A highland view – View to a kill

Will public perception be the end of us all? That could depend on how effectively we can judge what is acceptable to the broader public, says Niall Rowantree

For many keen deer stalkers, the months of April and May see the start of the roe season, and for professional deer stalkers, it brings in clients from Europe and other parts of the world. This is the start of our annual deer harvest. When talking about public perception, I do not think it is necessary to overly rehearse the arguments about keeping deer in balance with the range of desired habitats, preventing their conflict with agriculture and woodland, and removing them from areas where they present a risk to the public, as most hunters understand these points. The fact that deer provide a sustainable food source that is high in essential oils and vitamins and provides a healthy, uncontaminated meat should further secure their place in our landscape, and our role as hunters. Unfortunately, I feel that we have recently seen a development in anti-hunting tactics. It seems to drive at separating the activity heavily bandied about as ‘trophy hunting’ (especially by the media) from hunting as a form of culling activity. Any well-managed population will produce sufficient surplus males to allow a marketable cull, which can economically secure the wellbeing of the population, and harvesting genetically inferior or aged males past their breeding age is entirely ethical and sustainable.

The UK is not the only country to get caught up in this furore, which has the potential to damage rural economies in places such as Africa where economics play a huge role in the conservation of species. Undoubtedly, African countries that have a hunting economy have been enormously successful in protecting and expanding their wildlife. It brings real income into the hands of people who are face to face with wildlife on a daily basis, and the loss of this income would bring a huge economic impact. Namibia is an excellent example of a country that has been very successful in this. They have taken the black rhino from near extinction in the 1960s to the largest free ranging population in the world. At the same time, they have achieved success with their cheetah and leopard populations. They have also taken their elephant population from a mere 7,500 in 1995 to over 22,000 to date. As a result of their conservation success, they have practically tripled their wildlife numbers in many cases, and have focused right in, through government policy, on managing human/wildlife conflict. It seems incredible to me that those in a western society could consider themselves, through social media, in a position where they feel that they can look down their noses at nations that have collaboratively demonstrated a wise use of natural resources. The success of Namibia has been due to the fact that it has tailor-made its conservation methods and married these with the needs of the people; in doing so, it has managed to demonstrate significant strides forward.

Back at home, however, the activities that we all enjoy have come under the microscope in a way that I have not experienced before in my career. It will be a challenge to all of us who enjoy the privilege of managing natural resources and providing food for our own tables to avoid the interference of individuals seeking to end what we do, or to push forward legislation that in the long term will threaten the nature that we have taken for granted for so long. In so doing, it will destroy the very fabric of our remote communities. Britain has one of the highest levels of urban dwelling communities of any European country, and the urban/rural disconnect, no doubt, plays a huge role in whipping up public opinion to be anti-fieldsports. Many of us have experienced this first hand, particularly those bringing in visiting hunters that shoot red, roe and other species, and certainly last year saw an almost incredible outpouring of anger and disbelief following the high profile culling of a feral goat. This took many of us by surprise, particularly as the Scottish government and its agencies have made it a priority to reduce the impacts of alien non-native (feral) species, and to seek their removal through both their policies and actions. 

In our own instance, it has led to multiple death threats, along with other forms of abuse. Interestingly, though the government spent a lot of time and effort looking into the hunting activities, there was virtually no interest shown in following up any threats. To set the context, more than 20,000 red stags are culled every autumn in Scotland, and probably around 200 billy goats; one is a native species which has been managed for thousands of years by the Highland people, and is a huge supporter of our rural people both economically and socially, and the other, the goat, although designated an alien non-native, has certainly been part of the highland scene since the Bronze Age. So, we are left asking – what is so intrinsically different in public perception between a paid government marksman shooting an animal as part of a cull, and a blonde American lady shooting an animal as part of a cull? Economically, it is quite easy to draw a conclusion. Currently, government marksmen operate over large swathes of the public estate, culling animals at the taxpayer’s expense for a figure north of £6m per year in Scotland, with limited local benefit and contractors frequently travelling fairly large distances and shooting large percentages of their cull out of season and at night. Visiting hunters, on the other hand, stay in local hotels, spend money in shops and pay fairly high figures for animals.

Having rehearsed the economic argument, it is fairly easy to make the case for the need for control, be it any wild native or non-native, feral mammal, and though there may be perception challenges in the public’s mind, the north American mink and the goat are equally non-native to our landscapes and require management to prevent negative impacts. So, I think it comes down to the perception of the word ‘trophy’. In Roman times, the word ‘trophy’ was an emblem of success or achievement, and in modern times, connected to game, it has taken on a whole new meaning, being referred to frequently on the internet as ‘hunting of a wild game animal for human recreation’. Interestingly, the shooting community in the UK has made no effort to identify what a trophy is, or indeed what it is not – whether it is a child with his or her first rabbit or a visiting hunter with his Scottish stag (undoubtedly to both, the memory is equally important). Over the years, I have probably taken thousands of photographs of sportsmen with their stags, roe bucks and hinds, and most of these have been kept by the individual as a memento of an occasion that they cherish. I think the fundamental difference today is the rise of the ‘grip and grin’ photograph on social media. It is almost worrying that people cannot wait to share their success to the world, even when up the side of a remote mountain. I think this is where change is required. Before posting or sharing, remember the words of the poet and bard Robbie Burns: “Oh the gift that God should give us to see ourselves as others see us”. Enjoy your roe buck season, be ambassadors for what you believe in, support your local farming community by controlling problem foxes, and work together to secure our future.


About the Author

Niall Rowantree

Niall leads West Highland Hunting’s sporting and land management services. As someone passionate about deer, he developed the concept of WHH after more than 20 years of providing wildlife and deer management services in both the public and private sector. He has over 35 years’ experience in the industry having led deer management for the Forestry Commission in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, across Argyll and Lochaber and has managed the renowned Ardnamurchan deer herd for over 20 years. A former board member of the Deer Commission for Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage Transitional Deer Panel, he consults and advises on deer management for a number of Scottish and European Estates.

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