Meet you in No Man’s Land?

In my last post I revisit an article published in Country Squire Magazine back in November 2016 where I wrote a lengthy reply to a piece by Peter Glenser on why he thinks “those who shoot” are the true custodians of the countryside. In my reply I pulled him up on a few things where I thought he was either missing the point or glossing over “inconvenient truths” with his own particular bias towards field sports and its implied role in conserving the British countryside. So far, he hasn’t replied. To be fair, Peter is a lawyer, not an ecologist, and he is probably just regurgitating the received wisdom handed to him by those who wish to justify management of our wildlife for their own shooting interests and then dress it up as conservation. The following week, Liam Stokes, Head of Shooting for the Countryside Alliance, also took up the soapbox to tell us what to think in an article called “In the trenches of the grouse wars“. Again, I penned a quick though nuanced reply. This time the CSM team didn’t publish my reply as a separate article, but I’ve reproduced my comments in full here for the record…

In the trenches

Liam starts off his article by telling us that our landscape is complex, which is true (aren’t all landscapes?), and then tells us that “competing and contradictory interests are held in tension and resolved through dialogue” wherein conflict is seen as “supremely unhelpful”. Again, true enough though I wonder as to whom it is unhelpful and why. He then starts to lose me by implying that just because I don’t necessarily subscribe to his view of the situation, then I am somehow wrong. As an academic and techno-geek I might at this point direct him towards the Cynefin framework for he’s missed out the fourth domain state: that of chaos. This is where we’re headed if the two warring factions on either side of the conservation battlefield cannot move closer together in identifying some common ground (or at least allow one another to step over the wire into non-man’s land with getting shot at, to maintain the trench-warfare metaphor).

Solutions to conflict require goodwill and compromise by *both* sides. Chaos lies in blindly insisting one is right and your opponent is wrong; witness the ongoing crisis in the Middle East (and here we should acknowledge the role of British diplomats for creating the unholy mess in the first place, clearly not social geographers trained in the art of recognising social and cultural tensions). No amount of marshalling of scientific evidence, or hearsay as to what one can see from the kitchen window, is going to convince either side to lay down their guns (pardon the pun, though it is rather one-sided) and capitulate. This is particularly true in today’s social media fuelled post-truth climate and especially true if and when you fail to acknowledge when the other side has a point.

I remember when we first discussed the issue of unnatural game bird numbers and the role this has played in increasing predator numbers by symbiosis and the associated spill-over predation on species of conservation concern such as lapwing, plover and curlew (see my reply to Peter Glenser). At the time you agreed with my analysis but pointed out that “the UK is essentially a man-made landscape, with no area untouched by development [and in so doing we] have created a paradise for predominantly k-selected generalist species such as rats, pigeons, some species of corvid, foxes etc.” But you then retreat to the same old argument that the “conservation function of game management … is to incentivise conservation on land that might otherwise be intensively farmed or forested (the latter in the case of moorland) with catastrophic effect, which is why keeping it economically viable is so important.” All of which is, of course, dependent on external income from wealthy guns willing to pay through the nose for a day’s driven grouse shooting or “do a Macnab” and rich land owners who can afford to write off the outlay for the privilege of owning our hills. That this then supports a peculiar aspect of the upland economy and jobs in often remote rural communities I do not doubt for one second, but I do question your assertion that it somehow can take credit for eco-tourism.

Look at your history books. If it wasn’t for the great social movement of the mass trespasses, the post-war Labour government and the resulting National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act (1949), and more recently the Countryside Rights of Way Act (2000), then we might still not have freedom to roam on your beloved grouse moors and deer stalking estates. But change happens, and nothing in nature or society stays still for long. And so it might be with the great tradition of driven grouse shooting which only really came into its own with the invention and mass adoption of the breech-loading shotgun in the 1870s.
Please don’t kid yourself about the motivations of those who don’t shoot. These tourists don’t visit our upland landscapes because of driven grouse shooting, rather they do so in spite of it. The heather monoculture of grouse moors and any other cultural landscape is just a thin veneer laid over the stuff that real countryside is made of… geology shaped by millions of years of erosion by weather, water and ice, soil created by nature and the plants and animals that are able to inhabit that space. It may be pretty and people may love it for that, but equally they will continue to love our upland landscapes when covered in a few more trees and less heather. This kind of change happens slowly and people have short lives and even shorter memories. What is it that Abraham Lincoln said? “Laws change, people die, the land remains”.

And so I return to the great British landscape. As one who has been lucky enough to travel outside of these islands (often in the course of my work) I have been in real wilderness and have seen firsthand raw nature that is able to decide its own trajectory. I miss that here. Our natural history is constrained by the misguided thinking that everything should somehow be managed and manicured for human benefit. Compared to what could be, many of our landscapes are dead, dying or depauperated by years of misuse and so-called management. Now, you know I don’t maintain we should rewild everywhere (I’m too fond of my food for that), but rather only where possible and where appropriate. We have discussed this and you, if I may quote you directly again, have said that you think my “view of rewilding is certainly one that could be brought to the table and discussed in an interesting and hopefully productive manner”. What brought this on? My views and ideas on rewilding can hardly be described as extreme or uninformed it would seem. What I said is this (and here I quote myself)…

“I don’t want to see all game management for sport shoots banned as some extremists do, rather I would like to see driven shoots replaced (gradually as necessary to make the change easier to manage and more palatable) with walked-up shoots with the associated de-intensification of management (less burning/cutting, less predator control, less treatments) and reduction in game species numbers to more natural levels (acknowledging that pheasants are a non-native introduction from Asia). This would result in a more diverse and ecologically interesting uplands (think mosaic of heather/moor grass heath, shrubs – juniper, dwarf willow/birch, etc.) and trees creating what must be more challenging sport for walked up shooting (something I would consider doing myself… a few birds for the pot… rather than target practice stood in a butt or at a peg). I’d call this rewilding, with a whole raft of associated ecosystem services producing knock-on benefits downstream such as better water quality, flood water retention, higher biodiversity, better and more varied wildlife habitats, more carbon storage and sequestration, better erosion control, nutrient balances, better recreational environments, better aesthetics, etc etc.” What’s not to like? An ecological truce.

Yet the model of the British countryside you describe here is- like Peter’s – that shooting interests act as some kind of benevolent custodian; all seeing, all knowing, all powerful. You manage the landscape for the benefit of those species you like to shoot, accept those of no discernible economic value if they are otherwise benign, and control those that compete with you for your sport. If you want to find compromise, as I believe you are suggesting, then you perhaps need to realise that this cannot persist in perpetuity and that you have look towards crossing the fence and meeting in no-man’s land to shake hands and, while agreeing to disagree, give ground (in both the literal and physical sense) to the other side of nature conservation.

First “published” as comments on an article by Liam Stokes in Country Squire Magazine, 30 November 2016.

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