Prejudice, ignorance & pride are key drivers of gamekeepers’ desire to kill predators

When the full extent of the wildlife crimes committed by Scottish gamekeeper Alan Wilson was revealed last year (see here), it inevitably led to questions by most reasonable people about his motivation.

These questions weren’t restricted to the issue of illegal persecution; they also led to more general discussions about the legal killing of wildlife by gamekeepers, and these questions continue to dominate conversations about game shoot management in the UK.

[Gamekeeper Alan Wilson, convicted in 2019 of nine offences on Longformacus Estate. Photo Daily Record]

A new paper has just been published that provides insight from interviews with 20 gamekeepers in southern England about their motivation for killing predators (legally).

This research was undertaken by George Swan as part of his PhD, successfully completed in 2017. Obviously there are limitations and caveats associated with such a small sample size from a relatively restricted geographic area but the authors acknowledge these and place their results in an appropriate context.

This is an ‘open access’ paper which means that it’s freely available, in full, here.

The paper doesn’t start well. In a scene-setting paragraph about lowland gamebird management in the UK the number of annually released non-native gamebird species is given as ‘>20 million Pheasants and >2 million Red-legged Partridge’. This is a massive underestimate using out of date references.

The most recent estimate of released gamebirds is from 2016 (see here) and is approaching 60 million released gamebirds per annum (47 million Pheasants, 10 million Red-legged Partridge). These figures from the shooting industry are considered to be conservative and are highly likely to have increased again since 2016.

Incredibly, the exact figure is unknown because the game bird shooting industry is virtually unregulated. There is no statutory requirement to register a shoot nor to provide a record of the number of birds released and then shot. Indeed, in this latest paper the authors even acknowledge that they couldn’t themselves establish the size of any of the shoots involved in the survey ‘as the number of birds released was found to be a sensitive question‘!

Moving on to the gamekeeper interviews, the study’s main findings identify six primary motivations for killing predators. These are described as: professional identity, personal norms, potential penalties, perceived impact, personal enjoyment and perceived ease.

It’s really worth reading the detail of these motivators in the paper (jump to section 3 ‘Findings’ if you want to skip the pre-amble). The level of prejudice, ignorance (of ecological predator-prey relationships) and pride (e.g. ‘one gamekeeper explained how he controlled magpies, in part, because other gamekeepers ‘take the Mickey’ [mocked the respondent] when they saw this species on his beat‘) will be shocking to many. The notion of needing to control predators to ‘maintain balance’ is laughable in the context of releasing almost 60 million non-native gamebirds in to the countryside every year!

To be perfectly frank, none of this will come as any surprise to anyone who’s spent a couple of hours reading gamekeepers’ comments on social media. However, it is useful to have these attitudes documented and analysed in a formal scientific way. The authors propose this research could help to understand and mitigate ‘social conflicts’ over predator management.

For others, this research will be beneficial for those of us who consider that urgent regulation of the UK’s gameshooting industry is required. Indeed, many of the findings in this new paper support Wild Justice’s ongoing legal challenges against the General Licences in England and in Wales which, Wild Justice contends, unlawfully authorise the ‘casual killing’ of millions of birds without the gamekeeper having to justify why the killing is necessary and a last resort.

Incidentally, the crowdfunder to support Wild Justice’s legal challenge of General Licences in Wales is just short of reaching its target. If you’re able to help, please click here. Thank you.


23 thoughts on “Prejudice, ignorance & pride are key drivers of gamekeepers’ desire to kill predators”

  1. Place I worked pre retirement, there was a man who seemed to have appointed himself ‘culler’ of all things wild in the vicinity…he set traps, stalked and poisoned tings routinely. I challenged his using Larsen traps and he replied with the usual rhubarb about magpies taking songbird’s eggs etc as if he actually had a single iota of feelings or compassion. (The traps strangely oft time would be opened and the birds inside liberated…no idea by whom of course) Truth is he was sadly not very bright but did so much damage he should’ve been stopped. I could do nothing for fear of losing my job. A farmer who knew him told me after killing a deer he would cut out and eat bits of it’s organs because that was the ‘tradition’ in that part of Wiltshire. An abhorrent, primitive and ignorant individual, who I presume is replicated in many places….I can only hope these types will die out although I gather this one did have a number of younger ‘followers’.

  2. Gamekeeping is a job where deception is employed in every area from concealing traps through the perks of the job and on to what they tell both the media and the public. They have a support system which helps them achieve this with dodgy scientific reports to websites designed to be the source of the latest “cover stories.” The problem is that when someone does not have a relationship with the truth a tutored eye can spot it a mile away. The Devil, they say, is in the Detail.

  3. While the interviews are revealing for anyone who does not know keepers, there is a huge hole in the research which is largely causatory in the case of driven grouse shooting in the uplands.
    Employers place enormous pressure on keepers to kill certain raptor species for a variety of reasons, which range from perceived predation impacts, to effects on shoot days of the presence of Hen Harriers and other species.
    I have even heard raptor disturbance to game drives advanced in the context of lowland pheasant shoots where HH are wintering !
    Keepers I have known have been moved to other work for refusing to kill Peregrines for instance, although they were willing to kill HH when moved to another property.
    The bottom line is the capital value of driven gamebird shoots.
    Breeding large raptors in particular are seen as reducing value.
    This is the primary driver for criminality.
    Yes, keepers will kill many species for a variety of reasons but 45 years of dealing with the industry has taught me the real truth…… shoot capital value.
    The killing of egg and chick predators on lowland shoots is no longer really a relevant financial concern since birds are almost 100 % released, not reared [ wild or caged ].
    The high rates of predation of sitting wild gamebird hens and their eggs / chicks by foxes and corvids was the reason that release of birds became the norm, along with the high costs of employing keepers in the era of maximising capital vlaue.
    High value shoots with full time keepers tend to persist in killing breeding and dispersing raptors in the lowlands in my experience.
    Some small shoots also continue the criminality purely through the well documented ignorance factors !
    Don’t expect often poorly educated, feudally employed slaves to act otherwise.
    There is very little employment in the countryside now that farming is largely mechanised.
    45 years ago I used to walk with a Grey Partridge shoot keeper noting nests and later in the year, scattering wheat from a bag wherever they were feeding. These were all wild birds which the shoot relied upon.
    Foxes and corvids were not present on any of the grouped shoots.
    I don’t think any such shoot exists now in Europe.

    Keep up the pressure !

    1. “Don’t expect often poorly educated, feudally employed slaves to act otherwise.” Good quote and sums it up entirely

    2. I tend to agree with sennen, above. The real hardliners worth interviewing are english grouse keepers on the most intense moors and they would never ever condescend to partake in any research…I think quite honestly they would prefer death to that particular brand of dishonour! Of course the research does cover some common themes, and the macho pride of the typical unintelligent and insensitive wanna-be-alpha male comes to the fore. I have myself observed the look of utter self-doubt in the eyes of keeper(s) who is/are not producing enough grouse- at least (and this is absolutely key) in the opinions of his neighbouring keepers=peer group. The guy might as well have “I can’t get it up” tattooed on his forehead…and, as they don’t tend toward careful reflection and rationality, this is why so many middle-aged keepers end up down the road of drink and depression. This is also, in my opinion, what induces quite a few to go “all-out” to the desperate and reckless measures of poisons and pole-traps, where previously they had probably “only” been very crafty and cautious shooters of raptors.

  4. A great line of research is to sit quietly in a pub that they frequent. The beers flow and their voices get loader as they still believe they are wispering. One such pub in Hampshire I mentioned to a shooter that the goshawks are back. Without thinking , his reply was “I know, I shot one and trapped one”. One phone call is all it took for a covert survailance operation to monitor him and his estate.

  5. I know one or more of these horrible people apparently “if it flies it dies ” is all I seem to get from them, but I think what they are saying is if it lives it dies .

  6. I’m probably over-simplifying but is some of the motivation for gamekeepers that they like doing a job where they can carry a gun?

    1. I tend to agree; it may be ignorance, or employer pressure, etc etc, but in the end, they enjoy it. They cannot afford to pay vast sums to shoot the game birds, or to go abroad (mostly) to trophy hunt, so just kill anything they can, and they are/have been allowed to kill so many species for spurious reasons that have presumably not been examined closely until recently? Or at least with the Soc.Med. thing, more people are now made aware of it and can support challenges to the status quo.

  7. Yes, it is done for truly ignorant reasons. However, we mustn’t underestimate the pressure shoot owners put on gamekeepers to do it. However, as I’ve repeatedly tried to explain the overall thinking behind predator control is not mainly because predators necessarily eat these gamebirds. I see this false explanation repeated so many times even by those opposed to this predator persecution.

    The main aim/problem those who try to create unnaturally high densities of game birds is dispersion. The response of most game birds to the density they are in is to disperse into the wider countryside, where of course they are lost to that shoot. This is why shoots do so much to feed Pheasants etc. However, it is not just about food. Most any disturbance, especially by predators will cause these unnaturally high densities of game birds to disperse. This is what these managed shoots do not like the public, especially with dogs. Dogs of course are predators.

    The reason it is so important to understand that predators are killed more to stop dispersion, rather than predation, is because of the ramifications of this. People wonder, why do keepers kill species like Kestrels, Owls, which are unlikely to predate Pheasants. It’s because any predator is seen as increasing this dispersion effect. It’s vitally important to understand this, because things like diversionary feeding are not of real interests to keepers, because they are more concerned about raptors dispersing Grouse than actually predating them. When you realise this, you realise they are not merely trying to reduce numbers of predators, they are trying to wipe them out. To this type of shoot manager, the ideal situation is no predators at all, regardless of whether they predate the game birds or not.

    1. This is my understanding too. In the case of driven grouse shooting a “productive” day’s shoot is dependent on some slick choreography by the shoot managers. The line of beaters needs to push densely packed “farmed” grouse towards the waiting line of shooting butts. The untimely appearance of an avian predator (any avian predator) will cause the grouse to bombburst randomly leaving few if any for the beaters to usher towards the waiting guns. If that happens the drive is basically a bust.

      Imagine what a few cheap model gliders with a good paint job would do (wink wink).

      1. Interesting stuff Steb. Many thanks. With wholesale predator killing to minimise game dispersion as well as predation to me simply makes it an even more compelling argument to ban this vile pastime.

      2. You are right that each drive is carefully planned and coordinated and that when one is ruined it frustrates everybody – and costs a lot of money, particularly if the guns are paying based on the total number of brace killed. It doesn’t take much to cause the grouse to not do what they are supposed to. When they see any vaguely predator-like shape in the air they will either sit hard and refuse to lift in front of the beating line, or they will explode and fly erratically in any direction, often shifting a great distance as a pack in the wrong direction. In connection with this, since I have only recently started following this blog – I have wondered why there is little narrative about another “black-hole species” in the valleys of seriously intense grouse moors…the humble Heron.

  8. The other thing missing from the reasons for all these feudal folk becoming wildlife criminals is because they are expected and instructed to. In over 30 years of being involved with raptors and raptor monitoring I’ve only come across one possibly two keepers who killed protected wildlife without being told to by the owner or agent. This is why all driven shooting and release of alien gamebirds needs to go and go as soon as possible, like yesterday.

  9. There should be no such job title as ‘Gamekeeper’, as it could just as easily (and more accurately) be described as ‘Wildlife Exterminator’ as, if all their propaganda bullshit was ignored, that is ALL they are really concerned with. Why is such, ignorant, industrial scale wildlife extermination allowed in our country today? Answers on a postcard please…

    1. “Why is such, ignorant, industrial scale wildlife extermination allowed in our country today? ” Because it is supported by the landed classes, the aristocracy and the Royal Family, of course.

  10. From the author.,…
    This is not what our research found. Our focus was on legal predator management. We found that keepers were not particularly motivated by employer pressures but had diverse motivations, including a sense of custodianship for game and non-game wildlife.

    [Ed: Edward Coles – you’re not one of the authors. If any of the actual authors would like to contest the content of this blog they are more than welcome to comment here]

  11. A pretty damning indictment of a sordid business, although I do feel a certain grudging respect for the lad who, when asked about whether the responsibility he felt for the pheasants did not outweigh the moral cost of breaking the law by removing protected predators, answered, ‘I’m sure my percentages [the proportion of birds harvested of those released] are not as good as other keepers, I don’t give a fuck, at least I can live with myself’

  12. I found this a fascinating read, albeit rather horrifying in places. As an amateur enthusiast of psychology and the social sciences (as well as wildlife, of course) I found the study confirmed my existing thoughts on ‘normative beliefs’ being a key driver in establishing attitudes and behaviours. I grew up in a shooting family so was exposed to all these beliefs at a very early age. Luckily I was blessed with an enquiring mind and the kind of disposition that challenged pretty much everything I was told.

    Some of the comments from the game keepers show extraordinary levels of cognitive dissonance such as claiming to be ‘heartbroken’ on discovering pheasants killed by foxes given that they were breeding the pheasants specifically to be killed by shooters. Heartbroken? Really? Annoyed or disappointed, yes but heartbroken… Equally, they see no contradiction in criticising foxes for ‘killing for fun’ but not shooters for doing the same.

    All of this emotional posturing comes unstuck in the section 3.2.3 Personal enjoyment. One gamekeeper is quoted as saying, “If I didn’t have this job where I could go lamping and shoot foxes, I would probably pay to go lamping. Especially when you get a really tricky one and you’ve been seeing it for weeks… Just catching it out, there’s something about it.” This element of gamekeeping and to a wider degree amongst non gamekeepers, does not seem sufficiently studied or understood. Certainly not here..

    But the main point is the normative beliefs. This is a deep cultural identity that not only affects what these people do but who they believe they are (‘countrymen’), and perhaps who everyone else is. They decry those that oppose them as ‘antis’ and anyone who professes not to understand them as ’townies’. Interesting then that 10.3m people live in rural areas in England & Wales yet only 559k people in E&W have shotgun certificates (including people who live in cities), which means shooting is a minority interest even in the countryside. Ironically, most of the shooters we see in the Cotswolds are city dwellers.

    So there we have it; people who know very little about wildlife and ecology rearing millions of non-native birds getting heartbroken over foxes doing what foxes naturally do, spouting off at ‘townies’ while making a living selling ‘fun days of killing’ to rich city types who feel a need to be countrymen at the weekend. You couldn’t make it up – only they have and it’s real!

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