Guest blog – ‘I would teach them to shoot’ by Brian Watmough


Brian writes: I started birding in the 1960s watching pink-footed geese on the Lancashire mosses. Today I watch Brent Geese on the Kent coast, in between I have been lucky to enjoy birds in many places.


“I would teach them to shoot and handle a gun,”Bob answered. We were three baby boomers sitting round after a morning bird ringing and the conversation had shifted from concern about the disappointing numbers of birds and biodiversity loss, to the recognition of the Anthropocene, to Jared Diamond’s Collapse  to lead to the question “What skills would you teach your grandchildren?” Bob’s answer, although possibly flippant, reflected a lack of faith in politics not only to halt the decline in biodiversity but also to prevent an apocalyptic breakdown of life as we know it.

As I drove home I wondered is it really that bad? What can I do? Can I make a difference? Or are the powers destroying biodiversity so strong that I am powerless? This is one of the fundamental questions of social sciences, the debate between the importance of structure and agency in human behaviour.  Do I have agency to make individual decisions or is my behaviour determined by structures? As ever presenting the answers as an either or dichotomy is not helpful, reality is more nuanced.

Any actions I can take are constrained by structures. Foucault identified how a discourse can establish hegemony over our actions. In Europe there are a number of dominant discourses concerning the natural world which have contributed to environmental degradation. The Abrahamic religions at best give man a role of stewardship, at worst an exhortation to go forth and multiply; the Marxist tradition emphasises production and has a poor record on environmental protection; at a more local level we have the “Countryfile” discourse of benevolent farmers as responsible stewards of landscape which ignores the major contribution of agriculture to biodiversity loss. Since the eighteenth century Enlightenment  public discourse in Europe has largely emphasised the primacy of reason and knowledge as sources of authority and legitimacy and in the UK conservation policy has been predicated on such a view, -collect the evidence to inform policy. Unfortunately such a view is being undermined in the USA by Donald Trump and in the UK with Michael Gove’s statement “That the people have had enough of experts” and the lies of both Brexit and Remain campaigns in the EU referendum.

Our political and institutional frameworks do not inspire confidence. The Conservative party seems divided on the environment but much of the rhetoric of Brexit is based on a neoliberal philosophy which opposes regulation and which holds little hope for the natural world. The Labour Party is at present a mess but the environment does not seem a priority and there is no mention of biodiversity in its policy documents. The Greens and Lib Dems may say good things but at present seem politically irrelevant.

Political parties are only part of the representation of power. Land ownership also confers immense power on nature conservation, its importance reflected in the enthusiasm with which conservation organisations buy land. Private landowners especially shooting estates are often characterised as villains, but such a view is simplistic and ignores the positive and innovative contribution to wildlife conservation made by private landowners.  In the UK the Knepp estate in Sussex and the Elmley Conservation Trust on Sheppey have developed two of the most exciting wildlife sites in southern England. Internationally two conservationists who have died in the last 12 months have left incredible legacies for conservation. Luc Hoffman used his personal wealth from Hoffman –La Roche to safeguard the Camargue and Coto Donana and to support the foundation of WWF and Doug Tompkins used his wealth from the North Face clothing company to support conservation and establish national parks in South America.

The development of social media has the potential to challenge established discourses and develop a new style of politics, not necessarily linked to political parties. The petition to ban driven grouse shooting promoted by Mark Avery and Chris Packham has been remarkably successful in achieving its target of 100 000 signatures, raising awareness of the damage caused by intensive management for grouse and generally shaking up the conservation establishment. Mark Avery expects that grouse shooting will be banned in ten years. I am sceptical. I wonder if Mark Avery is the conservation movement equivalent of Jeremy Corbyn, helping reframe the national debate, happy to speak to audiences of believers but with little chance of exercising power. However the emergence of social media provides a new opportunity for individuals to have the agency to challenge established discourses, engage with politicians and activate communities.

Within these structures what agency do I have? How can I make a difference? I am reminded of Edmund Burke’s saying “that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for a good man to do nothing. “

I already do the usual things, – BBS, WEBS, CES, etc, I am a member of several conservation NGOs, I sign petitions, write to my MP. But continuing to do more of the same and expecting to make a difference is reminiscent of Einstein’s definition of insanity, “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. I could give more money to conservation.  The U.K. Government has a target to give 0.7% of Gross Domestic Income to international development, a total £12.2 billion compared to £ 2.2 billion budget of DEFRA. The average salary in the UK is £26 500, if everyone gave 0.7% that is £185 a person. A contribution of the biblical tithe or 10% would be £2650 per person. A walk around the Birdfair shows the money is there and most of us could give a lot more.

So returning to the grumpy old baby boomers lamenting the state of the world we have to offer our grandchildren something more than despair and violence. I need to kick my black dog   and share my joy in the natural world, speak truth to power, review my personal financial contributions, engage in local politics and in the words of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci I have to accept both the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will.


17 Replies to “Guest blog – ‘I would teach them to shoot’ by Brian Watmough”

  1. You realize the importance of owning land and talk about conservation and NGOs reserves. The elephant in the room is farmland. Conservationists seem happy with reserves but shy away from commercial farms. If the 1m RSPB members made an additional payment of £10 which went to buying farmland to be farmed like Hope Farm over time the area would grow as NGOs landholdings have since my young day. In this digital age maybe people would feel less they were donating more of their money if a digital land tradeable bond was issued like bitcoin.

  2. Agree re farmland point.
    Digital land tradeable bond — liking the sound of that — can you expand?

  3. Firstly land ownership in the UK is an issue. Still too much is owned by too few who keep very quiet about it.This makes it expensive to buy for conservation purposes and the main beneficiaries are the big land owners. This still only conserves the honeypots and again without progress on mainstream agriculture is just cherry picking.

    Secondly you seem to be implying that if we only paid out a little more money more would get done. We already pay out huge sums to damage the environment in the form of farm subsidies and business welfare handouts. This is is where the work is why are we paying to damage our environment and then paying again to repair it and the same rich b*** benefit each time!!

    1. The point I was making about money was in context of what I could do. I can propose all sorts of solutions but my commitment to giving more money was in the context of my own agency.

  4. At the WLT we have helped buy more land than the combined holdings of Wildlife Trusts and RSPB — but in remote places all over the world. We have shown the model, but it is still ludicrously small. What we need do now is learn from what has been achieved, and scale it up. Tradeable bonds of some sort are one way. So is impact investment. There are lots of ways of doing it, and some of us are trying, but what we need is significantly more cash. However many millions the government commits to conservation, we can be certain a lot of it will be wasted on ‘policy’ or ‘research’ We need very little of either of these, we need, as has been eloquently expressed above, control of land. Very simple. Buy it, put covenants on it, sell it, buy more. Simple. Costly, but cheap for what it can achieve. Give a me a billion or two and I can show quite how simple it is…..

    1. “Very simple” – very simplistic! Covenants may work fine in true wilderness areas but in the UK most land needs to be actively managed and you have to decide what you are managing for. SSSIs have the equivalent of protective covenants and in many cases, such as well-known moors, that seems to be of very limited benefit. Circumstances change; ownership is by far the best option.

    2. The WLT does fantastic work buying up land and ensuring it is protected for wildlife and I don’t doubt that given a billion or two you could achieve something fantastic. I’m not entirely convinced by your dismissal of the value of research and policy, though.

      Not all land is available for purchase even if we have the money and so it is surely important to find ways to ensure that other land owners and occupiers will manage their land holdings in a manner that is sympathetic to wildlife. Whether that involves prohibition of activities, regulation, subsidies and other incentives or some other measures, finding the correct blend of actions surely involves policy development and probably some research as well. You may counter that a lot of research and policy work is ineffectual or misdirected but the answer to that is to seek to ensure that the work that is done is done well (just as I am sure that the WLT does not assume that simply buying a parcel of land is sufficient by itself to guarantee that wildlife will flourish forever more on that land but works hard to ensure that any issues that might lead to failure are identified and dealt with).

      It seems to me that there is no single approach or type of action we can take to solve all the problems faced by wildlife and we will need to rely on a variety of approaches. Whatever we do, though, will need to include solutions to the pressures imposed by people – whether we are talking about subsistence farmers and fishermen, ‘first world’ farmers, people wanting a house in southern England, shooters, golfers, tourists and so on, the majority of whom can not be simply excluded from the land.

    3. I agree, the point I was trying to make as an individual is that whist my individual impact may be limited I can have agency by giving to other organisations.

  5. Good thinking Brian, even better for the fact it made me work hard to keep up (just).

    I’d teach them to shoot the breeze while looking cool discussing the taxonomy of tax.
    It should be very easy to teach small children all about tax — its history and its potential to be the bedrock for a truly civilised society – they have an innate understanding of fairness. Harness that from day one and we’ll get that semi-Utopian land and cityscape next time round.

  6. I confess that for some time I’ve thought that the best we can do is build and protect the lifeboats. Buy land and defend it. Whatever biodiversity we can get through the next 100 years or so will have a much better long term future. It will have made it through the human population peak, the transition to a post-oil world, and shown it can adapt to climate change.

    But the next 100 years or so will be grim and an awful lot of biodiversity will be lost. We can no longer prevent that, we can only save what can be saved.

    There’ll be a lot of human suffering too. Let’s not pretend we’re saving the planet, we’re saving our own miserable lives. Come back in a few million years and the planet will be fine regardless.

    Whether civilisation as we know it will still be here in even 100 years is another question, though. All civilisations fall in the end and it is hubris to believe otherwise. Human activity is now global and completely interconnected – there’s no Chinese or Indus Valley culture somewhere else that will survive the fall of Rome unscathed.

    I doubt that Trump knew he was quoting Roman Emperor Honorius when he said that we should “look to our own defences”, but anyway I’m quite certain the irony was lost on him.

  7. Actually I would put shooting on the national curriculum too. It is no coincidence that the biggest advances in social welfare all came immediately after large amounts of soldiers returned from wars. Nothing focuses a government’s mind on the welfare of its people and their wants than the knowledge that the cigarette, wall, and blindfold have suddenly became a possibility.

    1. Quite funny, but if we ended up with a nation of half-crazed, redneck, gun-maniacs – as in USA – you wouldn’t want to live here.

    2. Random, you could laternatively just moved to Trump’s America. They’ve been promoting shooting and gun ownership for years over there, but I’m not sure the revolution that’s resulted is what you had in mind.

  8. I agree that the best shooting estates are excellent for wildlife.

    Not so sure about holding up Elmley as an excellent example of private landownership without mentioning its history. I think huge sums of public money were, and presumably still are, involved…

    1. The point I was trying to make about Elmley is that private landowners can develop innovative solutions. Huge sums of public money go into many nature reserves in the U.K. through Higher Level Stewardship and indirectly through landfill tax and lottery funding.

  9. “Nothing focuses a government’s mind on the welfare of its people and their wants than the knowledge that the cigarette, wall, and blindfold have suddenly became a possibility.”

    There is scant evidence for that. Take a look at Syria for example – the awareness that the cigarette, the wall and blindfold had become a possibility (as you so charmingly put it) could not be said to have provoked Mr Assad into any obvious concern for the social welfare of his people. I’d say his is the more typical response to the threat.
    In those cases where the possibility became a fact, history does not record that the revolutionary governments that replaced the ancien regime were generally notably beneficial either for the welfare of the people or for the environment.

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