Red Grouse Photo: Tim Melling
Reclaiming the Name
One of my favourite places in Britain is the north of Dartmoor, it has a wild and rugged appeal and, more often than not, a lack of people, although this might have something to do with the artillery ranges…
Something happened up there recently, as I walked along the ridges overlooking the mires below, something that surprised me. I flushed some Red Grouse. That in itself wasn’t a surprise, Red Grouse are found on Dartmoor after all, no, the surprise was my initial reaction. As the birds went whirring away across the open moorland landscape, instead of thinking ‘brilliant’ or ‘wow, haven’t seen them recently’ my thoughts were much more disdainful. Basically, I didn’t really see the birds, I saw the ongoing wildlife disaster that is Driven Grouse Shooting (DGS).
Red Grouse Photo: Tim Melling
Thirty seconds later, with the birds long gone, I realised my mistake, I hadn’t enjoyed, nor appreciated, the view of these specialist birds as they flew, you could almost say that I had dipped on them, because, in a way, I hadn’t seen them. I’d seen the anthropogenic image instead. Dartmoor, thankfully, isn’t plagued by the blight of DGS, but when I saw those grouse, I saw burnt moorlands, I saw erosion and flooding, I saw chemically laced grit, I saw piles of dead Mountain Hares and, most vividly of all, I saw a void of Raptors. (Yes, I know that is an oxymoron.)
For me, and I suspect many others, a Red Grouse doesn’t conjure up an image of positivity, it conjures up one of negativity instead. Driven Grouse Shooting has taken a wild and beautiful bird and turned it in to an emblem of ecological carnage. We need to reclaim the Red Grouse for what it actually is, our very own endemic subspecies of the Willow Grouse, something that we all should appreciate.
It is no secret that I like Vultures, if you follow my Twitter account you will know that I often tweet and retweet about these great birds. A couple of years ago I had tweeted something about Bearded Vultures, but instead of calling them that, I had called them by their Germanic name of Lammergeiers. In response I got a tweet from a Spanish conservationist asking me to call these huge birds by their English name, rather than the German one, because the German one has not helped with its image at all in the areas of Europe where the bird had been persecuted to extinction. Lammergeier means Lamb Vulture and the main reason it became extinct is that people did believe that these scavengers did actually kill lambs. We now know this isn’t correct, but the name has stuck and it (even if it does it subconsciously) still permeates the myth. A myth which initially impeded the huge conservation effort that has gone into the bird’s recovery.
What has this got to do with those Red Grouse I saw? Well, it’s a name thing. We call them Game Birds and by doing so we permeate the myth that these birds exist to be shot. According to the Collins dictionary, the word Game in this context means “wild animals or birds that are hunted for sport”. By calling a Red Grouse a Game bird we are accepting that it is hunted for sport, we are creating an image for the bird that creates some seriously heavy baggage for it.
For the shooting industry, referring to a bird as a Game Bird makes logical sense, what doesn’t make logical sense is conservationists, naturalists and conservation organisations also doing so.
I am currently reading a book about a birder travelling around the country trying to see rare birds, he refers to Black Grouse as being Game Birds just as he refers to Red-backed Shrikes as being Passerines. I won’t name the author or the book, because to be fair to him, many, many other authors also use the term as if it is a scientific label. It isn’t.
There are many more examples, but for me, the most telling is: “The Red Grouse is a medium sized game bird…” This is the introduction to the Red Grouse on the RSPB’s website (in their otherwise very good Bird A-Z section). In effect that sentence is saying “The Red Grouse is a medium sized bird that it is totally acceptable to kill for fun.” Why not say the truth, why not say “The Red Grouse is a medium sized member of the Grouse family”? Because that is what it is. On the same site you can find this introduction to the Jackdaw, “This is a small, black crow…” not “This is a small, black pest species…” Of course they wouldn’t put that, so why put the very loaded Game Bird phrase in?
The RSPB shouldn’t be using this terminology, we shouldn’t be using this terminology, because by doing so we legitimise its meaning to the general non birding public – it’s alright to shoot them because that is what they are for. Just as calling the Bearded Vulture a Lammergeier creates an image in every German speaker’s head of birds snatching lambs from under the helpless shepherd’s gaze, by calling a bird a Game Bird we are creating an image that they are shot because that is what they are. That should be challenged, not accepted, or, dare I say it, promoted, by continuing to use this out dated term. I don’t want to single out the RSPB, because they are not alone in this, but they really ought to be looking at their use of this terminology and what it signifies to the general public.
Red Grouse Photo: Tim Melling
We have accepted the phrase Game Bird as a fact, despite the obvious connotations that its use brings with it. We need to move away from using this name and we need to reclaim these birds for what they are. Birds.
Ian Parsons spent twenty years working as a Ranger with the Forestry Commission, where he not only worked with birds of prey and dormice, but where he developed his passion for trees. Now a freelance writer, Ian runs his own specialist bird tour company leading tours to Extremadura. For more details see www.griffonholidays.com
This is Ian’s fifteenth Guest Blog here (see the Local tours for local people, 27 July 2018; Acceptability of Wildness, 16 July; Feel Good Factor, 12 July; Whitebeam Spring, 14 March 2018; How red are Reds? 18 November 2017, A Question of Importance, 13 January 2017; Disturbing Conservation, 13 December 2016; Tree Blindness, 15 September 2016; Seeing the Wood for the Trees, 9 March 2017, Love Vultures – Ban Diclofenac, 27 July 2017, Building for Wildlife, 29 August 2017; Bird of the Year, 3 January 2018; A Recycled Argument, 12 January 2018, The worst of times or the best of times?, 18 December 2018).
Ian’s book, A Tree Miscellany, was reviewed here.