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.


4 thoughts on “The Wrong Curlew

  1. The grouse/raptor debate is indeed very toxic, but to be fair if Mark Avery wrote the article and the wrong picture had been used, i have no doubt there would have been similar derision form our shooting side. The only lesson we can take is that the internet is full of people who can make a lot of noise without having to put any thought into what they are saying. keep up the good work, i feel you are one of the few writing in a more balanced way.

  2. Jim Clarke

    I’m certainly not going to attempt to speak for Mark Avery, but pointing out an incorrectly labeled photo is something that is likely to be done by anyone with more or less specialist knowledge of a (any) subject. In this instance my reaction was a simple ‘oops’ with an assumption that the paper was at fault. It really does happen all the time and it’s easy to see why; journalist googles ‘curlew’ and then picks a pretty picture would, I imagine, cover it in this case. As for the retweet, well I wouldn’t really expect a Scottish gamekeeper to be able to tell the different Curlew species apart, why would they, it’s not going to be in the job spec is it? They know what a grouse looks like and they know what a Hen Harrier looks like. One recent case, however, mentioning a mislabeled ‘curlew’ (though without a photo in this instance) was, I think, really worthy of scorn; the ‘Protect grouse Moors and grouse shooting’ Parliamentary (UK) petition′
    claimed (in it’s original wording, changed after a social media ‘hammering’) that grouse moor management protected ‘Stone Curlew’ (or ‘stone-curlew’ if you prefer), in reality an unrelated species (the name derives from a vague similarity in the calls they make but not in their appearance), found in completely different habitats and completely different geographical area (e.g. lowland farmland and downs in southern England). Now in that case I don’t think it unfair to draw the conclusion that the petition’s authors really didn’t have such a good grasp of their subject.

  3. Fraser Cottington

    I read your comments here with interest. If I owned a significant area of moorland I’d ban any of the shooting lot and have very brutish guards deal severely with anyone who broke the rules. Whilst I take your point entirely it feels it is the grouse and game shooting lot that show no compromise or respect for the nature…. If it threatens their livelihood kill it and hide the evidence and tap up the local judge to have any evidence dismissed as inadmissible. That is not middle ground nor are CAP payments to rich land owners. Wildlife needs more than a helping hand it needs protecting from all whose greed prevents it standing a chance. Best regards Fraser

  4. Chris T

    Hi Patrick, sorry to hear you had a barrage of abuse, I actually agree with most of what the article said. However, I can’t find anything terribly offensive in any of the replies on your Twitter, or the Scots Gamekeepers RT. It also appears that Mark Avery only RT the one person who actually pointed out it was the incorrect Numenius sp. rather than “circulating derision”. Having received nasty abuse from many shooting types, some of whom you both follow and are followed by on Twitter, I can only sympathise.
    But it does look rather like you’ve used a few comments to further an agenda. Curlew does seem to be the new merlin in that it’s one of very few species which actually does benefit from rigorous predator control on moorlands (both legal and illegal). The low level of reaction (apologies if it has come from elsewhere and I can’t find it) probably suggests why this article hadn’t previously popped up on my timeline before you complained about the reaction. (I don’t follow Mark Avery, but when a twitter-storm blows up it normally makes my radar)
    Can I just add context to a Rare Bird Alert Twitter reply? When all we hear is stories about how good for wildlife gamekeeping and shooting is, it would be good to actually see evidence that shooting circles genuinely care about illegal persecution masquerading as management. When satellite tags can survive for 10 days at sea, but mysteriously stop over grouse moors and game interests blame non-existent windfarms, just once it would be good if the bad apples were exposed. The Marsh Harrier persecution on Denton Moors is blatant and no-one involved in shooting, or any country sport, has mentioned it. Do you really expect us to believe that armed men entered a keepered moor on multiple occassions without a gamekeeper knowing? Perhaps just once, game interests could write about these issues without trying to defend them.Until this starts happening you all get tarred with the same brush regardless of individuals. This will domino onto other shooting interests until you can persuade driven grouse keepers (and landowners) to simply obey the law. Stop the rot now and the conservation ‘antis’ will drop away and it really will just be animal rights activists who are left. It’s now up to people like you to lead the change, this will either come from within the countrysports family, or will ultimately be imposed from above. If this happens you will not be able to blame anybody else.
    Good luck with the cattle.

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