What motivates gamekeepers? That’s not the point…

Common traits. It’s not unusual – in these days of media shorthand and tl;dr short concentration spans – for a whole trade or group to be handily coalesced into a supposedly homogenous lump with a common trait. Sometimes the approach works: everyone who works in the NHS, for example, is indeed a selfless, remarkable human being who deserves an immediate pay rise and to be treated far better by a succession of governments who aren’t fit to clean up our bodily fluids let alone ever criticise the people who do. On the other hand, surely not everyone who breaks the law while pretending to follow unlaid, invisible scent trails while still hunting foxes fifteen years after a law came into effect banning it, are arrogant, thoughtless, and psychopathic? Surely not…

But it does seem, according to a recent PhD research paper anyway, that the prevailing view that gamekeepers are out to tally up as many dead ‘predators’ as possible partly because they enjoy it might indeed be correct. After all, if you spend your working life laying waste to wildlife (breaking the backs of stoats in traps or strangling and clubbing foxes for example) just so that your employer can sell tame birds to shooters getting their rocks off using live animals for target practice you’d better enjoy it. It would be an unbearable way to pick up a wage otherwise, surely.

The paper in question was published in May 2020 and is titled ‘Understanding diverse approaches to predator management among gamekeepers in England‘ (nb that’s ‘legal’ predator control rather than the widespread illegal predator control that takes place on shooting estates – presumably no-one was prepared to discuss that). Listing brood-meddling proponent Prof Steve Redpath amongst its co-authors, the research was undertaken by George Swan as part of a PhD completed in 2017. The data gathering appears to have been a fairly relaxed affair. Under ‘Abstract’ the authors say that, “We conducted semi‐structured interviews [ie chats while out for a walk] on the subject of predator management with 20 gamekeepers across the south of England and applied a social‐psychological approach to explore the underlying beliefs, norms and information sources associated with their actions.”

Twenty of anything (including gamekeepers) is a small sample size for an academic study but clearly the authors believe that they have collected enough data to publish. Seventeen of the gamekeepers were full-time so presumably knew exactly what they thought about the work they carried out, and as the authors put it in the typically opaque language that marks these reports, “we reached coding saturation during analysis and therefore consider our sample size appropriate for this exploratory study“. Okay then…

Based on interviews with gamekeepers working on shoots in the south of England (so no keepers involved in the even more intense and more insulated world of driven grouse shooting further north), the study’s main findings identify six primary motivations for killing predators: professional identity, personal norms, potential penalties, perceived impact, personal enjoyment and perceived ease. So far, so normal. Many of us would recognise those motivators in ourselves. Professional identity is important to all of us. We look for work that aligns in some way with our personal morals or ethics and which we enjoy (and some of us are lucky enough to find it). Probably most of us look for the most efficient and technically easy way of working as well.

Like I say so far, so normal. But of course most of us aren’t then applying those motivators to a job that entails obliterating wildlife so that their employer can then sell living beings to other people to use as live targets on a day out. Which – whatever gamekeepers might believe about ‘keeping balance’ (hilarious, as Raptor Persecution UK also points out, when gamekeepers are working to facilitate the release of 60 million non-native ‘gamebirds’ into an already stressed countryside a year) – is what they do.

And however you dress it up, that is going to increasingly enrage an ever-growing number of people who think that wiping out swathes of wildlife on behalf of the shooting industry is wrong (which the authors obliquely recognise in the unnecessarily over-written line, “One challenge, for example, would be that the personal enjoyment that motivates some predator removal is likely to be rooted in values that are not shared by all actors“. That gem of a line is followed later by “stakeholders on different ‘sides’ of conflicts over predators have divergent wildlife value orientations“. Many people don’t share the gamekeeper’s enjoyment of killing wild animals and think that predators are a natural part of the countryside? You don’t say…).

The paper doesn’t set out to question whether gamekeeping is ‘good or bad’. That wasn’t the aim (that was “This research provides a detailed exploration of a question central to many conservation conflicts: what are the drivers of predator killing?” apparently). Instead the paper wants “to advance the understanding of behaviour of key actors in an arena frequently characterized by conflict“: in other words, they’re trying to share with us all why gamekeepers kill. Here’s an idea, if you really want to know get yourself on social media and eavesdrop on a few of their conversations. If the authors had done that they could have saved themselves months of pounding dictionary corner looking to say the most simple things in the most convoluted ways…

The authors do have loftier ambitions than merely facilitating understanding of course. In their summary they claim that “acknowledging the multiple motivations behind predator killing provides a chance to target conflict mediation”. Really? Doesn’t it just help to normalise and legitimise predator killing instead? Explain away the motivations as some sort of job requirement no different to turning up on time or washing your hands after using the washroom? Because that how it (and countless other articles supporting ‘field sports’) reads to me.

Science should be impartial of course, but this paper doesn’t feel like ‘science’: it feels like an exercise in hand-holding (gamekeepers feel increasingly put upon, poor dears), never questioning something that is tone-deaf and out of step with modern thinking (and, yes, that includes modern scientific thinking on sentience and animal culture). Does anyone seriously believe that ‘understanding’ what some people get from spending their time slaughtering untold numbers of animals simply so that other untold numbers of other animals can also be killed will somehow move the debate on? Or will go anywhere between settling the ‘conflict’ between conservation and shooting? If you’re still not sure what gamekeepers themselves think about that ‘debate’, try following Chris Packham or Ruth Tingay on Twitter. It’s painfully illuminating.

Towards the end of the paper comes a further rationale for these long conversations spent with gamekeepers as they check their snares, traps, and cages for dead wildlife. If a “similarly detailed exploration of the perspectives of conservationists towards predator management” were undertaken, the authors believe, then that would help to “navigate disagreement and identify compromise.” Again, excuse the sceptically raised eyebrow and exasperated sigh, but why on earth should anyone go down a route that will never lead to the ending of the killing (because whatever compromise is worked on, unless estates make profits without employing gamekeepers that killing will simply go on and on)? Conservation has been compromising with shooting for decades but it isn’t working and never will: to suggest otherwise after years of ongoing wildlife crime and the growth of shooting estates, trapping, and ‘predator control’, is either naive or a deliberate suggestion that conservation should accept the reality of large-scale slaughter and try to understand it instead of fighting it.

The authors “declare no conflicts of interest” so neither of those two cases may be true, but conversely there doesn’t appear to have been any attempt made by the authors to correct some of the ‘perceptions’ that their subjects held when it came to predators. After all, how hard would it be to suggest a good book or the internet to a group whose “ecological interpretations” are based on “personal observations“, which in turn biases how they “think about, and respond to, predators” (which appears to be largely ‘predator bad, dead predator not as bad, no predator at all good’)? Maybe those conversations took place in the snug of the local pub, but given that these findings are supposed to be used in future discussions to solve ‘conflict’ it’s unlikely.

This post really was never intended to be a discussion about the specific authors. I wrote it because – and this is just a personal opinion – I am absolutely fed up of intelligent people treating gamekeeping as a serious occupation worthy of time spent on ‘research into motivation’, rather than cutting straight to the chase and acknowledging that based on what we all already know it’s the shooting industry which employs these paid killers (and which casually abuses general licences and routinely promotes the use of snares and traps) that needs to be urgently ‘researched’ while any further expansion of it is put on immediate hold.

Yes, of course, that’s not what the authors set out to do, but how many more studies do we need of gamekeepers? Gamekeepers enjoy killing – quelle surprise. That’s hardly news. Some men have always and will always enjoy killing No-one goes into gamekeeping under illusions that killing isn’t part of the job surely? They kill and they are paid to do it. They’re the blunt instrument in shooting’s war on wildlife. It’s pretty obvious from the job description. A cursory glance at Wikipedia will tell any prospective applicant that a gamekeeper is “a person who manages an area of countryside to make sure there is enough game for shooting and stalking” and any online search will turn up pages of information on how that’s achieved. (And before anyone comments that gamekeepers are “a fact of life, get over it”, actually they’re not: they’re a construct of shooting. Without the shooting industry there would be no ‘need’ to industrialise the killing of native wildlife and no ‘need’ for gamekeepers.)

No, why gamekeepers kill is not the point. We know that already. What matters is that vast numbers of animals are being killed to protect the profits of the shooting industry. That wildlife crime is rampant because of the shooting industry. That our government seems complicit in breaking the country’s laws on wildlife protection by issuing licences on behalf of the shooting industry, licences that cost nothing and don’t even have to be applied for. And that the mass destruction of native wildlife has been normalised by the shooting industry and packaged as ‘countryside management’.

It’s who they’re doing it for, what they’re being paid to do and who is paying them to do it, that really matters, and that’s what needs to be investigated.