European farmers and hunters have destroyed predators for centuries (Reynolds & Tapper 1996; McDonald & Murphy 2000), but the most efficient and systematic form of this deadly campaign evolved on privately owned sporting estates, especially in Britain after the 1860s. Game birds were required in large numbers, especially for "driven" shoots using the modern range of sporting firearms. Under British law, all forms of wildlife were then the legal possession of the landowner, who was usually disinclined to share them with natural predators or with people other than invited guests.
The policy of the time was to increase the harvest available to the shooting party by indiscriminate suppression of all predatory mammals and birds and by rigorous enforcement of the laws of trespass, especially against poachers. In Commonwealth countries, such galling social discrimination had ended decades before, with the transfer of legal ownership of wildlife to the state, especially on vast areas of publicly owned land. This option is not available in Britain, most of which is privately owned, even in national parks. The law on British wildlife has merely become much more complicated, while still requiring the goodwill of landowners (Tapper 1999). (In the United States, wildlife species are a publicly owned resource whose management responsibility falls to the state and federal governments.)
Gamekeepers were supplied with guns, poisons, and the newly developed steel kill traps. They proudly displayed their catches on "gibbets" (rows of carcasses hung up by the necks) (Yalden 1999) as evidence of their hard work (Figure 12.2), and some even turned this deadly trade into an art form.
The number of keepers employed increased steadily from 15,000 in 1871 (the earliest available figure) to a peak of over 23,000 in 1911 (Potts 1986). At that time, the heyday of Edwardian country life (Tapper 1992), about half the land area of Britain suitable for shooting was covered by more or less intensive predator control operations, and almost any mammal or bird that got its living even partly by hunting was at risk of its life. The effects on predators were of two main kinds.
Several species of carnivores and raptors, which had previously been widespread, disappeared from most of Britain. The pine marten and the wild cat vanished from England and most of Scotland during the first half of the nineteenth century, and the polecat during the second half (Yalden 1999). Five species of hawks and eagles were completely eliminated by 1916, and three others reduced to remnants.
These extinctions were not due to any contemporary losses of the habitats of these species. Massive deforestation starting in the Neolithic period (5000 years BP) had already reduced the natural forest cover of Britain to its all-time
low (probably to under 4% of the total land area) by about 1700. The most serious declines of martens, polecats, and raptors started some 50 to 100 years later, and they coincided rather with the reforestation programs, which started about 1750. Even game authorities now generally accept that the disappearance last century of the martens and polecats was due mainly to direct human persecution (Tapper 1992, 1999).
At the same time, huge numbers of foxes, otters, badgers, stoats, and common weasels were also killed, but none of them suffered the same catastrophic population decreases, except perhaps locally and temporarily. This difference arose, at least in part, because foxes and otters were also conserved for hunting, and many badgers could remain secure in their underground setts during the era before power-driven cyanide gassing equipment. Stoats and common weasels were (and still are) simply extremely resistant to control (King & Moors 1979b).
The reason for the resilience ofweasel populations in general is one of the consequences of their opportunistic way of life. Weasels have very variable productivity and high natural mortality. Births and deaths are seldom in equilibrium, so local variation in density is expected and frequent local extinctions are normal (Chapter 10). At the same time, weasels are very resistant to total extinction, because a few can always survive hard times in a favorable patch of habitat somewhere, and these holdouts are good at recolonizing abandoned areas when things improve.
By contrast, equilibrium species such as martens, otters, and the large raptors tend to have steadier, lower productivity and, when undisturbed, fairly stable populations with relatively low mortality among the adults. They cannot compensate for any sudden increase in mortality, so they are slow to recover from heavy losses, and are particularly vulnerable to both local and total extinction. They certainly needed the legal protection that was granted just in time to save many of them from oblivion. These ideas explain why it is nearly always the large ones among a given type of animal that first become threatened by persecution (unless they have some refuges or are locally protected), while small ones survive (King & Moors 1979b).
In the conditions of the time, the old policy of enhancing game bags by rigorous predator control alone was highly successful and, although distasteful to modern eyes, it was at least sustainable. The small fields, networks of hedges, regular crop rotations, and absence of chemical pesticides provided the best possible conditions for the nesting and survival of partridges and pheasants. Both flourished greatly, and were shot in numbers that seem unbelievable to today's sportsmen.
Nowadays, game estates are fewer and smaller, and systematic predator control is practiced to only a fraction of its former extent. Pine martens, polecats, wild cats, buzzards, and hen harriers are all extending their ranges as, for reasons summarized above, the twentieth-century concept of conservation has slowly taken over from the nineteenth-century concept of game preservation (McDonald & Birks 2003). Old attitudes toward predators (such as "the only good weasel is a dead one") are changing to a more informed and discriminating assessment; long lines of decomposing vermin on gibbets are now seen as a bad advertisement for the keeper's work, which distracts attention from the real good that keepers do for conservation in the countryside.
In addition, research now plays a key part in determining management policies on game estates. Particularly intensive research has been done on the ecology of the grey partridge in England, including some estimate of the part played in it by stoats and common weasels.
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