I was led, via a Tweet from a knowledgeable resource, to Patrick Barkham’s Guardian piece today re Chris Packham and I read it with interest. To folk like me (naturalist, author, conservationist and shooter), Chris can be like Marmite. You either love him or hate him. I’ve written before about how I used to respect the BBC presenter (though the Beeb deny he works for them) before he started campaigning against traditional British rural life. We are of a similar age and have similar backgrounds in terms of music, attitude, a love of wildlife and a penchant for wanting to dissect every scat and pellet we come across to read the ‘story’ behind the creatures diet. Chris went one way (celebrity, pro-naturalist, campaigner) while I went another (hunter, author, amateur naturalist). Yet Chris might like to know that many of the concerns he voiced in Barkham’s dialogue today are shared.
I have seen few swifts this year and didn’t hear my first cuckoo until yesterday, June 10th. Other concerns, I feel, smack of doomsday reporting and not a little scaremongering. It was refreshing to read the comment “There are a lot of good farmers out there and we are going to celebrate their work as well.” Yet what mention of the huge tracts of privately owned estates, laid out for shooting and stalking? Chris and his ilk, if they bothered at all to read this, probably stopped at the third line which mentioned the word “shooter”. Sadly, they will never concede that these areas of land are bastions of a surviving populous of bird, mammal, amphibian, arthropod, flora and fungi that many folk will never see in their lifetime. Why? Because there is no public incursion and the intervention (by people like me) ensures that predation, while not eliminated (we must never usurp Mother Nature), is sensibly controlled. A discipline that even the wildlife trusts endure, though they never publicise it widely, preferring to exercise ‘non-disclosure agreements’ on willing shooters lest their members become agitated.
I am privileged to have permission to walk around 3000 acres of mixed Norfolk countryside with gun and dog. Predominantly arable farmland, with some livestock and interspersed with water meadows, coniferous and deciduous woodland, wet alder carrs, and major national chalkstream river. An area so rich with diverse wildlife, I wrote a book about it a few years ago. The fields and skies around my patch are alive with flying insects. I know, because I have had to protect myself from the nibblers and biters over recent weeks. Chris mentions the lack of butterflies, crane flies and moths. I’ve sat amongst the foliage watching beetle, butterfly and moth aplenty. Skippers, gatekeepers, cabbage whites, peacocks, commas, burnets. Crane flies (Daddy-long-legs to some) are an autumn hatch, the spawn of the leatherjackets which have survived bird predation … particularly rooks … so best Chris waits a few months? I, too, have been concerned at the decline of insects but I’m not blaming humanity for any of that. I think Chris should be looking more closely at meteorology rather pointing fingers at pesticides and pollution. We have no influence on the shift of El Nino or the Gulf Stream. Both have a huge influence on our winds and air currents; therefore if insects are blown off course, won’t the birds follow them? Hopefully that explains where the swifts and swallows have gone?
The planet is changing, for the worse. There is no denying that. I’m more concerned about the plastic-polluted oceans than the land. My little piece of Britain is showing only moderate decline and I must underline the fact that few other humans walk there. Chris made a very poignant point in mentioning that nature reserves are like art installations. You come, you look, you enjoy. Why? Because you are only allowed controlled access. Where humans (en-masse) are denied access, wildlife thrives, Chris. Nothing new there.
His comments on the punters drive home amused me. “There’s nothing – only wood pigeons and non-native pheasants and dead badgers on the side of the road.” Chris, if you deign to read this, please reflect on that comment? If a woodpigeon is ‘nothing’, please don’t decry the shooter who controls its over-population. If a ‘non-native pheasant’ is ‘nothing’, why do you care that it is the subject of the sporting gun? The dead badgers on the side of the road? Nothing? We both know why the roadkill badger is such a common sight, don’t we? They have been over protected, Chris, to the point of plague in some areas. What price the skylark, the curlew, the lapwing. All ground nesting birds are fair prey and the badger is certainly no conservationist!
There is nothing too amiss in our British countryside. No ecological apocalypse that won’t recover with a change of wind or climate, a good downpour, sensible land management or the cull of a disproportionate species. “Stercus accidit”, folks. Then everything recovers. Don’t fear for Britain’s natural state. Fear the misinformation you are delivered by those who should know better.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, June 2018
As always, the lead up to the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ brought forth the usual pincer attacks from both those opposed to shooting on ethical grounds (the genuinely concerned) and those determined to make a name for themselves by opposing shooting (the opportunists). If you are going to make a stand against any institution … and the shooting world is a strong institution … it pays to get your facts right. Unfortunately our shooting opponents, including the ‘big guns’ (excuse the pun), rarely research facts before hammering social media sites with their biased rhetoric. It works, of course, this blatant barrage of misinformation. It works because the target audience doesn’t doubt, for one moment, the spurious data being tweeted and posted and blogged to them. They sit on their sofas in front of a widescreen, HD television watching a completely distorted picture of rural life and nature while scrolling through posts by Packham, Avery and others. So our armchair ecologists and urban environmentalists suck up the twisted propaganda because they want to believe that they live in a world that fits their comfort zone. A world where animals and birds only ever die of old age. A world where the cat sitting on their lap as they view Autumnwatch is exonerated of songbird slaughter. A world where badgers only eat beetles, not hedgehogs. A world where hen-harrier nests are circumnavigated by foxes. A world where every dead or missing raptor has (usually allegedly, seldom proven) been shot maliciously.
Strange as it may seem to these non-shooting folk, we (shooters) actually love and understand wildlife more than the average Joe. We work hard to maintain real wild habitat (farmland and woodland … not sanitised nature reserves). We work hard to protect land and vulnerable species from the effects of vermin. Define vermin, I hear you ask? Vermin are over-populous species that have a detrimental impact on the environment through their feeding or behaviour. The cute bushy-tailed squirrel enjoyed in the local park is a voracious egg and chick thief in the rural wood. Magpies, working in pairs, will devastate a hedgerow full of songbird nests in hours. Rabbits, left unchecked, will decimate growing crops. Corvids and woodpigeons can strip seed and shoots from fields in hours. Facts like these are conveniently denied or ignored by our celebrity wildlife ‘champions’ who see the shooting of every single creature as ‘threatening’ that species. Their duplicity is perplexing to a rational mind like mine. Why are they so vehemently and very publically opposed, for instance, to the management and harvesting of game-birds yet totally ignore the outrage that is Halal slaughter? The same dichotomy is prevalent with hunt saboteurs. I’ll tell you why. Because they are cowardly hypocrites, that’s why. To attack a religious tradition on social media would incur legal challenge, whereas attacking the shooting community doesn’t.
How many of you have young children who may never see that quintessential British mammal, the hedgehog? “What’s a hedgehog, Dad?” “Oh … a hedgehog is a small, prickly mammal that does no harm other than to hoover up snails, slugs, beetles and earthworms”. To badgers, that vastly over-protected and destructive mustelid, the hedgehog is a doner kebab wrapped in a spikey pitta bread. Control badgers and hedgehogs re-populate areas. A proven fact. Moves to cull badgers (please note, cull … not eradicate) met with a passionate campaign from our celebrity bunny-huggers too. The hedgehogs apparently didn’t matter. The TB infected cattle being slaughtered and destroying livelihoods didn’t matter. Not killing badgers was all that mattered. Totally unscientific.
I mentioned the G-word earlier. The tweet-drummers of the bird charities cannot possibly deny the success of grouse moor management in restoring wildlife balance and encouraging the survival of curlew and other ground nesting birds along with the grouse. I’m not going to mention hen harriers as they clearly aren’t important to the RSPB. They can’t be, because the RSPB walked away from involvement with the DEFRA Hen Harrier Recovery Plan. Not the behaviour you would expect from a leading national bird charity. Interestingly, I was up in North Yorkshire for some walking earlier this year and was impressed at the numbers of curlews I saw up amongst the heather. It was nesting time and the birds were highly protective, buzzing us and calling with that distinctive, plaintive cry. These were keepered, shooting moors and were alive with stonechats, rock pipits and meadow larks. Incidentally, if you are looking for a walking base in North Yorkshire, I can recommend The Barn Tea Rooms & Guest House in Hutton-le-Hole.
All that matters to these half-baked naturalists is that they champion one species over all others and just keep moving their objective. Conservation should never be about protecting one species to the exclusion of all others. Nor should it be about creating an environment which favours one species above all others. Wrapping a fence around a tract of land and declaring it a protected area for wildlife is not ‘conservation’. It is ‘isolation’. Conservation should always be about balance. If it takes a trap, a net, a rod or a gun to help maintain that balance … then so be it.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, August 2016