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 This is a massive underestimate using out of date references.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.