The Games Naturalists Play

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There is an interesting piece in this weekends Eastern Daily Press ‘Weekend’ magazine by Mark Cocker entitled ‘Striking A Balance Been Man And Conservation’. It wasn’t that title that caught my eye. It was the sub-title ‘Can you reconcile being a shooting estate with nature conservation?’ Oh dear. Here we go again. The EDP is a huge publication in East Anglia, yet a strange animal. It does magnificent work in promoting agricultural activities or news … and so it should. For East Anglia is probably 70% farmland? Who knows? East Anglia also has a huge shooting / hunting / stalking fraternity which the EDP chooses to completely ignore.  Actually, the piece itself wasn’t bad and gave great credit to the work done on the Raveningham Estate in Norfolk by Sir Nicholas Bacon and (in particular) Jake Fiennes, the estate manager. I like Mark Cockers work and his writing in general but what disturbed me about the article was the undercurrent of mistrust of shooting estates and farmers in general. Statements like ‘ I began to appreciate that Jake Fiennes is an unusual farmer …‘ and ‘ For a naturalist like me to hear a commercial farmer speaking of and implementing such a balanced approach to management is enormously encouraging ‘. I have permission to shoot pests and small vermin across a tiny proportion of the same county, some 3000 acres. The purpose being crop protection (rabbits, pigeons and rats) and songbird protection (squirrels and corvids). Farmers and estate owners ask me to help with the latter because they love wildlife too. I am surrounded in Norfolk by landowners who are engaged in Higher Stewardship Schemes, participate in the annual wild bird counts or Open Farm Days and they deliberately lay cover crops which attract songbirds and bees. So why does Mark Cocker think Raveningham is so unique? It smacks of someone who rarely has access to farmland, yet I can’t believe that of one of the UK’s most well known bird writers. His article got me thinking about what defines a ‘naturalist’. For, although I usually carry both gun and camera (see my wildlife photography site here and please note that 95% of these images were captured on Norfolk farms and shooting estates) I also consider myself a naturalist. A shooting naturalist. Out of the same mould as ‘BB’ (Denys Watkins-Pitchford), James Wentworth Day, Richard Jeffries or Ian Niall. Yet I live in an age of far more knowledge, restraint and appreciation for the fragility of our wildlife. My own books reflect my love of nature. There is no better learning than in seeing, first hand, the way Mother Nature can herself endorse what the ignorant would call ‘cruelty’? Yet there is no cruelty in death. It is as natural as life itself. Cruelty is about deliberately inflicting pain, stress and suffering. So if I’m watching the magpie pair hunting the hawthorn hedge, methodically extracting blackcap, robin and chaffinch fledglings while the parent birds flutter around (distressed and impotent) am I wrong to lift the gun and restore the balance? I think not. To watch would be cruel. To intervene, with the tools do so, is natural. If my intervention is wrong then so is the very act of ‘conservation’ itself. For conservation is man manipulating the natural order. There is no difference and for anyone to say otherwise is total hypocrisy. Incidentally, one of Mark Cockers best works sits on my bookshelf along side those of the shooting naturalists mentioned above. It’s called Crow Country. It centres on the world of rooks, much of the text based on the Buckenham rook roost, close to Marks home and not too far from mine. The roost is next to the huge Buckenham Fen RSPB reserve. The rook roost however (nationally famous) has grown to magnificence in alder carrs owned not by the RSPB, but by a shooting estate, and protected by its gamekeeper. I rest my case.

Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, June 2015

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