So, months after Wild Justice made a legal challenge over the failure of the government department ‘looking after’ the environment (DEFRA) to assess the impacts of the unregulated release of tens of millions of non-native ‘gamebirds’ (some 47+ million Pheasants and 10 million Red-legged Partridges) on sites of conservation importance for the ‘sport’ of shooting, Natural England and the shooting lobby organisation BASC (known as The Wildfowlers’ Association of Great Britain and Ireland long before the word ‘conservation’ was hijacked by people with guns) have joined forces to commission a report written by Dr Joah Madden of Exeter University and Rufus Sage (Head of lowland gamebird research at GWCT (another pro-shooting group formerly known as The Game Conservancy Trust of course).
As a quick aside, Dr Madden, an Associate Professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Exeter, runs The Pheasant Ecology and Cognition (PEC) group at the Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour. We’re not suggesting anything underhand in any way whatsoever, but it’s curious that an academic who studies how natural selection and evolution act on underlying, general cognitive processes such as learning, memory or executive control, which shape specific behaviours in wild-living animals, is writing a report for shooting lobbyists…
Anyway, why Natural England felt it should so closely (and openly) ally with BASC, an organisation which came into being solely to protect shooting (and one of whom’s employees, an ex-tabloid journalist, recently wrote a savage and disgraceful ad hominem attack on Megan McCubbin, a young woman whose only ‘crime’ is to speak out against shooting), will remain a ‘mystery’ that only the most naive will fail to solve, but the fact is that “Ecological Consequences of Gamebird Releasing and Management on Ecological Consequences of Gamebird Releasing and Management on Lowland Shoots in England (NEER016)” is promoted as “commissioned and jointly funded” by the two brothers in arms. (For more information on the close ‘partnership’ between a publicly-funded government agency and the attack dogs of British shooting, it’s well-worth reading Mark Avery’s excellent blog “NE and BASC are friends“)
We might be justified in asking how malign or otherwise BASC’s influence might be on this report? At the very least they appear to be stifling debate. As is stated in the executive summary on Page 3, “In agreement with the commissioning partners, we have deliberately excluded a consideration of the ethical, social and economic dimensions of shooting released gamebirds. We also did not consider the effects of lead shot used in shooting released gamebirds on the health of either humans or other wildlife“. In other words, BASC didn’t want to get drawn into an argument that they can’t possibly win about ethics and health. Of course not: giving a cra*p about the animals set aside for the pleasure of gunning them down would hasten the end of the ‘recreational hunting of gamebirds (shooting)‘ also referred to in the Executive Summary on Page 3, and no report that is “commissioned and jointly funded” by shooting lobbyists is going to do anything to threaten the expansion of shooting.
So it’s not the best of starts, and it’s not with especially bated breath that we downloaded the report to read just what these titans of killing wildlife would prefer to be said instead.
Doubtless Dr Mark Avery and Wild Justice will analyse the 110 pages of this report in proper detail, but – as expected – the thrust appears to be that a) shooting isn’t going to stop, b) releases aren’t going to stop, c) the mass slaughter of ‘gamebirds’ and generalist predators is not going to stop, and d) impacts on local ecology can “be enhanced through the deployment of best practice” (page 90) – how many times have we heard the phrases ‘best practice’, ‘codes of practice’, ‘voluntary restraint’ etc in relation to shooting (whether it be mountain hares, woodcocks, snipe, or practically anything else these people want to kill) where the shooters are just keen to avoid legislation and proper enforcement?
The take-home phrase that summarises what we said in the above paragraph is, to quote, “to achieve net positive ecological outcomes for the habitats and wildlife of England, it is necessary to carefully consider and act to simultaneously reduce the negative and enhance the positive effects of gamebird release, both today and in the future“.
Which of course simply means that even though the report’s authors clearly state in a long Twitter thread that “The released birds have DIRECT EFFECTS. These are usually considered ecologically -ve: disturbing soil/plants, eating other wildlife, altering soil and water nutrients, spreading disease” there will be no pause in the killing. Shooting has hit a problem but will just find another fix to keep the guns firing.
We acknowledge of course that a report designed to provide data to head off Wild Justice’s judicial review of pheasant and partridge releases was ever going to look (however briefly) at shooting’s immediate impact on millions of birds and mammals (they kill them), but this one again just ‘normalises’ an industry that exists purely for the people who enjoy killing wildlife at that wildlife’s expense. It’s an issue that should always be discussed in our opinion.
It will be interesting to see what our ‘real’ conservation organisations make of this report though. Our most ‘respected’ bird charities have always held a bewildering and unsatisfyingly neutral position on shooting birds. Like BASC they have usually refused to be drawn into a discussion of ethics and morality (though we have tried to initiate such debates and will keep on trying), focussing instead on a few positives like increased ground cover and availability of feed during the winter. With public sentiment changing and the understanding of the sentience (capacity to experience) and intelligence of these live targets growing all the time though, maybe they will be drawn into the debate.
One day, anyway…