for conservation in the UK? See how far down the rabbit hole you go.

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