The Wrong Curlew

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An attempt to reach a middle ground

I was very pleased to see my opinion piece on the future of moorland management published in the Scotsman a fortnight ago. Since coming into agriculture (albeit in a rather modest way), my eyes have been opened to an entire new realm of life in the hills. Perhaps it is clear from this blog that I’m loving the new challenges which accompany this project, and I am aware that the political and economic future looks confusing for the kind of marginal upland farms from which this blog takes its cue. Amidst a tide of potential new forestry schemes in the uplands, my article was an attempt to promote open, unplanted moorland as a place of huge potential. HERE is a link to the article itself for those who are interested.

When the piece was published, it took a bit of a hammering. The Scotsman had chosen to illustrate my words with a photograph of a curlew, but they had picked the wrong Numenius species – the article went live accompanied by an exotic foreign curlew species. Most people would hardly notice, and in context it’s rather unimportant.

The link was retweeted by the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, and immediately there was a barrage of hooting criticism about the use of the wrong curlew illustration. The post went around the internet in a matter of seconds, and the entire article was swallowed up in a chanted chorus of “SGA don’t know anything” and “ban driven grouse shooting”. Like a masochist, I read through this criticism with a fine toothed comb. Some of the derision was circulated by Mark Avery, who has been marshalling activists against driven grouse shooting over the last few years. His golden touch passively endorsed the idea that the entire opinion piece was utterly absurd. As I pored through the comments, it became clear that none of these critics had read a single word of my article. I doubted if they had even clicked through to the Scotsman page. They were poised to attack anything which they perceived to challenge their own dearly held views; “what about our declining raptors and the criminals who prosecute them?” roared one passer-by – “stop killing our hen harriers” bawled another alongside the hashtag #notaclue

In fact, the article never mentioned grouse, hen harriers or game shooting. As above, it was an attempt to reconcile farming with forestry. Talking it over with my wife, we came to the conclusion that the raptor/grouse debate has become deafeningly toxic. It infects a vast sphere of land management dialogue and has grown far beyond any logical confines. I wrote for the Scotsman because I wanted to step outside my usual channels of communication and reach a wider audience. I rarely receive criticism for my writing because it is usually restricted in circulation to a pro-shooting readership. I am “preaching to the converted”, and the Scotsman exercise was an attempt to broaden my horizons. I can take criticism, but I would prefer to be criticised for my actual beliefs and opinions, rather than some spectral perception of them.

I like to imagine that ten people read my article. One person loved it because they felt it was an argument in favour of moorland landscapes. One person hated it because they believed it was an attempt (somehow) to endorse illegal raptor killing. That leaves eight people who had perhaps never considered the issues I covered. I can’t help thinking that those eight people are the most valuable target audience. As I become ever more mired in the countryside, it’s crucial to remember that the big issues of my day are scarcely registered as significant for most people. This context is vital, and it is heartening to know that between two furious poles, the middle ground is a mile wide.

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