Having just finished reading your book ‘Inglorious’ I’m prompted, and indeed inspired, to write to you. I’d like to begin by telling you something about my background.
Since childhood I have been passionately interested in wildlife, with birdwatching at the fore. I was brought up in the conurbations of Manchester where I was born in 1946, leaving at the age of 16, in 1962, to become a trainee gamekeeper in Herefordshire. At the age of 18 I moved to Sweden (1965) where I first worked at the Swedish School for Game and Wildlife Conservation, then for Stockholm University’s Zoological Institute as a wildlife-research assistant, based on the estate managed by the aforementioned school – the two institutes operated hand-in-hand. In 1968 I returned to the UK and became a senior forest ranger with the Forestry Commission, based in Knapdale Forest, Argyll, working on deer management and recreational/amenity developments. In the mid 70s I took up a post as head deer-stalker, employed by a sporting agency based near Inverness, where my function was to manage neglected deer stocks on about 12 estates ranging from Ross-shire, around the Great Glen and into the Moray Firth. As part of the work, during the closed season for deer stalking, I was required to assist with estate work including heather burning on grouse moors, also Rabbit and Fox control. I worked alongside many gamekeepers and deer stalkers on quite a few traditionally managed estates. Outside occupational life I had always been a very keen falconer, laterally flying Golden Eagles – principally at hares on grouse moors. As from the late 70s I applied my experience to the leading of wildlife and birdwatching tours, initially for Caledonian Wildlife (which no longer exists) based in Inverness. As from 1992 I established my own wildlife tour business under the title Great Glen Wildlife, which I still operate. In spite of a background of shooting-orientated occupations, and practising falconry until the early 80s, I have remained a passionate naturalist and wildlife conservationist. I now own a 220 chunk of land above south Loch Ness-side, which I have been managing as a wildlife reserve for 32 years, similarly a 39 acre unit of land by my present home in Orkney – the UK Hen Harrier capital! So, in brief, that’s who I am.
I have presented this brief account of my background as I have a great deal of experience relevant to both sides of the fence that polarises the respective shooting and wildlife protection/conservation fraternities. While living in Sweden I learned that the two spheres of interest could work together and have always believed that this should be the case in the UK. Until comparatively recently I was very much a supporter of the regime of grouse-moor management where heather burning was practised, but hotly against many aspects of ‘vermin’ control – like you I detest the term ‘vermin’. My own stance is not just against persecution of raptors, but also against the killing of many mammals and mild or innocuous avian ‘pests’. I strongly believe, for example, that Jays, Jackdaws and Rooks should be protected.
On my land in the uplands above Loch Ness I do occasionally burn heather, in small patches, and believe in this practice as a positive for wildlife diversity. This practice has consistently proved to be the key to retaining a good representation of Lesser Butterfly and Fragrant Orchids, Field Gentian, Common and Toothed Wintergreens, Mountain Everlasting and fruiting vacciniums, among many other plants. My approach, however, is a far cry from that which takes place on the large estates. When leading my groups of wildlife enthusiasts into moorland areas managed for grouse, I usually took time to explain what the regime of burning was about, more often than not presenting this as a positive for wildlife in general. 20 or so years ago I could take a group on to a moor during April, when snow was absent, and find 30 or more Blue Hares within the same field of view. These hares, a by-product of heather management, constituted the main prey of Golden Eagles in the east Highlands. Nowadays I have to work hard to find a single Blue Hare, on a really good day being able to show my groups three or four at best. During the 70s I regularly saw Wildcats in the Great Glen and surrounding uplands which, as most of us know, have all but vanished. The presently proffered statement that interbreeding with domestic cats is to blame is, in my opinion, nonsense. Interbreeding is bad news, but there can be little doubt but that the game-management fraternity is entirely responsible. I know this through the keepers I’ve spoken with, who freely tell me what they and their contemporaries get up to. The advent of ‘lamping’ is the main background to Wildcat decline over the past 30 years, and undoubtedly remains an ongoing problem.
Alluding to my time in Sweden, and background in falconry, is pertinent to this message because, during the late 60s and early 70s, I was responsible for releasing Goshawks imported from Sweden into the wild in the UK. At that time several thousands of Goshawks were legally trapped and killed each year in Sweden – I supplied some of these condemned birds to falconers in the UK for a small profit – which was used to fund the import of Goshawks for release into the UK. The RSPB was at the time quite critical of this activity, one that contributed significantly to the build-up of the UK Goshawk population. It’s therefore a source of great dismay that, in common with Hen Harriers, Goshawk increase has been drastically suppressed by gamekeepers. In the Peak District of Derbyshire, where Goshawk numbers were on the increase during the 80s and 90s, moorland gamekeepers have brought about a major collapse in the number of nesting pairs. But this is a fact that I know you are already aware of.
I’m very glad that I read your book. I picked it up convinced that I would find it contained a considerable amount of flawed reasoning, that it would miss important points, and would have its arguments founded on an uncompromising and unreasonable bias against the shooting fraternity. I shall read it again, but already I’m firmly behind your stance and, moreover, applaud your efforts relating to the case against driven-grouse shooting, together with all the negatives embraced by the ‘sport’. This is especially so as I found your approach very objective. I still speak to gamekeepers, my message being that, if they don’t get their act together and desist from killing protected birds and mammals, their way-of-life will come to an end. There are a few who really could be excellent custodians of the countryside, but the majority most definitely could not.
Generally speaking I have regarded management of habitat in order to promote good conditions for game, also to be of benefit to a great deal of other wildlife – an argument applied equally to moorland managed for Red Grouse and woodland/hedgerow/arable cover managed to favour Pheasants and Partridges. The opinion is detached from the actual shooting, about which – until comparatively recently – I remained indifferent. I still shoot, by way of culling the deer that suppress almost 100% of tree regeneration within my Loch Ness-side reserve, but I have nil interest in the sporting side of shooting.
As time has gone by I have found it increasingly difficult to countenance the practices of many field sports, especially driven Red Grouse shooting, Pheasant shooting involving the slaughter of many hundreds of artificially-raised birds in a single day, and the use of hybrid falcons for the practice of falconry. I have absolutely no regrets about past involvement in pursuits which, decades ago, were to me a source of great excitement and challenge. And I have to say that, as a gamekeeper, I learned a great deal through the hands-on aspect of the work, that I could never have learned through observation alone. However I fell out with that way of life at an early stage because it conflicted with my leanings towards conservation. It did, usefully, provide me with an understanding of keepers, together with the ability to speak their language and retain their confidence. In common with capital and corporal punishments, also Fox, Otter and stag hunting, however, many aspects of game management and shooting are anachronistic and should be consigned to the past. From past involvement with game management I have extracted those practices that have positive application for general wildlife conservation, and there are many.
Ultimately my stance is one of an ex-gamekeeper who initially enjoyed that way of life, few occupations bringing about such intimate contact with nature. But the uncompromisingly severe persecution of many non-game species of wildlife, many of which are wholly innocuous, caused me to finally reject the acceptability of the occupation. I also have to confess that, until reading your book, I was not fully aware of certain issues relating to heather burning as these were beyond my personal experience. I’m now firmly in your camp and, hopefully, there will be others from an occupational shooting background who will also have joined your ranks.