For the momentum against wildlife killing to build further we need more people to see what’s happening in our countryside. We need more people to become aware of the sheer scale of the killing out there, and not just the illegal killing but the full-scale slaughter that occurs under the care of the ‘guardians of our countryside’.
Over coffee the other day my wife and I fell into discussion with friends about legal killing. These friends – people who walk dogs, take their children cycling and even have RSPB membership, but without what I would describe as more than a passing interest in conservation matters – were staggered to hear of the legal slaughter of wildlife when I recounted the toll of creatures killed on one estate during one season a few years ago.
These figures are listed in Mark Avery’s book ‘Fighting for Birds’ , and were first published in Country Illustrated Magazine. The death list included 16,296 rabbits, 7653 rats, 1209 grey squirrels, 420 stoats, 249 magpies, 179 carrion crows, 188 weasels and 82 foxes – in one shooting estate in only one year! (2005). To hear, too, that thousands of mountain hares are killed each year legally by sporting estates in Scotland  was met with astonishment. They certainly believed that many of our loved wildlife species are ‘protected’.
This is legal extermination before we even get to the illegal activities occurring in our countryside. People, like these friends, are stunned to know that such a continual and massive death toll occurs day-in, day-out … much of it happening on ‘sporting estates’ in order simply for other birds to then be shot!
Let’s draw attention to the illegal and appalling wildlife crimes that go on every day, but let’s also raise general awareness of the extent of the legal killing – all the creatures that people are deprived of seeing as they go about their daily activities in the countryside. How often do we see a badger, hare, stoat or country fox? Our national natural heritage is being stolen from our lives unchallenged. Illegal slaughter – outrageous as it is – is just the tip of a very bloody iceberg.
Some excellent organisations – BAWC for one, are doing a great job of shining a light on illegal killing and need to be applauded and supported for doing so. But we also need a light directed at the whole iceberg. We need the public to see the full extent of what’s going on.
When people come across an injured animal they are concerned. They may go out of their way to help, take it to a rescue centre, the vets, etc. When a whale becomes stranded or wanders up the Thames it makes the news. People care.
So we don’t need to educate the public to care about animals – it’s clear they already do. The new season of ‘Autumnwatch’ will be popular, and people will happily identify with ‘Angus the stag’, ‘Billy the badger’ or ‘Hannah the hare’ and want to know, in the manner of a soap opera, what will happen next in the lives of these animals. And this is the crux – we have to tap into this personalisation of nature that people identify with so readily. We must help people become aware of the bigger picture. That in Hannah’s case, for example, huge numbers of her kin are legally killed every year to ensure more bountiful grouse shooting.
That the likes of Autumnwatch engages millions of people has to be a good thing but those of us interested in a richer natural world must find ways to get people to see beyond Hannah’s or Billy’s daily goings-on and to realise what we are doing to others of their kind. That’s the message that needs to get out there. Only then can they begin to care on a larger scale.
The declining presence of creatures, and ultimately their absence, is difficult to see without invoking scientific surveys. We all notice the first swallow of spring but not the last one of autumn. Sadly this works in favour of those intent on removing our wildlife. As numbers fall we get less used to wildlife encounters and this ‘shifting baseline’ becomes the norm.
Recently there seems to have been a coming together of like-minded conservationists – a growing partnership of people who are informed enough to want to challenge the way things are. How can we get those other millions out there to be equally informed and thus perhaps to swell our ranks immeasurably?
The ‘#WeSeeYou’ WildlifeCrimeAware campaign, formed by theWildOutside.com in partnership with BAWC and is an excellent example of what can be done to reach more people. We should, if we care, all be supporting this initiative by putting up posters in our local area. Whilst its aim is to send a message to the wildlife criminals it will also provoke questions about countryside use in the minds of the dog-walkers, runners, cyclists and so on who pass through our moorlands, fields and coastal areas. Let’s reach out to them and try and get them involved. They care. They really do. And they are the ones we must now engage.
1. M. Avery ‘Fighting for birds‘ page 211. Pelagic Publishing 2012.