KILLERS AND CON­SER­VA­TION­ISTS

Many hun­ters – of­ten ex­pe­ri­enced con­ser­va­tion­ists – re­ject the idea that hunt­ing is only about tak­ing life

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - OUTDOORS - Paddy Wood­worth

Very early on a re­cent Sun­day morn­ing, Mark Craven took his boat out on Lough Ree. He care­fully ar­ranged 30 duck de­coys – float­ing mod­els of mal­lards and wigeons, plus a swan to make the flock look more nat­u­ral – on the wa­ter.

His aim was to at­tract wild ducks and shoot them. How­ever, though he spent hours wait­ing qui­etly, and saw some wild­fowl, he never got a shot in.

“But I had a great day,” he says. “It’s all about the en­joy­ment of be­ing out there. I like the field­craft and the chal­lenge of the boat. And some­thing comes out of ev­ery hunt­ing trip. That Sun­day I think I saw two marsh har­ri­ers [birds of prey that are very rare on this lake] so I’m go­ing to go back and check them out.”

An­other hunter, Derek O’Brien, tells a sim­i­lar story. He had gone to Scot­land to hunt pink-footed geese, a species too rare to hunt here but in­creas­ingly nu­mer­ous across the wa­ter.

“And I didn’t hit one, but it doesn’t mat­ter. The sound of ‘pinks’ com­ing in over the es­tu­ary in the morn­ings, honk­ing in their thou­sands, is un­for­get­table.”

O’Brien was rem­i­nisc­ing af­ter an af­ter­noon out hunt­ing on a neigh­bour’s farm in north Co Dublin. Again, no shot was fired, but we had the plea­sure of watch­ing Tess, his springer spaniel, per­sis­tently sniff­ing out an elu­sive cock pheas­ant. Even when flushed, the bird never rose high enough to make a tar­get.

When we tried to fol­low it to the next field, nav­i­gat­ing a hedge and low ditch, O’Brien un­loaded his gun. As if it knew the safety drill, the pheas­ant had in fact moved un­seen high into the hedge, just above the ditch. With an ex­plo­sion of wings and break­ing twigs, it launched it­self safely into full flight as soon as we were briefly im­mo­bilised just be­neath it.

So we had no “bag” to bring home. But, as O’Brien said, we had been out in the fresh air with the dog and we had ob­served in­ter­est­ing pheas­ant be­hav­iour. We had also en­joyed see­ing many grey par­tridges – O’Brien is the game­keeper in charge of their rein­tro­duc­tion to the area. We had seen breath­tak­ing views, across fields glow­ing in low win­ter sun­light, all the way to Lam­bay Is­land and Howth Head.

Of course, no hunter sets out to re­turn empty-handed. But both men re­ject the im­age that hunt­ing is all about killing.

Mark Craven says that if he shoots a game bird, it must be for the ta­ble. “For me, the plea­sure is in the hunt, and the plea­sure is in the eat­ing. There’s not much plea­sure in the bit in be­tween, the act of killing, though I do find sat­is­fac­tion in get­ting in a good shot.”

Wide­spread per­cep­tion

There is also a wide­spread per­cep­tion that hos­til­ity be­tween hun­ters and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists is in­evitable. Both O’Brien and Craven are ex­pe­ri­enced and prac­ti­cal con­ser­va­tion­ists. The Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Re­gional Game Coun­cils, which sup­ports the par­tridge rein­tro­duc­tion pro­ject, points out on its web­site that “shoot­ing peo­ple have a vested in­ter­est in in­vest­ing in con­ser­va­tion and en­sur­ing that ... [ game species] pop­u­la­tions are not threat­ened.”

Nev­er­the­less, the re­la­tion­ship with con­ser­va­tion, as prac­tised to­day, is ob­vi­ously far from cosy. The as­so­ci­a­tion refers ap­prov­ingly to “fierce re­sis­tance” to “ill-con­ceived and ill-in­formed ac­tions of gov­ern­ments” in the same para­graph.

Both O’Brien and Craven do much more hunt­ing for con­ser­va­tion than they do for sport, para­dox­i­cal though that may seem. Preda­tors such as foxes have mul­ti­plied in re­cent decades. That makes the odds against some vul­ner­a­ble prey species, al­ready strug­gling against ex­tinc­tion from habi­tat loss, very high in­deed.

O’Brien shoots – or traps – foxes, rats, mag­pies and hooded crows to give the new par­tridge pop­u­la­tion a head start against these threats. Craven does sim­i­lar work as a con­trac­tor for the Na­tional Parks and Wildlife Ser­vice (NPWS) in the mid­lands.

Craven also works as a vol­un­teer with the Bal­ly­dan­gan Bog Red Grouse Pro­ject in Roscom­mon, a re­mark­ably di­verse part­ner­ship. It was con­ceived by Pat Dun­ning, the chair­man of the lo­cal gun club in Moore.

“Pat re­mem­bered the grouse on the bog as a young fel­low, and didn’t want to see them go ex­tinct for want of do­ing some­thing,” says Pat Fe­hilly, a fel­low club mem­ber. Fe­hilly now co-or­di­nates a com­mu­nity em­ploy­ment scheme set up on his ini­tia­tive by the De­part­ment of So­cial Pro­tec­tion to serve the pro­ject.

Other part­ners in­clude lo­cal landown­ers, the Her­itage Coun­cil, Roscom­mon County Coun­cil, the NPWS and Bord na Móna, which owns the bog.

David Fal­lon, an ecol­o­gist for the turf com­pany, ad­mits to hav­ing been very scep­ti­cal when the gun club ap­proached him with its grouse con­ser­va­tion pro­posal in 2009. He is now one of the pro­ject’s most ac­tive fa­cil­i­ta­tors, and brings your cor­re­spon­dent out for a day on the bog with Fe­hilly, Craven, and two em­ploy­ees on the scheme, Vin­cent Flan­ney and Ryan Nixon.

In­fer­tile old cock

Nixon sur­veys the species on the bog. So far the grouse are not flour­ish­ing, with a max­i­mum of five birds present, and no ev­i­dence of breed­ing. Flan­ney, who has hunted grouse ex­ten­sively in Scot­land, won­ders whether an old, in­fer­tile cock might be keep­ing more vig­or­ous young males off the ter­ri­tory.

The whole group agrees that there are still more ques­tions than an­swers about restor­ing a vi­able grouse pop­u­la­tion to Bal­ly­dan­gan, though in­creased sight­ings on neigh­bour­ing bogs raise hopes. The habi­tat has been par­tially re­stored through the block­ing of drains, through manag­ing the heather to fos­ter the mo­saic of growth lev­els grouse need and through hunt­ing preda­tors.

Gun club mem­bers do not be­lieve the num­bers could grow to a point where shoot­ing grouse on the bog could be sus­tain­able in the fore­see­able fu­ture. The same is true for the par­tridge pro­ject. The aim is sim­ply to re­store, con­serve and ex­pand the pop­u­la­tions.

Mean­while, there is strong ev­i­dence that an­other threat­ened bird, the curlew, has al­ready ben­e­fited from the Bal­ly­dan­gan scheme, with seven breed­ing pairs now up from two or three in 2009.

The big­gest gain, though, may well be the part­ner­ship it­self. Lis­ten­ing to peo­ple from such dif­fer­ent back­grounds ex­chang­ing well-in­formed views about a land­scape they all love, is surely a good pointer to­wards how we need to start­ing think­ing and act­ing about con­ser­va­tion in our coun­try­side.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: MATTHEW LLOYD/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IM­AGES

“There’s not much plea­sure in the bit in be­tween, the act of killing, though I do find sat­is­fac­tion in get­ting in a good shot.”

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