Matt Ridley

Don’t grouse about grouse

Grouse moors, like big-game hunting in Zimbabwe, boost biodiversity as well as creating good jobs

The vast Bubye Valley Conservancy in southern Zimbabwe is slightly larger than County Durham, as well as much hotter and drier. Yet both contain abundant wildlife thanks almost entirely to the hunting of game. In Bubye Valley, it’s lions and buffalo that are the targets; in the Durham dales, it’s grouse. But the effect is the same — a spectacular boost to other wildlife, privately funded.

Bubye Valley was a cattle ranch, owned by Unilever, until 1994 when it was turned over to wildlife. A double electric fence was put round the entire 850,000-acre reserve. Gradually the buffalo, giraffe, wildebeest, zebra and antelope numbers grew. Elephants and rhinos were moved there from areas more vulnerable to poaching, and the conservancy now has the third-largest black rhino population in the world. Seventeen lions were introduced and there are now more than 500 — so many that they are reducing the numbers of cheetahs and wild dogs as well as their normal prey, and may need to be culled.

Being hot, dry and featureless, the thick bush of Bubye Valley does not make good photo-tourism country, so the reserve derives income from selling licences to rich hunters to stalk and shoot buffalo, lion and other species. Shocking? No: the income from the licences — as well as the meat — is shared with local communities, and goes to build clinics and schools. The conservancy also employs hundreds of people. This is a self-funding conservation triumph in which the rich pay and the poor benefit.

It’s the same all over the world: properly controlled hunting provides an incentive and a reward for conservation. One cold, foggy morning in early May this year, at 4 a.m., I was sitting in a little tent on a Durham moor watching what I think is Britain’s most spectacular wildlife sight: the lek, or communal display, of male black grouse.

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