I had a really nice chat with a gamekeeper the other day. That was unexpected. I campaigned to ban driven grouse shooting on Ilkley Moor – and hurrah, hurray, Bradford Council last month voted against renewing the shooting licence – so I tend to give gamekeepers a bit of a swerve socially.
But my boyfriend and I bumped into Colin in the West Highlands of Scotland where he manages deer for shooting and we got to talking. Having met a few nature-loving types like us, keen to watch majestic red deer in their natural habitat rather than shoot them and mount their heads on trophy plaques for the study, he’d started running deer watching tours.
In the absence of his wealthy foreign employer who tended to fly shooting parties in and out, the tours were making more money for both him and the local economy and pleasing a lot more people (he really was an amiable chap).
It’s a sign of the times; hunting is on its way out. Intensive moorland management for driven grouse shooting is an ecological nightmare with climate change scientists warning against heather and deep peat burning and conservation groups like the RSPB blaming it for illegal bird of prey persecution and threatening UK extinction for some species. Countryfile viewers were shocked last Sunday to see gamekeepers routinely shooting mountain hares on a grouse moor.
Last month a pack of hounds in pursuit of both a fox and a deer (no, that’s not legal any more but you try telling trained foxhounds, or their trainers for that matter) caused carnage as they trespassed through a cat sanctuary in Sussex. Residents in rural communities like the Lake District have spoken out about the intimidation and disruption hunts cause to their tourism businesses.
Bradford Council was the last to allow shooting on public land. I’d happily pay an ex-gamekeeper to help me spot the rare hen harriers and short-eared owls that might return to the moor, or even other grouse predators like foxes and stoats which were legally killed as vermin on Ilkley Moor until last month.
Other countries have shown that switching from hunting to ecotourism and conservation improves people’s – not to mention animals’ – lives. Victorian big game hunters coined the term the Big Five to describe the most desirable African animals to shoot, but now many millions more tourists (9.5 million compared with 8,500 trophy hunters every year) boost South Africa’s economy simply wanting to see the Big Five on safari.
It’s testament to how our attitudes in the UK have changed when the killing of one African lion, Cyril, makes headline news. In the Azores, when whaling was banned 30 years ago, many whale hunters re-marketed their skills to offer whale watching tours that have become far more lucrative to the economy and turned the islands into an environmental success story.
In the UK a relatively tiny, albeit very rich and powerful, minority of the population benefit from bloodsports. How lovely it would be if we could learn from Africa and the Azores’ examples and accept that watching and conserving wildlife makes more sense both environmentally and economically than killing it.
Perhaps next time a dead lion makes UK headlines, we should muse on the woefully low rate of prosecution for illegal hunting and bird of prey persecution in our own country. Or the fact that wealthy landowners enjoy government grants while environmental vandalism continues daily, right under our noses.