Guest blog – Ethical hunters? by Hugh Webster



Hugh writes: I recently took a break from teaching and returned to work for the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust (on twitter @BPCTcamp) as a research coordinator, living and working in the bush on the edge of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, having completed the field work for my PhD at the same field site between 2005 and 2008. The project’s focus remains very much on utilising sound scientific research to inform conservation planning, to promote coexistence with carnivores and to mitigate human wildlife conflict.




Last year I wrote a piece for Mark’s writing competition entitled “Are hunters conservationists?” I concluded that “hunting, if properly managed, could be a useful conservation tool, but equally hunters have been complacent, lazy and unthinking in their assumption that this is always the case whereas in fact very often the opposite has been true.”

Remaining interested in this topic I recently approached the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), Tim Bonner (CEO of the Countryside Alliance) and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), groups which represent large sections of the UK’s hunting and shooting community, for their views on the current Spring Hunt in Malta and the associated slaughter of migrant birds which continues there.

I made my request for comment via Twitter, using an account I share with several other large carnivore researchers (@BPCTcamp) in which we focus on all issues related to predator conservation.

I had no reply the first two times I asked. BASC ignored me three times. But on the third attempt I got a response from both GWCT and Tim Bonner.

GWCT stated succinctly that “We condemn all illegal activity”.

Tim Bonner (predictably) took a different tack.

This was disappointing but not entirely surprising (and see below*). Tim seemed to feel that mine was a loaded question and therefore was refusing to answer it. But what was he afraid of? Why should it be so difficult to condemn the hunting of turtle doves (a species recently added to the IUCN red list and which has suffered population declines of 96% since 1970)?

The reason I sought a response from these organisations is that I still believe that hunters can make a meaningful contribution to conservation (see, but also that hunting has to clean up its act.

So long as hunters and hunting organisations are unwilling to ever condemn other hunters they remain one undifferentiated entity, the good mixed in with the bad within their circled wagons.

GWCT’s assertion that if it’s legal, it’s fine, is a cop out. It’s legal to shoot skylarks, song thrushes, turtle doves and various waders in Italy, but do the GWCT think that is okay? It’s legal to shoot a lion in a canned hunt in South Africa, but do the GWCT think that is okay? Legality is often a poor metric for ethical behaviour. Why is it left to Chris Packham, the RSPB and Birdlife to campaign against the Maltese Spring Hunt? After all, hunters are surely more likely to listen to other hunters.

I suspect the reluctance of all these parties to make statements condemning other hunters stems from a fear that one admission of hunting malpractice might open the door to questions about shooting other species. If they were to state that hunting turtle doves was bad (because they are in decline), what is the difference between hunting turtle doves in Italy or Malta and hunting Snipe (>90% decline in UK breeding population since 1975) or Woodcock (>90% decline in UK breeding population since 1967) in the UK?

I believe the shooting community is in a muddle. They are not sure what is okay and what isn’t anymore. Perhaps a universal code of practice is needed which could ensure that any hunting follows some general ethical guidelines including some of the following:

  • Quarry species should be sustainably hunted such that the killing of any animal has no detrimental impact on overall population size or genetic health.
  • Management regimes required to support hunting opportunities should be able to demonstrably show a positive net impact on the wider environment/ecosystem.
  • Lead ammunition should be abandoned.
  • Stress and suffering of any quarry species should be limited to the greatest extent possible.

Others may have other suggestions.

Some people feel that all hunting is bad, but I am not one of those. I believe that eating meat that one has shot oneself is at least as morally defensible as eating any other meat. I also believe that hunting can support habitats which might otherwise be lost to wildlife as wilderness is lost to farming or other uses. But I also believe that thoughtless hunting is damaging and that perhaps the majority of shooting today falls into that category. It is a shame and I hope it can change.




*Added by Mark: a further example of Tim Bonner’s charm:

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33 Replies to “Guest blog – Ethical hunters? by Hugh Webster”

  1. Hugh, you raise some very interesting and difficult issues here. I'd like to ask you whether you think hunting song thrushes and skylarks in Italy is more problematic than hunting Mallard, Teal and Wigeon in the U.K. And if so, why?

    1. Hi Ian. Good question and exactly the sort of question I'd like hunters to be asking themselves more. Personally I'm not sure. I don't know much about these species to be honest, but a quick google tells me that:

      Mallard have increased steadily in the UK since the 1960s (although there has been a decline in overwintering numbers, perhaps as more stay at home in Europe?). So from a conservation viewpoint (my interest and the benchmark for sustainable hunting) I have no issue with mallard hunting. I feel the same about woodpigeon, roe deer and rabbits, or wild boar in say, France and feel happy eating these animals so can raise no issue with those that shoot them (if they use lead-free ammunition of course!).

      Teal too are apparently on the up in the UK, rated as Least Concern by the IUCN with no clear population decline globally and a large and widespread population, so I'd have few qualms about shooting them. That said, I'd probably prefer to target the increasing mallard, to be on the safe side (precautionary principle and all that).

      Wigeon are as I understand it undergoing a slow decline, insufficient yet to merit more than a Least Concern status, but any decline concerns me so I doubt I'd be comfortable shooting or eating wigeon.

      Teal and Wigeon are interesting examples because the UK has low resident numbers but high overwintering numbers. A bit like woodcock. Probably this is your point. One difference would seem to be that the woodcock has suffered such a steep decline in the UK while the teal hasn't.

      If I were a hunter I'd like to see some of the organisations allegedly representing me producing research to show what sustainable harvests of different quarry species might look like. The closest I have seen to anyone doing this in the UK is for certain organisations to ask their followers to delay shooting woodcock until the migrant birds arrive, presumably in an attempt to preserve our declining native population. However, personally I would feel uncomfortable shooting any woodcock in the UK knowing that I risked shooting one of our threatened native birds.

      Skylark and song thrush are undergoing continuing declines so I would not consider shooting them. Quite apart from the fact that their songs are so pretty and it would seem such a shame!

      I think this last point shows that my decision would be influenced by other factors beyond population trends, but these are more personal choices, whereas I think sustainable quotas can be less subjectively established.

  2. Excellent article, Hugh. It is not really our concern to give PR advice to the shooting community but you have to wonder how long it will take before shooters start to realize how crass and unhelpful to their cause Tim Bonner's statements tend to be!
    With regards to your code of practice for hunting I feel that your second bullet point maybe needs tweaking - what constitutes a 'net positive impact' may be too open to argument over how this is measured and judged. Grouse shooting estates claim such a benefit in terms of higher breeding success of some ground nesting birds as a result of the extirpation of predators. Whilst we can and do dispute that this constitutes a net benefit, I wonder if the second bullet point might be better framed in terms of avoidance of damage to a naturally functioning ecosystem?
    Also as a very minor quibble I would point out that the problem we currently face with ammunition is that as a consequence of shooting large quantities of lead are "abandoned" in the countryside where it can be ingested by birds. I would therefore suggest "All use of lead ammunition should cease" or some similar wording.
    Anyway, I should stress that my pedantic and pre-breakfast thoughts should not be taken to indicate that I am in anything other than full agreement with your post!

  3. Hugh - I agree completely with your analysis, but do you think twitter was the best medium to make your approach? Maybe an email that would give you more space to set out your motivation might have been more productive?

    1. Twitter has its pros and cons. It seemed a good medium to publicly try to get these organisations/individuals to set out their stalls and perhaps exert some small pressure, but the limited space it affords prompted me to write this blog to lay out my own viewpoint in greater detail. They of course are free to do the same (and then link to it on twitter!).

  4. Thanks for this excellent blog Hugh.

    I also had a very similar exchange recently with Tim Bonner over Otter Hunting. Noting that GWCT chair Ian Coghill was a former Otter hunter, I asked Bonner whether he believed that Otter hunting should return (one of the more abusive pro-hunt tweeter had recommended it should in the same exchange); after attempting to shift the conversation onto some particularly nasty criminal offences Animal Rights Extremists had carried out, he made this very evasive reply:

    "our policy with all species based on principles of wildlife management & sustainable hunting whether pigeon, pheasant, cormorant or other".

    I suggested there was no comparison between Habitats Directive protected Otter and the species he listed, but he'd lost interest by then. What I did not find out was what the principles of wildlife management and sustainable hunting actually are. Principles that lump together native (pigeon, cormorant) and introduced (pheasant) species probably won't hold much water though.

    1. THis raises another interesting issue. 'Sustainable' hunting of pheasants. As I have pointed out many times releasing 40 million or more captive bread peasants, suggests that the whole operation is far from sustainable. In fact just like grousing, it is entirely dependent on a wholly unsustainable process, that only survives because of massive interventions supported by massive vested interests and powerful parliamentary lobbies.

      And do agree that rational, science based hunting COULD have a place. Vide Canada geese in some places. But it all depends.....

  5. Excellent piece. I am 100% behind your idea that hunting/shooting can be an aid in positive conservation (but far too often isn't). Totally agree with your ethical guidelines too. There are other shooters who have similar 'ethics' to me and I believe they are on the increase, but the organisations which supposedly represent shooters in this country are seemingly oblivious to this. Bonner has to be one of the biggest threats to shooting there is as his infantile and nasty responses are only going to engender dislike and anger against the very 'sport' CA are meant to be promoting and protecting. GWCT have fallen a long way in the last few years as an organisation that once commanded some respect in the shooting side of science. BASC similar I believe.

    Shooting organisations are in a muddle. One reason is because they seem to represents shooting business interests rather than shooters themselves. They are no doubt heavily funded by these business interests (although finding some of this information is difficult in the least as I have been led to believe). They blandly condemn illegal activity and then attack those who campaign against it. It's a bizarre situation and one which is seemingly getting worse. They have manoeuvred themselves into a corner (through arrogance and stupidity) and are now behaving like any cornered animal.

    Your last paragraph sums up my feelings completely but I fear a solution is only getting further and further away, mainly thanks to shooting/huntings 'representatives.

  6. I've never been in the no hunting camp and have in the past shot and also beaten on a number of shoots. Yes sustainable hunting is possible ( have never liked Woodcock or Snipe shooting) and yes one would utterly condemn all spring hunting not just of declining species like Turtle Dove.
    In the UK is any hunting sustainable? is a big question. Driven grouse currently no because of the impact on both the immediate and wider environment, and the constant war on both legally controlled and illegally controlled predators. Walked up grouse---may be . Pheasants and Partridges as both are now almost entirely sustained by constant release of ( non native) birds this is not really sustainable and is akin to canned hunting and nobody is really prepared to properly discuss the impacts of all those huge release on habitats and ecology.
    Pigeons, wildfowl, rabbits and deer could and should be sustainable, although deer numbers are currently too high and are habitat damaging.
    Should hunters stand up against the bad, unsustainable and ethically wrong or illegal hunting of course and that Bonner et al do not means that they are putting all hunting in the same category in the vain hope that a "no surrender" policy protects them.
    It clearly does in that the minority driven grouse shooting is submersed in all shooting but in the long term it puts even sustainable and ethical hunting at risk.
    For shooting "sports" to be respected by the rest of us the participants need to be clear in that unethical, unsustainable hunting, legal or not should be seen and condemned as wrong anything else is siding with the "bad guys" Then many if not quite all hunting organisations in the UK have and are doing that by failing to condemn in real terms by action not just words the continued illegal killing of predatory birds and mammals by members of their own side. Strength is standing together for what is right not standing together whatever.

  7. Hugh - interesting to hear your thoughts. For the avoidance of doubt the GWCT is a UK conservation charity; so we do not represent those that shoot. Also, as a conservation charity, the GWCT is in no position to tell the police (in this country or Malta) how they should do their job. To find out more go to

    1. Hi Andrew,

      Undoubtedly the GWCT have done some good conservation work, but I can't think of another UK conservation charity with such an apparent bias towards quarry species and such an interest in rearing gamebirds or predator control. Maximising "game" populations seems to influence much of your research focus. Even your research into woodland diversity is framed in terms of its "implications for deer and pheasants". Your Campaign for Game page on the GWCT website states:

      "The stance of conservation charities about buzzards clearly shows little love for rearing gamebirds. Also, we have been seeing new reports from these powerful and well funded organisations that appear opposed to gamebird releasing. You may never meet the team of people who research and share the science. But when they prevent the sport you love becoming a casualty of hostile headlines, you’ll feel their influence."

      Should that be "other conservation charities"? Can you explain why any conservation charity should have love for rearing non-native pheasants or red-legged partridges?

      And doesn't this statement presuppose that your research will come down in support of rearing gamebirds? (Gamebirds which incidentally may compete with and even predate on native wildlife - have you done any research on that?)

  8. The big problem with hunting, in the UK at least, is that it is so entangled with class and entitlement issues and until it can be disentangled from those then I'm not sure it is going to be possible for most UK shooters to be ethical. It is always going to be a vehicle for flaunting status and for refusing to bow to the law and the proles. It has taken a thousand years since the Bastard and his Forest Law arriving in the UK and enforcing that; so unless there is a very quick way of undoing a thousand years of class based oppression, all wrapped around the hunt as a way of displaying favour and status, it is a non-starter.

  9. Excellent feature Hugh. Bonner and his ilk are not noted for even basic courtesy far less the ability to discuss anything that's a teensy, weensy bit difficult for them - such as the discovery of a shed load of live fox cubs being kept near a hunt's kennels, the UK's own variation on canned hunting? Sadly I believe your observations re them being unable to be critical of any hunters anywhere re it opening the door for more criticism hits the nail on the head. I've mentioned on Mark's blog before that years ago some anglers were requesting that fellow fishers didn't condemn fox hunting as it was a bulwark against the antis, and if we didn't stand together it would be fishing next. I was actually caught up in a stand off between hunt sabs and a mink hunt while fishing on the river Ure in 1989 and one of the hunt followers made a point of telling me 'it'll be you next!'. If anglers had actually been prominent in lobbying for fox hunting for such idiotic reasons they would have done themselves a hell of a lot of damage. Bonner and crew need to learn that, but doubt they will.

  10. You got off lightly. Mr Bonner can be quite course at times. Like all bullies if you ruffle his feathers (no pun intended) he is pathetically vitriolic. He told Dominic Dyer he was a lunatic and he wouldn't know conservation if it sat on his face. He also accused Tracy Crouch MP of having a sugar daddy in the form of Dr Brian May. He is a rude and obnoxious man and quite why the CA employ him is beyond the reasoning of many of us. Perhaps they couldn't get anyone else.
    PS, animals need to hunt to live, we don't need to do that. Hunting takes lives and the life of the individual is just as important as the species as a whole. It also splits up animal families. Hunting is not conservation in any shape or form.

    1. Totally agree with your PS, Dave.

      Thanks for articulating this view, which I dare say is not that popular.

      The individual is indeed important - as in the case of human animals.

      1. Farming animals for meat takes lives too, splits up family groups and kills individuals. Farmed animals in some cases have very poor quality and unatural life before an automated and in the case of religious slaughter brutal death. As long as you also equally oppose this and are vegans then fine. Otherwise it does sound a little hollow.

        1. Neat sideways debating move, Richard, but not fair. It's like saying, "If you still drive a car or heat your home with gas, you're not entitled to express an opinion on global warming."
          I'm allowed to say that diesel engines cause pollution, even though I occasionally take the (diesel) train to London.

  11. Whatever you think about hunting/shooting, one thing is central to responsible hunting and effectively signed up to by all these organisations that refuse to condemn the Maltese spring hunting: you never, ever kill your prey during the breeding season. After the breeding season, and before the next, many, many animals will die and there is an argument for a 'harvestable surplus' but every animal shot at this time of year leaves an unoccupied territory and fewer young returning on the autumn migration. If tribal loyalties have reached the point that bodies like CA aren't prepared to distinguish their approach from spring hunting then clearly they are well on their way to losing their license to operate.

  12. Hugh, thanks for your response. I agree with pretty much everything you say. My point about song thrushes was intended to highlight the cultural issues and personal preferences that inevitably influence these things. When I think about Song Thushes being shot I can't help but see it as a pretty unpleasant thing to do. You then think about Teal or Woodcock being killed and logic suggests that is an equally unpleasant way to pass the time. The main reason it's perhaps seen as less horrifying is simply that we have become used to it in the UK. It's a long-standing 'traditional' activity and that (somehow) serves to make it seem ok (or if not ok, then at least more tolerable). Having pondered these things over the years I'm increasing of the view that shooting any species primarily for fun is an unpleasant, unappealing thing to do. That doesn't mean I think it should necessarily be banned, though, as you say, any shooting that risks impacting on populations most certainly should be.

  13. These are just excuses parading as an educated arguement. Hunting is popular but its never a good thing. It's driving many animal to extinction, pollutes wildlands and waters and takes the imperative away from real non lethal forms of conservation. To say hunters are conservationists is like saying pedafiles are children lovers. Its time to stop these harmful lies.

    1. No serious debate is advanced by comparing those on the other side, however obliquely, to paedophiles. Whatever our personal reservations about hunting, there is some commonality of interest between hunters and conservationists. In theory, at least, both wish to preserve (or create) suitable habitats and with them a healthy population of wildlife. Whilst it's true that hunters' focus tends to be solely on quarry species, rather than broader objectives, the end product can often be the same. It might be unpalatable to some but without responsible, legal hunting in some areas populations of various species would, it seems, be lower. It's no coincidence that one of the best areas for raptors (and their prey species) in south-east England is the Isle of Harty (Sheppey, Kent) much of which is given over to shooting (and, as far as I'm aware, no or exceedingly few instances of illegal persecution).

  14. Hugh - in your blog, you seem to be equating the term 'ethical' with not posing a threat to the population level of the species involved. There are many ethical issues around the killing of animals for recreation that are entirely separate from their conservation status.
    Killing animals for fun is an unnecessary destruction of life that raises serious ethical concerns whatever its implications for conservation. Let me give an extreme example which some may find offensive but which may illustrate the point. Would you consider it ethical if, instead of relying on conventional abattoirs, we adopted the practice of releasing cattle or pigs into a large field where people, in return for a fee, were allowed to shoot them for recreation? I think most people would be revolted by such an activity, despite the fact that the domestic cattle and pigs involved are not of any conservation concern and would be killed for meat anyway.

    1. I take your point Alan and recognise that there are other ethical concerns, particularly where animals are killed simply for fun (i.e. not to eat, although these are not mutually exclusive). As a conservation biologist my interest however is primarily that of species conservation, not animal welfare. As such it remains my opinion that killing an animal in the wild and then eating it is no worse than killing an animal in an abattoir and then eating it. Probably it is better, from what I have heard of abattoirs. Whether ever killing an animal is okay is a different debate.

      1. Thanks for the reply, Hugh. I think most hunters, if they're honest with themselves, will admit that their main motivation is enjoyment rather than wildlife conservation or obtaining food. The vast majority of birds shot in the UK are captive reared, so release and subsequent shooting is unnecessary from a food point of view.
        A good rule of thumb for determining whether an activity is performed to do a necessary job or for pleasure is the direction of money flow. Generally, people are paid to do a job of work, but pay for their pleasures. An oft-quoted example concerns abattoir workers. Most people find it acceptable for someone to work in an abattoir in order to earn a living, but would be deeply suspicious of anyone prepared to pay money to the abattoir manager to let him or her work in the killing room for a day!
        In this day and age and in this country, I think the 'for the pot' argument is at best a red herring, at worst a convenient excuse for doing something that is increasing viewed as ethically dubious.

  15. Wolves in sheep clothing? I don't think with so many animals species so greatly threatened that its fair to consider hunting a help in the fight to save them. Perhaps its denial or an attempt to whitewash. Either way I think its a harmful viewpoint that will only lead to more extinctions. Hunting always has driven extinction. No matter how you want to paint it, I don't think anything has changed in this regard.

    1. You are right Una, hunting has historically contributed to many extinctions. However, consider this - what if a hunter paid a vast sum to shoot one animal and the money he paid was used to protect the land where that animal lived so that it remained undeveloped and available to wildlife, and also acted as a corridor between reserves where other animals were otherwise isolated (and so at risk of inbreeding). Without the hunters money the land will be turned into cattle ranch (since the people who own the land need money from it one way or another) and the wildlife and the corridor will be lost.

      Would you:

      a) be happy to allow that hunting to continue so that the habitat, the other wildlife and the vital corridor remained.


      b) prefer to stop that hunting and allow cows to move in to that land with the consequence that the wildlife will all be lost.

      PS this is not an entirely hypothetical situation.

      If you do allow that hunting to continue, would you agree that in this specific case hunting is serving conservation?

    2. well said Una.
      Sticking to one's principles as a hunter has to be challenged more and more if we as a species intend to cherish our native flora and fauna that share this ever overburdened planet.
      A huge weakness in human beings is that we don't shoulder our responsibilities very well in numerous ways and those who wish to bring some good in some small way by preserving what we have is then often judged as a leftie do-gooder. We see the bully gene flourish in so many of the people we then vote to lead our society. In simple terms if we want our establishment to uphold what is good against what is not then all roads lead to selecting the right party and politicians to lead us. We have the ability & responsibility to drive out the corruption from our establishment that is currently sticking it's fingers up to wildlife crime and any laws that might be in place and otherwise need strengthening.

  16. I follow Bonner on Twitter, and I've noticed a lot of his tweets are having a dig at somebody, or some organisation. Not the best medium to communicate with him.

    1. al99 - an open, public forum is just the right way to communicate with NGOs. Then their responsesacan be seen by all.


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