Right to Reply: To Those Who Shoot



A week ago, our good friend Peter Glenser, Chairman of BASC, wrote this article for Country Squire Magazine. Of course, there are those who will always have a different point of view. Here at the magazine we are of the opinion that the magazine should be a platform for all countryside lovers and so here we let Dr Steve Carver of the Wildland Research Institute use our platform to respond to Peter’s article. This may annoy some readers. We felt that, in this instance, a right to reply was the fair course of action. 

Dr Steve writes: 

I read this article on the conservation ethic of “those who shoot” with interest and a growing frustration over what comes across as a somewhat blinkered and arrogant attitude toward those of us who don’t. I don’t doubt the veracity of some of the claims made therein, but would like to respond to some of the more misleading and ill-thought through arguments Peter makes. Firstly, let us consider this statement:

“How can shooting be so closely linked to conservation? The answer is simple, if we only take from the natural world without giving back then everything loses out, from the animals and birds to the habitats that sustain them. If we preserve and create more of those habitats and protect the flora and fauna then the natural world often produces the sustainable surplus that we can harvest when we shoot.”

While at first glance this seems logical enough, the conservation of game in such an intensively managed landscape as Britain is fraught with difficulties and the situation is not as simple or as black and white as it may first seem. These complexities are legion, but perhaps the main problem in what Peter says here is that in encouraging unnaturally high numbers of single species game birds in order to create the shootable-surplus of which he is so fond, whether that is through intensive breeding of non-natives (e.g. pheasants) or intensive land management for wild birds (e.g. grouse), is that it just creates the right conditions for higher predator populations by symbiosis. This is a well-known ecological process whereby predator populations follow in close synchronisation, sometimes a year or two behind their prey species, depending on birth rates and populations. Thereby land management for shootable surpluses of game species also increases populations of predators such as mustelids, corvids, raptors, foxes, etc. which in turn creates the need for predator control (by trapping, snaring, shooting, etc.) and in all probability also increases the disease/parasite burden.

Further research is needed here, though anecdotal evidence from conversations with individuals in the shooting industry would suggest this is at least in part correct. If it is, then those who shoot (or rather those in their employ) are just making the predation problem worse. Heavy-handed predator control (and I’ve seen some pretty extreme examples) just creates a predator vacuum into which other predators flow to occupy once a territory is seen as vacant. This further perpetuates the need for yet more predator control.

To make matters worse, not only do these predators prey on the game species you are trying to protect in order to create the shootable surplus, but there will also be a “spill over” predation on other species of conservation importance such as ground nesting birds (curlew, plover, lapwing) that your predator control also purports to protect, since predator species don’t distinguish between game and non-game birds. The “inconvenient truth” that predator control for game bird management also protects IUCN Red List species, may in fact turn out to be inconvenient in itself!

I would expect at this point many people in the shooting industry including the GWCT, Moorland Association and CA, will be now reaching for their statistics on comparative bird numbers on keepered versus unkeepered moors, but these again tell only half the story. The “Shifting Baseline” syndrome comes into play here in regard to how we think about just what are natural or healthy numbers of these species. Undoubtedly, conservation in the name of field sports has had a positive effect in increasing and maintaining some species while suppressing others, but we need to ask ourselves whether these numbers are natural or dare I say wild? Biodiversity is a numbers game and we shouldn’t confuse it with wild nature. We may ask a simple question here: “How did wildlife manage before we came along to help?” Intensive habitat and species management for game over the years has skewed our understanding of what is wild and natural both in terms of numbers and distributions. For example, where were the favoured habitats of ground nesting waders such as curlew and lapwing before intensive management for grouse? It was most likely on lowland heath, fen, marsh and grasslands; much of which has been drained and ploughed up for intensive arable farming, thereby displacing these birds to the uplands, much of which is owned and shot over by the large lowland land owning interests where intensive arable agriculture is profitable business. You might view this a kind of displacement of one “prairie” – the large highly mechanised arable farms Peter eludes to – for another in the form of heather mono-culture seen across vast swathes of grouse moor.

The next points I wish to examine are these:

“So why is our beautiful countryside the way it is? … Generally speaking, it’s because it’s managed for shooting… Much of this is land with a high conservation designation. 90% of English grouse moors are within National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. 75% of all the heather moorland in the world is found in the UK because it is managed for grouse…”

This collection of statements is both interesting and worrying. The notion that vast swathes of the British countryside are preserved solely for and by shooting interests belies the truth behind the top-heavy system of land ownership, its checks and balances, licensing, legislation and above all, the natural landscape and drivers of edaphic conditions (i.e. the things which determine where plants can grow and the species that feed off them). While I can see where Peter is coming from in terms of his argument that conservation is driven by shooting interests, this cannot be so easily separated from the natural environment. I think he is also flying “fast and loose” with the geographical data. For example, the fact that 90% of English grouse moors are within National Parks (or AONBs) is an accident of geography and the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act and not anything to do with game management. In other words it was and is the uplands that provide open space and challenging landscapes for outdoor recreation for the urban masses. And let’s not forget that we had to fight for that right, culminating in the 1932 Kinder Trespass, because shooting interests wanted to maintain exclusive rights to moorland for grouse shooting. The 75% figure is also a “non-fact factoid” as the monoculture heather moorland we see in the British uplands is an entirely man-made landscape created solely for the benefit of grouse. Although Peter does not go on to say “rarer than rainforest” many people in the shooting industry do, and they could easily apply the same warped logic to urban areas, which are also rarer than rainforest. Yes, purple heather moor looks pretty when in full bloom, but it is a pretty biodiversity poor landscape in comparison to the mixed heath/woodland it could be, and it looks dreadful when criss-crossed by a patchwork of burnt and mown strips.

Another interesting claim Peter makes that is worthy of further deconstruction is this:

“Wildlife must be managed. British deer populations are approaching two million, the highest for 1,000 years. Left unmanaged, deer damage forests and can cause massive damage to crops.”

Why is that? Could it be because we have extirpated the deer’s main predators? If you care that deeply for the welfare of the deer then we need to do something more than just stalking. Humans are actually pretty lousy at replacing the role of top predators. For one, we’re not present on the hill or in the woods 24/7 creating a landscape of fear. Once deer lose that fear, their behaviour changes and their population patterns and geographical distribution changes; hence we see a denuded Highland landscape and geriatric forests where tree regeneration can only take place within enclosures or where deer numbers are constantly held in check by heavy culling (e.g. in Glenfeshie and Creag Meagaidh). And then we have farmers in the lowlands complaining of crop damage.

I would recommend you read Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac”. It’s an old book now, first published in 1949, but it was way ahead of its time and still relevant today. Leopold was a keen hunter too, but he realised that you cannot fully manage nature to suit our own ends hoping only for large numbers of game to shoot without taking over the role of predator yourself. You would be especially interested in the essay “Thinking Like a Mountain” (see here) wherein he describes how his own views on deer and their predators changed as he witnessed a wolf die. “I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades”.

You may argue that stalking and culling takes over the role of the top predator but a deer brought down by the hunter’s bullet doesn’t learn to fear the gun and pass that knowledge on to the rest of the herd, thereby leading to over-grazing, unnatural behaviour and bare hills. I know that wolf reintroduction is controversial to say the least, and unlikely in my lifetime, but we could employ other less extreme methods to keep herds within carrying capacities including coordinated culls. This is itself unlikely while the value of a stalking estate is based largely on its head of deer and with more than half of Scotland being owned by fewer than 500 people. By this metric, those who shoot are the problem, not the solution.

“Where land is managed for the benefit of game, other species naturally flourish. Songbirds are more common on land managed for shooting. They benefit from the hedges, game cover crops, predator control and the food put out for game birds.”

Again, I return to unnaturally high game species and the resultant need for predator control. While I follow the reasoning that game management, woodland cover and food crops in lowland shoots is beneficial to certain other wildlife there are also potential negative effects. Again, this is related to the symbiosis in predator/prey relationships. More prey = more predators = more predation losses = need for more predator control.

There is a deeper issue here in regard to the whole notion of which nature we seek and prefer to protect; a “good nature, bad nature” dichotomy if you like. Nature doesn’t make any such distinction, so why should we? It all boils down in the end to a desire to remain in control of the land and only accepting that nature which isn’t an inconvenience to our own vested interests. Witness the licensed shooting of “problem” buzzards raiding pheasant pens, in essence the application for the legal killing one or two wild birds, just so those who shoot can kill thousands of other domesticated birds. And it isn’t just limited to lowland shoots as the debate over raptor persecution and culling of mountain hares on grouse moors can testify.

“Those who shoot are the true custodians of the countryside. Over time, without shooting – in any of its forms – the countryside would simply develop into an over productive prairie.”

I found the sheer arrogance of this statement hard to swallow, so I thought a little deeper about it. I guess what Peter is trying to say is that all the non-arable or non-grazing land remaining in the countryside is only there still because shooting interests have maintained it for cover/habitat for game birds. Without shooting interests maintaining these landscape elements then they would have all disappeared under the plough or hoof years ago. I can only partly buy that argument, as there are many areas of the countryside that are not suitable for this kind of agriculture, steep wooded hillsides for one. There’s also a land ownership issue here. The 35.5million hectares of land managed for shooting interests is clearly in private ownership, so its owners can pretty much decide how the land is managed and for those with deep pockets (and acres of good quality arable land) can afford to pursue game pretty much as they wish, and by dressing it up as nature conservation, pocket the agri-environment payments that we, the tax payer, contribute to.

I could go on but find myself running out of steam for I know it will not make a blind bit of difference since those that shoot hold most of the cards when it comes to land, money, power and influence. But in the interests of truth and freedom to look beyond the cultural hegemony that holds the British countryside in stasis I give you these thoughts and hope you might think outside of the constrained and often perverse conservation logic of “those who shoot”.

Addendum: I wrote this immediately after reading Peter’s article as a response to what I saw as some of the conflicts of interest within the conservation sector. Although the magazine editors have graciously given me the option of editing the text, I think I’d rather let it stand as is. What I would like to point out here by way of clarification, before anyone jumps to conclusions, is that I am not against all hunting, nor am I a vegetarian or a member of any animal rights group, and I have (admittedly in the past) voted Conservative! As an academic/practitioner in the conservation field I am very much interested in the conflicts that inevitably arise within the sector and often like to question the “received wisdom”. I am also a great fan of continua and how one activity, such as shooting, can be carried out and viewed along a spectrum from no shooting at one extreme, through indoor target ranges, shooting clays outdoors and on to subsistence rough shooting, walked up and ultimately driven shooting at the other. Your personal opinion on what is and isn’t acceptable will vary, with my own personal choice being rough or walked up shooting to put a bird or two on the table. As you can probably tell from my reply, I am no fan of driven shooting as a sport and all the negative environmental impacts and conflicts it entails. I understand the strong arguments Peter puts across about the local economic benefits of shooting in terms of jobs and business in what are often remote rural communities where there is precious little else to support local livelihoods except farming, forestry and all the other tourists, bird-watchers, walkers, cyclists, climbers and so on. But, despite the long traditions, the sport cannot continue to exist in an environmental vacuum and needs to take a fuller account of the bigger picture and adapt to fit into the wider and ever evolving human-environment spectrum.

Dr Steve Carver is the Director of The Wildland Research Institute