“A cartoon has to have an immediate impact,” says David Mitchell (aka Mr Carbo, which is of course derived from the gamekeeper’s favourite – and illegal – poison Carbofuran). We’re talking over Skype for a possible Hen Harrier Day article, and I’ve asked him how he thinks his cartoons might differ from something like the written blog posts they’re often published with. “It’s concise.There’s no pussyfooting about. I go for the jugular. Mr Carbo and the cartoons came about as a visual method of countering the crap from the pro shooting lobby. It’s my way of sticking two fingers up and saying this is how bloody stupid you people are.”
Given that the ‘stupid people’ David typically lampoons (largely via illustrations featured on the influential and widely-read websites of Mark Avery and Raptor Persecution UK) are shooting estate owners, moorland lobbyist groups, and criminal gamekeepers, that’s a clear statement of intent we here at The War on Wildlife Project can get behind. And he is as good as his word, quickly responding to current news of raptor disappearances or blatantly insincere announcements with a withering sketch, skewering tweed-clad shooters knocking off Hen Harriers in a fairground shooting gallery, for example, a lobbyist in a hardware store buying smoke and mirrors, or a dithering politician contemplating buying a fence to sit on.
They are, he says, a little rough and ready, “scribbled, but not to the point you can’t understand what’s going on’”, drawn before the news cycle inevitably moves on (pandemics may only come around occasionally but murdered birds of prey, unfortunately, are at least a weekly occurrence). To my eyes, I tell him, they’re still relevant months later, but I suppose a viewer has to have at least a grounding in the issues of for example raptor persecution, snaring, and intensive grouse shooting to understand them? “They are very niche“, David concedes, but they’re just a part of what he does. And if they add anything to public awareness then he’s happy, because – as he rightly says – the “best way to change things is to change public opinion first“…
Born in 1950, David Mitchell spent the first nine years of his life in Godstone, near Reigate, Surrey, exploring ‘leafy lanes‘ and through ‘being curious and noticing things’ began to develop what has become a life-long passion for birds. His parents separated when he was nine. His father, George (an artist/illustrator who David subsequently discovered drew the only Dick Barton annual ever produced!) moved to New York, while his mother took the rest of the family back to her birthplace: Dundee, in eastern Scotland.
David left his southern roots behind him and fully embraced the country (and countryside) he has spent most of his life in. Ask him (as I did) if he thinks of himself as Scottish now, he’ll give you a quizzical look and reply in an accent that is pure east Scotland that he grew up here, went to school here, worked here, has walked over its mountains, mountain-biked through its glens, and has lived here for more than fifty years. So, yes, he is Scottish. It wasn’t the smartest of questions perhaps, but given how outspoken he is about Scottish wildlife and Scottish shooting estates I wanted to remove all doubt. As amiable as David is it’s not something I’ll bring up again…
Clearly articulate and intelligent David excelled at Biology, but was, however, fascinated by and “very good at art“. His first job after leaving school was at Dundee-based publishing giant DC Thomson where he worked on illustrations for some well-known comics though, he adds almost wistfully, not for staples of my own childhood The Dandy or The Beano. Making a living as an artist was, he considered, too “hit and miss” though, so he decided to take teaching qualifications instead (“a safe number” as he describes it). His timing was perfect: schools were taking people on, the working conditions were good, and the pension excellent. Plus he could spend his evenings “painting, painting, painting”.
The after-hours practice clearly paid off. David’s artwork has now been exhibited in the Mall Galleries in London, found its way onto calendars and greeting cards, and into homes from North America to Australia. A regular entrant in the 1980s and 90s to the (now-discontinued) British Birds “Bird Illustrator of the Year” competition, two of David’s illustrations have made the magazine’s prestigious front cover: a submerged Little Auk, and a pair of Moorhens. While still painting birds, he now concentrates mainly on the landscapes of the Angus Glens near to where he lives and capturing in wonderful detail the fungi he finds on his regular hikes (he has, he told me, painted some 200 or 250 fungi now: how good would a selection of these look on an episode of Autumnwatch?).
But how did a genial birdwatcher/former art lecturer become heavily involved in the febrile world of raptor conservation and grouse shooting? Ironically it’s because of the occasion he was hassled by two gamekeepers from a notorious shooting estate who accused him of damaging traps. He was on a mountain bike, and bicycle tyre tracks had been found by a broken trap. They’d put two and two together and come up with the wrong answer. He hadn’t touched them: in fact, he says, while he’d noticed the traps he’d not really given them much thought at all. The head gamekeeper though, he says, “got a bit stroppy” – triggering the birth of a bane of the shooting industry: ‘Mr Carbo’…
David is at pains at this point to explain that he’s not actually anti-shooting per se. While he doesn’t like it and wouldn’t do it, he says that the ‘walked-up’ grouse shooting he’s seen is very different to the intensive slaughter he’s witnessed on some driven grouse estates and if it meant a compromise could be reached and raptor persecution ended he could get “on board with ‘shooting for the pot’…if it was done in the manner I observed‘. Over the years he’s also got to know some of the local keepers quite well, and he has some sympathy for them, describing them as being under intense pressure from estate owners. So, I tentatively suggested, if it hadn’t been for being ‘spoken to’ while cycling on the moor and being followed back into town by a 4WD (“even when I’d reached a tarmacadamed public road“) he may never have googled the use of snares, not learned why he was seeing so few Golden Eagles when he should have been seeing plenty of them, and not subsequently launched a letter-writing campaign and the production of hundreds of posters he left around shooting estates alerting visitors of what was going on all around them? I could see him on camera mulling over the answer. Well, the keepers involved, he said, “certainly rubbed me up the wrong way”. With the benefit of hindsight probably not something you should do…
More campaigning was to come, but at the time (and knowing how bad for your health raising your head above the proverbial parapet can be), was he, I asked, doing all of this anonymously? Not all, he laughed, saying that he always signed the letters with his name and address. It’s all about “having the courage of your convictions“, though, he adds with a grin, “it did mean that I was eventually rumbled“. A complaint was made against him (he knows who by) which led to the police arriving at his front door with one of his posters in hand. The thought of denial never crossed his mind, and after an explanation of what drove him to produce the flyers he says (with a broad smile) that the ‘interview’ became increasingly cordial. In fact, it has subsequently led him to passing information to local wildlife crime liaison officers, who respect his local knowledge. He’s also in regular contact with the RSPB’s Investigations Team.
I had planned on asking David whether the local gamekeepers ‘know where he lives’ but clearly they do. How about his car, do they recognise that? Oh yes, he says, they all know my car. Given the precautions many monitors feel they need to take (like parking off-site and removing any stickers that might identify them as belonging to pro-wildlife groups – or what shooting lobbyists call ‘animal rights extremist organisations’), did he ever worry that his car might be damaged while he was away walking? “No, they leave the car alone – they know I’d know who had done it and that there would be…” he pauses and smiles, “a measured response.”
When you tot up work he does drawing the Mr Carbo cartoons, liaising with the police and RSPB, and being part of a growing Facebook group which monitors the Angus Glens, he’s become one heck of an activist. I wonder aloud how those two keepers might feel knowing what they started? He smiles again…
We’d been talking for well over an hour before I remembered that along with the cartoons and tales of hamfisted gamekeeping I was also supposed to be working in some thoughts about Hen Harrier Day, the annual celebration of a bird that has largely been persecuted close to extinction in England and which has been declining in Scotland too (numbers there are down by 9 per cent since 2010 and 29 per cent since 2004). The deliberate eradication of a bird that sometimes takes Red Grouse chicks along with a diet of voles and Meadow Pipits, has led, for example, to a government-published scientific paper stating that 72% of 58 Hen Harriers satellite-tagged by Natural England were either killed, or likely to have been killed, on or near grouse moors between 2007-2017: these deaths are ten times more likely to occur over areas of land managed for grouse shooting relative to other land uses.
The cartoons here make the point perfectly, and in fact while I was writing up this interview, RSPB Scotland posted a press-release announcing the ‘disappearance’ of yet another two young satellite-tagged harriers, this time on grouse moors in the Cairngorms National Park. David obviously read the press-release too. It’s relentless persecution like this that makes the cartoons, the Facebook sites, the campaigning work, and Hen Harrier Day itself all the more important. To both of us.
David has been to all of the Hen Harrier Days he could get to, including two at Loch Leven and at Grantown-on-Spey. They’ve been great for ‘spreading the word’, he says, but judging by the people he meets at them “these are people who already know what’s happening to Hen Harriers, who love Hen harriers, and we’re essentially saying the same thing to the same people year after year“. That was the overwhelming sentiment also expressed at last year’s (otherwise hugely positive) gathering at Carsington Water in Derbyshire organised by the crime-fighting trio behind Wild Justice which attracted close to 1500 people. I mentioned to David that much as I’d enjoyed the day and loved speaking with people I’d not seen for a year, I’d probably known 2/3rds of the attendees at Carsington – most of whom were (like myself and David) male, middle-aged and white (or as I was once jokingly described, ‘old, pale, and stale’). We both recognise that despite the very best of intentions (or certainly at least not due to any deliberate misintentions) Hen Harrier Day – which is still only in its sixth year – has clearly not expanded its reach as we’d hoped it might, For the sake of our ‘disappearing’ Hen Harriers it’s clear that a more inclusive environment does need to be created where everyone feels welcome and able to contribute.
This year the planned 2020 ‘Days’ have been shuttered and moved online because of uncertainties when the UK’s lockdowns might (or might not) end. It had actually looked to be a bumper year, with events planned in England, Wales, and – of course – Scotland, and there had been a focus on attracting more families and talking more generally about birds of prey built into many of the organisers’ plans. He thinks the online events (which haven’t been fully announced yet but are hinted at on the official website) look very exciting and “more creative, with little things like art competitions for kids“, and, he hopes, will ‘filter outwards‘. He’ll be doing what he can to promote it anyway…
That idea of ‘filtering outwards’ is relevant to another question I asked. Given the number of wildlife crimes reported from Scotland’s grouse moors, does he think that the shooting industry is damaging the country’s reputation? While I think it probably does, David is less sure. “Mr Average thinks it’s just about rich and powerful people sitting in wee holes in the ground shooting grouse and that’s all it is…nothing more nor less“, he says. “They think it’s just part and parcel of life here, they don’t understand about the wildlife crimes.” Again, it’s why he draws and uploads his cartoons and photos to the Angus Glens Monitors Facebook site. Why he does interview like this one.
There have been victories along the way of course. Just last week the Scottish Parliament gave protection to Mountain Hares, another animal relentlessly persecuted by gamekeepers – this time because hares can carry ticks that on over-stocked moors are thought to pass a virus to Red Grouse that can kill them. Leaked photos of piles of dead hares have been shared online, and figures suggest that as many as 26,000 hares a year are being slaughtered.
The shooting industry has reacted to news welcomed by most right-thinking people by essentially saying that they will attempt to get the new legislation overturned (which is typical of the industry of course). In turn ‘Mr Carbo’ reacted quickly to the rather puerile posturing of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (which is – again – typical of course) with another cartoon.
Activist pressure and co-ordinated campaigning by the likes of Scottish wildlife charity OneKind and the Revive Coalition (plus of course hard work by the Green MSP Alison Johnstone who put forward the amendment in Parliament) led to the change in the law. It should, I suggest, have happened sooner though? David agrees and while welcoming the increased protection for an animal he loves to see and strongly associates with the uplands, he’s clearly irritated that it’s taken so long. “Why are they so reticent about making change to something that is so fundamentally wrong?”, he says, recalling a segment on the BBC’s Countryfile where presenter Tom Heap, who’d been invited to witness a mass ‘cull’ of hares, had “turned to the camera and said this is so difficult to watch“. As he reminds me it took two years after First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon said the killing of Mountain Hares was wrong before anything was done. “Why did they drag their feet?”
We both know the answer to that: lobbying from the shooting industry. They may well attempt to undo the legislation but If the shooting industry thinks they’re going to reverse the decision anytime soon, and not face a strong campaign from pro-wildlife groups, individuals, and cartoonists, they’ve got another think coming.
Given the killings, the culls, the wildlife crimes, and its childish reaction to the protection given to Mountain Hares, I wondered on what David (and his alter ego ‘Mr Carbo’) felt the shooting industry was most vulnerable, what its Achilles Heel in Scotland might be. “Traps and snares“, he answers, telling me about one estate that had been found to have 2000 Fenn traps laid out across it. “For me it’s traps and snares, because if you have photographs like I have of animals in traps and snares and you put them in the public domain there’s an immediate response, an outpouring of anger – it’s highly emotive. I put photos up on the Facebook page all the time. I just put up one of a baby rabbit in a trap and the response is immediate – it gets these issues out to people who may have never thought about them before…”. ‘Filtering outwards’ in action.
I’m aware now that the sun has gone down and it’s grown dark outside. As it’s pretty much the longest day of the year here in the northern hemisphere I’ve probably kept David long enough (he’s already had to attach a charger to the laptop he’s using as the battery had nearly run down). It’s a shame the ‘interview – which has been more like a really good chat about things we both feel need changing, need highlighting – has to end. I’ve felt a real affinity with this tall, lean and suitably weathered man who I knew almost nothing about before we started talking.
One more question though. What, I venture, might we do to, say, stop wildlife crime in the uplands? He won’t be drawn into a single glib answer but gives a more broad – and actually more uplifting – consideration that was a perfect note on which to end. “What I see,” he says, “is an increasing groundswell of awareness and distaste of what’s going on with our wildlife. Whenever I go on Facebook I see things like the Hunt Sabs down south becoming more and more concerned about what’s happening on grouse moors up here. There are so many nature-based groups beginning to gel around these issues – from sabs, to the pixies, and rewilding groups – more and more people know about this now and are embracing wildlife as a whole. They’re letting the public know not just about Hen Harriers but everything to do with Nature and how we treat it. And I think the pandemic has been a real wake-up call. There’s so much out there that shows that we can’t just go back to normal because if we do we might as well say goodbye to mankind.”
I tell him that might make quite a cartoon, but that I don’t think either of us are going to let things get that bad without putting up one hell of a fight. He smiles again…
- If you have any information about birds of prey being killed in your area, call the police on 101 or the RSPB’s confidential Raptor Crime Hotline on 0300 999 0101.
- Learn more about the problems afflicting Hen Harriers and what’s being done to ‘filter outwards’ and to spread awareness of these crimes by visiting the Hen Harrier Day 2020 website