Catch It, Kill It, Eat It – Is It So Wrong to Enjoy Hunting?

The man who does not like to see, hunt, photograph or otherwise outwit birds or animals is hardly normal. He is supercivilized, and I for one do not know how to deal with him.’ Aldo Leopold

The disconnect between plate and animal for the average consumer in the modern industrialised nations is huge. How can we appreciate where our food is coming from when for the most part we only see it in its final form, sterile and packaged? Is the art of hunting, killing and eating your own food an essential part of what makes us human, or have we civilized beyond this point? It is undeniable that the majority of people around me have never had the visceral experience of killing ones own food; many would undoubtedly be repulsed by the act. Is this civilization, or is it shirking of responsibility? By ignoring the source of our food, do we seek to abnegate ourselves from any moral guilt or squeamishness around the intensive farming and iffy welfare, which comes as part of the cost for our cheap and readily available meat? Do we owe our food the moral responsibility of at least having some knowledge and first hand experience of their conversion from living beast to dead meat?

That’s a lot of questions and there is always the possibility that I’m getting on my high-horse after reading too much Leopold and Walden, Maybe I’m feeling a regression towards my rural upbringing, but I can’t help but feel I am missing out on something, some kind of hereditary hunting fever.

I'll say anything just to be on the opposite side of an argument to Morissey

I’ll say anything just to be on the opposite side of an argument to Morissey

My own feelings on hunting are varied dependent on form, target and other, perhaps less definable qualities. For reasons not worth expanding on here, I am pro-deer, anti-grouse, fox-largely-pro-with-caveats, and badger-largely-anti-with-caveats. I have an understandable vocational tolerance of hunting for conservation measures but have developed an abhorrence of farmed hunting, again largely on conservation grounds. Hunting as a tourist pursuit I dislike, hunting for subsistence (in a first world country) I can tolerate, but I have no first-hand experience of either, so speak from a position of ignorance (something you must be familiar with, I hear you cry). One issue riles up my peers more than most, and one that has particularly been applied to fox hunting but would be relevant to all forms – the enjoyment of hunting for hunting’s sake. It is seen as immoral and uncivilized, an outdated and redundant primal instinct. I’d argue that this innate response is not a regressive one, but an intrinsic part of our future. Why shouldn’t we enjoy hunting and killing things? We’re hardwired to divine a sense of achievement, satisfaction and maybe even enjoyment from a hunt well concluded. We are at a point in our development where our level of civilisation has (for the most part) advanced beyond our innate primitive drivers and desires. Like trying to incorporate digital software into analog hardware, conciliating the atavistic part of our psyche with our enlightened social structure is prone to breaking down and may require occasional release of our internal ‘monkey brain’.

As such might it not be good for everyone to kill (and eat) something at least once in their life? I remember visiting an abattoir as a child, it was not traumatic in the slightest, as I was always aware of the journey taken by the food on my plate having grown up in a farming community, but this experience certainly drove it home. If every child of 10 were taken on a similar visit, well, there’d probably be a few more vegetarians, but if every teenager was offered the opportunity to learn how to catch, kill and eat their own food, the sense of entitlement many feel towards their protein may dissipate. I know from the inner-city groups I have worked with that many would jump at the chance (a fair few more would run a mile, mind). Radical (and likely to draw the wrath of many a parent), but the act of killing their own food could be an important lesson for our children. I will stop well short of claiming it as a release valve for pent-up barbaric inner desires and a cure for social ills such as gang violence, but engagement with the environment at such a crude level would promote conscientious shopping at the very least.

A requirement to understand the origin of the bacon in your sandwich may have absolutely no relevance to your enjoyment of it, and you may view it as an unnecessary burden to subject yourself and your children to. And in the 21st century, you may be right, but I would consider the renunciation of this knowledge, and further than this, the denial of the instinct to hunt, to be a denial of what has made us the human race we are today. But enjoying it? Maybe this is a taboo too far in a supposedly civilised society.

Coypu – An Invasive Removal Success Story

To prove that it’s not all doom and glum when I discuss invasives, this month I’ve chosen Coypu– primarily as an example of how an invasive pest can be successful eradicated. So long as they annoy the right (or wrong?) people.

capybara

Capybara > Coypu

Coypu are large rodents (you can read a bit more about their morphology etc. on wikipedia, I can’t really be bothered to write that bit). They look pretty cool, but not as cool as the Capybara, if I were going to rank large rodents. Which I’m not. But if I were…

Farmed in the early part of the 20th century for its fur, it inevitably escaped from some rather lax security on East Anglian fur farms. It proved to be pretty destructive and damage and loss of reed beds started to occur around the Broads. There was certainly the potential that this could detrimentally impact on breeding bird species. However, this isn’t what ultimately sealed their fate; the Coypu unfortunately made the fatal era of impinging on farming concerns through its burrowing and disturbing of irrigation channels.

The Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food as it then was, acted with uncharacteristic alacrity and a population estimated at around 50,000 at its peak was eradicated in the space of 20 years. There are rumours that they still persist in some areas, though – we do love a mystery animal in this country.

So what lessons does this have for us today? Does this have absolutely any relevance or impact to a current invasive?

Well, an obvious comparison is the American Mink, an incredibly damaging species for native wildlife, in particular Water Voles, which the Mink are able to predate with ease. They also escaped from fur farms during the same time period, and exist in much lower numbers than the coypu reached. So eradication should be simple, yes? But the only effort being put into their eradication mainly comes from wildlife charities. It’s no stretch at all to suggest that if they were even rumoured to be a serious threat to cattle as Bovine TB vectors, they’d be gone within a year.

From my own experience chasing wallabies (yes, wallabies again), I know that though the ecological ramifications of their presence on a Ramsar wetland site were important, the impact on local farming concerns perhaps held greater sway. Unfortunately said farmers refused to let me survey their land, and therefore this angle was not really covered and the Wallabies were therefore never in danger. Shame that.

The lesson for any potential invasive species must be – eat or out-compete the native wildlife as much as you like, but for heavens sake don’t touch the crops.

So, yeah, wouldn’t you look at that? I managed to be glum about it after all.

Ten ‘Other’ Tips for Getting a Job in Conservation

This week I found a guest article on Mark Avery’s great blog giving ten tips for getting a job in conservation. I reasoned: I’ve studied Conservation, I’ve volunteered for environmental organisations, I now have a job vaguely in the sector, therefore I’m equally as qualified to offer advice. Either that or I’ve run out of ideas and have started plagiarising.

There’s a lot of ‘traditional’ advice you will probably have heard a hundred times if you’re an aspiring ecologist or environmental educator, but I’m going to assume you’re not a complete numpty and forgo advising you to check your spelling, tailor your CV, research your employer, practice your interview questions – if you’re reading my most excellent blog and have stuck with it this far, then you’re obviously an intelligent bird. Obviously. So here I’m offering some tips you perhaps won’t find elsewhere. You can take it or leave it. It’s a competitive market, perhaps I’m sabotaging you?:

1. Volunteer – Education is great, experience is better

No brainer, this one. Yes, many of us could have stupid letters after our name if we chose (vanity is not a common trait amongst conservationists – see point 7), but it’s the hands-on experience that really counts in the sector.

2. Put thought into the course you choose

That said, if you’re going down the further education route, have a serious think about the course content and how it will help you get a job. Think specific skills. An MSc in Conservation has earned me a broad tick mark in many application processes, but a chainsaw license has got me interviews. Lots of little, focused, courses are often a better investment than one large one.

3. Diversify

Try everything once except incest and morris dancing – even things you think you won’t be good at or have no interest in. My first breaks came through volunteering on projects with young people who were not thriving in a classroom environment (one of my favourite euphemisms, that). This was something I didn’t really think I’d have an interest in or be good at, but my volunteer coordinator twisted my arm. Create yourself a solid and broad base of general skills, you never know when they might come up in an interview or an application. Sticking your hands up gets you noticed, too.

4. Specify

Why do you keep following me and stealing my poo?

Want an interview? Get a Wallaby

Contradictory so and so, aren’t I? I promise I’m not just confused (well, generally I am, but not about this). It’s always good to have a ‘thing’ (this coming from a man who chased Wallabies around the Isle of Man – I swear I’ve been invited into interviews just for that). Ecology, for example, is a huge school – perhaps start with one group to develop some serious skills in.

5. Input into your volunteering experience

I’ve written about the changes to volunteering offers before, and I think people are becoming more turned on to the idea that it’s a two-way process. Ask to see and input into volunteer policies, suggest setting up a volunteer council, ask for representation at meetings. All environmental charities worth their salt should realise the importance of their volunteers and the work they do and should make efforts to involve their input in the process.

6. Go to the Pub

Trying to get noticed? Build up your alcohol tolerance

Trying to get noticed? Build up your alcohol tolerance

Now there’s some advice I can get behind. I’d hate to perpetuate a myth that we’re all a well-oiled bunch, but a lot of networking does seem to happen in a venue with access to copious amounts of social lubricant. It’s also a place where you can keep educating yourself – conservation always has a new ‘issue’ to get your head around. Don’t be afraid to discuss what you don’t understand, (a life lesson in general, there) ask questions – something you might find easier after a pint of mood enhancer.

7. Don’t be too pushy

Ok, I’m going to get all psychoanalytical about the sector here. This is a counterpoint to the usual advice about networking – and believe me there are few sectors where making contacts is as important. But it’s also about making the right impression. You’re working in a pretty small pool – I bump into someone I’ve worked with before seemingly everyday. Use these contacts, but don’t abuse them. Conservation is not like, say, marketing – by all means be assertive, but as a group of people (sweeping generalisation) overt and continual self-promotion tends to rub us up the wrong way.

8. Have rich backers

Ok, so I may not be entirely serious there, but there is probably a reason the sector tends to draw from such a narrow demographic. You’ll be unemployed for periods, and you’ll want to go on courses to improve your employability – it’s not a sector to get into if you aren’t prepared to work elsewhere to fund your start (see point 10).

9. Interviewers are sometimes crap, accept it

Gods, I have given some awful interviews, but I’ve also been subject to some awful interviewers. I will try and limit my tales of interview woe, but here are a few examples:

  • – An interview which for an hour concentrated on one sentence under the ‘desirable’ section of the person specification, and not the other page and a half of ‘essentials’
  • – An interview for which the job title had changed that morning.
  • – An interview in which the previous candidate walked out, and sat back at his desk in the office.
  • – Feedback which suggested a lack of experience (default feedback position), though I later discovered they had employed a cheaper intern with limited experience.

The truth is – Interviews are an absolutely terrible concept for picking the ideal candidate. But we are rather lumbered with them.

10. Give up

Yes, really. Ok, maybe not really, really. But be open to the idea that you may need to think again about your dream job. The sector is really, really, really competitive and in the immediate future there isn’t the prospect for a great many more jobs coming on the market (though I’m more hopeful for the near future). You may have to consider developing alternative skills that will allow you to move sideways –this is why I believe environmental education and outreach is an important transferable skill to work on. Or, like I am now, work in a post that is perhaps half ecology, half something else. You may have to accept, for the sake of your sanity and your bank balance, that you take a non-related post and continue to volunteer on the side. Don’t see it as a failure; everyone in the sector has had to do this at one time or another.

Quantity vs Quality – The Error in Target-Driven Outreach

Working in environmental outreach, I am frequently asked by colleagues for figures and statistics. Number of events run, number of volunteers and hours volunteered, percentage of minority visitors, number of disabled users etc. etc.

Numbers are a useful tool for monitoring, and our minds are certainly geared towards valuing numbers and statistics in a work setting much higher than abstract themes such as enjoyment, happiness or health. Objective data makes it far easier to rank, categorise and measure. The perceived wisdom is that it is essential when measuring progress towards a desired target. But in outreach, it is the subjective that matters, the impact on those reached, not their number, ethnicity or age. picture feedbackWe’ve tried to get round this by quantifying happiness and engagement. I’m sure you have at one time or another filled out or asked a parent or child to fill out an evaluation form rating happiness on a scale of 1 – 10, or ticking one of a set of incrementally happier faces. What does this really reflect? Do these types of evaluation ever supply accurate responses? I would argue that by their very definition they can’t. They are too generalised, too rigid and prescriptive to capture the range of emotions a child may experience when, for example, pond dipping for the first time. Additionally, forms handed out and collected personally are more likely to garner generally positive reviews, as people do not wish to offend face to face, as it were. We might like this aspect of paper feedback, but it is doing ourselves a disservice.

To some extent we have been backed into this process, through funders who see the quantitative rather than qualitative as an expedient way to gauge the ‘value for money’ they are getting for their investment. Many of us in the sector are now working in a position that is externally funded and the quantitative are seen as an essential component of justifying our continued employment in a competitive industry. So how can we improve the way we determine ‘success’? It may create a further paperwork headache when involving children, but recording on film, or taking photographs at events offers an opportunity to more accurately assess impacts on an emotional level. Taking written testimonies, using case studies and collecting quotes from attendees would provide a better, fuller picture of how an event was received, particularly as with the ubiquitous smart phone, these can now be done blindly through a host website such as surveymonkey.

Graphs - lovely, lovely graphs

Graphs – lovely, lovely graphs

Gathering information and data is invaluable in understanding public use of green space and using this to proactively manage a site. However, using quantitative data to evaluate the success, or otherwise, of an outreach project is largely and irrelevance. This extends not just to outreach, but to the world of ecology also, where ‘good’, ‘poor’, ‘recovering’ etc. is frequently judged in terms of numbers and percentage cover. This is again a function of the need to report back to others, the need to stand up and say ‘yes, we are delivering, you are getting your moneys worth.’ Often the people we are ultimately reporting to, particularly in the world of ecology, have little knowledge in the area and thrive on this kind of empirically measured stat. For a number of our sites, habitats, reserves and natural areas, someone with knowledge in the sector and with some background knowledge of the site would be able to judge ‘this is good’ or ‘this is better’ after a walk round.

But can we change this? Are we now stuck in a loop of using statistics to back up and compare with newer statistics as we look to judge a project or site by looking at a long stream of data? Without the greater contexts that those on the ground are aware of, these statistics can become overly abstract. We need to work to reduce our reliance on these and take the time to flesh out the bigger picture when promoting our work to the public and to funders. Only by increasing the knowledge and understanding of our audience can we break the hegemony of quantitative evaluation and begin to appraise our outreach and ecological projects in real terms.

No I Will Not Use the Title Bear Necessities in a Post About Bears. You Can’t Make Me.

Just as ‘Yes’ by McAlmont and Butler is clearly the greatest pop song ever written, so there must logically be a ‘greatest fictional bear’ ever created. Yes, that’s right, the blog has degenerated to this – me discussing the pros and cons of cartoon bears. And no, I have not been paid to write this in order to promote the new Paddington film.

I could make a point about the dangerous anthropomorphism of animals and how this leads to misplaced confidence around those from the big, bite-your-head-off and not at all cuddly species (see Grizzly Man, or the recent photos taken by a student in New Jersey moments before being killed by a black bear). But I wont. I don’t really think I have it in me to make a serious point in what is a very flippant and facetious post I knocked up in the 30 minutes I have spare between getting the Tea on and developing my FIFA skills.

So here, in order of morphological and ecological accuracy, are my ‘Top Bears’

Hyper Camp

Hyper Camp

Rupert

Species: Polar? Who knows?

Location: Nutwood, England

Habits and preferences: Hyper-camp. I will cast no aspersions about his preferences.

Accuracy Points: 0

Seriously, what was it about these authors in the 20’s, were they trying to convince kids that the woodlands of the UK were thronged with super-friendly bears? Rupert…god I hate Rupert…maybe it’s those stupid check trousers. At least they aren’t red trousers. Maybe it’s Paul McCartney’s fault. Rupert is less a bear, more an effete young boy with a bears head stuck on him.

Not Really a Bear

Not Really a Bear

Pooh

Species: Teddy Bear

Location: Ashdown Forest, Sussex

Habits and preferences: Likes Honey, a bit slow

Accuracy Points: 2

Ok, so technically he’s a ‘Teddy Bear’ rather than an actual bear, but Ashdown Forest? I’m pretty sure there are no Bears in Sussex…pretty sure. Points for appearing to be in a pre-hibernation state most of the time and enjoying honey.

Nice Hat

Nice Hat

Paddington

Species: Spectacled Bear

Location: Peruvian Immigrant

Habits and preferences: Likes Marmalade sandwiches

Accuracy Points: 5

Points for getting species origin correct and overall appearance not too far off. I’d even concede that bears would like marmalade sandwiches, should they happen on one. He does however recklessly encourage the adoption of dangerous wild animals in contravention of the 1976 Act but may gain bonus points for inciting the wrath of UKIP.

yogi

Yogi Bear – In reality a remorseless killing machine

Yogi

Species: Grizzy

Location: Jellystone National Park

Habits and preferences: Stealing picnic baskets

Accuracy points: 6

Right species, right place (It’s supposed to be Yellowstone, obvs), vaguely correct appearance. Attraction to picnic baskets spot on whilst also carrying a genuine public warning. With his smart-casual dress sense (tie, hat and nothing else) he’s definitely the most stylish in the countdown. In reality would have ripped Park Ranger Smith’s face off and chewed-up his mangled body before going down in a hail of bullets.

baloo

Bill Murray

Baloo

Species: Sloth Bear

Location: Indian Jungle

Habits and preferences: Likes fruit, honey, ants, dancing and tomfoolery.

Accuracy points: 8

Actually looks like a bear, unlike most of the others. Right species, right place, right diet. I’ve also just found out the Bill Murray is voicing the character in a 2015 live action version, and that’s the best news I’ve heard in a long while.

Honourable(?) mentions for Bungle (super odd), but there was only room for one camp bear in the countdown.