Here’s a talk I have last night for the launch of CARP: the Campaign Against Raptor Persecution, at The Cut in Halesworth, Suffolk.
There is something I long to do in Halesworth. I long to go down to all those banks at the other end of the Thoroughfare with a shotgun in my hand and say: “Give me all your money.” After that I’d take it away and spend it. This is a pretty good plan as I’m sure you’ll all agree, but it has two problems.
The first is that it’s immoral. It’s not my money in the bank. If I took it all, a lot of people would suffer, and that’s a bad thing, even if some of them are bankers. The second is that it’s against the law. Steve Martin, in one of his classic stand-up routines, said that you could get away with it if you explained to the police: “I forgot. I’m sorry – I forgot armed robbery was against the law.”
But alas, I’m not convinced that this ploy would actually work. So perhaps I could explain that this is a law I don’t happen to agree with, but that wouldn’t work either. The police don’t usually ask about your philosophical standpoint before making an arrest. I’m sorry, I just happen to think that selling hard drugs on the streets of Halesworth is perfectly OK, so will you please stop persecuting me, officer? I can’t see that one working either.
So I could explain that I’m a pretty solid citizen at heart. I don’t drink when I drive, I don’t commit rape, I don’t do forgery, piracy, barratry, mopery or arson in the queen’s dockyards – so surely an occasional bit of armed robbery is acceptable. But alas, the law is not a pick and mix counter at the sweet shop. You’re supposed to abide by the whole lot – and if you don’t, you have to accept the censure of society and punishment if you get caught.
Now I expect the more astute of you have already worked out where I’m going with this. So what I’m telling you first is that I have nothing whatsoever to say against the shooting of peasants and phartridges – that spoonerism, by the way, comes from James Joyce, and I shall continue to use it.
The fact is that shooting peasants and phartridges is not against the law. A lot of people do it and they have a lot of birds to shoot at. Every year about 40 million peasants and around 5 million phartridges are released into the countryside of Britain so that they can be shot. That seems to me to be enough to go round. I don’t think anyone can have any cause for complaint about the scarcity of peasants and phartridges. We’re not here to launch a Save the Peasants and Phartridges campaign. They’re out there in their millions, and it’s perfectly legal for people to shoot them. I’m not complaining about that. If that’s what you want to do, well, the law says that’s absolutely fine, so get on with.
This is not – repeat not – and anti-shooting organisation. It’s an anti breaking the law organisation. And that’s not, on the face of it, a terribly controversial stance. The only people who can have serious objections are criminals.
It’s also true that certain creatures that predate pheasants are killed by gamekeepers, again perfectly legally. I can’t say I’m entirely relaxed about that, but the law says it’s OK. So I have to accept that.
In East Anglia we are lucky to have a good many species of birds of prey. These gladden the hearts of many that see them, and I’m not just talking about birdwatchers. A pair of buzzards rising in a thermal or a marsh harrier cruising over a reedbed the hearts of local dog-walkers. They also delight the townies, who spend loads of their hard-earned cash in East Anglia. Many come specifically to look at birds, and just about all of them come to enjoy the pleasures of a wilder countryside than Highbury Fields.
In a world in which people are increasingly nature-deprived, the big fierce wild birds matter deeply to vast numbers of altogether unexpected people. That also matters to East Anglia because the wilder countryside, including birds of prey, is these days a very serious part of the economy of our region.
And yet birds of prey get shot. And poisoned. There are two reasons why this is wrong. The first is that it is against the law. You can’t say “I’m sorry, I forgot shooting hen harriers was against the law”. You can’t say: “I don’t drive drunk and I don’t rape, so I’m entitled to shoot a few birds of prey.” You can’t say: “I don’t agree with the law about birds of prey so it’s perfectly Ok to kill them.” Shooting birds of prey is a crime, and one that is worthy of punishment and society’s censure.
The second reason why this is wrong is because it is immoral. Whose birds are they? Whose countryside is it anyway? The countrywide belongs to us all, and the birds of prey belong to us all or belong to nobody but themselves. Either way, shooting them is stealing from us all. Shooting birds of prey is a kind of armed robbery.
It steals from our visitors, it steals from the many people who make some or all of their living from visitors, and it steals from anyone who enjoys the countryside and the wild world.
That such crimes are still, committed is a continuing and growing embarrassment to the shooting industry. Plenty of people run their shoots in an impressive and legal manner, and some of them also do a fine job for wildlife conservation. I knew, I’ve been there. But all the same, the owners of such shoots find it find an increasingly hard job convincing people of this. It’s a hard job because we all know from the cases that come to court and from bizarre disappearances and absences, that shooting and poisoning of birds of prey goes on. I’d like to think of the shooting industry is becoming as anxious about this business as everyone else.
We live in the 21st century, a time when people need all the wildness they can get. It is sad to think that in the few areas not in the hands of developers and monoculture farming, the kingpin species are being illegally destroyed against the wishes of the many for the pleasure of the few.
So here’s to the good guys in shooting who play it straight. And here’s to the great majority who want a wilder and richer countryside. I’d like to think that we can all work together and try and persuade the offenders – by whatever legal means are necessary – that armed robbery is not only against the law but also immoral.
And then make them stop.