Lockdown: birding vs shooting?

An interesting debate is taking place on Twitter right now, discussing why it is that shooters are able to go out and kill birds during lockdown while birders (of all sorts from ‘I like to look at birds while I walk‘ to ‘I want that Northen Mockingbird on my list and I want it now‘) aren’t allowed to just go and look at them.

There is almost zero support for twitchers behaving badly, but many of the comments do express outrage that – as usual – nature seems to lose out to the gun. Isn’t birding important for mental health, they ask? Why is it considered exercise to walk somewhere and pull a trigger, but not walk somewhere and lift up a pair of binoculars? Why is it that shooting gets away with treating wildlife in ways that non-shooters would be jailed for?

It’s a debate that’s been taking place for a while now: we starting commenting on it ourselves – though admittedly to less attention! – some weeks ago as the reposted tweet below shows.

Now, of course we 100% agree that travelling hundreds of miles during lockdown to congregate somewhere just to see a rare bird (and that’s ‘rare to the UK’, back home in North America Northern Mockingbirds are Least Concern with a huge range) is an undeniably stupid thing to do. We are birders ourselves (and used to twitch regularly) but there’s no excuse for breaking the law and risking spreading a dangerous virus like Covid-19 under any circumstances. This incident has done fellow birders and birding absolutely no favours and the people concerned should be ashamed of themselves.

But this isn’t just about a handful of birders behaving irresponsibly. The larger and more pertinent question is surely this: why is there a seeming disparity between the way birders and shooters are treated generally? How do shooters (and fox hunters before them – they managed to circumvent the ‘Rule of Six’ back in the autumn remember) seem to usually get what they want (which with the best will in the world is simply to be allowed to kill even more wild animals)?

Feel free as always to disagree but two prime possibilities come to mind: our current crop of legislators (ie parliamentarians) inherently support shooting and hunting, and (as we suggested in the above tweet) ‘their’ lobbyists are more vociferous than ‘ours’.

Why might the current government favour shooters? Simply because many of them come from a background steeped in entertainment-based shooting and hunting. In 2019 a report (which focussed on the opportunities for social mobility) found that as many as two-thirds of Boris Johnson’s cabinet went to private schools. The House of Lords is also packed with wealthy landowners and pro-shoot members (Ian Botham being one of the more recent appointments). Being wealthy, privately-educated and owning vast acreages of farmland or moorland doesn’t necessarily mean that you’d tend towards shooting of course, but it’s just common sense that it’s more likely than if you come from a deprived urban background and don’t have access to ‘sporting rights’ or the society that does. Legislation protecting ‘game’ and stopping people from going on land they didn’t ‘own’ have been around for centuries – and became law because wealthy parliamentarians were essentially looking after their own. That will sound like a ridiculous generalisation to some, but it’s historic fact that there has been a broad crossover between lawmakers and landowners and shooters/hunters – and that goes right the way up to the wealthiest shooting law-making landowners of all: the royal family, who led the way in turning small-scale ‘rough’ shooting into the fashionable slaughter-fests we now see played out on pheasant and grouse estates from the south of England to the north of Scotland.

It would be naive to claim that’s not still happening today. Shooting is utterly normalised, and – despite its effect on declining species like Snipe and Woodcock, the enormous toll on native wildlife killed in traps and snares to protect so-called ‘gamebirds‘, the rampant raptor persecution that is at last now being documented across the national media – is legal. Legal not because it should be or must be but because lawmakers have always wanted it that way.

The same was true of the abhorrent ‘sport’ of foxhunting. It took an enormous fight to make foxhunting illegal – a battle derided by the royals – because many MPs enjoyed it. Lobbyists still try to argue to this day that the ban was about ‘hate-filled lefties’ rather than about wildlife – a self-wounding claim which admits rather obviously that supporting foxhunting remains a concern of landowners (who else would these ‘lefties’ be opposing?) and which also ignores poll after poll which finds that a huge majority of the public are in favour of keeping the ban.

 

It also follows that lobbyists for shooting know that their well-rehearsed if often blustering and ecologically-illiterate arguments (see – Alex Hogg knows nothing about birdwatching for example) will fall on fertile ground. MPs queue up to trot out now-discredited figures about how much shooting is supposedly worth to the economy, and how hard the shooting industry is working to restore a ‘balance’ to the torched, barren uplands they’ve been in charge of for decades. General Licences to kill wild birds were routinely doled out until they were challenged by Wild Justice (see – Wild Justice | General Licence Reforms). Codes of Practice are implemented instead of the much-needed legislation that might impede shooting but be far better for native wildlife.

Nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that those same lobbyists are more direct in their demands, have enjoyed better press-coverage (from a largely sympathetic media), and appear to vociferously chase their ‘rights’ to kill harder than lobbyists for birds and other wildlife try to stop them. Our birding magazines and websites have only just begun to really question what goes on in the name of ‘sport’, and our major conservation organisations have, over the years, always seemed willing to compromise in exchange, for example, for access to land for surveys. Until recently they haven’t even managed to sound vaguely irritated that literally millions of birds are killed every year for fun. Is it really any wonder which group appears to get the best of exemptions time after time (again this really isn’t just about this lockdown and these restrictions, as we said earlier shooting gets away with treating wildlife in ways that non-shooters would be jailed for).

Of course, changing all of this is down to all of us – including us here at The War on Wildlife Project. Before there is a chance of change taking place we need to a) understand how the dice have been loaded and then b) want to do something about it. Leadership, though, needs to come from the top (not from near the bottom, which is where we sit!), but anyone with a sensible and hard-hitting way forward will get our support. Frankly, though, it doesn’t seem likely it will be coming from any of our more recognisable and long-established conservation charities…

 

Pragmatists will always step in and argue that compromise and conversation is the way forward, but we’d counter that assertion simply by circling right back to the top of this post. Why is it considered exercise to walk somewhere and pull a trigger, but not to walk somewhere and lift up a pair of binoculars?

If you’ve got this far you already know why we think that is…