More Pointless Fox Hyperbole

Foxes = hyperbole. If I’ve learned anything from my ‘career’ in the sector, it is that there is very little as divisive. So when a story appears in the papers about a marauding fox’ penning some ‘terrified’ punters in a pub, I pretty much know what reactions to expect. Calls for culling, the counter ‘ode to the joys of the urban fox’; it’s all a little predictable.

chumsWhat I think has always baffled me though is the sheer number of people who just point blank seemed to have refused that this has happened. Why the self-deception? Why can they not countenance the idea that a fox, a wild predator, could possibly act aggressively towards humans? There is any number of reasons why it might – cubs, food, perceived threat or familiarity – but there is a steadfast refusal to accept. And so stories like this are treated with incredulity and ridicule. I have even heard people claiming today that all previous incidences of fox attacks on humans have later been proven to be dogs. I have also seen that damn statistic about dog attacks vs fox attacks trotted out everywhere despite its total irrelevance. One thing I do know from experience is that when it comes to foxes, you have to pick a side.

I can understand it to an extent – people see foxes as the victim, as persecuted, and are therefore more prone to emphasise their innocence and fluffiness. But why do they think it is necessary to overplay it? The peculiar thing is that today in the Guardian a piece also appeared by lovable hunk Steve Backshall (even I swoon) about the nefarious media practice of creating seasonal bio-panic, be it jellyfish, spiders, hornets or, yes, foxes. And I completely agree with every single word of it. So what am I even trying to say?

I think we need to admit to ourselves that there’s the odd thing out there that might, just occasionally, cause you a scratch, a

They'll be the death of me

They’ll be the death of me

sting, and abrasion, heavens even a cut. I think we have to embrace that. Grasp on to the last tiny semblance of danger in our rather mild-mannered ecosystems (this is all very well me saying this until I am mauled to death by badgers, of course). The truth is that kids, for one, are much more fascinated by teeth and stings and danger than they are by soft fur and a placid demeanour.

So the next time there is a story about a fox biting a bin man, an exotic spider secreted in a bunch of bananas causing mild swelling or reports of a super-deadly Asian Hornet (clue – it’s probably just a regular hornet! Seriously, those things are terrifyingly large) I hope our reaction is neither to run for the hills and stock up on canned goods or to put on our green armour and say ‘oh don’t be silly, it could never happen’. I hope our reaction is to shrug our shoulders and say ‘so what?’ Or even better, ‘cool’. Animals do what animals do and they’re pretty cool as they are, why feel the need to exaggerate or deny?

No Shades of Grey in the Hunting Argument

About a month ago I wrote an article, in which I lightly prodded the League Against Cruel Sports about their current stance over Trail Hunting. I thought I’d give it a few weeks to lend a little distance and give me time to mull over the various replies I received in relation to it, but this has only reinforced something I already suspected: You can’t wade into the hunting debate without being on a particular side. It’s just not allowed.fox2

My first port of call was an article on the 10-year anniversary of the ban in the Guardian (I know, I know, I’m a mung-bean eating, sandle-wearing Pinko). I dropped in to say hi, do a light bit of shameless self-promotion of Adventures in Conservation and popped in a small query relating to my article but also to something else I was trying to write at the time:

‘I’m genuinely interested what role hunting for subsistence and people’s preconceptions about those that take part in fox hunting has to play in people’s views of it. There’s a wider psychological point here about generations of hardwiring to gain satisfaction in a hunt successfully completed – how well are we able to incorporate that atavistic, analogue hardwiring into our digital, hyper-civilised modern brains? Can we, should we, attempt to completely deny this part of ourselves?’

(And OK, reading that back it does sound rather po-faced. Atavistic? Hyper-Civilised?)

This gathered a predictable melange of unrelated posts and it soon degenerated into the usual tit-for-tat. No one bothered to actually answer the questions I posed, but it didn’t take long for me to be labelled as ‘pro-hunt’ because of my desire to probe the human side of the issues rather than the canine, to couch my questions in terms of psychology rather than animal cruelty – an issue that I am not, as some have suggested, looking to ignore, it’s just not what I currently happened to be talking about:

SteB1

As a short aside here, this is a constant theme, and one that particularly irritates me – the sheer whatabouttery of that 80% stat thrown in there and also the charges of ignoring animal cruelty. This is not what I was talking about and yet there is the sense that by not talking on their terms, I am somehow being neglectful, sly even. One of my least favourite phrases in the world is ‘there’s people starving in the world and you’re talking about this?’

I responded:

‘That’s my point well emphasized right there – it’s such an entrenched and opinionated topic that to some, you can’t be neutral, in the middle, or have the capacity to argue, understand and have sympathy with both sides. As soon as you’re in the debate, you’re immediately seen as falling in one camp or the other – and as long as that kind of viewpoint prevails, you’re all doomed to just keep banging your heads against each other for the foreseeable.’

There were no further responses, either because of the astounding insight I’d just delivered or because the comments section had closed. You decide.

And so I ventured on to twitter with my article and held my breath…nothing. Where were all these virulent anti-hunt Sabs that the pro-hunt movement had led me to believe were ready to pounce (and visa-versa)? Maybe I’d done them a disservice in my piece; maybe I’d misrepresented them. And so I left it. For a while at least. But I can’t help prodding things; maybe I’m just a bit of a git.

So to the image that dragged me back in, just when I thought I was out…(Warning – has naughty words)

If you’ve read my previous article, you’ll know the point I have been trying to make is about the aggressiveness demonstrated (by both sides) and that I think there’s a real need to deescalate before there is a fatality. Images like this, images and phrases that promote the dehumanisation of a section of society…well, viewing a certain class of person as ‘less than human’ has always worked out so well in the past, hasn’t it? I couldn’t really let it pass and so I engaged the tweeter. Tweetee?

Later in the conversation, with absolutely no sense of hypocrisy, I was tweeted the below image, demonstrating just how mean pro-hunt types are (and yes, it isn’t very nice). I retweeted the original image that kicked the whole thing off, just as a reminder…I’ve yet to receive a response.

hunt abuse1

More than anything, I think what has stoked my ire is the willingness to throw out utterly sweeping statements and generalisations, the inability to see things in anything less than black and white – Sabs are non-violent angels and the hunt are all thugs, Sabs wear masks and intimidate the hunt who are just defending themselves. I was startled by the unwillingness to believe that it is entirely possible to have a foot in both camps, which led to (quite tame) abuse and blocking (I’m still not entirely sure what I did to deserve that).

I may have charged in on Social Media and Below the Line comments knowing what I was potentially letting myself in for, but what surprised me was that the thing that most riled, most irked people was my neutrality.

I’ll leave you with this final, charming tweet I received and the thought: What do we normally call people who wish a violent death on those who do not subscribe to the same ideology as us?

(I was then mocked for my use of the word ‘jeez’. Fair enough)

Time to Get Positive About the Hunt?

In order to court more readers, I thought I’d confront a contentious and volatile topic. Clickbait, I think they call it. Recently on the same day I came across two videos showing violent assaults taking place at hunts. One with the Master of the Tedworth hunt being beaten unconscious by hunt saboteurs, one with a member of the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale hunt knocking over a protestor with his horse. Both videos are edited for brevity, rather than to obscure and distort, obviously.

The League Against Cruel Sports has, as would be expected, made rather a gleeful point about incidents such as the latter while singularly failing to mention, let alone condemn, the former. This concerns me and I’m prepared to risk copping a whole load of flack (given my potential audience) by pointing out the hypocrisy displayed by The League here – condemning the attacks against sabs, while ignoring those a certain element commit. I am sure they could say that these people do not really represent them. I’m sure the hunting community would say the very same thing. But they do no such thing, and that is disappointing.

I remain unconvinced by many of the videos posted by LACS and other sabs. This is not an attempt at victim blaming, and I would obviously condemn any acts of violence visited upon the person of a sab, no matter how odiously they were behaving. But these videos are always out of context – we cannot know what preceded or followed. There is always quite obvious cutting, and we do not see (and even less often do we hear) anything from the other side. I’ve no doubt this media manipulation can occur on both sides – but logically those on the anti-hunt side are a) much more likely to be carrying cameras and b) much more likely to be skilled and media savvy. Hunts do not generally go in for Social Media, and they have no agenda to pursue through short Vines or posts on youtube (I can’t imagine anyone sitting through a 3 hour video of a lawful trail hunt).

Chums

Here, have a stock image of a fox chumming up to a cat to break up the text

I think it’s only fair that I preface much of this by spelling out my own views and positions. I grew up in a rural community and have close ties to people involved with various hunts, but this is not to say I am either pro or anti hunting. And yes, you can be neither. I disagree quite fundamentally with the confrontational, aggressive, activism often displayed by anti-hunt protestors. I disagree with attempting to alter, influence or inhibit someone else’s belief or culture (no mater how unpalatable I might find it) by conflict rather than communication and consensus. I believe this to be counter-productive to the environmental movement as a whole, and indeed, the LACS’s own aims.

My view is that these aggressive tactics do not endear sabs to others in the environmental sector – it’s not about giving other green protestors a bad name (though that is certainly an issue) as much as it is about making us look bloody childish by running around banging tins, shouting and wearing stupid Guy Fawkes masks. Not everything is a bloody ‘Occupy’ movement.

Perpetuating ridiculous stereotypes in the media isn’t helping the cause either. Again, and as an aside I similarly have issue with the current lazy portrayal of bankers. It casts them as simplified evil figures of hate, It dehumanises them. And when you can see your opponent as something less than human, anything seems permissible.

There is something I find worryingly fanatical and fundamentalist about some in the anti-hunt movement. It will have no truck or allow any other viewpoint than it’s own. The hunting community have at least demonstrated the ability to bend, but sabs will not contemplate anything less than a total victory.

But what is a ‘total victory’ for the sabs? Much of this comes from my discovery recently that LACS are now gunning for trail hunting. Trail hunting involves mimicking a fox hunt through use of a more twisting and changing trail laid with fox scent as opposed to the straight thrash of a drag hunt. It usually crosses the territory of a real fox (there’s not really anyway you could avoid this – it’s the countryside), resulting in occasional kills. LACS claim that this is deliberate.

If trail hunting goes, the hunts go. They will not survive on drag hunting. There is not the interest or will to continue. And if the hunts go, a whole lot more goes with them. This does make one question the ultimate vision for that ‘total victory’ the sabs seem to want. It would be wrong of me to speculate that the aims of many anti-hunt supporters are driven by perceived (and misplaced) cultural and class-ist agendas. Totally, totally wrong. I’d never suggest that. Obviously. There is the nagging feeling beneath it all that if they come after trail hunting now, will they come after drag hunting later? One accidental kill by a drag hunt and who knows?

I believe that the hunt saboteurs and by extension LACS’s approach is unviable in the long run unless their aim is to remove and destroy every last vestige of the fox hunting community – something they deny, but there is a definite sense they to object to the hunting community on much deeper grounds than animal cruelty. You can see why the hunting community get so angry; they must feel as if people from outside are coming after their way of life, in many ways literally, as the hunt constitutes a living, in one way or another, for a large percentage of those following it.

The trouble is that by disturbing and sabotaging law-abiding hunts, the gap between the two sides just continues to widen. Positive publicity and reinforcement, in my opinion and experience, often works a lot better. The League Against Cruel Sports has an opportunity to promote and to support law-abiding hunts, for applauding good practice and making real positive connections. To my knowledge, it has never attempted to do this.

The two sides of the argument appear intransigent, at opposing ends of the spectrum, too disparate in their ultimate aims. But it can’t continue, it can’t progress like this. If we’re to reach any kind of consensus on fox hunting, the two sides are just going to have to bite the bullet and start talking to each other. And as it is the LACS who are working for change, I believe the onus is on them to make the first move towards conciliation. The two sides are clearly diametrically opposed, but they must realise that neither is going anywhere anytime soon, (I’d make some half-arsed Israel/Palestine comparison, but that would be childish and offensive). If the relationship remains confrontational, and I address this to both sides, then they will forever remain locked in this stalemate, no progress will be made, they will continue to exist in an antagonistic state, riling each other, and we’ll keep having incidence like Tedworth or Blackmore and Sparkford Vale.

Fox Week Part 2 – Urban Foxes: The Intersection Between the Wild and the Mundane

Urban foxes.  Whether it’s erroneous calls for culling in the media or a blogger getting overly worked up about it, you just can’t get away from them. I’ve tried to avoid it, every year Springwatch do another feature covering the same ground, and every year I turn off. Pariah or persecuted, it can get incredibly subjective. Discussions on foxes elicit fierce passions, as anyone who has waded in on either side of the argument will know. There have been some calls for culling of urban foxes, and this is no doubt an over the top knee-jerk reaction to a few incidents. But due consideration should be given to both sides of the argument.

Now free comment sections on newspaper websites are not perhaps the most logical places, but the blinkered thinking can often be quite staggering. So much so that you have to question the posters motives. It is probably no stretch at all to imagine that a self-professed Tory posting ill thought out pro-hunting arguments on the Guardian website may not be all he seems, and visa-versa. So lets look at some stats:

Well, that was my intention with this paragraph, but it seems it isn’t quite that straightforward. The last estimate, from the 1980s, put the total urban fox population at 33,000. – There may not be, and, according to the Guardian, there is a consensus that there is not likely to have been an increase since then. This is the pro-urban fox position. However as any good scientist will tell you, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. No evidence does not necessarily mean something is not happening, it generally depends how hard someone has looked for that evidence, and with no population estimates available since the 80’s it would seem no one has looked too hard. Anecdotal evidence, overly subjective though it is, should be given due consideration and the majority of these suggest that if not an increase in population, then urban foxes are at the very least becoming more visible. Either way, this is extremely pertinent. Population pressures and social behaviour are potential contributory factors in fox-human interactions.

Ask someone on the pro-urban fox side of the fence why they think they should not be controlled and you may elicit the response ‘they help to control the rat population’. This is a double standard I have come across frequently, and one that both sides of the argument are guilty of. You can’t have it both ways. Again, there is no quantifiable evidence for this and if you dismiss something because you have not found any evidence for it, you cannot then use anecdotal evidence to provide a positive slant on your argument. Yes, foxes do kill rats (and mice) and other small mammals, but do they exert any population control? Rats are tricky to catch, can bolt down small holes and can defend themselves if needs be. There are most definitely much easier pickings out there in the urban supermarket for the average fox. – And again, this argument does segue into an interesting tangential example of double standards; rat control is presumably a good thing. Why is this? Despite their reputation, rats can be incredibly clean animals and they carry no greater threat from transmitted pathogens than foxes (presuming no new plague outbreak, and yes I know that’s black rats). Perhaps it is the proximity that is an issue? Perhaps they are less appealing to look at?

Pointless Remake - Even with Skarsgaard in it

Pointless Remake – Even with Skarsgaard in it

Dogs attack many, many more people than foxes do – This is not an argument. I cannot reiterate this enough, and yet still frequently have to. This has absolutely no relevance to the issue of urban foxes. None whatsoever. It is a clear example of ‘whataboutary’. It is a Straw Man (or Straw Dog?) argument that dogs are more dangerous. No one on the anti-urban fox side of the argument has ever suggested anything otherwise. They may both be canine, but they are completely different species. Put briefly, consider the relationship of the two to humans and how often dogs come into contact with humans as opposed to foxes. How often in the last year have you been within jaws grasp of a dog? A fox?

Taking a look from the other side of the fence, an often-proposed anti- argument is that foxes kill pets – This is again an issue with little evidence, relying solely on anecdote. It seems everyone has seen or can point to footage on youtube of cats and foxes chasing each other around the garden, usually with the cat coming out on top. Foxes don’t kill cats, that’s the perceived wisdom amongst many. But dogs kill cats. I came home once to find my very harmless dogs had killed my cat. Foxes are wild animals. It’s no great leap to believe that with the increased overlap between the two that is occurring in urban environments that such incidence will happen. Not often, again, as with rats, there is not a huge deal of benefit in it for them, but the huge number of ‘Missing Cat’ posters may attest to a hidden conflict (again, that is a hugely speculative presumption).

Much of this is playing devils advocate, but there are blinkered arguments on either side. I would hate to see a cull of urban foxes sparked by a single incident of human attack, but it is likely there will be further incidence. With increased population

Chums

Chums

pressures and loss of the few suitable green spaces in urban areas, interaction with humans will become more and more unavoidable. Foxes must not be given special treatment, and must be considered in the same context as rats, mice, pigeons, geese, with scientific evidence backing up any decision. Not just because there seems to be a lot of them about.

Really though, the whole argument is rather facile. In these situations, what must a citizen of rural India, or places with real wilderness, real threats from nature, think? We frown, rightly, on the destruction of the rainforest, shooting of tigers, elephants, animals that can quite easily leave your average farmer as a small damp patch in the dirt and are a legitimate danger. And yet, a fox snaps at us and we are advocating a cull. The economy takes a downturn and we want to carve up ancient woodlands, our equivalent of rainforests, for a needless vanity project. To those we berate for planting more palm oil, trapping tigers or selling rhino horn, we must look ridiculous.

Fox Week – Part 1: How to Create a Story Out of Nothing

It seems this week is going to be fox-heavy week. I had a post all set up and ready to go today (and it will appear here later) about the ‘scourge’ of urban foxes, the whys and wherefores. It is such an emotive subject and (for frankly irrelevant reasons) foxes cannot now be discussed without being laced with political context (in other words – if you want to control fox populations in any way, if you say anything negative about foxes at all, you’re a Tory). For an ecologist, this is a little annoying as it can be a legitimate area of concern.

This isn’t really a fox article. Urban foxes are (sorry to burst your bubble) dull, abundant, mid-level generalists that have limited value from a biodiversity perspective (barring that, of course, all nature has its own inherent value, etc and so forth). But at the weekend, a story I was keeping tabs on in a local paper has gone national in the Telegraph. It concerns a larger issue of scientific illiteracy in our media that Monbiot has previously addressed, but also a willingness to misrepresent a subject which incites high passions to push copy.

The story first appeared last week in the Wandsworth Guardian, which picked up on a seemingly innocuous press release on Urban Foxes by Wandsworth Borough Council. The press release, quite sensibly, advises securing your food waste to deter Urban Foxes. From this, Wandsworth Guardian have produced the heading ‘Starving urban foxes would drive numbers down in London’ says Wandsworth Council. Now I challenge you to search that press release and find where any such thing has been said. The truth is it doesn’t. The not unreasonable précis of the advice is that if there is less food available for foxes, then they will go elsewhere. Yet the title is phrased in such a way that it appears as though it is a direct quote. The piece also makes reference to baiting, trapping and shooting (not raised in the press release but discussed in a 2007 committee paper) and phrases it in such a way that it appears as though it is an actual possibility. This is the main entry on the subject:

 16. There are a number of methods of fox control that may be legally used. These include baited cage trapping, shooting and snaring, however fox control is not generally recommended in urban areas. Killing or relocating foxes usually provides only transient relief from the problems they cause, as vacant territories are rapidly reoccupied once the control measures cease.foxes 1

A hoo-ha is being generated here where none exists. Various control measures are discussed, as is only correct in a discussion about issues with urban foxes. The Council is merely undertaking the minimal due diligence on the issue. If it were discussing any other contentious issue (drugs, knife crime etc.) you would expect, demand even, that the council take the time to discuss any potential measures, the most severe and the most sensitive. If it were a rat problem, would we expect the council to fail to discuss such measures? (But then rats don’t appear on Springwatch every bloody year)

The story has now appeared in the Telegraph with a similarly misleading title, and not too subtle mention that the Wandsoworth Council is Conservative. The sub-header runs ‘Wandsworth Council tells residents if a ‘vixen is shot during breeding season, the den has to be traced and the whole family of cubs humanely killed’. This refers to a throwaway line in the original press release (that has since, sensibly, been removed) that attempts only to highlight the many reasons why any such undertaking would not be practical or desirable, and yet the phrasing has again been used to infer otherwise.

This, of course, all links in to previous concerns I have raised about ecological and scientific issues being discussed in political and social context. The main point I have is that this kind of misrepresentation genuinely can have negative repercussions for environmental professionals, for whom culling is often a legitimate and necessary tool. A lot of our work can seem destructive to the layman, and when a council press release stating that shooting urban foxes is absolutely not a practical measure gets twisted to suggest otherwise, it risks creating public aversion to potential measures ecologists may discuss to legitimate environmental problems. This is just one example amongst many, and if you want another, more nefarious, example of this, then check out the ‘You Forgot the Birds’ fiasco, where the RSPB’s refusal to back an unworkable government Hen Harrier action plan now, by some twisted logic, means that the RSPB hate Hen Harriers.

And I know, I’m using an emotive subject to get more people to view my blog. My rank hypocrisy knows no bounds. I’ve already made a point about the idiocy of having a cake and not eating it.