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Monday, 8 February 2016

Hunter Gatherer Ethics pt 3 (Poaching)

We have suffered a bit of a problem with poaching recently near Riddy Wood and as we are addressing 'Hunter Gatherer Ethics' at the moment I thought it would be a good idea to talk a little bit about poaching. 

I guess the first thing that springs to mind when poaching is mentioned is the poaching of endangered species, and perhaps the illegal trade in ivory and other restricted animal products.

Pallet of seized raw ivory (USFWS)
Pallets of Confiscated Elephant Ivory.
By U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It's very simple to say that this sort of poaching is unethical and should be combated as strongly as possible but the waters grow a little murky when we talk about poaching in the UK. I think there are a few reasons for that;

  • There has always been a perceived class divide between those who hunt and fish and those who don't in the UK. Up until the last fifty years or so this divide was very real, the only people who hunted were the rich landowning classes, or under their strict instructions farming tenants and game keepers could keep down the vermin. Perhaps because of the class divide people thought those landowners deserved to have 'their' game poached.
  • There would have been many reasons to poach in the UK in years gone by, and hunger would have been chief among them and it seems a bit heartless to talk about the rights and wrongs of poaching when the alternative is hunger and starvation.
  • Poaching has become romanticized in literature with books such as Tales of the Old Poachers and Roald Dahl's Danny Champion of the World making poaching seem like a harmless and romantic old tradition.    

Roald Dahl's gipsy caravan - - 112566
Poaching has become romanticized in books such as Roald Dahl's Danny Champion of the World in which Danny and his poacher father live in a caravan like this one.
George Mahoney [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]
Unfortunately poaching is not as romantic and harmless as it is often portrayed, perhaps the 'old' poachers were an honorable bunch who only took enough for their families, and as a husband and father myself I have every sympathy with that but there are plenty of poachers out there now, as there have been in the past, who are just as much criminals as a person who would rob a post office. We have recently found several dead Chinese Water Deer  near Riddy Wood, one of which had the head removed and nothing else. This is a terrible waste of food and of life. 

There have been poaching gangs for hundreds of years, as far back as the 13th Century when the border reivers in Northumberland, Cumbria and Scotland wreaked havoc. Poaching, although not their only pastime, the theft of livestock, kidnap and murder were also on the agenda, was one of their significant crimes. Their trouble making so vexed the Archbishop of Glasgow that in 1525 he placed a curse on them, a small portion reads thus;

"I curse their head and all the hairs of their head; I curse their face, their brain (innermost thoughts), their mouth, their nose, their tongue, their teeth, their forehead, their shoulders, their breast, their heart, their stomach, their back, their womb, their arms, their leggs, their hands, their feet, and every part of their body, from the top of their head to the soles of their feet, before and behind, within and without."

Modern poaching gangs may not murder and kidnap, although an acquaintance of mine when I was studying keepering and game management at college had his arm crippled when he was shot with a 12 bore by poachers while working on a pheasant shoot.

Organised poachers can also cause thousands of pounds worth of losses if they empty entire pens of pheasants or course whole herds of deer with their dogs. These poachers aren't out after just enough to fill their bellies or feed a family they are out to profit from the game managed by other people. They use methods which are not only illegal but inhumane, methods like dazzling herds of deer with vehicle headlights and then deliberately running into them to break their legs or spines before finishing them off with knives or clubs. 

To me the Robin Hood style tale of Danny and his father in Roald Dahls classic and the justice done to the villainous Mister Victor Hazel seems harmless, although I'm sure I wouldn't feel the same if I happened to be Mister Hazels game keeper. And the romantic image of the pot poacher taking the odd rabbit or partridge for his family in time of need seems justified but systematic poaching is not in any way ethical either in terms of the treatment of the quarry or the impact on those who put time and money into the management and preservation of the game being poached. 


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