Managing land for game birds can also help protect wild farmland species, said conservation advisers.

Senior figures from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) were joined by about 50 industry guests for a farm walk at the 1,500-acre Southrepps Estate near Cromer, which was hailed as a positive example of what could be achieved for nature.

As its sporting shoots expanded since the early 1980s, the estate has established wild bird cover plots and planted 50km of hedges and 40,000 trees in eight new plantations - improving the overall landscape and biodiversity.

During the last five years, the mature woodland has been thinned out to allow more shrubs to thrive at ground level. This creates ideal habitats, not only for partridges and pheasants reared for shooting but also for wild migratory species like willow warblers and blackcaps.

Dr Roger Draycott, head of advisory services for the GWCT, said farmers and gamekeepers should be more vocal about these knock-on benefits to balance the arguments of anti-shooting campaigners.

"We should definitely be talking a lot more about the positive benefits for conservation and wildlife that can arise from game management," he said. 

"I think this [at Southrepps] is a very good example. They have a very good network of wild bird covers at different stages of growth, providing habitats for wild birds and pollinators all year round. That is really important.

"Game management gets a lot of criticism, but it has been the driving force for a lot of farm woodland planting over the years. If you open up the woodland it will make it better for pheasants who want that low-level ground cover, but by doing that you are providing extra habitats for species like willow warbler, blackcap, chiffchaff and garden warbler."

willow warbler

Dr Draycott also spoke about the value of the general licences which allow farmers to shoot birds like crows, magpies and pigeons to protect their crops, livestock and vulnerable bird species. After a government consultation three general licences - revoked by Natural England in April following a legal challenge from Chris Packham's campaign group Wild Justice - have now been replaced.

Dr Draycott said: "Interestingly, the evidence we gathered from all our members was that actually, the biggest frustration was that we didn't have those licences to protect the nests of vulnerable birds like lapwings and curlews - that was more important to them than being able to protect game birds. The message came through that these licences were vital for conservation purposes."

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