The first year visiting village X, February 2018
I can only see a few feet ahead of me. A Swaledale trots up, but huffily bleats her complaint when she realises I’m not the farmer. A Red Grouse whirrs “go back, go back” and drops like an arrow at the end of its trajectory and is gone. Then my shrouded lane reveals a bridleway and a kissing gate and I’m through to a mangled path. A rabbit runs from between my feet only to be swallowed by the dense white and the fog presses until I am wrapped in visible blindness. Then it breaks suddenly and against the blue a Sitka spruce rushes fast towards me, dew-wet branches sparkling and burning like diamonds. In front of me and as if surprised, a swampy heath and a rabbit warren give way in a sweep to a balding moor, rabid and foreboding. Balding because there should be more trees, rabid because it is scorched earth from the swaling. In a second it too has disappeared back into the fog, like a hasty passerby in a rush to get out of the cold. I take the hint and retrace my steps, meaning to make for home and my gaze falls upon a small wooden box with wire mesh pushed up against blasted hawthorn and grass. It’s so obviously placed out in the open by a road. I blink. It’s a stoat trap. It’s the legal kind, but disquiet begins.
I’m back. Country girl that I am currently living in the big smoke and hating it, I can’t keep away. The inappropriately or perhaps appropriately named “Beast from the East” is also here and rasps its icy breath over everything. I can’t walk far, snowdrifts 12 feet deep or more cover the moors. The lanes roundabout have grown towering verges of snow and blue icicles so enticing, you fight yourself not to jump in them like the hares. When I stroll down “X-Lane” towards the edge of the plateau, I meet the kind of cold winter dryness I have only experienced in post-soviet spaces. I stop at a hedge. Inexplicably, on their backs supported by the dry spindly fingers of the hawthorn and blackthorn, lie a cock pheasant and a fully grown rabbit still as statues and as dead. As a child, I’ve lived in and roamed over various parts of rural Britain and I’ve campaigned against badger culling and fox hunting taking place in my area, but I have never seen, on all my thousands of rambles on untrodden paths and lanes, anything as obvious as this. They are not roadkill – this place is roadkill county and no one bothers to remove splattered corpses from the highways – in fact, I’ve seen a deer so flattened into the tarmac up “X-dale” it resembled a nuclear shadow from Hiroshima. So who would put these animals in the tops of hedgerows and why? I’ve not experienced it yet, likely because of the inhibiting bad weather, but I realise that this is game shooting land – and it’s likely these animals in the hedge are bait filled with poison for the raptors, rooks and crows keepers say take the grouse and pheasant chicks. They are placed on the top of hedges and fences for maximum visibility and away from the snouts of the 20 or something dogs resident in the village. I think, “It’s madness that people are against such birds like sparrow-hawks because they hunt and kill so openly, but we excuse ourselves of the same thing. It’s madness that the shooting industry thinks it has to destroy all other competition weaker than itself – raptors included – to flourish. It is madness that such pressure is put on the gamekeepers to retain certain numbers of birds when the industry contributes – what? – 0.005% of our GDP and something like 0.008% of jobs. Why then is such a small industry able to have such a massive impact on how huge swathes of our countryside is managed – and by default how people live in it and use it? Something is going badly, philosophically wrong.” My stomach cringes slightly.
Are we in a war zone? The way keepers speedily career around in their decommissioned army jeeps as they transport shooters over the tracks right up to the grouse butts makes you think so. If one is walking one has to be careful and watch out on the lanes. And anyone would think we were in mortal danger, the way guns are so openly on view, balanced dangerously on the shoulders of quad bikes or dangling lazily in people’s laps. I see more guns here than I do in the hands of the security forces on the streets of our cities. I mean it’s only grouse and pheasants! Whooping and yodelling from the beaters high in the hills reaches my ears. It’s as if we’re in the cowboy capital of the world and not the half domesticated hills and valleys of Great Britain. Piercing cries of pain shatter my thoughts. I am drawn to a small hole in a wall, two pairs of bright eyes stare out incomprehensibly at me. As blue bottles fight to get to them I think they are kittens and that they are crying because of the flies. I want to touch, but some inner instinct curbs the desire. Good job, as a quick phone call confirms these are probably not cats but mink cubs. Now, I cannot shrug off the thought that they might have been poisoned – they are definitely experiencing pain. And whilst they might not have been poisoned by keepers, it feels all related in these killing zones. I am helpless to help them and the screams continue. I stupidly try soothing words and soothing noises, but the blue bottles keep filing in to feast on the flesh they know is dying. The next day something or someone has dragged the poor mink out and left them exposed on the grass verge. There are four of them. It is as if people are going mad – it is legal to kill minks because they are seen as a pest (for me this still does not make it right) but by shooting or using traps. Poison is a slow death and is not considered humane. Back in the village people speak in whispers of a dog fox that has been allowed to live because he does not bother the grouse or pheasant chicks. I’m appalled. Should I be applauding this decision? Why do people think and believe they have the right to play God?
Fast track to summer 2020
My knowledge about the shooting industry and the related issues around land management, eco-diversity and raptor persecution has grown. After watching my first Hen Harrier Day online (we are in the times of COVID) I am more aware of what to look out for and what to do if I see things that look awry. There have been a few missed opportunities – there are at least two more locations, one even on a busy moor road, where I have seen what looks like “bait” pinioned to trees and bushes. But now I am looking the practices seemed to have stopped – I don’t know whether to be relieved or worried that, due to the extensive media coverage of raptor killings of late, people have become more covert and their activities are more off the beaten track. The only half-solace is that this year the industry has been hit by the dreaded heather beetle, at least 75% of shoots won’t go ahead and the glorious 12th has definitely been inglorious. Yet might this make keepers even more eager to protect depleted numbers of game, especially grouse? Whenever I see a harrier, falcon, buzzard, kestrel or even owl up here, I worry. And my mum will text me to say a Red Kite has been spotted up “X-dale” or a Sea Eagle is visiting and then we both wonder aloud how long they will last. Although I know that a lot of local people don’t support the industry, they are still are reluctant to speak out and air their views – there can be ramifications. It is ridiculous and shameful that one cannot openly object to a “sport” that is destroying the countryside without fear of abuse and worse. And the other thing that’s a shame is that every time I think about coming up here, a shadow crosses my heart because it feels like death. Even the woods are alive to the sound of it, the ones here remind me of George Orwell’s powdered carcasses…
In fact, the whole area feels as if its chi is out of balance. The smells coming from the woods are not always the sweet smells of Scot pines or Norway Spruces, sometimes there is a decaying smell – perhaps it’s stink pits used to attract raptors. But is it also the stink of man’s conscience, a conscience not yet awakened to the decimation this mismanaged industry is bringing to certain parts of rural Britain. What can be done about these killing moors and hills? has to be the question on every responsible person’s lips.