Thursday, 3 April 2014

The Fox and the Leveret

The Fox - a top predator

A Leveret - very vulnerable to Fox predation
I have just finished giving a number of talks around the country on various topics, including the Brown Hare, a much loved species that seems to hold a special place in people’s hearts and always seems to draw a good sized audience.

The talk on Hares is quite wide ranging and covers history, mythology, ecology and reasons for population declines where they have occurred and how we can go about restoring these low or lost populations.

As well as managing habitats on farmland to make sure that Hares have a good round the year food supply and cover for leverets to hide in, I also talk about the predation on Hares by, in particular, Foxes. Research by the GWCT has shown on numerous occasions that Fox predation plays a key part in holding back population growth, even where suitable habitat has been put in place.  To support this I put up a graph which clearly shows the importance of reducing Fox numbers if you want Hare numbers to thrive.

It is interesting how people from all walks of life recognise the impact that one species may have on another and will often raise questions about the need for “predator control” and welcome the chance to have a discussion on the topic.

However, the other night almost the first “question” was “I’m an ecologist and I have come along this evening to learn more about the Brown Hare, not the “demonisation” of the Fox”.  It was quite interesting that the audience immediately leapt to my defence (not that I needed them to but it was kind of them anyway!)  I tried to start to answer his question rationally, because I certainly don’t expect everyone to understand the necessity to control one species to help preserve another; however he did not appear to be interested in my response, saying that all the figures I had displayed were GWCT figures and therefore they would show that wouldn’t they!   (I pointed out that all the data had been peer reviewed by yes, “Ecologists” – but he just smirked.

Eventually, the Chairman asked him to continue his rant with me after the question session was over as other people also had things they wanted to ask about. As soon as the evening wound up, he came straight up to me to continue his outburst, literally shaking with anger and red in the face. He was completely past any sort of rational debate, so I gave him my card and suggested that he come to our headquarters in Fordingbridge to talk to the scientists who carried out the research. I haven’t heard a thing from him.

So, why am I telling you this! Well, it really is all about a question of balance I think. The countryside is a complicated place, with numerous different things impacting on wildlife and the habitats that they live in. There is also a plethora of opinions out there as to how we should go about managing this countryside of ours and I spend much of my time working with people from other organisations, finding common ground so that a clear message can go out to the land managers, who also of course have varied opinions on what is Ok and what is not!

GWCT research clearly shows that sometimes, but certainly not always, part of the problem behind the decline of a certain species, or the reason why it is not responding to good habitat management, is predation. The Brown Hare and Grey Partridge are two such species. This is however, not always the case. Take the RSPB’s excellent Cirl Bunting project in the West Country, which is a resounding success without even a passing mention of bashing a Magpie or Carrion Crow on the head.

 This is why we need good, practical research science carried out by good practical ecologists BEFORE we know how to properly manage habitats and the species that rely on them.

The whole episode has left me wondering; Do you think that there are ecologists out there, who on finding something that helped the species they were studying, but that they disapproved of, would just sweep it under the carpet?   


  1. I would imagine so, unfortunately, *people* are always willing to say one thing and do another. You mention the RSPB having a success story, but they haven't always been associated with success on their nature reserves, with predation from foxes being a problem, until they finally relented and controlled numbers, as well as predation from a *foreign* raptor species, and allowing natural moorland to basically go to ruin due to the predator population going boom and bust - their little experiment in allowing nature to take its course. Management is the key, we live on too small an island with far too many small and intricate eco systems that rely on remaining balanced and require human intervention to maintain that.

  2. My article in The Field, September 2013, highlights the desperate need for predator control when the RSPB bought Old Hall marsh in Essex and inherited a fifty year agreement where the NCC had stipulated rigorous control of certain species (fox, magpie, crow, rat, etc.) only to be stopped by RSPB request after only 24 years. The upshot was SITA recently had to step in with a £38,000 grant to provide electric fencing to protect lapwing nests from devastating fox predation. What ever happened to the common sense the NCC had in 1978?

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Sadly today the burgeoning population of top predators is more the result of modern human activity and sentiment than the result of a healthy and productive ecosystem. The predator-prey relationship, and the naturally fluctuating populations of each that used to be a basic ecological principle is but a distant memory in the presence of an ever increasing unnatural food supply that can sustain a large population even when the natural food source is drastically depleted. It is widely recognised that iconic bird populations have decreased in direct proportion to the increase in predators despite £400m each year spent on agri-environment schemes. As someone who has been at the sharp end of practical conservation for half a century I question the credentials of those who think that effective predator control is an easy option. It takes time and determination, but it works. I do agree with your last sentence though Adam. There is a vast and powerful juggernaut of organisations and TV personalities whose income is dependent on perpetuating the Walt Disney myth.

  4. I remember a documentary with Bill Oddie once, i believe it was talking about the Dormouse but in it he starts a wee rant about the grey Squirrel and asks that if people get the chance they should try to eradicate them. It made quite an impression on me and though we are fortunate to only have Red Squirrels here in the West of Scotland i would make a detour to shoot Greys for reasons of the ecology. The reason i`m mentioning this is because though for years people have gone on at me to try to convince me to see that foxes are a danger to wildlife and to encourage me to shoot foxes, its taken til this week to actually see sense. After being down Campbeltown at the lambing this week, and after reading this article about one of my favourite animals the Hare, i have completely turned my thinking around. Thanks for the article.