The way Mark sees it, his job is the pragmatic and practical end of conservational interest, under the umbrella of gamekeeping. Most will see this as a paradox. If he really is conserving, why on earth is he also killing foxes and stoats and the like? The answer is complex, and is the end of an important logical progression.
Firstly, Scotland is a mosaic of cultural landscapes, NOT wilderness landscapes. This distinction is essential; as the realisation is that we have heavily influenced just about every landscape in the country, be it directly or indirectly. We have changed too much of the ecosystem to simply walk away, and our continuing interference is essential to maintain some form of balance. Part of this balance is the need to control numbers of certain species, and part is to preserve the landscape; the habitat in which various cherished species can survive. With too many foxes, a great deal of ground nesting birds will suffer. Equally, too many hen harriers will cap red grouse numbers. Too many deer will damage forest coverage, and so on. Balance, already an overused word, is key.
There is a legal solution available for everything except birds. Foxes are shot, weasels, mink and stoats are (mainly) trapped, pine martens are sent packing to be someone else’s problem and deer are shot. Birds seem to reserve elevated status. Understandably, the breeding season is precious, but it seems there is no middle ground to be had. The RSPB holds a decent amount of sway, from an advisory basis but also as lobbyists, and the chances of finding a solution here is very low as birds are extremely well protected.
Killing of birds of prey is not the solution at this time, but there is not a huge effort being made to come to a consensus of even relocating them (partially due to stringent EU relocation guidelines). It comes back to the self-interested conservational motive. Is it not better to cooperate with estates, than to bash them on the head with increasingly tight and complex legislation?
Mark would also love to see more keepers involved in RSPB activity, as he thinks there is some real mutual benefit to be achieved. The RSPB’s prerogative is to create habitats and situations in which birds can thrive, this is the exact expertise of gamekeeping, something that is immensely adaptable too. There is an immense corrosive mutual mistrust.
I tried to come to this project with open mind, but as ever you cannot remove your prejudices from any journalistic endeavour. I was sceptical about the work being done on Scottish estates, not only because of the wealth of public press showing the ‘bad’ side, but also from my own previous personal experiences. I grew up around shooting, and have done so myself, infrequently, until 2011. The decision to stop was part a lack of enjoyment, but part disillusionment with the whole process it entailed; what was this tradition, and why was I doing it? The emphasis is on tradition here, as can be often in rural pursuits, traditions are continued merely for tradition’s sake.
On an ecological level, the argument is tricky. As a meat-eater, I would rather my food was ‘wild’ for as long as possible, with the shortest possible end. To this extent, I would rather a pheasant than a battery farmed chicken, but I think this is obvious. The fact that we are introducing, every year, approximately 35 million individuals of what is essentially a foreign species counterbalances these positives. Put another way, this is approximately 45,000 tonnes of bird that is not supposed to even be in the UK in the first place. Conservationists might argue that this impinges on the interests of native species, but I am not totally convinced, and it comes back to this notion, originally mentioned to me by Dr Adam Smith, of the “enlightened self-interested” strata of society; there is a large group of people interested in preserving woodland, interested in farming using specific methods to allow wildlife to profit, and they are happy to pay for it with their own money. Ultimately, the government will always be more interested in social issues, and, rightly, the money will be directed there prior to conservation issues. The argument put forward about the sporting estates by Dr Smith and his colleagues at the GWCT is “why can’t we exploit this interest, and work with it rather than against it?”, in exchange for the ability to exploit the land for personal use, such as shooting pheasants.
This needs to incorporate limits, of course. Some pheasant and partridge shoots have reached epic proportions of nothing short of slaughter. This is the shooting business model taken to the grotesque extreme. There is nothing wrong with shooting for food – but not this much. I find it hard to believe that the UK pheasant shooting industry have demand for 35 million pheasants a winter, and I am left wondering where a lot of the surplus ends up.
Grouse shooting is an important discussion point, and it is probably the front line of the debate over gamekeeping practices. Legal moorland management is proven to be beneficial to not only red grouse, but also a lot of other rare bird species such as curlew, golden plover and lapwing.
This is, however, not the area of dispute. The larger a surplus of red grouse you produce, the more predators will turn up, and all aerial predators are protected, so you watch while they feed on the grouse population, and you can’t do anything about it. Landowners on grouse moors will be committed to spending a massive amount of money per year on the moor, in order to make conditions perfect for red grouse numbers to increase. As it stands, rumours and accusations are rife, evidenced by occasional prosecutions, of illegal predator killing going on on grouse moors. But I sense that the gamekeeper is not uniquely culpable in this.
It is extremely hard to find the precise data on this subject, but this is what I have managed to discover (take numbers with a pinch of salt): A head keeper on a grouse moor will earn something in the region of £14,000 per year. He will likely have to rent his house, but will be provided with a car and all the essentials. He might, like Mark, have a wife and children, creating financial pressure. Grouse shooting is only done on years where there are enough to shoot - a surplus. If there are not enough, you will end up shooting the actual stock, and numbers will start to fall. Therefore, some years the moor will be officially closed to allow the numbers to get back to something healthy for following years. If you have a lot of predators on the moor, the likelihood of creating a surplus is lowered, so the likelihood of closing the moor is much higher. In a good, busy season, a keeper could boost his salary considerably to £20/25,000 a year, maybe even more – those shooting need to be wealthy to afford a day on a grouse moor. It is considered a real privilege to shoot there, and this is reflected in tipping. If the keeper closes the moor for the season, he will earn £0 in tips. I would never condone the illegal killing of a protected species, however I can imagine a thought process that might occur in any keepers mind, “I think I can get away with it, so I will do it.”
Their job is a vocational one, but still I realise the pressures they are under to perform. If they constantly fail to produce a shooting season, it would not be surprising that the land owner becomes fed up with the investment and either sacks the keeper or closes the moor entirely. It is both professional pride and simple economics that encourage these crimes, exacerbated by the (naive) surety that they can get away with them. The only relief of pressure, and this is welcome legislation, is the law of vicarious liability, introduced in Scotland on January 1st 2012. This means that with any crime committed, both the perpetrator AND the landowner will be tried and prosecuted, and given the same punishment. This would be a welcome addition in English law as well, however without the right to roam this is hard to police.
But all of this is not the point. What I found during this process is a wealth of polemic, the likes of which was hard to penetrate. The sense of “us and them” was strong, leaving the keepers feeling like they are cornered, and that their craft and expertise is unwanted.
On a more macro scale, I agree with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. If these landowners want to invest all this money on land, why make an enemy of them? If you can join them, nudge them in the ecologically positive direction, is it so bad that they are developing the land for the harvest of a species (probably yes, but what is the alternative?)? If it benefits so much else ecologically, economically and socially (locally at least), and the government doesn’t have to spend one penny on this, then let’s embrace it.
As for Mark, his world is affected constantly by these wranglings, yet he has little time to get involved himself - in fact keepers are solitary creatures, so even organisations with his interests at heart like the Scottish Gamekeepers Association are incredibly hard to run. He feels his expertise is underappreciated, underused and undervalued, that his craft is seen as an antiquated irrelevance, and he is eager to see that change.
We have affected and influenced this small island too much to leave it alone now. We need to manage it actively and constructively. In gamekeepers, some of the best expertise is on offer all over the place, and it is already paid for.
Many people have helped me with this project, thank you very much to the following:
Mark and his family for being so patient and accommodating, Richard the estate owner, Donald the estate farmer, Dr Adam Smith of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Professor Stephen Redpath of Aberdeen University, Ian Thomson the Head of Investigations RSPB Scotland, Libby Anderson at Onekind, Kenneth Stephen of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, Graeme Taylor of Scottish Natural Heritage, all coursemates, tutors at LCC and Polly, for listening, responding, reading and re-reading and Pete Cairns for guidance and advice.