Attack of the Armchair Conservationists

Just who are the Armchair Conservationists?

It’s a fair question. But whoever they are, the British Association for Shooting and (ahem) Conservation have taken a particularly asinine swipe at them this week.

First and foremost, lets get this straight: I have no clear convictions either way on grouse shoots (as usual, I try and sit on the fence and see both sides. The end result of which is usually a backside full of barbed wire). I feel that setting yourself in such antagonistic opposition to the people who own and manage large areas of the countryside is always going to achieve the sum total of diddly squat of your aims. But Christ almighty the hunting community, and in particular BASC make it damn hard for the neutral to take very much of what they say seriously.

‘Armchair Conservationist’ is such a warblingly dismissive phrase and so vague. What is it and where can I find one? Time to get a Samuel Johnson on it. Time to combine my entymological and etymological skills and define it before I dissect and dismember it.

A MA from Cambridge, a PhD in Bats from Aberdeen, and a research fellowship at Oxford (but these is book learnin’, obviously. And that doesn’t count). Then there’s also 25 years with the RSPB, 13 as head of Conservation as well as many, many hours in the field. As armchairs go, that’s a pretty lofty one. But for some people, all the transferable skills, experience and knowledge in the world won’t count. There’s an argument that seems to run ‘unless you manage a 2,000 acre grouse shoot, you have no place commenting or having an opinion on grouse shooting.’

I mean, it’s a shite argument, but it’s a hill that some people seem particularly keen to die on.

Now I may have mentioned before that I’m a keen cricketer. And it occurred to me that exactly the type of person who might chuck out this lazy phrase would be that doyen of ecology, Ian Botham. Now good old beefy has already proven that when it comes to things like conservation, birds and the environment that he doesn’t really have the foggiest what he’s talking about. He’s just happy to repeat some mindless guff his chums in the shooting community have been feeding him. Whatever helps to justify the continued running of his expensive shoot and peculiar ambition to return the countryside to some sort of feudal state. But I don’t really expect him to know much about the environment.

Cricket however…well, you’d expect Beefy to know a thing or two, wouldn’t you? Unfortunately, outside of the Channel 9 commentary team, you would struggle to find a more myopic and ill-considered commentator. However, Botham has one great fall back, and it’s a stunner. You question Beefy on anything cricket and he trots out the unarguable ‘but how many test wickets do you have?‘ This is what the phrase ‘Armchair Conservationist’, with all its inherent condescension, amounts to.

But what does it actually mean, and realistically, just how much conservation can you do from an armchair? Actually, quite a lot it turns out. I mean, I do about 50-60% of my actual day job from a desk, there’s no armchair but I’m sure if I cooked up some chronic back-pain I could convince HR that it was necessary.

Perhaps this all comes down to some kind of mental division that has manifested over at BASC between ‘thinkers’ and ‘do-ers’. Now, you aren’t an idiot. You know that no such division exists. People are fully capable of thinking and doing. Although it may appear that some are not quite capable of doing and thinking.

By bandying around the phrase ‘armchair conservationists’ to dismiss everyone they disagree with, BASC have effectively sided with the imaginary ‘do-ers’. Their members get out and get stuff done and don’t sit around all day reading. We’ve had enough of experts after all, and over here at BASC, we don’t need to sit around and think about things, we just do them. If I was a BASC member and I was of a particularly introspective nature, I might find this pigeon-holing a little insulting.

Poor Cecil

Hunt (v – used with object). 1. to chase or search for (game or other wild animals) for the purpose of catching or killing.


Cecil ruminates on the fragility of man and beast and awaits his impending doom stoically

Poor Cecil the Lion. You’d never heard of him until a month ago, had you? His fame has flourished since his stock has been in the ground. I wonder if he knew it would be like this? Probably not, he was a lion, after all. Anthropomorphising again. Sorry. I blame the Lion King.

To be brung low by an American dentist is, I’m sure, not what Cecil would have imagined for himself, if he ever dared to dream of his future. Which he almost certainly didn’t. Oh the indignity. Every time I have seen Walter Palmer mentioned in the news regarding Poor Cecil,the word ‘hunter’ or ‘hunting’ is usually somewhere in close pursuit. Think ‘hunting’ in Africa and you might be forgiven for conjuring up something almost romantic, but it’s a misappropriation of the word and the sentiment. This is a much updated ruin from a much outdated style of archaic light gun and slaughter-based entertainment. I’m not sure if he sees himself as Quartermain or worse, Hemingway, but if we are to term what the likes of Palmer do


Hemingway: Pompous Ass?

as hunting, then we may have to expand the definition of hunting to include all kinds of other activities. Butcher might be a better description for what is involved here, but that rather maligns butchers, without whom my life would be distressingly bacon-less. These ‘hunters’ provide nothing but an object for scorn and disdain.

There is something so very unsound about it. These people neither chase or search for their quarry. Like pheasant hunting, I fail to see what the challenge is if your quarry is either produced in such vast, dopey numbers that you can’t miss or is herded directly in to your gunsight without having to undergo the unnecessary discomfort of doing any of the actual ‘hunting’ yourself. If you’re not hunting for subsistence, then surely that’s what it’s all about? I have no great problem with hunting, I think it may well be an innate part of our make-up that we can’t easily shift, but what in gods name is the challenge in shooting a giraffe? So Walter Palmer and Cecil the Lion are inextricably linked now, remembered for a while at least. But don’t let it be said that Cecil was ‘hunted’. He was killed to order. Maybe assassinated is a better word, one more fitting for a King of the Jungle*.

*No, I never understood this one either.

The (Anti) Raptor Alliance

It’s happening again. After the nonsense of ‘You Forgot the Birds’ last year, there’s a new joker on the scene – The Raptor Alliance. Don’t let the name fool you – this is neither a collaboration of sparrowhawks angry at social injustice, a scene from Jurassic World or even a group attempting to save the decimated Hen Harrier. Quite the opposite, this is an alliance of pigeon fanciers intent on clearing the skies of any potential threat to the enjoyment of their little hobby.raptor alliance

I’m not going to make any snarky remarks about how anyone could possibly enjoy pigeon racing, but surely the removal of raptors only sanitizes it. Like modern F11 (again, baffled), where’s the excitement in knowing that they’re all going to make it back safely? Surely the addition of a potential sparrowhawk-wildcard adds to the thrill and anticipation. Surely a little thinning by raptors leads to the evolution of quicker, smarter pigeons2.

The recent petition put forward to members of Pigeon Racing unions (who knew, right?) is asking racing pigeons to be designated as livestock. With this designation it will then be legal (the Royal Pigeon Racing Association states) for pigeon racers to shoot birds of prey ‘around their loft’. Now, I’m not entirely comfortable about the idea of any group blasting away into the sky, presumably in a residential area, particularly when I think about the rather woolly concept of ‘around their loft’. How many pigeon lofts are not in the vicinity of another property? Are they sure they can discharge a weapon without firing beyond their premises (as per Firearms Act)? So straight off the bat, I am not convinced by the legality of this unless said loft is in the middle of a field (yes, some of them will be). Might there be the potential for a little stretching of that ‘around the loft’ phrase?

But that’s mere nuts and bolts, protocol, procedure. From the ‘You Forgot the Birds’ debacle, we all know the real fun starts when you dive into the PR and reasoning behind it all. So lets head straight into the world of twitter, where we can rest assured that these types of movement will invariably make a boob and receive the mauling they deserve:

Another brilliant business enterprise scuppered by my time-travelling nemesis

Another brilliant business enterprise scuppered by my time-travelling nemesis

Ah, here we go. Protection of ‘assets’. A Racing Pigeon owned by someone inherently has more value than a wild falcon. Because someone has paid good, hard cash for it. I’d rather not stroll too far down this path of monetising wildlife, and I’d also rather not turn this into some form of Bird Top Trumps (now there’s an idea), but if we must….

‘60,000 pigeon fanciers in the UK have no legal protection against increasing attacks from soaring sparrowhawk and peregrine falcon populations’

Just picking the RSPB as they’re the most relevant environmental charity here: 1 million+ members, a great deal of them probably spending a large amount of money to view and protect birds. Some of the most popular birds to spot are likely to be raptors (and probably not pigeons, if we’re honest)…if we’re going to play ‘my bird’s worth more than your bird’, I know whom my, a-hem, money is on.

Such nice chaps, and therefore we should totally support them. People who give money to charity should always get their way.

I already said I wasn’t going to play ‘which bird is better’, but…oh go on then, if we must judge wildlife by their interaction with man: Falconry wins by a good 1780 years.

I’m never entirely convinced about bravery awards for animals, but this doesn’t make pigeons particularly special: Falcons were also used to bring down these messages.

I know, I know, all rather childish of me to pick out these random tweets, but there is an inherent undercurrent in everything the Raptor Alliance says that racing pigeons in so many ways have more ‘worth’ than raptors. This is even more dispiriting when in previous releases RPRA gave relatively reasonable advice on how to discourage birds of prey around ones pigeon loft.

This leap towards blasting them out of the sky all harks back to the rather perfidious notion I encountered growing up in the countryside that raptors need to be ‘controlled’. This was sold to me as essential for protecting songbird populations, but even then I could not understand the logic. Apex predator control doesn’t work ‘backwards’ like this. The only natural control on their numbers was prey numbers, and I couldn’t see the need for the introduction of a third agency. With this petition, attempting to directly pit raptors against ‘livestock’, it shows exactly where the real conflict lies.

1I am not disparaging recent changes to F1 or the lack of high-speed, potentially fatal crashes. I am completely ambivalent towards F1. Although the crashes were the best part.

2Smart, self-aware pigeons is one of my nightmare scenarios. That and squirrels intent on world domination.

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).


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.

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.

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



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.

Botham Takes on the RSPB (and I Can’t Even Think of a Good Cricket Pun)

It’s not often my twin interests of cricket and conservation combine. So, given Ian Botham’s criticism of the RSPB this week, I couldn’t give up the chance to comment.

Given that I have recently criticised the RSPB (well, the Vote Bob campaign, behind which it lurks and skulks like a group of foxes (learn your collective nouns, people)), this is a tricky issue and it’s going to take a bit of unpicking.

Botham is commenting on behalf of the ‘You Forgot the Birds’ (YFTB) campaign, and they raise some concerns that I have previously expressed. It raises the issue, and it is one I do keep harping on about, regarding the adoption of a business focus by many of our environmental charities. This has seen them diversify and become more centred on generating money through fundraising than actual conservation work. The figures touted (if to be believed) are a spend of £32M on fundraising against £29M on conservation operations by the RSPB. This is, genuinely, a reason for concern. Not just the disparity between public perception and actual activities, but the huge sums involved. Can charities come under the scrutiny of the Monopolies Commission? But these issues are lost beneath the sheer fug of bone-headed, imbecilic points made by the YFTB, thus losing any semblance of relevance.

YFTB Logo - I am still at a loss to explain the tagline

YFTB Logo – I am still at a loss to explain the tagline

Martin Harper has already responded, pretty well, although he has missed some of the key points and relied too heavily on RSPB’s vaunted past as a defence rather than addressing current issues. I could also do without the horrendous crowbarring of god-awful cricket clichés and metaphors into every paragraph. But I think the campaign could do with a much more comprehensive dissection. So lets pick out a few phrases from the website and highlight some of the cretinous asininity behind the campaign:

Firstly, lets look at the three big heads behind the ‘YFTB’ campaign. They are listed as:

Sir Ian Botham
Martyn Howat, former Director of Natural England
Sir Johnny Scott, BBC TV presenter

Where to start with that trio? As a contrarion, I think I’ll start in the middle. Martyn Howat, former Director of Natural England. Yes, indeed he was. But more relevantly, he is also the current (I have been trying to confirm this, but it is not clear on the website, I only know he was as of July 2014) Chairman of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation. Why is he not described as such? Why is he described by his former role? Anyone with half a brain can probably work out why they are keeping this association quiet.

Sir Johhny Scott. Well, just look at that CV. A man more steeped in the noble pursuits of hunting or blowing the face off game birds bred for the purpose of having their faces blown off you would struggle to find. He is described here as a ‘TV presenter’, and not the centenary patron of the BASC or any of the other patronages he has to hunting organisations. I flagged up the Vote Bob campaign for being an RSPB money-spinner by stealth, but this deliberate subterfuge much greater in its venality. As for Botham, a man who runs his own shoot, he is an irrelevance in this instance, a big, lumbering figurehead for a plodding, old-fashioned movement (insert your own joke about his later England career here). It’s sad to see a man who railed against the tie and blazers of the MCC become such an ingrained part of the same set. He’s an embarrassment.

Now for some of the loaded language used on the website. In reference to the RSPB using certain ‘box-office’ species for advertising, they say:

‘The wrong type of bird includes chickens (too frumpy)…’ – Chickens? Why the hell would the RSPB be using chickens, the most common bird on the planet, to advertise its work in protecting our dwindling bird species? Unless it was with regards to the horrendous condition battery hens endure, but that would involve lobbying, and, well…

‘How much “conservation money” is being spent on political lobbying on climate change?’ “Conservation money”? I’m pretty certain climate change is the main conservation issue at the moment. Unless you are denying it. You’re not denying climate change, are you YFTB? The YFTB campaign takes aim at the RSPB spending money on lobbying, education and research. These are core areas we need to be spending money on if we are to protect our natural environment.

Lobbying seems to be the key target for their displeasure and the message this sends out is clear; The YFTB campaign wants the RSPB and the like to stop sticking their nose into the business of landowners and farmers. It comes across as a call for the RSPB to ‘get back in their box’ and behave.

‘Take the hen harrier. It doesn’t just have bankable movie star looks but also a back story of victimisation. So it is the ultimate nice little earner for the RSPB’ – now, when you note that this is preceded by the sentence ‘Ideally there’s a nasty villain to protect it from’, I think anyone with half a brain can put two and two together and see what’s going on here. The plight of Hen Harriers are exactly the kind of thing the RSPB should be promoting and raising awareness about. How could anyone with an interest in bird conservation complain about this? Unless…hang on, do the people behind this campaign have a vested interest in (or think, through some misguided notion, they have a vested interest in) raptor persecution?

The ‘They Shot Bambi’ section added to the website today is equally hypocritical and idiotic (although I can not work out if they are being deliberately obtuse or genuinely are not aware in the contradictions between their aims and their backers). It gives us plenty more statements to pick apart:

‘Last year the RSPB shot dead 1,129 deer along with 273 “Freddy” foxes.’ The BASC (sorry, YFTB) are complaining about this? Well I admire their balls and sheer hypocritical brass-neckery if nothing else. They also ON THE SAME PAGE end the piece with the quote “Rare birds like Golden Plovers thrive when they have rich habitat and are protected from foxes. The RSPB is doing a lousy job at that” from the esteemed conservationist Botham (a man whose last foray in to the public consciousness was this disturbing image).

Botham - a gratuitous cheap shot

Botham – a gratuitous cheap shot

‘It also deliberately suffocated hundreds of unborn chicks by smearing oil around their shells’ – If you are going to throw this kind of emotionally loaded language around, you have to at least give a hint of the reasoning behind it. Control of some species is a vital, important part of nature conservation, which takes on many forms, and for the BASC to get shitty about this…seriously, this is staggeringly ridiculous.

They also ask ‘why its (RSPB’s) executive team is housed in a mansion. Homes for office workers? Or homes for birds?’ This is really childish, and a second’s research elucidates the background of The Lodge at Sandy. It was purchased in 1961, with generous financial help by Tony Norris. I’m not sure how this is relevant to current spending. I’ve been trying to find any evidence of the RSPB supplying homes for office workers (as opposed to, y’know, a place to work), but can’t. Happy to be corrected though if this is the case.

Despite my issues with the RSPB, and the genuine issues the YFTB campaign raises, I can’t help but think that if the RSPB are annoying the people clearly behind YFTB, then they must be doing something right.

YFTB go on to state ‘we are going to examine the accounts of the RSPB and all the 47 Wildlife Trusts and get you the facts’ and ‘It’s time it (the RSPB) was honest about its own approach…’ Well, in the spirit of honesty, I would like the BASC, a-hem, sorry, sorry, I meant the You Forgot the Birds campaign, to be honest about the ‘conservationists or self-confessed birders…farmers and landowners…’ and ‘volunteers from the cities’ behind this ill-thought out campaign. Just who is behind it? It doesn’t take a genius to work it out.



Culling – The Dark Side of Conservation

The Badger - Serial mover of goalposts. Is the FA the real driving force behind the current cull?

The Badger – Serial mover of goalposts. Is the FA the real driving force behind the current cull?

Culling is in the news again and it is, as ever, proving a thorny issue. It often seems anathema and contrary to the whole hippy-feel of much of our work to even be contemplating the systematic removal of a portion of a species. But our ecosystem is now, perhaps irrevocably, out of kilter. Many of the natural checks to species populations are absent or severely reduced through human actions. From an ecological perspective, culling is often an unavoidably necessary step. But how can we reconcile this part of our work with the softer, public face of the environmental movement? Maybe it is time for conservations dark secret to be brought out into the light.

Culling comes in many forms. From the removal of invasive species having a deleterious effect on native species (e.g. mink), to the trimming of deer herds or the issue of potential disease vectors. In all instances, no matter how sound the science and theory behind it, emotion plays a strong role. The importance of sentiment and basic compassion for wildlife should not be underestimated; it is after all the reason that many of us have chosen to devote ourselves to this sector. Making the difficult decisions should not be an entirely cold, analytical process; we need to take into account the reaction of the public and even staff and volunteers within our own organisations. It does not need me to elucidate further the dangers, particularly for a wildlife charity for example, of losing the trust and good will of the public who financially support it, and the staff that drive it forward.

Let us work through the different types of culling we may encounter in conservation, starting with what I would hope would be the most straight forward and obvious:

Removal of invasive species is a huge part of conservation work, be they flora or fauna. Perhaps the species most referenced with regards to culling is the American Mink. A destructive mustelid, since its introduction/escape into the wild it has decimated the native Water Vole population, amongst other species, because it size allows it to access bank side holes that would otherwise be off limits to other species. Its removal, therefore, is of direct advantage to a native and charismatic species under severe threat. Spelling out these basic issues, few in the conservation sector would have any issue with culling. Some among the broader public however, may take issue at killing one species for the preservation of another on the grounds of longer-term residency.

An interesting side note here is the provenance of mink in the UK. There is a theory that that a large number established themselves after being released by activists from a mink farm, breeding them for their pelts. This is unsubstantiated, and there are a number of different ways one could read this situation from misplaced good intentions to fabrication of the story, to discredit. Either way, it further highlights the role that emotion can play and how they need to be managed and addressed accordingly and not dismissed as bleeding-heart sentimentality.

Deer culling however, is much more likely to send members of the public into paroxysms of rage. This I have experienced having worked in woodland where herd trimming was essential. Deer kill woodland. It takes a long while, but their presence in the absence of a natural predator will eventually lead to a lack of natural regeneration of woodland species due to overgrazing of saplings and seedlings. This obviously has a huge knock on effect to other species. Keeping herds at an acceptable level, mimicking the effects of a natural predator if you like, is therefore a vital part of woodland management, allowing different areas to develop thick, natural regeneration where elsewhere areas are opened out by grazing.

Deer Culling - I couldn't get the rights for a image from Bambi

Deer Culling – I couldn’t get the rights for an image from Bambi

And yes, I would love to see Lynx reintroduction as a measure to alleviate the need for such culling, but that is another argument. Deer though, are herbivores, are relatively inoffensive (whereas mink, for example, are seen as aggressors) and people generally like to see them on a woodland stroll. How then, to promote the idea and get the public on-board with the notion that you are going to be shooting a fair few of them in the head? Some organisations opt for the clandestine approach, keeping it a slightly dirty little secret, and you can understand why. But this shirks one of the main responsibilities of the environmental sector: to inform and educate. Through discussing, educating, and yes, even promoting the darker parts of our jobs we can pre-empt any potentially negative reactions. It’s a risky move, but keeping the activity hidden breeds distrust and suspicion.

On to yet more controversial culling activities: Badgers and foxes. They represent an extremely familiar face of wildlife in the UK – if we can be said to have any remaining charismatic megafauna, these are they. The recent badger cull was a complete farce, of that you hardly need me to tell you. But the reason it fell so entirely flat was not just that badgers are cute and fluffy, it was that the science was so flawed. As soon as this became apparent, the whole undertaking was a failure. Add to this that the move was taken to appease the farming lobby and you can understand just why it got everyone in the sectors back up so much. But, for example, imagine that the badger cull was scientifically backed up as being a necessary measure to protect a habitat or unique biodiversity feature, what then? This is not too far fetched, and indeed can stretch to that other target of the most vehemently and vitriolically divisive of culls, foxes. Either could theoretically reach a stage, like deer, where their population increase, unchecked by natural predators or competition, begins to cause real issues for conservation measures. Some might say that is already beginning to happen now. What then? Would we be prepared to meddle? Just how would we square that with both our own ethical stance and the public’s emotional attachment to these animals?

In such a situation it would be negligent in the extreme to ignore the issue. Many would say that the land should be allowed to adapt naturally, a rewilding ethic coming into play, and therefore these animals should be spared the rifle. But would this same feeling be extended to deer? Unlikely. How about to mink? Unthinkable. Why then should these two be spared? It is an interesting poser, but should this situation arise only clear and honest setting out of either side of the argument before the public will allow progress to be made in the right direction. Any other approach risks alienation of the one real weapon we have in the environmental sector: public support.