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Ending Bird Shooting – let’s talk about foxes

How do you persuade an audience that is primarily interested in fighting foxhunting to become as concerned about the bird shooting industry? Oddly enough (and as a lifelong birder I’m writing this through slightly gritted teeth as it were), it’s probably not by talking about birds…

 

Last year Keep the Ban, which was built on Rob Pownall’s commitment to fight foxhunting and to strengthen the Hunting Act 2004 (which banned hunting with hounds of course), rebranded to Protect the Wild. The change brought with it a new and broader mission statement: working to end hunting and shooting in the UK (and for us, shooting – and the shooting industry – is more or less synonymous with killing birds).

I was brought in specifically because of that expansion in our campaigning. Birds have inspired and fascinated me for decades. In the past they’ve obsessed me. Personal relationships have had to make way for them. Work has been built around them. I have an inflexible (which I think is ‘a good thing’) loathing of shooting them.

But I’m something of an outlier here on Protect the Wild (at least for now, what I want is for my worldview to become increasingly ‘normal’ and mainstream). Most of our supporters (and in fact our team itself) are focused on fox hunting rather than shooting. That’s just a statement of fact, and hardly surprising given our background and history.

My job isn’t to change that, of course, but to add an extra dimension. So I spent my first three months with Protect the Wild laying the foundations for the work we’ll be doing campaigning against shooting in 2023. Writing species accounts, for example, Bird Shooting FAQs, detailing how we intend to ‘change the narrative’, explain where shooting is most vulnerable, and become the most consistent voice against bird shooting in Britain. We have a significant chunk of that information in place now, enabling us to link internally and carry ideas from page to page rather than from our website out to someone else’s.

 

We have a long way to go, but we will get there

Our stance is absolutely clear, we have some of the foundations built: now we need to persuade current and new supporters. We have a long way to go though. That’s pretty clear from the response to our posts, blogs and social media items about birds – and I’m talking about everything from the illegal killing of birds of prey to the appalling condition investigators uncovered on Leighton Hall shooting estate last autumn.

Compared with the justifiably furious reaction in December, for example, to news of the death of a hound killed by a car during an out-of-control hunt by the Grove and Rufford, the response to reports that four Hen Harrier chicks were stamped to death in their nest was appreciably more muted. Which is hardly surprising, really. Most people don’t know what a Hen Harrier is or why they have become symbolic of the attitude of far too many shooting estate owners towards birds of prey. No one can read about chicks being stamped on without reacting of course, but without knowing the context it’s not likely to have any more of a long-term impact than someone outside the anti-hunt movement hearing about yet another dog being run over…sad, of course, but not a call to action.

 

 

Hen Harrier

 

You don’t have to love birds…

As a birder, I’d love it if everyone cared about harriers (like the beautiful Hen Harrier in the image above), goshawks, peregrines, buzzards, eagles, grouse, pheasants, ducks and geese, but the reality is that they don’t (again, there’s that slight gritting of teeth).

It’s not that they don’t care, more that many people don’t have the connection with birds that they do with mammals. There’s a disassociation. The context and the details are missing too. Shooting birds – millions of birds – is utterly normalised. The Royals are still proud to do it and be photographed while doing it. Killing birds is currently legal, which makes it harder to focus on a specific piece of legislation as we can do with the Hunting Act. Even our major bird charities don’t speak out against shooting. If they don’t want to protect ALL birds then why should anyone else?

No, birds just don’t move enough people in the same way (my teeth are now being worn down as I make my way to the point I’m actually trying to reach)…which is that as I said at the top of this piece, it’s probably not by talking about birds that we’ll get people concerned about the shooting industry. Especially here on Protect the Wild.

No, what we think we really need to focus on at the moment is…foxes.

 

How many foxes? We don’t know but we should.

That might sound counter-intuitive, but think about it for a moment. Most people hate the cruelty of foxhunting, but we don’t actually know just how many foxes are killed by hunts every year. Far fewer than if sabs and monitors weren’t out in the field of course, but when it comes to killing foxes hunts are absolute amateurs compared with gamekeepers and the shooting industry. Foxes eat birds and selling birds is how estates make their money. Gamekeepers and shooting estates hate foxes with a visceral intensity. Killing them isn’t some sort of warped ‘sport’, a bit of a two-fingered salute to the rest of us, a totally misguided attempt to keep a dead tradition alive, it’s their raison d’etre. It’s a war. Gamekeeping is essentially an ongoing attempt to totally eradicate foxes from the countryside.

No one knows just how many foxes are killed to protect birds for just long enough for those same birds to be sold off to the guns, but the numbers are huge. It’s the shooting industry that lays as many as 100,000 snares across the countryside at any one time, after all, and they are laying them mainly for foxes. (Over a million animals are probably caught and killed on shooting estates every year. We don’t know exactly how many because estates and their employees aren’t required to keep count – we think that they should).

If cubbing is fox hunting’s hidden secret, its analogue in shooting is probably the stink pit – pits or piles of dumped rotting animal and bird carcasses like the one in the header image, used as bait to lure animals, typically foxes, to their death. The stench of dead bodies draws in foxes from miles. As they try to get to what they think is a free meal they will be snared, shot, and thrown onto the stink pit themselves.

It’s not just foxes of course. Thousands and thousands of weasels and stoats are killed by shooting estates every year. Even charity investigators will privately acknowledge that there would be almost no raptor persecution if it wasn’t for the shooting industry. And talk to any badger monitor about what happens to setts when shooting buys up a woodland and moves in…

 

 

Is this for real? Yes.

You might be raising a quizzical eyebrow at this point, as you may not have seen any of this for yourself.

That’s hardly surprising given the Keep Out signs and the fences, the almost immediate arrival of a battered Land Rover or a quad bike if you wander into territory that shooting has taken for itself. While estates are proud to show photographs or video of clients blasting birds out of the sky, confident that the deaths of millions of pheasants, grouse, ducks or Woodcock won’t stir much of a reaction in the public, they’d really rather you didn’t come across a crow in a cage trap or find a poisoned buzzard. And they especially don’t want a fox-loving public to think about that mountain of dead foxes slowly rotting into the earth…

They may not want you thinking about it, but we do.

This isn’t an empty but strategic ploy, by the way, a way of cynically tugging at heartstrings. Every one of us here at Protect the Wild loves foxes. This is very real for us. Yes, there is an opportunity here for a birder like me to reach out to fox lovers like you, but the fact is that if we want to protect foxes it’s not just the hunts we need to be going for – it’s the bird shooting industry.

 

We’ll be writing much more about this as the year progresses. We’re planning an animation on the subject right now with the brilliant Ben Sinclair of Fire Lily Studio. We’ll be funding investigations that will prove everything I’ve just written about. Personally speaking I loathe the slaughter of literally millions of birds for ‘sport’, but I also loathe the massacre of foxes and other mammals, the wildlife crime, the land locked up just for people with guns, the glorification of killing wildlife in magazines you can buy in any newsagent, the burning, the pollution, the noise, the lead shot…

Yes, there is a whole lot wrong with the bird shooting industry, but right now, let’s talk about foxes…