East Anglia: Dismay as fox cubs shot by gamekeepers at RSPB reserve

A family of fox cubs has been shot dead on an East Anglian nature reserve, prompting dismay among wildlife-lovers – and a staunch defence of predator control from gamekeepers.

The four young foxes had become a popular attraction for families visiting the Strumpshaw Fen reserve, outside Norwich, and their sudden disappearance raised questions from visitors.

The animals were shot at the behest of the private landowner which owns the reserve and retains the right to host game shoots and control predators which threaten the estate’s valuable stocks of pheasants.

The RSPB’s site manager said his team was “upset” by what had happened to the cubs, but could not intervene in the legal rights of the estate to which the reserve owes its existence.

But while some were outraged at the cull, gamekeepers on the reserve stressed that the control of foxes was a centuries-old necessity which was vital to preserve the livelihood of country estates.

Jamie Hall, an amateur wildlife photographer from Blofield, said: “The public’s point of view on a nature reserve is that you go there to see nature and wildlife, and you wouldn’t want to go there knowing they had been culling animals. People really enjoyed seeing these cute cubs running around, only to find they have been blatantly shot.

“The real irony is that they were shooting one animal in order to allow the shooting of another, because pheasants are only bred to be shot.

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“I wonder if the same would apply to otters or marsh harrier, because they are just as capable of predating on the pheasants, but they don’t have the same monetary value. A lot of people are extremely annoyed that this could happen on a nature reserve, and that it probably happens all the time but we don’t get to hear about it.

“The cubs had got to the stage where they were becoming inquisitive and were coming out to play. They were drawing customers through the doors to see them. You could have 10-20 people all standing there with cameras and video cameras. Everybody knew about them, and they were in an accessible part of the reserve very close to the reception.”

Strumpshaw Fen’s site manager, Tim Strudwick, said: “The RSPB team at Strumpshaw Fen are really upset about what has happened to the fox cubs and also about the misinformation out there, which we’d like to correct. Firstly, the RSPB did not shoot, or request the shooting of, the fox cubs. We do not own the land where they were shot and so we were powerless to intervene. It is our legal obligation to cooperate with our landlord (a local game-keeping estate) to control predators that affect the estate’s pheasant breeding operation on their land.

“We’re not happy about what has happened, especially because the cubs had become a wonderful visitor attraction. However, we have a clear choice; continue to cooperate with our landlord and secure the future of Strumpshaw Fen as a nature reserve, or lose a local gem for people and amazing place for wildlife.

“In future, we will do as much as possible to deter foxes from breeding on this part of the nature reserve.”

A gamekeeper working for the Strumpshaw Hall Estate said: “The estate retains shooting rights, and the land is shot over several times a year, so predator control is very important for the gamekeepers.

“We have had this relationship for many years, with no issues. If you are running a pheasant shoot, foxes can destroy a large part of your livestock, and that is very expensive for the estate. If you get a litter of cubs and a glut of food they will just kill as many as they can. I have picked up 150 in one morning. A marsh harrier will only kill to feed themselves or their chicks.

“They (foxes) are a lovely animal but there are just so many of them around. People get upset about it, which I can understand, and it is unfortunate that these foxes were in a public part of the reserve.

“But it has been happening for centuries. Game shooting is a massive industry and foxes are controlled throughout the country to protect the livelihoods of people like me. There are a lot of people, even living in the countryside, who do not understand that.

“Another thing to consider is that people who manage the countryside for pheasants are also conserving it for other wildlife as well.”