I’d like to think there is one thing we can all agree on – at a time of mounting ecological stress where species are thinning out or disappearing at an unprecedented rate, everyone should be much kinder to the natural world.
And I use that word ‘kinder’ with care. Kind has its roots in the same word as kin - referring to relations, those in our circle, family. It is an ancient word evoking strong connection. Kindness has had somewhat of a resurgence in the last few years, but for many it is still a milksop; a kitchen-table, soft-hearted, somewhat weak word. I utterly disagree. Kindness is not weak; kindness is radical, counter-cultural, and subversive in a world that is more aggressively binary by the day.
At the moment, I am thinking specifically of a recent sharp exchange of views on pheasant and partridge shooting between the heads of the RSPB (Beccy Speight) and the GWCT (Teresa Dent). The RSPB want to regulate the number of non-native game birds released into the countryside by people who enjoy game shooting. Some shoots are small and the birds killed are usually taken home or sold to restaurants. On the more intensive shooting estates, tens of millions of birds are reared and then set free to face the guns, mainly across lowland areas. The number of birds raised and released each year is eye-watering, as is the number of birds shot (or injured) each day; there are often too many killed for personal consumption or the restaurant market, and many carcasses are simply buried or burned.
There is little dispute about the small shoots, research has shown that the woodlands and hedgerow creation, as well as the seed-rich cover and food crops that are grown to help game birds, also benefit a range of native wildlife that is suffering in the wider farmed landscape. The issue is the raising and release of large numbers and their impact on flora and reptiles. There is also a great deal of concern over how much pheasants and partridges help sustain large numbers of predators like foxes and buzzards, though the science has yet to show this definitively. The persecution of birds of prey to protect young birds in woodlands is also an area of fierce division.
The for and against camps get angrier as calls for regulation increases. Both sides present scientific papers to support their view, but it isn’t solving much because science is only part of the picture as this is as much about community, ‘rights’ and culture as anything else.
From a non-shooting perspective, I think many people can accept shooting for the pot, what is hard to fathom is shooting for numbers. It simply isn’t a kind, compassionate or respectful way to treat living creatures, no matter what the science says. Many birds are injured rather than killed outright and they suffer painful deaths. In some shoots, so many birds are shot out of the sky that the dogs sniffing them out and the people employed to collect them can’t keep up. One pheasant shooter told me he used to fire his gun so many times it got so hot it jammed – he has since stopped this kind of intensity.
This is where kindness comes in. Kindness is steeped in integrity. It does not require a spotlight or expect a return, and it does not need a reason to exist. It is an open-hearted expression of humanity that is freely given, and because it is driven by the integrity of the giver, it requires no audience or accolade. It is the constant drip, drip of connection in a world that can be isolating and unyielding.
To be kind to nature isn’t soppy, it is a decision to be a particular kind of human being in a world that needs so many more kind people. Kindness changes perceptions, transforms relationships and the shifts the base of power. It is challenging and it is impossible to ignore. It effects those who receive it and it effects those who give it. It is an everyday force for good. If those who shoot large numbers of birds took a step or two down the intensity ladder and treated the birds with more respect and kindness, just because they are living beings, then I think we would see divisions heal very quickly.
Those of us who don’t shoot can’t demand shooting listen, but we can respectfully ask that we all treat the world with a gentler touch. Everyone is moved by the disappearance of much-loved wildlife and we can work together to bring it back. Small scale shooting does provide good habitat and food and sport – intensive shooting tips over the edge into negative impact. It is also excessive, unnecessary and wasteful which goes against the grain of the reality of life in the modern world. In short, it adds to the list of activities that jar in a world of stress and anxiety about the future of the planet.
In return, the non-shooting community can be more understanding and accepting of the benefits of low-level shoots and not brand everyone the same. Many people who shoot are deeply concerned about nature and can be strong allies in the battle for a nature-rich countryside. The tone and discourse, however, often make divisions far greater than they need be – they can even create them in the first place. It is time for all of us to be much kinder to each other and to the natural world.