By Charlie Portlock, The Mindful Hunter
I'm an environmentalist and I'm a hunter. A few times a month, I shoulder my rifle and set out before dawn or dusk to stalk the woodlands, fields and hedgerows for rabbits, squirrels, wood pigeon and deer. For me, these animals represent the most ethical and environmentally sound sources of protein to be found anywhere in the UK; they're hyper-local, feral and genuinely free.
Many of us in the green movement (myself included) eat a plant based diet and boycott the dairy and livestock industries because we feel that they're inherently cruel. However, relatively few people in the UK would consider subsistence hunting as an ethical or environmentally sustainable alternative. It is for me, given the environmental costs of delivering non-animal protein like soy to our tables.
The UK is the fourth least wooded country in Europe with around 13% of our landmass under tree cover. One vision for the future is that we ultimately wean ourselves off farmed meat, turn animal pasture over to arable land and return the surplus to native woodland (re-wilding). Biodiversity would soar.
Tariffs on imported meat and increasing consumer education would lead to a fall in meat consumption and the increasing financial cost of eating wild meat would finally be a reflection of its true value. Hunting would be heavily regulated and this would make leading sources of plant derived protein like Quorn a more attractive proposition for consumers. People will always eat meat if it's cheap. In this fiscally driven world, we must somehow make it expensive financially as well as emotionally.
At its best, a restrained and thoughtful approach to hunting can actually reduce overall levels of animal suffering and human-animal conflict. Where animal overpopulation has created financial pressure on landowners the result is often an ecologically and ethically unsound but cost effective approach to control. One example is the poisoning of grey squirrels with warfarin in order to protect young trees. Mindful hunting could reduce these conflicts whilst keeping animal populations healthy.
As a result of the inroads that farming, industry and urbanisation have made into our green places, there are many contexts where prey species are overpopulated. Historically, we've either hunted or suppressed all of their natural predators and now grey squirrels and deer may eat as many saplings as they wish, free from the threat of wolves, lynx, wildcats, pine martens, polecats, raptors and foxes.
I dislike the term 'control' but if the populations of certain animals are not kept in check naturally, they must be by humans. This is not just because of the threat to commercial interests like agro-forestry or farming (though these industries depend upon it to remain commercially viable) but because biodiversity suffers when ecosystems lack an apex predator. In these very specific contexts humans can and should fulfil the role of the hunter.
In our age of abundance and disconnection from the food chain, we've developed a convenient kind of morality. We're happy to eat what we're told is 'organic', 'free range' or 'grass fed' and we guiltlessly swallow the friendly 'green' marketing along with the product. But what of the animal death implicit in every mouthful? Unless, we forage all of our calories from the hedgerow, we've allowed slugs, insects, birds and mammals to be killed in order to allow our food to grow. 'Pest control', although a hypocritical term, is as much a part of growing food as planting and harvesting.
Life and death
Animal death and suffering is not just the bi-product of hunting or livestock farming, unsustainable as it may be. The uncomfortable truth is that there's always a cost to calories but this tagline doesn't fit into any coherent marketing strategy, vegan or otherwise. Wherever we plant crops of any kind, there's deforestation and the death and displacement of a variety of species, and whenever we harvest wheat we're killing small mammals, insects and ground nesting birds. Through our mere existence on this planet in such great numbers, we're declaring our right, conscious or not, to priority over the competition. But how many of us are willing to pay that price emotionally as well as financially? Animal death and the denial of animal life is implicit in our existence.
I hunt partly because it connects me to the reality of this cycle, humbles me and leaves me with a profound sense of duty to the planet and all of its inhabitants. Like the kitchen gardener, I'm grateful for the meat upon my plate because I've witnessed its journey. I eat less meat than ever.
Hunting has parallels with politics. It's the kind of activity that you can support in principle but not always in practice and, like politics, its proponents often do its reputation more harm than good. Hunting too is a spectrum and there are so many practical, cultural and ethical considerations that any meaningful discussion is difficult in the face of so much emotive potential.
As we abandon livestock farming and embrace a plant based diet, I believe that we should also embrace a sensitive approach to subsistence hunting: Mindful Hunting. Not one that harkens backs to some kind of overtly masculine and mythical hunter-gatherer ideal, but one that's based upon the fiscal and ecological realities of the modern world. This step would make a profound commitment to supporting bio-diversity and to the creation of a wilder planet. In terms of meat, let's begin by eating less and by making sure that when we do, we eat wild.
The Mindful Hunter is about re-connecting humans with the earth in a mutually beneficial manner. It’s a place for people to witness, challenge and discuss all the realities of the food chain in a safe and open minded environment. Shooting is just a small part of what we do. If you don’t believe us then we’d love to hear from you and to welcome you, whatever your current beliefs.
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