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Field sports and conservation in the United Kingdom


Many natural habitats exist on privately owned land outside protected areas1, but few governments can afford to enforce or subsidize conservation of this biodiversity. Even in some developed countries, conservation subsidy schemes have only achieved limited success2,3,4. Fortunately, some landowners may be willing to accept management costs in return for other benefits5, although this remains controversial when it involves the killing of charismatic species. For example, participants in British field sports, such as fox hunting and game-bird shooting, may voluntarily conserve important habitats that are required by quarry species6,7,8. Here we report results from a multidisciplinary study that addressed this issue by focusing on three sites across central England. We found that landowners participating in field sports maintained the most established woodland and planted more new woodland and hedgerows than those who did not, despite the equal availability of subsidies. Therefore, voluntary habitat management appears to be important for biodiversity conservation in Britain. Current debates on the future of field sports in Britain, and similar activities globally, may benefit from considering their utility as incentives to conserve additional habitat on private land.


Private landowners play an increasingly important role in biodiversity conservation1. This is especially important where habitats form isolated remnants in an agricultural matrix, and it is politically difficult to establish large protected areas9. This is typified by the situation in Britain, where farmland covers 76% of the country and increases in agricultural efficiency have caused great declines in biodiversity7,10,11. The British government has responded by introducing legislation to protect important habitats and species on public and private land12,13,14, as well as establishing subsidy schemes11,15. However, conservation legislation remains unpopular with certain landowners, making enforcement by the statutory agencies difficult16. In contrast, subsidised agri-environment schemes do not involve coercion, but receive little funding17 and can be poorly targeted4,18. Nevertheless, many British landowners are interested in conservation and may be willing to accept the costs of maintaining biodiversity19. However, research on this topic requires consideration of the role of field sports, which are controversial because of associated animal welfare issues.

Woodland and hedgerows are important habitats and create linkages across agricultural landscapes20, while also providing important cover for British quarry species8. Both habitat types have declined considerably in the past 50 years21,22, but those elements with high scenic or conservation value now have legal protection through a range of prescriptive legislation12,13. In addition, particular subsidies now encourage maintenance and planting of woodland and hedgerows15, although funding availability is limited17. Moreover, uptake of such schemes depends on landowners' conservation values19 and field sports may play a role in maintaining these habitats8. But previous studies have either used self-selecting questionnaires6,7 or focused on the effects of game management practices on specific taxa23,24. We therefore sought to determine whether those who hunt foxes and/or maintain a game-bird shoot on their land voluntarily increase the biodiversity value of their land. We measured the extent of woodland and hedgerows in three study sites in central England, and investigated whether participation in these field sports, as well as farm size, farm type, dependence on income from farming, and membership of a biodiversity advisory group, influenced a landowner's likelihood of conserving habitat (see Methods).

Analysis of aerial photographs showed that landowners who hunt and those who maintain game-bird shooting support more woodland cover than those not involved in field sports (hunt: F-test statistical datum F = 4.004, P = 0.05; shoot: F = 12.439, P = 0.001), with no effect of study site, farm size or type, income dependence, or advisory-group membership. Landowners who both hunted and maintained game-bird shoots conserved the most woodland cover, around 7% of their farm area (Fig. 1). There was no difference in the proportion of field boundaries consisting of woodland or hedgerow between landowners practising and not involved in field sports (hunt: F = 0.305, P = 0.583; shoot: F = 0.956, P = 0.332).

Figure 1: Influence of participation in field sports on the proportion of each farm covered with woodland.
figure 1

Data are mean ± s.e.

Interviews revealed that landowners who participated in hunting and shooting were more likely to have planted woodland (Area under the Receiver Operating Characteristic curve (AUC) = 0.781; hunt: Wald = 6.050, P = 0.014; shoot: Wald = 8.463, P = 0.004; Fig. 2), with no effect of study site, farm size or type, or advisory-group membership. These results support an earlier questionnaire study7, suggesting that involvement in field sports is an important incentive for farmers to create additional woodland. The likelihood of planting will also depend on the landowner's income, as new planting incurs direct and opportunity costs, even with grant support. Indeed, landowners who hunt and maintain game-bird shoots were less dependent on farming income (hunt: χ2 = 4.197, P = 0.04; shoot: χ2 = 7.565, P = 0.006), but wealth alone does not appear sufficient to encourage landowners to plant.

Figure 2
figure 2

Influence of participation in field sports on the proportion of landowners planting new woodland.

New hedgerow planting was predicted by hunting and advisory-group membership (AUC = 0.752; hunt: Wald = 6.166, P = 0.013; advisory group: Wald = 10.657, P = 0.001; Fig. 3), with no effect of study site, farm size or type, income dependence, or maintaining a game-bird shoot. Furthermore, hedgerows were generally richer in woody plant species when landowners belonged to an advisory group, although this depended on study site (site × advisory group: F = 3.637, P = 0.007; Fig. 4), with no effect of farm size or type, income dependence, or participation in field sports. Previous studies have shown that species richness in hedgerows is affected by both hedgerow age and current management25. Hence, our findings further emphasize19 the value of landowners belonging to an advisory group for maintaining species diversity in hedgerows. Moreover, our findings suggest that participating in fox hunting can indirectly support hedgerow conservation through new planting, and supplement the direct support shown by landowners belonging to advisory groups.

Figure 3
figure 3

Influence of participation in hunting and membership of an advisory group on the proportion of landowners planting new hedgerows.

Figure 4: Influence of study site and membership of an advisory group on number of woody plant species in hedgerows.
figure 4

Data are mean ± s.e.

Our results suggest that governments in developed countries, such as Britain, could benefit from adopting the sustainable-use and incentive-based conservation policies that they encourage abroad26,27. We have shown that landowners participating in British field sports are more likely to maintain established woodland habitat on their farms. More importantly, they are also more likely to undertake new plantings, even though all the farmers have equal opportunities to apply for subsidies that support these activities. Game-bird shooting produced a greater effect on established and planted woodland (Figs 1 and 2), which is unsurprising given the considerable financial return it can generate for landowners. Nevertheless, landowners who hunt with hounds are more likely to conserve woodland habitat (Fig. 1) and plant more woodland and hedgerows (Figs 2 and 3), suggesting that the perceived recreation and social benefits of this controversial activity can produce conservation benefits. However, current debate over the future of fox hunting with hounds predominantly focuses on welfare issues and its uncertain role in population control28,29, leading to proposed legislation that seeks to balance cruelty against utility of control30. Our results suggest an equally valid test of utility could focus on the role of landowners in voluntary habitat conservation. Equally, should hunting, or indeed game-bird shooting, be banned on welfare grounds without concessions for such utility, then additional public funds may be needed to increase subsidies for habitat conservation, together with the strengthened capacity to enforce legislation.


Sampling protocol

Three study sites that each fell within one hunt country (an area hunted by an individual hunt) were chosen to represent arable, mixed and pastoral farming areas in central England, an area that has little coverage of formally protected areas. Lists of farmers were obtained at each site from the local foxhunt. Samples of hunting and non-hunting farmers were chosen using a random number generator. All selected farmers agreed to participate in the study, and this produced a total sample size across the three study sites of 65 landowners who owned more than half their farms and had farmed there for 10 years or more. Questionnaire-based interviews conducted with each landowner sought details of the following: farm boundaries; farm type (whether arable, livestock or mixed); farm income dependence (whether or not dependent solely on income from farming); non-productive land management (whether or not new woodland and hedgerows had been planted in the previous 10 years); advisory-group membership (whether or not the landowner belonged to an advisory group such as the Farming and Welfare Advisory Group); and maintenance of game shooting (whether or not farms maintained commercial or non-commercial game shooting on their land). Each selected farm was digitized from 1999/2000 aerial photos, and ArcView v3.2 GIS software (ESRI, Redlands, California) was used to determine its size, area of woodland and length of hedgerows. Hedgerow surveys—undertaken along 1.6 km of hedgerow from eight hedges randomly selected from digitized maps on each sampled farm—sought to determine the number of woody plant species in each hedge.

Statistical analysis

We sought to identify the factors that determine whether landowners conserved woodland and hedgerow habitat, irrespective of study site. Habitat conservation was assessed through five measures on a total of 65 farms: the proportion of each farm covered in established woodland; the proportion of landowners planting new woodland; the proportion of farm boundary consisting of hedgerow and woodland on each farm; the proportion of landowners planting new hedgerows; and, the number of woody plant species per kilometre of hedgerow on each farm. Each of these dependent variables was compared against the following explanatory variables: study site; farm size; farm type; farm income dependence; advisory group member; participation in fox hunting; and maintenance of game shooting on the farm. All of these variables, apart from farm size, were categorical. General linear modelling was used to find the factors determining the following: the proportion of woodland; the proportion of farm boundary consisting of hedgerow and woodland; and the number of woody plant species per kilometre of hedgerow. In order to meet the assumptions of the general linear model, a square-root transformation was applied to the proportion of woodland. Stepwise logistic regression modelling was used to find the factors that determined the probability of landowners having planted woodland and hedgerows. The possible influence of spatial autocorrelation was investigated for each dependent variable within each study site by calculating the Moran's I statistic using the CrimeStatII software package (v2.0, Ned Levine & Associates, Houston, Texas) and no significant effect was evident.


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We thank farmers in the Suffolk, Warwickshire and Berkeley hunt countries for their co-operation, and M. J. Walpole and M. S. Ridout for advice. This work was supported by CHK Charities.

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Correspondence to N. Leader-Williams.

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Oldfield, T., Smith, R., Harrop, S. et al. Field sports and conservation in the United Kingdom. Nature 423, 531–533 (2003).

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