Archive for September, 2014

Controversial conservation

A debate on hunting at the Royal Society this week, organised by the World Land Trust, was publicised as something rare.

The press release stated, “An open debate about the impact of sport hunting on wildlife and conservation is long overdue and it is time for arguments for and against hunting to be exposed to public scrutiny” and I was very pleased to be invited to join the panel of speakers.

“Hunting” was therefore the issue I wished to address, but the main thrust of my speech would be to explain the aims and benefits of wildlife management and to highlight some of the problems that arise due to the lack of such management. The illogical restrictions in the Hunting Act and other problems that exist because of preferential or flawed legislation were to be included as examples.

This approach, however, was not appreciated by the organisers, who preferred to keep to the topic of shooting birds, in particular the decline of the hen harrier and killing of migratory birds. Just the day before the debate I felt that I was being told what I could and couldn’t say and I reluctantly withdrew from the event.

What is disappointing, and more than a little annoying, is the fact that this confusion should have been clarified from the start. In the UK, as was ably explained by one of the speakers, anthropologist  Professor Garry Marvin, terminology is important; “hunting” means hunting with hounds/dogs; use a gun and that is “shooting”;  use a rod and that is “fishing”. All pretty simple really, but it is precisely that kind of misuse of the term “hunting” that leads to misunderstandings.

Added to that, fox hunting and fox control were indeed mentioned by some speakers. Fine for the fox hunting ban to be praised, but not criticised. The real irony here is that the Hunting Act allows for the use of terriers to flush out and kill a fox to protect birds that will be shot for sport, but not to protect a hen harrier.

The three speakers who broadly opposed shooting to one degree or another, Mark Avery, Bill Oddie and Chris Packham, did raise some legitimate concerns, in particular the shooting of migratory birds in Malta and Cyprus. Yet what was disappointing in this mainly good-tempered debate was the implication that the decline in hen harriers is all the fault of game keepers, forgetting that the Joint Raptor Study in the 1990s had proved that in the absence of keepers, natural predators also dramatically reduced hen harrier numbers. At times it felt that the anti-shooters were trying slip into a comfortable position of condemning all shooting – just as anti-hunters have done. But it would be wrong to assume such examples of bad shooting practice are commonplace in the UK. Thankfully, Andrew Gilruth from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) provided a robust rebuttal to this view through the excellent scientific work undertaken by the GWCT.

The full debate will soon be made available online.

In the meantime, for those who may be interested, the speech I couldn’t deliver is reproduced here:


Thank you for the invitation to speak here tonight.                                                                                                                                       

Opportunities like this are all too rare in my view and the short sound-bite type of media debate we get on the role of hunting in conservation tends not to be very constructive, as can be seen by the style of language used by certain sections of the media. Here’s an example from just a few days ago:

“For Britons who enjoy dressing up in red tunics, getting on a horse and watching their hounds tear foxes to bloody, twitching shreds, the past decade has been utter misery.” (Guardian 19th August 2014)

Not sure about the conclusion there, but it’s that sort of shoddy journalism that leads the public and gullible politicians to believe that there are simply two camps in this debate – those who care for animals and don’t kill them… and those who don’t care for animals and do kill them. It’s a position that is as ridiculous and it is untrue.

It leads to simplistic views that say those involved in such sports cannot possibly be real conservationists or care for the welfare of animals. It leads to an unrealistic view that defines hunting as the worst possible thing that can happen to an animal. It leads to the RSPCA spending a third million pounds in prosecuting one hunt and also effectively excluding anyone who is pro hunting from joining their council – forgetting that the founder of the RSPCA was a foxhunter. It leads to hateful views comparing hunting to “ethnic cleansing” and hunting people being likened to paedophiles and rapists.

But perhaps worse of all, in an often self-deluding campaign that refuses to accept it could ever be wrong, it leads to outcomes and laws that are often flawed and counterproductive.

Pseudo morality based on pseudo reality benefits nothing and no one.

While some groups seek to exploit this situation and base their arguments mainly on emotion, genuine wildlife management is often overlooked. It’s a term used by conservation groups, but one rarely used or understood in media debates. I suspect that if we ask many members of the public what it means few would really know. They’re aware of sport and pest control and they will have their views on those activities, but do they really understand wildlife management and the problems that can arise through its absence?

 To be clear, here is what I see as being those aims:

  • it is to maintain healthy and sustainable populations of indigenous species
  • to reduce populations of over successful species
  • and thereby protect populations of vulnerable species
  • to confront and reduce disease
  • to maintain wildlife habitat
  • to protect livestock, forestry and crops
  • in short to meet biodiversity targets and create a diverse balance

 And there are numerous methods available:

  • Physical protection
  • Dispersal
  • Relocation
  • Diversion feeding
  • Deterrence (taste aversion)
  • Stewardship schemes
  • Legislation

But it is naïve to think lethal methods can be excluded from this process.

 And this in turn prompts certain questions. Is this concept of wildlife management acceptable to most people?

But if not acceptable, what kind of relationship with wildlife is advocated, given that there is barely an acre of the UK that is really wild? Because we hear a lot about what certain groups don’t like, but we tend to hear precious little about what they find acceptable. Reason? They usually can’t agree.

Instead what we sometimes get is a confused mixture of views, opinions and prejudices of people who may or may not be knowledgeable about the relevant issues, who frequently fail to see or even consider the consequences of their desired outcomes and see their ‘salami slicing’ way of banning things as progress. Often this boils down to that simplistic “kill or no kill” argument that rarely reflects the reality of any situation, but of course suits some campaigning groups.

Others may then pick up that issue for their own political purposes, sometimes resulting in flawed legislation.

We then find ourselves in ridiculous situations. For example, the law that protects all bats hardly takes into account the problems this can create for many individuals and institutions, in particular churches, who are finding that their places of worship have become almost no-go areas, with ancient and valuable monuments being damaged from bat droppings and urine. Licences can be obtained to move bats, but the process is not quick or easy and can be extremely expensive. Is it any wonder that sometimes people take the law into their own hands and just “deal” with the problem? How is that helping bats?

The badger is not an endangered species and numbers have risen greatly over the past couple of decades, yet in tackling the bovine TB problem instead of working with DEFRA and farming organisations, certain animal groups saw it as a “call to arms” – or rather a call to disarm – creating division when common cause was required.

Yes there is scientific disagreement over the culling process, but it was not as straightforward as some groups portrayed. Once again, instead of looking at this problem through wildlife management eyes, we get is this simplistic ‘kill or no kill’ choice offered to the public. And what about the badgers that have TB also suffering? Or is it as one anti-cull campaigner said, that wild animals die horrible deaths in any case so why worry. How is this helping badgers?

Some people had reservations about the cull because shooting was the method chosen, but why is it so controversial to cull infected badgers when we cull over 600,000 healthy deer every year? Fine to kill healthy deer, but not fine to kill diseased badgers? Why was shooting foxes -presumably by anyone with a shotgun or rifle – advocated by the anti-hunting groups when a ban was being debated, while the shooting of badgers by expert marksmen is now cruel and barbaric? Or was it, as a previous chief executive of the RSPCA claimed, that a wounded fox doesn’t necessarily suffer. How can a body like the RSPCA have these dual positions and remain credible?

Recently there have been calls to give the brown hare a close season because its numbers have declined. Again this sounds like a positive step, but the reality is that numbers are actually steady, if not slightly increasing, unlike other European countries that do have close seasons and yet still see numbers declining. Hares are not evenly distributed throughout England and Wales, being rare in the West while at pest proportions in the East. So a close season could very well cause a pre-emptive strike just before any close season starts. Again where is the benefit for the hare?

Then there is the Hunting Act. A law that was brought in through a toxic mix of prejudice, ignorance, falsified science and political spite, costing £30 million pounds and 700 hours of parliamentary time. I urge you to read the Act for yourself – it creates technical offences, not animal welfare based ones and it doesn’t as some people claim, ban all hunting with dogs – it alters it. For example: you can hunt a rabbit with a dog, but not a hare. You can hunt a rat with a dog, but not a mouse or a squirrel. Terriers can be put down a hole to flush out and dispatch a fox to protect a pheasant, but exactly the same process can’t be used to protect a hen harrier or say a farmer’s lamb.

But let’s go back to the one of the aims of genuine wildlife management – keeping a healthy population. Why on earth is the dog excluded from this process when its truly remarkable scenting ability -100,000 times that of a human – is used in so many other beneficial ways for man?

Hunting with scenting dogs is an activity similar to wolves hunting, that is selective in removing the old, weak, sick and injured by way of the chase and, importantly, is non-wounding. Natural for both hunter and hunted.

There appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding of hunting and this term ’killing for fun’. If an animal is killed purely for fun, I am opposed to that, but if there is a utilitarian benefit in that activity, as there is in many forms of hunting and shooting, then that activity is not solely a sport. Of course there is sport involved in hunting with hounds for the riders and followers – these are the people who fund the process – but the real business end is the hounds themselves. It’s the hound that hunts, not the human. This is why the definition of hunting in the Hunting Act was so problematic and why enforcement has been so difficult.

This vagueness is the reason so many people unconnected to hunting have criticised the law – veterinarians, legal experts, politicians, the police and many animal rightists accept this law is flawed…and the man who was Prime Minister at its time of passing – Tony Blair, now sees the Hunting Act as a mistake. I can go into greater detail about why the Hunting Act should be repealed, but to those blinkered antis I say this, “You had decades to get this legislation right, you had a majority of sympathetic MPs in the House of Commons at the time; you had a majority of sympathetic MPs during the bill’s committee stage, you ignored good advice from members of the House of Lords and instead used the Parliament Act to push through the legislation you drafted. Now that you see this is deeply flawed legislation you try to blame everyone else for your failings”.

This is what happens when principle and knowledge are substituted for prejudice and ignorance. This is what happens when genuine wildlife management is ignored.

The word ‘hunting’ can mean so many different things –hunting with dogs, the various forms of shooting, sustainable ways of obtaining food, indeed a very way of life for many different peoples around the world. Yet ‘hunting’ is often referred to in negative terms in the media or history books, for example when a particular species has been ‘hunted to extinction’. Drawing an artificial line between hunting and conservation is pointless and damaging. As Robin Sharp, Chair Emeritus of International Union for Conservation of Nature, says in the book Silent Summer, a book strongly endorsed by Sir David Attenborough and Chris Packham:

“…it may come as a surprise to those whose understanding of wildlife conservation is shaped by beguiling television images of ‘wild nature’ that field sports, as practised over the last 50 years, have been almost universally good for the hunted species and the non-hunted, non-predators that thrive in the same habitat.”

The way in which these issues can be resolved is to be specific about exactly what sort of hunting we mean. If it’s organised hunting with scenting hounds, then say so. If it’s people illegally hunting with dogs, say exactly what it is – poaching – and don’t confuse the two in order to make prosecution figures look better. If it’s the disgusting slaughter of migratory birds in Malta, make it clear precisely what form of hunting is involved. That way, the public will be properly informed and not misled into thinking all hunting must be wrong.

The reality is that in the UK there can be good hunting and bad hunting, good shooting and bad shooting, just as there is good game-keeping and farming as well as bad game-keeping and farming. It is THAT situation which should be addressed by the promotion of sensible wildlife management. But importantly it should be coupled with legislation making it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to a wild mammal. Offences should be based on sound evidence – not opinions or personal dislikes and on an understanding of what life in the wild means. Such a combination would then properly address conservation and cruelty – two issues that are often confused.

The American writer Henry Mencken wrote, “For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat…and wrong”.

Certain groups and politicians would do well to heed those words.










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