It’s been a little unnerving to see some of the extraordinarily negative feedback to the Understanding Predation report which was released to the world at the beginning of last week. For those who haven’t followed the progress of this fairly major piece of work, it has essentially tried to compare what is happening in the countryside against what people think is happening, set against a backdrop of declining ground nesting bird species.
The negative responses to the report seem to have come largely from the scientific community, several of whom flat-out refuse to accept any of its findings because they are based upon observations and anecdote. Some commentators have openly mocked the whole social science concept, denouncing it as pandering to the “flat earth brigade” and refusing to hear anything but pure science, “which is the only thing we should base our actions upon”. Not only does this approach totally fail to connect with the fundamental point of the entire project, which was designed from the outset to incorporate the views of “the everyman”, but it also demonstrates a breath-taking level of self-centred arrogance and intolerance. To read some comments and social media output online, you could be excused for thinking that anyone without an advanced degree in ecology is complicit in the mass destruction of hen harriers – the pitch of the language has to be seen to be believed.
As it happens, I completed the Understanding Predation questionnaire, attended a workshop to discuss my answers in Perth, then went to a seminar in Edinburgh to have the project’s results fed back to us all in December. Without exception, the events were fair and balanced occasions. People took time out of their working days to contribute because they care about ground nesting birds. Crucially, these days were not dominated by the usual “meeting fodder”; laptop cases, metallic ties and corporate branded fleeces – these were people who might never have been in a public meeting room before. Some had travelled long distances because they felt that this was their time to speak.
Speculate and cast aspersions about their motives if you like, but gamekeepers, sporting agents, farmers and landowners far outweighed any other demographic taking part, and this is partly because the whole process was quietly boycotted by scientists from the outset. Read the original publicity material and you’ll see that the Understanding Predation project was open to all stakeholders with an interest in ground nesting birds (people with “as many diverse views as possible”) – not just gamekeepers. Some cynics saw the project coming a mile off, believed that science trumps local knowledge every time and refused to participate – without a wink of irony, they deliberately withheld their scientific input and now condemn it all as unscientific.
As it happens, the “idiotic laymen” were pretty bang on with their assessments of changes to breeding bird populations, but for the sake of argument, imagine if they had been wrong. Imagine if the whole process had gone off in a crazy, half-cocked tangent motivated by old grudges, misinformation and prejudice. It would still have been a useful exercise because it would have painted a picture of how people understand predation. As I understood the process, we weren’t there to act as a focus group or a think tank for future legislation – (in fact, we were specifically asked not to offer suggestions or answers to the problem of conserving ground nesting birds) – we were there to provide government with a sense of the human environment in which future legislation might work.
Without practical application, conservation science tends to become a pie in the sky. Producing perfect scientific solutions to our conservation problems is a valueless exercise unless they are deliverable on the ground. Seeing the extent of the venom directed against “bumpkins” and “chinless toffs” (all of whom were engaged in raptor persecution from birth, of course) shows how cloistered and jaded some scientists have made themselves.
Using science as stick to flog your opponents may be fun and provides you with a sense of empowerment, but it doesn’t always make them agree with you. Sometimes you need to take a different angle. The Understanding Predation project showed me that there is a massive, vastly hopeful middle ground in a potentially contentious debate – the report is a product of dialogue designed to explore a way forward. If you decided not to get involved or to throw stones in retrospect, perhaps you are part of the problem.