The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s chief executive, Teresa Dent, explains how she came to the role and why the organisation’s scientific research is key to protecting both shooting and the environment
The GWCT has its headquarters just outside of the picturesque Georgian town Fordingbridge. It is not near Starbucks or Costa. GWCT was once a backwater, but now it is firmly rooted in the middle of the conservation and environmental politics. Teresa Dent’s 21-year tenure as chief executive has kept the organisation in the thick of the debate. She recalls: “When I took over in 2002 I was delighted to get the job and was made to feel welcome. All the same I was on a big learning curve because, although my degree is in agriculture, the GWCT is all about the most stringent scientific research.”
Dent loves the countryside and people of it since she was a child. “I grew up surrounded by fields and the country way of life,” she says. “When it came to choosing my university, I discovered that Reading offered a degree in agriculture and that sounded rather interesting.” While studying Dent did vacation work at Strutt & Parker’s Salisbury office. It was the ideal mix of rural life and business: “They offered me a job after I graduated. There were few women in the farming industry at that time, but I was able to become a partner. At Strutt & Parker people were a vital element.
The GWCT has been the subject of much debate
“When I joined the GWCT I found that it was the same constituency, and I understood land management and achieving conservation- based environmental outcomes. At the GWCT we focus on the people on the ground who make conservation work.” She fell in love with the job and with her office looking out over the River Avon. “I can look out over what I call ‘my bend in the river’. You can watch the kingfishers, and see the changing seasons. Here we have water meadows that are managed. As the river goes through Salisbury, it is a bit of a responsibility to know we have to protect the cathedral.”
Dent was thrown into a ferocious rural controversy during her time at the GWCT. “The ban on hunting came in soon after I arrived, and with it serious concerns that shooting would quickly follow.” So the existing long-term scientific research at the core of the GWCT took on a sense of urgency. The organisation’s flagship Allerton Project had been going on at Loddington estate in Leicestershire since the 1990s but now additional research was needed on driven shooting release. Dent remembers: “We raised funds and started on an important piece of work about gamebird releasing densities on driven shoots, looking at what would be sustainable.”
Dent finds herself embroiled in rural controversy
This study was considered quite bold at the time, but today it is widely accepted as part of an approach that is sensible to rural conservation. “Many people thought we would come up with very low release densities,” says Dent. The relationship between the GWCT, the country sports community and the GWCT could have been strained but science provided answers that the shooters found reasonable. “It was entirely truthful,” stresses Dent.
“The GWCT talks to everyone and it was a great result that everybody responded well to. Our guidelines were published and adopted instantly. It meant that I could go to the relevant government ministers and show them the evidence in action.” This early success confirmed the position of Dent’s GWCT at the heart of the debate. Her work takes her to Fordingbridge but also the organisation’s bases in Scotland and Wales, the English uplands and the long-running Frome fishery study.
The GWCT is driven by science in action
Dent, despite the travel time, finds time to visit the game fairs where her navy wellies, which are very stylish, are highly admired. “I did the tweed ribbons round the tops myself,” she smiles. “The tweed matches my favourite skirt.” While her ‘in wellies’ work takes her out to meet country people, she is often in London discussing research and contributing to white papers and strategy plans. Dent takes pride in the GWCT’s role at the forefront of rural policymaking. “Lord Curry came to visit the Allerton Project and saw how our research was put into practice on the ground.
He said, ‘This is what the outcome of policy should look like.’” Dent points out: “The Government is going to need a lot of help in reaching its targets. The RSPB says that 8% of land is managed as nature reserves. The targets cannot be met solely by these areas. Therefore, the farmers and landowners in the UK who manage 70% of the land must provide the necessary support. That means the GWCT role is now really important as the most trusted organisation among farmers.”
Teresa Dent CBE
Fortunately, the GWCT initiative with farmers is already showing positive results. “We invented the idea of ‘farm clusters’: groups of farms working together to improve their land management for nature. Our mission is to use science to inspire the people who own the land to make it a better environment,” she explains. Dent may be personally pleased, but the science is not a subjective accomplishment. The numbers prove it. Its project at Langholm Moor has shown, for instance, that after resuming grouse moor administration, curlew and golden plover numbers increased by an average of 10% each year.
If Dent’s GWCT can continue to achieve such evidence at a time when thought-free sentimentality has seized the environmental agenda, then the CBE she was awarded in 2015 should be followed by a damehood. She does worry about a future where farmers are expected to save nature with little support from the government: “I am keen that farms and land managers should be fairly rewarded. Many of the people with whom I work are committed to achieving good environmental results, but are not as good at communicating their efforts to others. We have to tap into their willingness to invest in their own heritage, to do something today that will benefit their grandchildren.” Thankfully, that action is unlikely to be glueing themselves to the nearest bit of infrastructure.
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