The Blindness of Zealots

BY JAMES BARRINGTON

Asking what methods of wildlife management anti-hunting or anti-shooting groups actually support, as opposed to the activities they are keen to condemn, should always be part of any debate surrounding field sports.

The usual response is either a deafening silence or an idealistic ‘leave it all to nature’. Practical examples of how these alternative models of the countryside might look tend to be few in number, but more recently a picture has started to emerge which shows what happens when some of these idealistic theories are put into practice.

Wild Justice, is a group founded to “fight for wildlife”, set up by naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham, former RSPB Conservation Director Mark Avery and raptor specialist Ruth Tingay. One of its first actions related to the general licences issued by Natural England to farmers and landowners for control of pest bird species to protect livestock and newly sprouting crops. The group brought a legal challenge last year on the basis that licences were too loosely worded and allowed “the casual killing of wildlife, falsely in the name of conservation”, resulting in Natural England’s decision to avoid a court case and withdraw the licences, even at a critical time of year. It appears that little thought was given by Wild Justice to what would occur in the absence of such predator control and a high degree of anger and frustration was expressed by farmers, along with some appalling scenes of dead and dying lambs filling up social media.

This move by Wild Justice didn’t just affect livestock and crops. It also meant that rare species, such as yellowhammers, curlews, turtle doves and linnets, the eggs and young of which are taken by crows, jays, magpies and other predatory species, were also affected. The delight shown by a spokesman for Wild Justice following government agencies backing down was in stark contrast to conservationists like Mary Colwell, who said the timing of the general licence withdrawal was putting curlews in even graver danger of extinction.

The consequences of the original legal threat continue, once again at a critical time, in relation to control of predators on Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation, some of which were established precisely to protect curlews. Wildlife Justice is also preparing legal action against Natural Resources Wales issuing general licences.

These situations could have been resolved by dialogue and a more conciliatory approach, but it would appear that Wild Justice’s determination to end shooting at all costs has created a kind of tunnel-vision version of conservation.

Chris Packham’s organisation isn’t the only one afflicted. Back in the 1960s, the League Against Cruel Sports started purchasing land in the West Country in order to prevent hunting with hounds, in particular stag hunting. Putting down feed encouraged red deer onto the largest ‘sanctuary’, Baronsdown. The attraction of abundant food meant that unnaturally large numbers of deer gathered there, and this brought problems.

The deer started to suffer from lungworm and were treated with a domestic animal wormer, a drug never designed for use on wild animals. Deer were not controlled on League land, but those wandering off the sanctuary could be taken by stalkers and, as it takes approximately six weeks before the animal is clear of the wormer, this created a serious difficulty for sale of the venison and thereby the wider management of the deer herds. But an even bigger problem was approaching.

Bovine TB is rife in the West Country and not just spread by badgers. Deer accumulating in large numbers are obviously more susceptible to the disease, particularly those herds not being moved on, as happened with hunting with hounds. Research undertaken by ADAS for the Exmoor National Park Authority and published in the report The health of the wild red deer of Exmoor (2008) showed that mismanagement by the LACS on Baronsdown had caused one of the largest outbreaks of bTB in deer ever seen, something denied by the League. However, a detailed map of the area and incidents of bTB in deer tells a very different story.

There is little firm scientific evidence of what effect the Hunting Act has had on the previously hunted species, but with at least one reputable report stating that the fox population has dropped by about one third and with the condition of some herds of red deer in the West Country known to be deteriorating, this law can hardly be regarded as a success for those who genuinely value wildlife.

Once again, in its determination to see an end to hunting with hounds, an organisation has allowed itself to become blinded to the wider aspects of wildlife management and animal welfare.

A toxic mix of animal rights idealism and prejudice politics was behind the Hunting Act and a similar combination was behind the change of policy by Bradford Metropolitan District Council and its decision to ban grouse shooting on Ilkley Moor. Up until 2018, grouse shooting had taken place on this land, which is an important breeding ground for threatened ground-nesting birds such as skylarks, curlews, plovers and lapwings. (The Council had terminated the sporting lease once before but decided to reinstate it to avoid paying the bills to repair the exposed peat after kids kept setting fire to the heather). Management was undertaken by estate gamekeepers at no cost to the public purse. Following a campaign by animal rightists, including the League Against Cruel Sports, the Labour-run council decided to prohibit grouse shooting and take over the management of the land.

Baildon Moor forms part of the wider moor and earlier in April this year a tractor was filmed mowing heather at this critical breeding time. Contact was made with Bradford Council, who admit that they own and manage that part of the moor, but denied they were to blame and said they had contacted the police and Natural England. An investigation is currently in progress. What cannot be denied, however, is that management of Baildon Moor is the responsibility of Bradford Council. It is doubtful anyone would mow part of the moor just for the fun of it, so who is guilty? Is it that the council’s land manager or tenant was unaware of the breeding season or that he was simply reckless and didn’t care? Either way, it reflects poorly on Bradford Council, as well as those who call for landowners to be held liable of the actions of their employees or agents – or does that only apply to shooting estates?

In exchanges via social media regarding the Baildon Moor incident, those in favour of a shooting ban appear defensive and evasive, even referring to the legitimate concern expressed by bodies like the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and Countryside Alliance as an “extraordinary attack” and “nasty”. Such statements are no different in tone to the outraged responses from hunt saboteurs when accused of violent and abusive actions, despite film footage of their behaviour.

What can’t be denied are the similarities in these sorry accounts, in which an emphasis and desire by these anti-hunting/anti-shooting groups to end a particular activity has overshadowed any thought as to what might follow.

It is a view fuelled by the belief that they are always absolutely right, that any discussion about compromise is a betrayal and that victory only comes when something is banned.

(This article first appeared on the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust website.)

James Barrington is a former Executive Director of the League Against Cruel Sports and has been involved in various animal welfare campaigns for over 40 years. He is currently a consultant to the Countryside Alliance and a committee member of the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management. James’ website can be found here.  

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