Language Matters | Cull – killing for the public good?

We recently launched a campaign looking at how our use of language fails our wildlife. When did we start to agree that foxes were ‘vermin’ or that Wood Pigeons were ‘pests’, for example? Why have we not questioned the unethical concept that some birds ‘belong’ to shooting before? What on earth has chasing a small animal with a pack of hounds got anything to do with modern understandings of ‘sport’?

There are numerous terms and phrases that belittles or demonises wildlife, and in this post we will be looking at a word that does exactly that but which like ‘conservation’, ‘control’, and ‘manage’ seems to be on a form of ‘mission creep’: cull.

 

The word ‘cull’ has been around for a very long time. The Online Etymology Dictionary says the meaning of “select livestock according to quality” is from 1889; notion of “select and kill (animals),” usually in the name of reducing overpopulation or improving the stock, is from 1934“. ‘Cull’ has always meant ‘kill’ of course. But “kill” is a generic word that doesn’t imply reason or intent. ‘Cull’, on the other hand, is meant to imply deliberation. Imply that there is some sort of thought (however inhumane) behind the action. Dictionary definitions of the word have a brutal simplicity to them but do include that notion of selectivity: Merriam-Webster’sto select or choose (someone or something) from a group : to control the size of (a group of animals) by killing some animals“. Or the Oxford Dictionary‘s “Reduce the population of (a wild animal) by selective slaughter…Send (an inferior or surplus farm animal) to be slaughtered.”

We can (and will) argue about the usurping of the word ‘control’ by the shooting industry, but whether we like the word ‘cull’ or not it has always had a straightforward meaning. But that’s not how we’re being sold the idea of ‘cull’ these days.

‘Cull’ is a euphemism, a language choice to describe unacceptable activities in acceptable words. More than that though, ‘cull’ has been fully embraced by a range of industries to suggest that whatever mass killing takes place, it’s necessary, it’s being done with reluctance, for us, to help us, and it has (honestly, guv) absolutely nothing to do with protecting the [insert as appropriate] industry that is doing the killing or for which the killing is being done. And because of our selfless care and consideration isn’t it fair that we [insert as appropriate] should be compensated? By the taxpayer of course.

 

Mink, Chickens, Ravens, Hounds and Badgers

There’s a current relevance to this discussion. In the last week or so we’ve all been told of the ‘culling’ of coronavirus infected Minks in Denmark and the ‘culling’ of chickens to ‘prevent’ the spread of Poultry Flu (or ‘Bird Flu’ as the meat industry calls it as they attempt to shift blame away from their own practices of overcrowding and lax waste disposal onto wild birds). Both were done to protect industries that would have killed all the animals concerned anyway, but both have been sold as a public health service, reported with a catch in the throat and a teary eye by industry representatives who whistle a tune of ‘it breaks our hearts but we’re doing this for you, you know‘. Excuse our language this time, but what a load of bollocks…

The BBC reported on the slaughter of 17 million living animals earlier this week with the headline “Coronavirus: Denmark shaken by cull of millions of mink“. No empathy for the mink then or later in the report. It should go without saying but Mink farms are appalling places. Rows and rows of caged, frightened animals living in their own shit and urine until they’re killed. A recent article in Political Animal Lobby looking at a French mink farm stated that “The slaughtering of minks is just as horrific as the abuse they endure while they’re alive. Minks are subjected to being skinned alive, having their necks snapped, having their throats slit, or being poisoned.” No animal that enters these damnable places ever leaves alive, but as the BBC report goes on to suggest, the reason that Denmark was shaken is that “the prime minister has admitted the plan was rushed and had no legal basis“. Which has shocked so-called ‘mink farmers’ who can’t profit from pain and cruelty in the way they had been anticipating. Famers, the BBC says, “have appeared on Danish TV in tears“. Boo bloody hoo.

Of course, the farmers will be compensated, because this ‘cull’ – this relief from suffering for millions of animals – wasn’t done for the benefit of the animals themselves, but to prevent the spread of coronavirus for ‘all of us’. Never mind that we piled these animals on top of each other, never mind that we must have passed the coronavirus onto them, never mind that the virus originated in markets that exploited animals in exactly the same horrible way, these Mink had to die early because we need to protect ourselves and our profits. And how better to sell a different type of slaughter than to call it a ‘cull’…

The same thinking has been used since the emergence of Poultry Flu (or ‘Bird Flu’ as the meat industry would like us to call it). H5N1 emerged from domestic geese and poultry farms in Asia, where birds were kept in disgusting conditions and their virus-laden excrement literally flushed into rivers and lakes which led to thousands of wild birds contracting the virus and dying. It’s a story that has been deliberately muddled from the outset. A typical example of that would be that after months of denial a 2007 outbreak of Poulty Flu in the UK was finally identified as originating via contaminated turkey imports from Hungary: Bernard Matthews, at the time the largest turkey ‘retailer’ in the country, admitted poor import practices. They slaughtered around 160,000 birds – and despite being held entirely to blame were given nearly £600,000 in compensation.

We’ve been on a cycle of rinse and repeat ever since. Many poultry farms are little better than mink farms. ‘Welfare’ often consists of giving birds standing ankle-deep in their own excrement some ‘natural light’ and ‘space’ the equivalent of an A4 piece of paper. As the animal charity Viva! puts it, “The average 42-day lifespan of a ‘meat chicken’, commonly known as a broiler, is spent inside a foul-smelling, often windowless shed with tens of thousands of other birds.” Conditions are perfect for spreading highly-infectious diseases, but when those diseases do break out, as long as the company involved ‘culls’ the animals they would have killed anyway the money always flows their way…

A viral outbreak is happening right now, as H5N8 (another so-called ‘bird flu’ virus) sweeps through poultry farms. As The Guardian reported on the 2nd of November, “Thirteen thousand birds are to be culled at farm in Cheshire after avian flu was confirmed there“. It’s been suggested that the virus came from migratory birds as it has been circulating in Russia and Europe for months. Oddy, though, it turns out that the outbreak in Cheshire was on a ‘broiler breeder premises’ – industry speak for a closed shed raising birds that “reach slaughter weight between four and seven weeks of age“. Just how likely is that these birds met up with the local Pink-footed Geese?

There has never been a confirmed case in H5N8 in humans, but every infected bird will be killed (sorry, ‘culled’) anyway, because, you know, we won’t take a risk with public health…which, again, is bollocks. The industry can’t sell infected birds; the birds die at the wrong time; the industry loses money. But if it gets called a ‘cull’, it’ll look like something other than an industry mass killing birds and compensation can again be claimed.

 

Shooting and hunting has always bandied around the word ‘cull’ as well. Staghunts don’t kill deer, they ‘cull’ them. They seem to think ‘cull’ gives their excesses a slight sheen of respectability, implies that principle of ‘selectivity’ found in dictionary definitions. Use the word in circumstances that are so patently transparently self-serving, though, and even that slight sheen is quickly worn through.

An interesting example of this occurred just last week, when hunt hounds were filmed by Nottingham Hunt Sabs chasing a cow and calf across a field with riders in pursuit. (Fox hunting was of course banned by the Hunting Act 2004, but thousands of hunts take place every year under the guise of so-called ‘trail hunting‘ – invented by hunts and widely understood to be little more than a stop-gap allowing hunts to maintain their packs while they work for the repeal of the Act.)

The footage reached the national press, with for example a report in The Metro headlined. “Calf runs for its life while being chased by hunt hounds“. Interestingly The Metro didn’t print a typically blustering denial from the hunt or hunt lobbyists, perhaps recognising that there could be no excuse whatsoever no matter how hunting attempted to spin it.

Where this unforgivable event ties in with this post is the reaction from the so-called hunting ‘community’. Rather than admit that their own practice of training hounds to chase wildlife (see our post on ‘Cubbing – An autumn sickness‘) was the underlying cause, rather than acknowledge how the hunt obviously weren’t following a ‘trail’ and how that undermined the pro-hunt lobbying of the last fifteen years, they instead attempted to ‘rescue’ the situation by calling on forums for the hounds to be ‘culled’.

Yes, as they attempted to sound like wise, rational human beings, carefully considering a situation of their own making, the best they could come up with was to kill (sorry, ‘cull’) the dogs. There was even that whiff of regret, that suggestion that they didn’t want to kill (sorry, ‘cull’) these dogs, but, you know, it was the only thing to do. A bullet through the head for doing what they’d been trained to do, sold to us the public as the only possible response and somehow different to just killing them for showing the hunt in a bad light. What a load of absolute cobblers.

Talking of absolute cobblers, just two years ago a group of gamekeepers and farmers banded together to initiate a ‘cull’ of Ravens in an area that was revealed through close scrutiny by the likes of Raptor Persecution UK (RPUK) to be centred on grouse moors. The so-called Strathbaarn Community Collaboration for Waders were – incredibly – granted a five year licence by Scottish Natural Heritage to ‘cull’ Ravens for five years. As RPUK put it at the time (and you could feel their fury burning off the page), “To the utter disbelief of conservationists, statutory conservation agency Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has issued a licence authorising the mass killing of ravens in a large area of Perthshire (an area identified as a wildlife crime hotspot where six satellite-tagged eagles have suspiciously disappeared in recent years), as part of a proposed five-year experiment, on the basis of ‘seeing what happens’ to wader populations when ravens are removed“.

RPUK’s brilliant dissection in the same post of why the licence should never have been granted is still worth reading for an understanding of just how closely statutory agencies and shooting work together, but it is the use of that damn word ‘cull’ again that concerns us. It implied (again) ‘selectivity’ (we only want 300 Ravens, folks, not all of them), and there was yet another whiff of heartfelt reluctance when the ‘cull’ was called-out, a sort of ‘you know, we’re doing it for the waders and that will benefit us all…when you think about it, it’s a public service’. If they’d simply come out and said, ‘We want to kill Ravens because they take a few grouse eggs and we want to sell grouse to shooters’, that would at the very least have been honest. But, no, people in shooting don’t talk about killing – they talk about ‘days out’, ‘bags’, ‘tradition’, and – of course – ‘culls’.

SNH was persuaded (under pressure) to recognise that the mass killings of Ravens ‘to see what happens‘ had no basis in science whatsoever, and as RPUK reported in 2019, SNH withdrew the licence in May because “the licence application did not meet the recommendations of SNH’s Scientific Advisory Committee“. It never should have done of course, but, (we can almost hear SNH explaining), ‘you know, they fooled us with that pesky word ‘cull’…it sounded so ‘selfless’…’

Shooting has form with ‘culling’ of course. Anyone who has followed the disgraceful mass-killing of Mountain Hares on shooting estates will recognise the way the word has been used to euphemise the slaughter of wildlife to protect industry profits. Mountain Hares can carry a tick that can pass on a disease to grouse. The tick flourishes in conditions where there are unnaturally high levels of grouse ‘stocked’ on moors. There are unnaturally high levels of grouse stocked on moors because shooting makes its profits by selling as many birds to shooters as it possibly can. The more grouse the more ticks. It’s an unvirtuous circle. The solution? Kill (dammit, sorry, ‘cull’) as many Mountain Hares as possible…

In this case there’s been no pretence that the ‘cull’ is carried out for the public good, or even reluctantly – gamekeepers have seemed proud to line up for photographs with corpses of hundreds of hares. There is no genuine attempt to justify the killings scientifically. This is being done purely for the shooting industry, they know it and we know it, but they don’t care anyway. Someone, somewhere probably said something like, ‘call it a ‘cull’ everybody does these days – no-one can do anything about it anyway‘. Well, (as the Scottish Green Party and the wonderful Alison Johnstone MSP who has campaigned hard to end this unjustifiable slaughter most certainly DIDN’T say) bollocks to that, frankly…

 

Perhaps the most flagrant twisting of the word ‘cull’ is how it’s been used by the government to describe the mass slaughter of badgers, a protected species which (with a po-faced lack of irony) is being killed in enormous numbers to protect the dairy industry. There is no attempt at selection (eg checking on healthy vs unhealthy animals), no suggestion (except by the farming and shooting industries) that there are ‘too many’ badgers, and of course randomly killing over 150,000 wild badgers and endangering the sustainability of local populations does absolutely nothing to ‘improve’ the remaining populations that are left. Badgers are shot across huge parts of the country, they may take far longer to die than allowed under the terms of the licences the government has given out, and they’re not routinely tested for disease anyway.

There’s quite likely a reason for that last point incidentally: a very recent report (which was somehow left on a shelf for nearly two years) has now proved that badgers are not a key source of Bovine Btb. Yet the killing goes on. And vast amounts of public money keeps flowing into the pockets of ‘cull’ operators and the compensation pot given to farmers (according to the TBhubin 2018 over 32,000 cattle were compulsorily slaughtered for TB control purposes in England, and compensation payments in 2018/19 totalled £34 million“).

It’s not clear how the word ‘cull’ came to be used to describe this massacre (if readers can enlighten us, we’d be grateful) but it’s clear what it is meant to imply: that there is no choice, that it’s being done for the good of all of us, that it’s somehow less ‘generic’ than just killing badgers because we don’t like them. Politicians even attempt to sound like they really, really don’t want to kill badgers (😥 ‘sad face’). Proponents of the killing (double dammit, sorry, ‘cull’) don’t bother with such nauseating niceties though and shooting lobbyists (who want badgers rid of as they sometimes eat pheasant eggs) bang on about how badgers upset poor hedgehogs. We have to ‘manage them’ they say, we have no choice…

Of course, though, there is and always has been a choice: proper controls on cattle movement, better biosecurity on farms, and (now) vaccination. And anyone who believes that the shooting industry gives even the tiniest toss about hedgehogs, well, we’ve a bridge in Brooklyn we’d like to sell you…

 

Our language is of course a fluid entity. Meanings of words change over time (as we pointed out in an earlier post, “It’s why ‘literally’ doesn’t literally mean ‘literally’ anymore. Why ‘willy-nilly’ now doesn’t mean doing something whether we want to or not. Why ‘animal welfare’ now apparently seems to mean ‘killing a wild animal a little more quickly than before but still killing it for absolutely no good reason other than it’s what the shooting industry wants‘ – see ‘New ‘protection’ for Stoats) but as this series is attempting to explain, that doesn’t mean that we should accept or go along the deliberate perversion of it. The words we are picking out are being used deliberately, and we need to understand how and why.

We’re sure that there are many other examples where killing has been called ‘culling’ in an attempt to persuade us that it’s being done for the public good but ultimately actually benefits private wealth (the killing of Barnacle Geese on Islay, anyone?), but this is a long post already! Suffice to say that the way we use language matters, and it is abundantly clear that whatever straightforward meaning the word ‘cull’ might have once had, it has been co-opted by industries and individuals that benefit from killing wildlife and domestic animals but would prefer that we the public just didn’t think of it that way.

If anything that shows in what low regard they hold us. It’s not perhaps quite the unqualified contempt they show many of the animals involved, but as far as hunting and shooting goes, probably not too far from it…