How will climate change affect fieldsports?

Following that damning IPCC report, Al Gabriel wonders how climate change will impact on the sports we love and the natural order of life in the UK.

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The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) last month produced a report, based on 14,000 scientific papers, that outlines the dire state of our planet. The picture the report paints is one of pure horror. It clearly points at humans as the major driving force for the deterioration of Earth.

This document, involving 234 scientists from 66 countries, represents the largest body of work on climate change to date. Increasing carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases, along with rising sea levels as a result of human activity, have altered weather patterns across the globe. It is now widely accepted that changes to our climate have kicked off what is known as “the sixth mass extinction event” on our planet.

The British Isles, along with most of northern Europe, are expected to get wetter in the coming decades. How is the shooting industry going to cope with this level of unprecedented climate change? Is the deerstalking world robust enough to deal with what’s on the horizon? 

On the day the announcement was made, I was driving to Yorkshire on the A1 while listening to a climate expert on BBC Radio 4. I was thinking about an article I read recently on how Greenland residents, who used to import most of their greens, are now growing strawberries in their gardens, thanks to climate change.

The report got me thinking about what the impacts of global warming, rising levels of greenhouses gases and freakish weather will have on the environment and the shooting industry. It also got me thinking about the carbon footprint of our industry and what we are doing about improving our green credentials.

In the grand scheme of things, the shooting industry’s contribution to greenhouse gases is minuscule compared with all the major contributors such as transport, farming or construction. That said, the gamekeeping and deerstalking fraternity are in a unique position in that we are charged with managing large parts of the British Isles. With such a responsibility we must do more to ensure we stay a green industry.

While most of us are keenly awaiting an affordable electric 4×4, we must carefully think about areas where we can cut down emissions as a result of our activities. Carpooling to a game day and electric Gun buses might not be far away. 

Par of the solution

The future of our climate and life on Earth hangs in the balance. The removal of carbon from the atmosphere, which we have been pumping out since the industrial revolution, is as important, if not more important, than reducing emissions alone. Plants are natural carbon filters and, given the chance, can do far more than any machine.

The role of the deerstalker is paramount here: the job at hand is to protect trees and native flora from deer. It can be argued that one of the main roles of the deerstalker is the preservation of carbon-sequestering machines, namely plants. This fact is what underpins the future of deerstalking; we are part of the carbon solution—we have always been. 

The next danger facing the gun trade is the impact of climate change on game shooting. If the seasons become wetter and more unpredictable, while summers get hotter and drier, will there be enough game on the ground to keep shoots viable? It is feasible that in our lifetime there may not be enough grouse—or other game for that matter—left for shooting if birds fare less well year on year.

This will come as a blow to shoots already experiencing increased business costs and shrinking profit margins. If seasons become shorter, with freakish heatwaves and floods, will the shooting community remain at the same level? There is a real danger here that in the coming decades prices will have to go up, so let days will become expensive for most people. There is also the question of heat and performance of birds on let days; low-flying birds in hot weather don’t make for a good day’s shooting.

Woodlands are critical resources. How will climate change affect timber production and how will deer respond to such changes? We can expect anecdotal changes in deer distribution that are more likely to be noticed in the coming years and decades. 

The most comprehensive review I could find on the matter is The Read Report, a 250-page document published by National Assessment of UK Forestry and Climate Change Steering Group in 2009. It makes for a fascinating read. I am pleased to discover the professionals have assessed the issues carefully and are anticipating forestry changes with an impressive level of detail.

One of the greater changes to woodland management to be expected is the introduction of new tree varieties uncommon in the UK. There will also be an elevated level of risk in the number of diseases and insects affecting trees and other flora. The fascinating bit for me, however, is how different parts of the country will respond to climate change. 

Fecundity

Current projections suggest that areas of south, central and eastern England will have drier and warmer summers, perhaps resulting in increasingly severe soil moisture deficits, which in turn will reduce tree growth, particularly on shallow, south-facing slopes and sandy-textured, freely draining soils.

The conclusions from the report also suggest that warmer growing seasons and rising carbon dioxide concentrations will stimulate productivity and timber production in some parts of the country but not others. What about the impact this has on the breeding cycle and fecundity of deer? Will it result in changes to the open season that may reflect regional bias—shorter seasons in the south and extended seasons in the north of England and Scotland? 

Current scientific reports are in favour of deer numbers expanding and that is good news if you’re a stalker and bad news if you’re a forestry owner. There will definitely be winners and losers, split by geography and by profession. If the southern part of the British Isles becomes too hot with marked habitat loss, and deer migrate northwards, this could have an impact for our native species.

Being a roe aficionado, I find the prediction is rather grim. Roe are expected to lose ground in 30 to 60 years as a result of increasing temperatures in the south, but the non-native deer species are most likely to benefit from the deer deserts left behind.

The Read Report makes the argument that the non-native species have been introduced further north than their native ranges so are more likely to benefit from the predicted heating of our planet. One thing is for sure, the next phase of tree plantations will take decades to be ready, by which point the impact might be felt widely and strongly. Selecting hardier species and adjusting for regional climates will therefore become more important. 

Climate change is now central to our survival and something we have to keep an eye on as a community. We must also bear in mind that the estimates and predictions are for decades and centuries, so we must be realistic about the gradual change in our practices. It may sometimes feel like an insurmountable problem and the changes slow and hard, but we must plan ahead. 

Deerstalkers must play a key role in monitoring and collecting data at a national scale if we are ever to understand the impact of climate change on our native deer. 


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