This is my first post and I figured I’d jump in at the deep end! Why not?
I am a self labelled conservationist. While that title isn’t official (it only is for a very few) I think I’ve earned it. I’ve studied in and around the topic officially for 4 ½ years at University – if that doesn’t indicate my financial commitment at least I don’t know what will. I’ve regularly volunteered for several years for a well known conservation group, as well as a local, less well known one. I’ve been employed on and off as a surveyor by that same large conservation group for several species groups. I submit species records (although not as often as I should do or intend to) to National and / or Local biological recording schemes. My current main occupation (‘job’ would imply it pays the bills, which currently it doesn’t!) is as a Project Manager for an Ancient Woodland Restoration and Environmental Education project. And I am a keen, although very amateur and poorly equipped, wildlife photographer. While there are many who have done, and do do more to earn the title, I’m not sure what else I could tell you to further quantify my claim, which I am sticking by, that I am a conservationist.
However… something else I do will probably have some people screaming ‘Hypocrite’!
I shoot. That is an ambiguous term isn’t it? Shooting.
There is no shortage of people heaping up criticism, vitriol and down-right hate, right up to and including death threats (clearly a charming bunch) on ‘the shooting community’ in recent months. Yes, damn those gold-medal winning Olympic trap shooters for blowing away all those clay discs! Sorry Peter Wilson (MBE – Olympic Gold Medal Winner), we don’t care how well you represented Team GB – you are part of ‘the shooting community’ because you own a gun and are therefore untrustworthy scum and intent on doing everything you can to illegally kill scarce birds of prey at every opportunity.*
I hope you will excuse my sarcasm (especially Peter Wilson, if he reads this), but this is exactly what it sounds like, to me at least, every time somebody in the media or on social media blames ‘The Shooting Community’ as a whole for the actions of a CRIMINAL representing a TINY MINORITY of those who could be considered to be part of said ‘community’. The Scottish Highlands are well known as a sparsely populated place – if every single one of the over 1 million Shotgun Certificate holders in this country (not to mention Firearms Licence holders or air gun owners) was up there shooting Hen Harriers somebody would have noticed by now.
It seems like in every other aspect of world wide society this sort of generalisation implicating entire communities in unacceptable behaviour based on the actions of a few is considered abhorrent. I hope you will excuse me for looking at current geopolitical turmoil for a comparison, where SMALL MINORITIES of EXTREMISTS are seeking to cause harm wherever they can. These extremists claim to be, in many cases, or at least the most publicised cases, Muslim. But would anyone in the mainstream media get away with substituting references to the ‘so called Islamic State’ in their official publications with ‘The Muslim Community’!? Or even just insinuating that the wider Muslim community condone, support or celebrate the actions of these extremists? Of course they wouldn’t, because they would be wrong – mistaken or ignorant at best; prejudiced, narrow-minded, sensationalist, warmongering, conflict-seeking and idiotic at worst. Editors and other journalists would be queuing up to disassociate themselves from this sort of sweeping and unjustified generalisation, and it’s not out of the question that criminal charges would be laid at the feet of those responsible for inciting racial hatred or some similar offence. And yet when it comes to ‘the shooting community’ this rule doesn’t apply, and these untrue and unfair generalisations seem not only to be accepted without question, but encouraged?! Somebody please explain this to me? (Please take that as a rhetorical question).
Before I go further I must address the question many of you will be asking: Do I consider myself part of the shooting community? If I said ‘No!’ those of you who have been reading this muttering ‘Flipping Hypocrite!’ (or worse) under your breath for the last few paragraphs would have a point. So yes, I do. And yet I have never set foot on a grouse moor with a shotgun, or any other weapon for that matter. In fact to the best of my knowledge I have never set foot on any moor which was at the time of my visit actively managed for grouse shooting. Nor have I ever shot anything for ‘sport’ or as a ‘trophy’; nor have I paid for the opportunity to shoot anything. My shooting consists mainly of two activities which I consider separately: 1) pest control: predominantly rabbits, rats, grey squirrels and pigeons, occasionally corvids, and 2) deer management, that is to say, culling.
Of the animals I kill, it is only the rats and crows I do not eat. Therefore if anyone still muttering ‘Hypocrite’ under their breath ISN’T a vegetarian… then right back at you! If you are a vegetarian then please feel free to continue your muttering, I commend you for standing by your convictions and I respect your right to both hold and express your opinions. I sincerely and genuinely mean that, but with all due respect, we will have to agree to disagree on this point.
For those muttering obscenities who do eat meat but prefer to let someone else do their dirty work; to buy animal protein from a source where they have no contact with the animal itself; with no indication or idea of how it has lived its life; to separate themselves entirely from the reality that all meat is the result of an animal death… I will allow you to draw your own conclusions on what I think of your attitude towards animal life, but I will continue to take the moral high ground over and above your views as at least I take ownership of my consumption and involve myself in the process.
Because I consider myself a part of ‘The Shooting Community’ I must therefore condone the actions of EVERYONE SINGLE OTHER PERSON in said community, right?
WRONG! An unequivocal, resounding, oft repeated NO! In the case of the most recent uproar and in case you didn’t catch it when I capitalised CRIMINAL previously, I do not condone the illegal killing of birds of prey, whether it is a Hen Harrier or any other species, regardless of the reason – it is a CRIME and should be punished, far more severely than is currently standard practice in fact.
Strange, because usually in a community everyone agrees with everything the others do?*
By that logic everybody in the ‘Conservation Community’ or the ‘Animal Rights / Welfare Community’ believes the SMALL MINORITY of CRIMINALS who have terrorized and intimidated the families of farmers in Gloucestershire because of the Badger Cull trials (link) should be decorated as heroes? Or that the group of protesters who desecrated the graves of the family members of employees at Huntingdon Life Sciences or similar organisations (link) should be applauded? David Attenborough, David Bellamy, Prince Charles, Bill Oddie, I could go on, all well known members of this community, were probably down there wielding shovels and spray cans themselves!
I hope you will forgive my somewhat opinionated style to this point, and the sarcasm – I know, I know, it’s the lowest form… . If it has come across as a rant, then that is not what I intended although it makes me no different, but I hope at least slightly more balanced, than many who post on these topics from both sides of the argument.
I find myself sitting in no man’s land for many of the disagreements between ‘the shooting community’ and ‘the conservation community’, being a part of both and yet often unable to wholehearted support the policy or attitude of one or the other. I often end up metaphorically looking at both sides in turn thinking ‘Seriously? That’s the stance you’re going to take?’
Let me give you, anyone still reading, an insight into my frustrations in the latest round of controversy that has, and is still, causing such divisive, and dare I say it, largely unproductive dialogue between the shooting and conservation groups. Grouse Moors.
These are my opinions and as such, regardless of yours which I respect, I am entitled to them. I do not pretend that this is by any means exhaustive, I am well aware that it neglects to mention entirely some of the bigger issues which ride entirely on different people’s opinions of what is morally right and wrong, including the concept of killing for sport – not claiming to be a philosopher I will not attempt to tackle that, nor even to express my own moderate feelings on the subject. I also do not pretend my views offer a perfect solution, because there is no such thing. Whenever somebody from one side or the other of the argument makes a statement along the lines of ‘in a perfect world’, ‘if I had my way’ or any other version thereof, what they really mean is ‘if anyone who disagrees with me had their freedom curtailed’. Last time I checked that didn’t qualify as a democratic society and as such there are a fair few changes at high levels that need to happen before we get to that scenario.
Firstly, a frustration. It frustrates me no end that the organisations within the shooting community, such as BASC (The British Association of Shooting and Conservation) or the NGO (National Gamekeepers Organisation) are not more vocal in their condemnation of the CRIMINALS giving the industry a bad name. Very recently and slightly off topic, but a relevant illustrative example and the same could be applied to pretty much every case of Harriers, Kites or Eagles turning up shot or poisoned, there was the rare case of a Red-footed Falcon in England. Very exciting it was too, having such a rare vagrant roaming the Midlands, right up until some idiotic CRIMINAL shot it in Cambridgeshire (link).
Rightly so, various conservation bodies, particularly those directly associated with avian conservation wasted no time in decrying these actions. The shooting groups: nothing! Not that I heard anyway. And this really annoys me, because they would have known about it, they would have heard. In this day of immediate and almost unavoidable communication they would undoubtable of been aware, but they did nothing to condemn these actions. This to me is unacceptable and does nothing to contradict the incorrect, but nevertheless frequent allegations that these actions are condoned by the shooting world at large.
Before those in the conservation side of the stadium get too comfortable, here is my second frustration. Predator control. Leaving aside the ILLEGAL persecution of raptors, which occurs OCCASIONALLY as the result of CRIMINAL ACTIVITY. Legal predator control – foxes, corvids, mustelids. One of the most frequently quoted objections to grouse moor management strategies, and indeed other parts of the game shooting industry.
My first point – why isn’t there a petition to shut down sheep and poultry farms? Because collectively across the country a lot more foxes, and I suspect although I don’t have any statistics we are talking more by several orders of magnitude, are killed to protect lambs and chickens than on grouse moors. But I haven’t seen innumerable links on social media to petitions to boycott Bernard Matthews or Mr Jones the Welsh sheep farmer, or Marks & Spencers Wool Blend suits or Christmas jumpers for that matter, because foxes are killed to protect the livestock. Why? I can only assume that actually what those citing this issue have against grouse shooting isn’t the predator control. If that is the case, OK, that’s fine, you are still allowed to disagree – but please have the guts to admit it and tell us the real reason for your disapproval rather than cherry picking an element that you believe to be distasteful and most likely to garner public support. Otherwise we are getting into the grounds of hypocrisy again.
Which leads me to my second point. I was contacted a few years back by a large wildlife organisation (who shall remain nameless) representing a co-operative of big title organisations from the conservation world, to ask if I would be interested in performing a season of surveys for them. Certainly I said! I was a postgraduate student at the time, the offer of relevant employment which fitted around my studies, was relevant and valuable experience and pays was quite literally the thing of dreams! It transpired the surveys would be for predatory mammals, intriguing. The overall purpose of the survey? To ascertain predator population density to determine whether an upland (moorland: not actively managed for Red Grouse, but they are present) breeding bird conservation project would need to undertake predator control to make the project viable. That’s right, one of the things most condemned about the management of grouse moors by ‘The Conservation Community’ is also practiced by conservation bodies. As is, by the way, selected heather burning, for those who list that among the negatives of grouse moor management.
I realise that few have continued reading to this point, and even those may be flagging by now, but before I wrap up, there is one more pet peeve I want to get off my chest here, and it is back in the shooting corner. Trophy hunters referring to themselves as conservationists. Massive personal annoyance. They are not, as a rule (and we all know there are exceptions to every rule). How can you claim to be a conservationist, i.e. directly involved in conserving a species or habitat, when the only interaction you have with that species in your entire life is to pay to shoot the best one you can find? That isn’t conservation! If the system of controlled hunting you use to facilitate that hunt is a good one, and I mean a very good one, then some of the fee you paid may go to help conservation efforts. In which case, good, because goodness knows funds for conservation are hard to come by. If it is a good system then you will be culling an old animal which is beyond useful reproductive age and is going to die soon anyway. That doesn’t make you a conservationist anymore than I am a humanitarian aid worker because I bought a bar of fair trade chocolate. An unreasonable claim for sure. Does this mean no hunter can claim the title? No it doesn’t, but that is a whole new topic on its own.
I think perhaps even just labelling ourselves as belonging to one community or another is a root cause of the problem. Before we have even began there is the implication of competition or enmity. Often these spurious community boundaries are illogical anyway. If we consider the ‘shooting community’, which many people deem to be anyone involved in any sort of shooting, or other methods of killing animals, (for the purpose of this example we will ignore those who shoot purely recreationally, i.e. targets or clay pigeons) then we must include in that community the RSPB, and other national conservation organisations who employ or contract the services of people to undertake various sorts of animal control, including but not limited to deer control, mink control and other predator control tasks. This means that the ‘pillars’ of the arbitrarily defined ‘conservation community’ are actually double agents, also a part of the equally arbitrary ‘shooting community’! What about the ‘farming community’? Another group currently and publically at loggerheads with ‘the conservation community’ or at least the ‘animal welfare community’ which I recognise are two quite different camps by the way. How many nature reserves include grazing as part of their management regime? Quite a lot, especially grassland habitats, heathlands often, wetlands and reedbed habitats, the list goes on. So again, these communities overlap substantially.
Why do we need these ‘communities’ or more specifically these labels, anyway. What do they accomplish? Nothing productive that I can see. Why can’t we ditch the labels; agree that those who live outside of the law on all sides are universally shunned, shamed and punished for their illegal actions, and that everyone else puts aside their differences, recognises there is no silver bullet, no win-win-win solution to every situation and instead have reasoned, mutually respectful conversations to reach the best possible compromise. This is after all exactly what happens in a functioning social community.
Is everyone going to leave every meeting or forum feeling their personal agenda has been satisfied? No. But do you at present? At least in this way you have an opportunity to voice your opinions reasonably and constructively, and hear the reasoning of others directly, rather than after it has been skewed, misquoted and taken out of context by biased media entities.
The real world is all about compromise, rather than ignoring that by trying to shout louder or stoop lower than someone else to gain a perceived but ultimately irrelevant advantage, let’s embrace it, recognise it. I have friends and associates on both sides of the ‘shooting vs. conservation’ divide. I agree with some of what they aspire to, and disagree with others of their goals. Let’s lose the ‘community’ tags and instead act like a real, cohesive, diverse but functioning and overall successful community (without the ‘inverted commas’ this time).
In many ways of course what I am describing is sadly as unrealistic an expectation as the ‘perfect world scenario’ of even the most biased commentator from either side of the front line. I realise this isn’t going to happen in it’s entirety, probably at all, but at least not overnight, but it’s an aim, a direction – I dare say a more productive and beneficial direction than we seem to be heading in at present. I make these comments without any pretension of grandeur or particular sense of impeachable rural righteousness. I recognise that my opinions are not shared by many and that doesn’t bother me. A world full of mes would have too many people in the countryside! I am fully aware that there are many more capable and qualified than me to be making comments of this nature. I also recognise that the majority of people involved in these discussions on both sides are reasonable, sensible people who simply have different opinions, and hopefully these people, if they have read this are now nodding in agreement, whether full or partial, whichever side of the fence they frequent.
*: In case anyone is wondering, I have italicised sarcastic comments to save confusion for those who may try and take this more seriously than it is intended.
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