A research opportunity

You have just over a week to apply for this interesting PhD opportunity at Northampton University ‘‘Taking Aim’ at the Social Impact of Driven Game Shooting in England‘.

I notice that the GWCT and BASC are in some way involved, as are 40 estate and shoot owners.  Looks like an interesting study encompassing health impacts (so a good review of the impacts of eating lead-shot game on gamekeepers and tourists might be an output). Also, since educational development is part of the study, a review of the educational attainment of gamekeepers’ children would be an interesting line of enquiry as the group potentially most likely to be regularly fed high quantities of lead in game from a very early age.  It would be difficult to control for all relevant variables but a PhD could make a useful first pass at this challenge.

Anyone coming to the subject cold, perhaps including the PhD supervisors, will soon find that the statement ‘Field sports including the shooting of driven game are cumulatively estimated to be worth at least £2bn to the UK economy’ is a bit dodgy for several reasons. If this comes from the discredited PACEC report then, even taken at face value, live quarry shooting (which will include an awful lot of wildfowling and walked up shooting, which is not driven game shooting) amounts to only about a third of ‘gun days’ (PACEC report, p22).  But the faults of the PACEC report are well known (see Inglorious p227-8) and it would be good to see a PhD properly taking into account the externalities of grouse moor management such as flood risk, water quality, carbon emissions, loss of wildlife, damage to protected habitats etc.

I wonder who is financing this study and whether it will form the annual ‘Sir Ian Botham reveals some results of unpublished research that no-one can check’ media coverage around the 12 August.

And I wonder who is supervising it and why this study is based at Northampton University which happens to be just down the road from me.

The world is full of interesting coincidences and it must be another coincidence that a new commentator on driven grouse shooting has emerged on Twitter, one Dr Peran David Milyan Hills, @dr_mils_hills, who is based in the University of Northampton Business School. I scanned Dr Hills’s publications (many of which are rather confusingly, not published) for any evidence of knowledge of driven grouse shooting but was distracted by his work on not using the ‘reply all’ option in emails without taking care and failed to find any, but this did not stop him from writing on the subject recently.  I thought his ‘reply all’ study had considerably more depth and interest than his views on grouse shooting.  But it must be a coincidence that this PhD opportunity and this new voice have popped up at the same time, mustn’t it?

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38 Replies to “A research opportunity”

  1. There may be interesting times ahead. This is what Dr Hills tweeted yesterday:
    Given the poorly-written Huffington Post piece, I wonder what the "deconstruction" of "Dr Avery's tome" will reveal?

  2. Anyone who so readily accepts, as Dr Hills seems to, that a "lack of successful convictions for this (i.e. illegal persecution of raptors) is a "good point" clearly has little knowledge of the topic, has done minimal research (if any all) and has failed to think things through with the rigour one would expect from an academic.

    1. Having engaged with pro-shooting blogs and "discussion groups", it is clear to see that the rate of successful prosecutions is being frequently used by them to reinforce the general "innocence" of gamekeepers. The line is that "modern" gamekeepers don't kill protected raptors like Hen Harriers, and the conviction rates cited of only two or three successful prosecutions per year, with over 10,000 gamekeepers operating in the UK, is proposed as being highly significant "proof" that gamekeepers don't kill harriers. They also claim that the absence of breeding harriers on non-grouse moors in England proves conclusively that some other factor has driven down the population. Any harrier worker can clearly see the flaws in this logic, and provide a simple explanation, but the shooters appear to have well and truly convinced each other that they are blameless. Or have they? I rather suspect it is a mass bluff.

      1. So I gather Iain. Perhaps some of those who evidently disagree with out comments would like to explain how successful prosecutions, given all the well-known and widely publicised difficulties, are a better guide to the scale of the problem than the far higher number of what are unequivocal wildlife crimes but, for lack of evidence against identifiable individuals, do not end up in court.

        1. I see that two readers still feel so annoyed by my simple suggestion that they've clicked the dislike button but evidently, lack either the courage of their convictions or the knowledge to respond and explain themselves. Not a terribly impressive reflection of supporters of DGS. PS - Don't bother, I'll take the two 'dislikes' as read.

  3. Not difficult to see where Dr Hills is coming from in his Huffington Post article! And he mixes in the animal rights agenda and casts doubt on the conservation and sustainability issues.

    As someone who has no moral problem with "responsible" shooting for sport (by others!) but is very concerned about the current excesses of much driven grouse shooting (and some other driven shooting too) I would like to see conservationists stick to conservation and environmental arguments and not go down the animal rights road which, personally, I think provides ammunition for the opposition.

  4. Of course driven grouse shooting is perfectly sustainable if one ignores the pay back in environmental damage that others pay for through water treatment, flooding. Then there is the fact that it appears to be sustained only by the illegal killing of protected predators. This is of course conducted at the Behest of the owners and agents but conducted by the working man ie. the keepers who if caught carry the can, how does that fit in with this PhD?

    1. A high energy singlet state in a molecular orbital is sustainable, for a millisecond.

  5. It's obvious 'Dr' Mils Hills is trying to make a name for himself in the shooting industry were I'm sure he'll fit in with his bias and lack of scientific evidence. Makes me wonder why someone as esteemed as him is trying to bring down, presumably, Chris Packham instead of ridding the world of terrorism. Looks like he's got it in for you too, Mark.

    He blocked me on Twitter after a playful spat, possibly because I was threatening his supposed intellect.

  6. This whole affair is already looking very peculiar. Surely if the work undertaken is crap, which it could be if there's a poor supervisor without adequate knowledge of subject but plenty of preconceptions not supported by evidence base, then it would be extremely risky of Northampton to award the degree? This sort of thing can risk an institution's degree status...

    1. Chequertree - a good student can do a good job on this subject. It's well worth the time.

      1. And a bad supervisor can make a talented PhD student's life pretty difficult, I've certainly seen that situation a few times before, If the supervisor has a particular outcome in mind and actually interferes with work then things could be very peculiar- not something I've seen but it could happen. Maybe they'll apponit you as the external examiner?

  7. Aw, c'mon, give the guy a break. He is quite dashing after all, in a Dashing Modern Adventurer kind of way. That is his picture on Twitter? Not one of those avatar thingys?Isn't it?

    What I can't understand (from the picture) why anyone would wear a bathrobe at the same time as sunglasses.

    More seriously its good to get a broader audience and shine a wider light into the criminality supporting driven grouse shooting.

  8. Recently I asked Dr Hills on Twitter to a) define sustainability, since it was a concept underpinning his actually quite mediocre essay on Huff post; and b) to engage in a conversation with me about the use of conviction rates as a sole source of data for determining crime rates, ie wouldn't doing that incorporate significant sampling bias into any study?

    He refused to answer both questions and blocked me, reinforcing my impression that, he is basically angling himself as a "scientific" representative of DGS, but isn't willing to have his claims scrutinised.

    The advertised project is social science, but deliberately biasing your sampling method to produce the results you want, external examiners and reviewers aren't going to swallow it that easily.

    Best of luck to the PhD student, no publications, no career.

    1. In a tweet to me (a reply to my asking why you were blocked for asking your two questions) Dr Hills said "I only block for personal attacks and rudeness. Tricky questions - not a problem". Oddly, he's yet to respond to my points on his HuffPost article so he seems somewhat selective as to which points he answers. Since I suspect he'll be looking at this blog perhaps he could answer your questions for the benefit of all of those who have been neither rude nor responsible for personal attacks on him.

      1. John - he has a few questions which I asked which he hasn't answered too. I'm not holding my breath.

      2. It's rude to disagree. I did tell him that the pro DGS lobby reminded me of far-right wing, christian fundi think-tanks, in that evolution denial is effectively clutching at straws in the face of MOUNTAINS of evidence. Or something along these lines, I can't really remember.

        He took exception to the right wing part of description.

  9. I thought science generally involved offering a hypothesis and then testing it rather than asserting a particular case as being fact?

    It's full of potentially erroneous statements: "In what appeared to be a pre-written newspaper column, one of the organisers Dr Mark Avery states that this attracted “thousands“. Sorry but I can't find where Mark asserted any specific figure as attending the #crushcruelty march rather he discusses and acknowledges difficulties in assessing numbers attending. Were you one of the organisers of the march Mark?

    I could further dissect the essay, but given the rather obvious start point (not one where he seems prepared to change his view further factual evidence as he purports to embrace) there seems little point?

    Pipers & tunes? I genuinely hope not ....

    Ever an agnostic I'll await publication of method etc. in due course or will it as others have suggested remain hidden from peer scrutiny yet be heralded in the MSM as new science etc.?

  10. I'm not familiar with the ways of social science, and I haven't really come across this university much before, but in mainstream science I would have real concerns for any young person embarking on a doctorate under these circumstances.
    It's going to be a controversial area, and it is very unusual for any academic associated with a research project to express opinions such as these so forcibly and in public before the project begins. Whoever takes on the post runs the danger of getting results that his supervisors and advisers don't like on the one hand, or being accused of bias or at least of having taken a position before the evidence is in, on the other.
    Doing a doctorate can be stressful even under the best of circumstances; when your departmental bosses have no track record of publication in the field but have already publicly expressed strong opinions, you could be in for a very rough ride.
    As Mark says, a good student can always do a good job, but it will take a strong character to steer this one safely between the rocks and the hard places.

    1. In the social science/humanities borderlands I'd have similar concerns. Especially if the student was hoping for a career in academia and needed decent publications from their PhD to be in with a chance of that.

      It bothers me that the source of funding isn't mentioned. If the university had its own scholarship scheme or had managed to secure Research Council or EU funding, it should be falling over itself to say so, the better to attract strong applicants (cf. the other studentship currently offered which is as part of a collaborative EU project).

  11. Dr Hills reminds me of Dr Chris Bell who has carried out research on behalf of Songbird Survival - to see what I mean delve into a few of Dr Bell's cultoftheamateur videos, this one in particular is a cracker https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mv0AahhFQc. Do some 'academics' have raging egos that means they'll say anything, the more contentious and contrarian the better, as long as it gives them a wee pedestal to sit on and be looked at, a poor substitute for talent and originality? I think there are a few that do plus obviously there's always a market for telling people what they want to hear and use as propaganda for others. Maybe I'm just cynical.

  12. I had Dr Hills Huffington Post article brought to my attention because it was thought to be bringing my family name into disrepute.

  13. The other thing about the Huff Post Essay that is irritating, is that the only real reason DGS is controversial is that it is underpinned by wildlife crime, specifically raptor persecution. He dismisses this in half a sentence in a most hand wavy way. When challenged on this he asserts that because conviction rates are low for raptor persecution, then it must barely exist.

    So rather than deal with any controversial issues, the essay circumvents them and tries to paint this fantasy picture of rural harmony, which is exactly what the DGS brigades want to hear, but has limited bearing on reality. Talk about ignoring the elephant in the room.

    1. OK, there are plenty of other reasons why DGS is controversial, but I think many people have been awoken to the problems through a dislike of raptor persecution. That is certainly why I became interested.

      1. Agreed.

        I also find the essay deeply troubling as a matter of professional ethics. As many people have already pointed out (and put it better than me), the basic commitment you make as a research scientist in whatever field is to be truthful and accurate to the best of your ability. This is the commitment that makes the scientific endeavour possible, and so much time, effort and money is invested to facilitate that commitment, variously via peer review, safeguarding of academic freedom, ethics frameworks for research on potentially sensitive data/subjects, training students in the culture of intellectual honesty and so on.

        Yet here is a guy who is using his status as a member of the academic community to get a platform for his views ; who writes an article vaunting the importance of truthfulness, accuracy, rigour, balance ; and whose article in its substance and structure demonstrates utter contempt for all those things.

        To me that's not reputable practice and it doesn't reflect well on the author or the profession.

        1. An editor at "Nature" journal featured on R4 22 February this year commenting on the appalling lack of reproducibility in published papers. Even authors were finding difficulty in reproducing their own results - leading to ramped-up changes to Nature's standards for acceptance. www.retractionwatch.com is worth a look.

          But Hey! It's the post-normal scientivist paid-for-proof policy-led evidence way!

  14. Ian Gibson observes in his reply of 29 August that “They (keepers) claim that the absence of breeding harriers on non-grouse moors in England proves conclusively that some other factor has driven down the population”.
    The harrier’s problems are not restricted to persecution from keepers. This year, 2017, of the seven nesting attempts made in England, two nests (28%) were predated by foxes. Bob Mcmillan’s long term study on Skye highlights low productivity over many years due to fox predation with virtually no chicks fledged in his study area in 2015 or 2016. In Northern Ireland, Don Scott notes that “foxes heavily depredate the nests of Hen Harriers”, whilst Lorcan O’Toole of the Irish Golden Eagle Trust argues that “In the absence of top predators fox numbers are much too high for the good of the overall ecosystem. They reduce the populations of vital eagle prey, such as red grouse and hares to levels that will not sustain eagles. We have a responsibility to control foxes just as conservationists, in the absence of big grazers, cut native hazel to foster wild-flower diversity”.
    Are keepers illegally killing harriers on grouse moors? Of course they are, but it’s not the only reason the birds are struggling. The RSPBs answer is to put a fox-proof fence around everything – avocets at Minsmere, little terns at Gronant, black winged stilts at Cliffe, but in the real world on the other side of the wire ground nesting birds including hen harriers are finding it tough going without some form of help. Norfolk’s only pair of Montagu’s Harriers were fenced off this year once the location of the nest was discovered and happily chicks were fledged. What chance success without the wire?

    1. Nigel - thank you for your comment.

      Yes, foxes predate ground-nesting birds for sure.

      But on the grouse moors of the UK, where foxes are killed, there are practically no nesting Hen Harriers (see Hen Harrier Conservation Framework) despite this predator, and many others, being removed. It's hardly an argument for driven grouse shooting is it?

      Wales is often portrayed by the grouse shooters as being an ornithological desert and overrun with foxes - lots of hen Harriers there aren't there?

      And if we want to kill foxes as a conservation measure then we could - we wouldn't have to burn the uplands, drain them, medicate Red Grouse or shoot them, so although I get your point on foxes, which is a relatively weak one, it isn't a point in favour of the practice of driven grouse shooting.

    2. Perhaps a good way to control fox numbers would be to stop feeding them with baby gamebirds.

    3. Nigel just to let you know the RSPB in collaboration with FC Scotland did a successful nightjar conservation project in Dumfriesshire. The nightjar is a ground nesting bird so I contacted the RSPB to ask if it had carried out any predator control. No - it was all down to habitat management, so unless the FC was doing predator control the RSPB doesn't know about (and why would it?) here was one of these ground nesters supposedly at the mercy of predators that actually wasn't - habitat change was the real issue. If it had been a ground nesting wader then the point made would have been more obvious. It's not a colonial nester which means that the fencing option wasn't practical, but also it seems not needed. If fox numbers are too high a contributory factor might be not just the ludicrous amount of food waste we produce, but the tens of millions of artificially reared future roadkill and clay pigeon substitute partridge and pheasant released into the countryside every year. The lynx would almost certainly help regulate fox numbers, but strangely the people who say we need to control foxes are not so keen on having it back.

  15. Wow – you get up early Mark!
    I make no argument for driven grouse shooting anywhere in my comment, suggesting only that Ian GIbsons inference that no other variables are impacting on harrier numbers is flawed. When respected field workers like Bob McMillan suggest that harriers may become extinct on an island like Skye due to unsustainable fox predation, then all parties need to sit up and take notice. Interestingly, in his review of the 2017 breeding season he notes that this year he visited no nests but simply observed breeding pairs from a distance. The results from 2017 were a great improvement on those for 2015 and 16 and he wonders whether foxes may have been following his scent trails directly to nests. He also observed that one of his pairs nested on an island and suggested – slightly tongue in cheek – this may be a useful survival strategy in future.
    As you say ‘foxes predate ground nesting birds for sure’. They always have done and always will do, but as Lorcan O’Toole points out, when their numbers are so high due to a combination of artificial circumstances then losses become unsustainable. Hen harriers are absent from huge tracts of suitable breeding habitat in the north of England and Eastern Scotland and the primary reason for that is illegal persecution on grouse moors. But it is not the ONLY factor affecting the decline in harrier numbers between the two counts of 2010 and 2016 and that needs to be acknowledged. Harriers like cranes (11 fledged young in three years in Somerset – fewer than adult losses) and great bustards (no chicks fledged since 2009) are losing ground because away from grouse moors they are breeding in a habitat that is becoming ever less fit for purpose and if that issue isn’t addressed then there can be little hope of a surplus of birds to move back onto the heather.
    I know Mark that you have something of a track record when it comes to farmers – well, I’m one! In September 2015 we had a male hen harrier spend two days over our wheat stubbles – it was without doubt the best bird we’ve ever had on our farm. Let’s hope we have another one soon.

    1. Nigel - this stuff has all been looked at in detail, properly, and on a big scale (the whole of Scotland) years ago - see Etheridge, Summers and Green 1997 The effects of illegal killing and destruction of nests by humans on the population dynamics of the Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus in Scotland. J App Ecol 34: 1081-1105 and Green and Etheridge 1999 Breeding success of the hen harrier Circus cyaneus in relation to the distribution of grouse moors and the red fox Vulpes vulpes J App Ecol 36: 472-483 or see a cracking summary in Chapter 1 of Inglorious. There is a surplus, or at least a source, of young hen harriers produced on non-grouse moors every year - that's why gamekeepers won't ever run out of harriers to kill! If illegal persecution ceased today then grouse moors would be colonised big time and the population would increase both on grouse moors and non-grouse moors. We've known all this for years and years.

      I do have a track record with farmers, thank you. I led the RSPB's advocacy which successfully protected agri-environment payments, particularly in HLS, when the coalition government came in, introduced the Volunteer Farmer Alliance scheme (now sadly ceased) which provided free bird surveys to hundreds of interested farmers, and increased the RSPB's spend on conservation advice tofarmers - I assume that was what you meant?

    1. Nigel - you've seen those papers then have you? Or are you blind to them?

      I think that that phrase is much older than Swift though and can, some say, be traced back to the Bible.

      I like Swift though; this really is one of his 'It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.'.

  16. "I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know"

    Attributed to Socrates or maybe it was Rumsfeldes - I don't know. Anyroad it was from a piece by Donald Plato

  17. Having had a little twitter debate with Dr Hills, I am rather shocked at his insistence as the holder of a doctorate in referencing tertiary literature (which as we all know lacks the impartiality and balance of primary literature) in his arguments. I think it was in the very 1st lecture I had in my very 1st year at uni where we where told that it's bad practice to reference tertiary literature.


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