Hunters and the Hunted

The Earth Only Endures book coverExcerpt from: The Earth Only Endures: On Reconnecting with Nature and our Place in it

  • Publisher: Earthscan
  • First published: 2007
  • ISBN: 978-1-84407-432-7

A steady grey rain patters in the forest as we tread silently, eyes slowly ranging from one side to the other, listening intently to every sound. We hear the distant crump of hooves, the warning call of a circling buzzard, a muted roe bark. The sleek black gun dog walks at heel, and then freezes, pointing and sniffing at the air. We stop and wait patiently, and then walk on. The plaintive fawn call is used to cry to the does; the bucks are indifferent, but during the rut they will follow the does in. The pine, sweet chestnut and oak forest is carpeted with a dense under storey of butcher’s broom, foxgloves, brambles and nettles, and a still deer can hide here with ease. This sodden evening, they are mostly silent. The rain dampens everything. In the open glades, the deer can be seen from a distance, brown against the grey gloaming of a July dusk. But in the forest, there is alchemy at work. A deer appears as if from thin air, bounding, thumping, and then freezing, and then melting away even though you think you have all the angles covered.

PheasantsA buck stands tall between two forest-edge trees on the skyline, turns, looks directly at us, appearing to know we are too far away to shoot. The stubby muntjac are abundant. They step into the rides and peer, and would be an easy shot, except we are not after them tonight. They too seem to know. We walk on, the rain now heavier. Yet the forest floor is still mostly dry. In the glades, though, the grass and bracken are wet and heavy. We stop at fairy rings of churned soil, where bucks have chased does in tight circles. But all is silent now. In the open, a buck and doe graze on a hillside, but beyond them is a house hidden in the trees, and an attempted shot would be inadvisable. The deer nearer housing seem to know they are less likely to be shot, and take to the open confidently. Deer learn quickly. Jim Rudderham tells a story about his time with a forest agency, where almost identical vehicles were used by both rangers and game control officers. A drive in the rangers’ vehicle would elicit many observations of deer; but a drive in the slightly different sounding game vehicle would result in not one deer being seen. Author Richard Prior believes that deer have a sixth sense, that there is some kind of communication between stalker and deer. Deer seem to know if people are out simply for a walk, or whether they are stalking.

At one level, then, this is simply a walk in the wood. But the stalk itself changes our behaviour, increasing our intensity and concentration. You look for signs, a bent branch or hoof print, listen to the birds, walk in one direction, and then circle back in front of the wind. The deer are canny. They will not be beaten unless you are quieter, and cleverer, and lucky. This night, we do not take a single shot. This does not seem to matter. Yet deer numbers do need to be limited, otherwise they would cause too much damage to the forest and to nearby crops. But this is no failure. You have to be quiet, centred, still and observant. You have to be ready at any moment to take a shot, and yet know it may never happen. When you do line up a shot, the world stops for a moment. You breathe slowly, and then slower still. The pressure grows, and you understand only too well the concept of buck fever – the inability to squeeze the trigger when a deer is finally in the sights.

Today, in industrialised countries, the idea of hunting, whether for food, ecological management or pleasure, elicits great controversy. It is seen by some as the ultimate in cruelty to animals, and by others as a direct link to thousands of generations of human history. Some point to the contradictions inherent in those who happily consume domestic meat or animal products, yet at the same time object to the hunting of wild animals. Others raise questions about power and the gun, and how some groups appear to use hunting as a means to control the land. Some are more anti-hunter than anti-hunting. Another perspective focuses on the needs of indigenous hunting peoples, and their moral relations with the animals they hunt for food. Yet another might draw attention to the visceral worries of families with small children living near national parks where predatory cat numbers have so increased that they threaten personal safety. Some say hunting is a tradition; others say so was slavery. It does not take long to see that the issue of hunting and being hunted raises fundamental questions about human relations with animals, and ultimately where we see our place on this small planet. It also suggests that the issues are so complex and contested, and so rooted in the particularities of place and culture, that it would be wrong to generalise about whether hunting is good or bad. Hunting is not one thing. It is many things, and judgements must account for the many social contexts and motivations, and the many ecosystems and types of animals.

Despite the ten thousand year advance of agriculture, it is only relatively recently that wild animals and plants have become unimportant in the lives of people in industrialised countries. In many developing countries, wild foods still make up a substantial proportion of people’s diets, and in industrialised countries, older generations can generally still recall a time when the wild harvest had a critical cultural as well as nutritional value, from autumn berries and nuts to rabbits, wildfowl and birds’ eggs. Today, modern food systems have encouraged a forgetfulness about the land, such that “most of us are only dimly conscious of our own personal ecology”, as author Richard Nelson puts it. But this is not true for the remaining indigenous groups across the world, whose relations with animals and the land are consistent reminders of hominid pasts common to all our ancestors. Their voices, rare today, demonstrate the widespread intimate connectivity that people can have with nature, and their natural respect and understanding.

People who hunt and fish seem to have a number of reasons for doing so. They talk of the escape, freedom and renewal that comes from getting away from urban and stressed lives and out into the country. They appreciate the direct connection with nature, the opportunity to be intimate with the woods, to find the reconnection that remains central to the lives of indigenous hunters. They also recognise the value of companionship and the opportunity for story-telling. In an increasingly atomised modern world, this value of social capital creation, being with people you trust and who hold similar norms, is often forgotten. A further reason for hunting centres on the exercise of technology and control – the incursion of modern life and its technological sophistication into what some see as a traditional activity. Finally, there are biological reasons for hunting, whereby certain populations of animals may need to be reduced in number, usually to limit damage to habitats or to other wild or domestic animals.

People who oppose hunting do so for several important reasons too. The most common is welfare concerns for animals, which usually centres on the cruelty of the hunt and the mode of dispatch of an animal. Many are anti-hunting because they see it as a sport or leisure activity, and so are concerned about the moral position of killing for pleasure. Others still see hunting simply as a primitive activity, something that belongs to pre-moderns only, and so should be eliminated from today’s so-called civilised society. Finally, many of those against hunting are also anti-hunter. They oppose or simply do not like the people who hunt, and perhaps see the opportunity to ban or limit hunting as a way to limit the activities of certain social groups.

Where do these wildly differing views leave us? Mostly, it appears, with a war of words, very little common ground, and policies that make everyone unhappy. The late writer and philosopher, Edward Abbey, said “hunting is one of the hardest things even to think about. Such a storm of conflicting emotions.” Yet any close examination of particular contexts, animals and people suggest that to generalise is to adopt an absurd position. All hunting and anti-hunting is full of contradictions and dilemmas, and to take one position that all types of hunting are all good or all bad is to engage in a largely belief-based rather than evidence-based view of the world. What should the anti-hunter say to an Indian villager who just lost his daughter to a tiger successfully conserved in a nearby national park? Equally, what does the ethical hunter say to the city dweller who considers canned hunting and tower shoots as an appropriate way to behave towards animals and birds?

At the centre of the hunting debates is the issue of death. If we are to eat, we must kill something else. If we are prey, then something else kills us. Even vegetarians who eschew the consumption of meat have to come to terms with the fact that their plant produce comes from agricultural systems that raise domestic livestock and directly affect wild animal populations. Let us start with some biological facts. Before the advent of agriculture some ten thousand years ago, hominids survived for thousands of generations as hunters and gatherers. We must have been good at these activities, or we would never have made it to here. The domestication of crops and livestock brought the need for different knowledge and skills, and different relations with land and nature, and later came to dominate modes of food acquisition for humans. Today, we consume more than four billion tonnes of cereals and roots each year, together with some twenty billion chickens, cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. We now treat food as a commodity and have largely forgotten the story about its production. George Wallace said this of an elk shot on the Wyoming-Colorado border, “should I be sad? He lived better than most… He didn’t stand corralled and knee-deep in snow and his own dung waiting to be fed, ear-marked, dehorned and injected, only to be herded, prodded, trucked and knocked on the head at the end of two years”.

Supermarkets have made us forgetful. Animals are mostly just cuts of meat made ready for the stove, and no longer (somewhat) sentient beings that have lives, and then bloody deaths. There was a time, a couple of generations ago, when many rural families in the UK, and some in towns too, would keep a backyard pig. It was fed on scraps and food wastes, and would become an important part of the family. One day, the pig would have to be slaughtered, and all the family would know it. Today, the bacon comes wrapped in plastic, and you do not need to think of the pig. Ruth Rudner says, “what has the ease of buying food done to our awe of the animals that feed us? How awed is anyone by a cow? How many people, for that matter, cutting into a piece of cow, remember its life or have much interest in ingesting its spirit? How many ask its forgiveness?”

But what if wild animals or birds are hunted for food rather than for sport? Might some of our views be different? On the Isle of Lewis, men from the fishing village of Ness have for generations travelled 60 kilometres every August to the uninhabited rocky island of Sula Sgier to gather young gannets. In the Second World War, the gannet was called the Highland goose, and was a major source of food in northern industrial cities. Some 2000 of these guga are collected from nests on the rock faces and killed, and later salted and stored for local consumption. The meat is an acquired taste, said to be rather oily and fishy, yet is a highly valued delicacy – not just for its nutrient value, but because of the associated tradition and its long history dating to at least the 14th century. Yet this tradition is challenged by some animal welfare groups and bird conservationists who see it as being cruel, and are campaigning for the practice to be banned. There is, however, no evidence that the gathering has any adverse effect on the overall population of the gannet colony. Is it so very different to the harvesting of domestic chickens and turkeys, about which people are considerably less exercised?

Is this conflict over hunting, then, actually a symptom of modern society’s increasing estrangement from the wild? Is it the lack of ecological, land or nature literacy that reduces the understanding, and allows us to take sides, and not to see the greys rather than the black and whites in the arguments? This estrangement is a recent phenomenon, but it appears set to increase as urban populations grow over rural, and food systems become increasingly disconnected from the places of production.

One problem is that many who hunt keep quiet about their activities. It is almost too complex an issue to engage in public deliberation. Yet this is itself increasing the likelihood of hard positions being taken by both sides. Perhaps this is partly because the ethical hunter’s eyes are often turned inwards. They value deep personal bonds with nature, in a similar way to indigenous people. Such a view is not easy to express in a technology-led society. The late John Madison said a genuine hunter is “someone with a deep personal bond to the game hunted and the habitats in which it is hunted”. He said he searched for “that flash of insight again, trying to close the magic circle between man, wilderness and animals”. Admitting to the shaping and being shaped is to take a different ethical, and possibly also spiritual, view of the world. “When you go into the woods, your presence makes a splash and the ripples of your arrival spread like circles in water… You can always feel it when those circles stop widening; you can feel it on the back of your neck and in your gut, and in the awareness of other presences”

Some of these views may be echoes of the past, but one thing has changed in recent human history – we have become more tolerant of predators. This is quite a remarkable shift. For thousands of generations, hominid survival depended in part on avoiding being prey for larger and more dangerous animals. Put yourself in a remote African savannah as dusk falls, and the sky flames from orange and red to purple, and then quickly darkens to a deep black, and you can begin to imagine the challenges that bands of early humans faced. We cannot run very fast, our teeth are small, our eyes are feeble in the dark. And the predators that today we so enjoy seeing are better at all these things. It is a bit of a mystery that we made it at all, or perhaps more accurately, a testament to our capacity to work together in groups and out-think our predators. In short, for most of our history predators were enemies, and we were potential prey. Yet we now recognise that we have been so successful, such emphatic winners in this war, that large predators have been comprehensively eliminated from many ecosystems. And now we want them back. Wolves to North America, Scandinavia and the Alps, snow leopards to the high mountains, lions to savannahs, and tigers to the Asian forests.

Hominids have been engaged in a long struggle to outwit predators. Being prey may indeed have helped to make us human. The hunted had to work together, value trust and friendship, and think their way through the landscape. The hunters had to work together too, and maintain a deep respect for their prey. The core dilemma, as Barry Lopez put in Arctic Dreams, is “how can we find a way to live moral and compassionate lives when are aware of the blood and horror inherent in all life”. How ironic too that so many of us now are concerned at the killing of some animals, but not, apparently, of domestic livestock in abattoirs. How sad that through our modern estrangement from nature, we seem to have forgotten so much about how ecosystems work.