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Monday, 25 January 2016

Hunter Gatherer Ethics Pt 1 (ethical hunting and gathering)

I have been promising an article on the ethics of hunting and gathering ever since my article on "why I don't have time for archery" where I shared my thoughts on why the use of bows and arrows might be banned for use on deer in the UK. This generated some interesting comments and some disagreement over the efficiency of rifles compared to bows and even handguns for use on deer.

This article will be the first in a three part series on the ethics of hunting and gathering and as the person who has had the single biggest influence on my attitude towards hunting and gathering I have asked Martin to share some of his thoughts on the topic which you will see throughout this series. 

What I wont discuss here is whether or not hunting and gathering, particularly hunting, is ethical in the first place. While I respect the decision of vegetarians and vegans to not eat meat it is a fact that eating meat and fish has always been an essential survival mechanism of the human species, and if a lion is allowed to eat meat as far as I'm concerned so am I. However if you are happy to eat meat but still criticise the practice of hunting and shooting I would have to question your logic and point out some inconsistencies in your belief system and ask why it is OK for animals to die to feed you but not OK for me to kill a wild animal to achieve that same outcome?

Male Lion and Cub Chitwa South Africa Luca Galuzzi 2004 edit1.jpg

Humans fit into the animal kingdom just as lions, tigers and bears do; we may have the technology to make our hunting more efficient using tools and the development of agriculture to sustain our consumption of meat and while many people nowadays consider humans and our society and technology to be separate from 'nature' ultimately we are still part of it. We may be omnivorous and have the choice to not eat meat whereas a lion does not have that choice but if we do choose to harvest meat ourselves we should be ethical about it's collection, and do it for the right reasons.
"Never shoot something just to see it fall. If a bird or animal falls to your shot, it's falling needs to have served a purpose, to have reached a table, to have saved a crop and never, never to have been wasted." MG
In pursuit of my aim to never waste my quarry I have eaten every single species of wildlife that I have ever shot or trapped with the exception of rat, magpie and crow.

Yes that means I have tried fox, I regularly run snare lines for foxes and while I always keep the skins I don't normally eat them but on one occasion about ten years ago I thought it was about time I tried so when I retrieved a fox cub from one of my snares one morning it's haunches went into a curry that night. That one occasion was plenty though and I can't really recommend it unless you fancy a meat with the consistency of spam but with a distinct bitter taste. To make the most of those foxes I have shot or trapped since then I always take the skins but in all honesty I haven't eaten one since and don't plan to again unless I'm really desperate.

A fox skin stretched out and ready for curing
Even animals and birds that I kill as pests regularly make it into my cook pot, I ran a trap line for possums in New Zealand and while the primary reason was to reduce the impact of an invasive species the skins of the possums proved very useful and the meat was very tasty.

A younger and rather shabby looking me with the first possum I ever caught, over the following weeks this one became over sixty.
Timms trap 01
I primarily used Timms Traps for my possum trapping in New Zealand, at the time they, along with poisons, were the main tool for possum control although they have since been superseded by more effective traps, Hedgehogs are also an invasive species in New Zealand and can cause damage to ground nesting bird populations.
 By Tony Wills [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The stages of preparation that go into curing a possum skin, the drugs dog in LA airport on the way home was rather suspicious of them. 

I suppose after making the point that ethics demand we make the best use of anything we kill, whether that be meat for food, skins for clothing, sinew for cordage and bones for tools (check out Dr. Peter Grooms guest post a few months ago on experimental archaeology which includes some examples of fish hooks made from bone) we should address the very controversial topic of hunting for sport.

The quality of a Chinese Water Deer trophy is largely determined by the size and perfection of it's larger, canine tusks.  

I suppose the popular image of the typical bloodthirsty hunter is of the heads of animals, stuffed to the neck eerily looking at you from the walls of their study. Well if you came to my house you wouldn't see any of that, most of the skulls, antlers and teeth from the deer I have shot have become teaching aids for the courses I teach on deer management and game keeping. Those of you coming on our deer field to fork course will have a chance to look at them and learn to tell the approximate age of a deer based on it's teeth. 

So is it ethical to hunt a deer, or any other animal, for sport? Well I'm not really sure myself, while I don't personally hunt for sport, and by that I mean I don't pay to go hunting/shooting recreationaly, take trophy's or shoot 600 bird days on intensive driven pheasant shoots I certainly do condone shooting for sport. After all I trained as a game keeper, I now train game keepers myself and I take paying clients out to shoot deer. So how do I justify that to myself? 

Well ultimately as long as the animals being killed are treated humanely and there is a good case for the death of that animal, either it is a pest/causing damage and/or is going to be used as food I don't have a problem with it as long as the conditions the animal is reared in (if relevant) are humane and it is killed in the most humane, not the most 'sporting', way available to you. In most cases the question of rearing is irrelevant as the word hunting is synonymous with wild rather than domestic animals but pheasants and partridges, for example, are often reared and released into the wild specifically for shooting. 

Captive bred pheasants soon after release into the wild for a few more months of growing before the start of the shooting season. 
What I can't agree with is the killing of animals specifically for sport with no other use for the animal in mind than as a trophy and an ego trip for the 'sportsman'. With pests it's different I have no problem with rats being left uneaten and I'm certainly not volunteering to skin any, but they still need to be controlled. On the other hand I honestly can't understand the appeal of taking 'trophy' animals out of an otherwise fully functioning ecosystem unless it's for food. In the UK we have a broken ecosystem, one that does not function without our input, yes it's because of our heavy handed input that it needs our help in the first place but just stopping wouldn't do any good. Deer are the easiest example to use to illustrate this point, all the top predators in the British Isles have been extinct for years leaving nothing big enough to predate deer, additionally we have introduced four non native deer species leading to a booming deer population and the only control being starvation, unless we cull. 

No starvation isn't humane, yes it is a fact of nature that there will be lean years and animals will starve but when the only thing limiting a deer's lifespan is starvation we need to do something. This is when I'm sure cries of 're-widling' will go up but I'm afraid I have an opinion on that too, check out my past article from this blog in response to George Monbiot's TED talk here, and my more recent article on the NAEE UK's blog here.   

An example of a fully functioning ecosystem would be one where prey and predators still coexist together in some sort of balance, there are few if any of those places left on our planet but in those places I would consider it unethical to attempt to 'manage' wildlife through culling but I still wound't have a problem with hunting for food. 

Just as I can't agree with attempts to 'manage' ecosystems that are intact and do not need our input I also would warn against over harvesting. Whether a managed deer population, a grouse moor or a patch of edible fungi over harvesting can be devastating. If I over harvest on my deer cull one year that equals less venison next year, An overshot grouse moor might, when the losses due to shooting are combined with winter losses and predation not produce enough birds for any shooting to take place the next year, and a mushroom patch harvested before the fruiting bodies have spored may dwindle and diminish over time.   

Never harvest everything you see, one of these puff balls was more than enough. 
So in summary my rules for ethical hunting, gathering and foraging;

  1. Do not kill or pick anything you're not going to;
    • eat
    • wear
    • use for tools
    • use for medicine
    • use for material 
      • UNLESS it's destroying what you need to eat, wear, use for tools, use for medicine, or material.
  2. Do not kill anything just to see it fall. 
  3. By all means take the trophy, whether it's antlers, teeth, tail or tusks as long as you are still applying RULE 1.
  4. Never assume "there is more just around the corner" never deplete an entire berry patch, flock, herd or fairy ring, leave some for others, wildlife and the continuation of the species.
  5. Always use the most humane method to kill or catch live quarry that is available to you and ensure to the best of your ability that an animals suffering is ended quickly.
  6. Never take marginal shots, if your not sure you can kill it don't pull the trigger.
  7. Abide by the appropriate open/close seasons, they are there for a reason; to protect fawns and other newborn animals from being orphaned and to give the animals respite.
  8. Abide by other wildlife laws to ensure you do not pick protected species or engage in illegal hunting, fishing or foraging practices.  
With those rules in mind I'll leave the parting words to Martin;
Treat the countryside with reverence and respect, also, treat those with whom we share the countryside with the same respect, irrespective of our differing views on how it is to be enjoyed. MG

More tomorrow on the responsibility to teach the next generation(s) about hunting, gathering and foraging.


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