The Cheviot, the Stag and the Peacock
But the reactions are worth noticing, even our finest writers are confused. Alex Massie, reverts to his go-to line of patter that “there is no need for anything to be done at all” in a column in The Times.
There’s more than a whiff of tweed about his recounting of his own first shoot – where we’re told that he “killed the beast with a single shot” before explaining inexplicably that – “The future lies in meat grown in laboratories.”
This trope that if you haven’t actually shot skinned and canned the content of your Fray Bentos, you’re a raving hypocrite is rife. But there’s more going on to this defensive twitch that the “Huntress” has revealed.
One of the best things to come out of 2014 was Andrew Tickell – aka the Peat Worrier – a sort of hirsute Alban Gore Vidal. But on the issue of hunting where he complaints of “yet another wave of incurious metropolitan commentary, dripping with dumb incomprehension and stereotyping” – it becomes problematic. Tickell’s commentary is always eloquent and his rapier wit is legendary. But there’s a danger of lapsing in to a prolix conservatism. In a rather beautiful piece Tickell recounts seeing ‘a pod of dolphins’, the ‘magnitude of a golden eagle, unfurled wing’ and ‘deadly toadstools’.
He goes on to explain: “all this life was double-threaded with death. And I’m not sure most urban weans in Scotland know anything similar.”
‘Urban’ is a code-word and you’d have to question whether the urban weans are really as cosseted and protected from death as the writer suggests.
This really isn’t about dumb incomprehension, it’s a moment where we have the potential for people to wake up and join the dots between land management, land ownership, environment and economy.
Way back in 2010 Jason Cowley at the New Statesman chartered the decline in interest in land ownership as a political issue that had after all dominated since the 18th Century. He argued that: “The explicit connection between land ownership and political power was not severed finally until 1999, when most of the hereditary peers were removed from the House of Lords by New Labour.”
But such connections aren’t quite so easy to sever.
Describing the Duke of Bedford, (owner of Woburn Abbey, a 13,000-acre estate in Buckinghamshire, Woburn Golf Club and Woburn Safari Park, estimated to be worth £489m) he lays out how he is part of a nexus of landed power:
“He and his extended family are part of the “cousinhood”, the secretive network of 6,000 aristocratic families and their relatives who, through intermarriage, continue to own much of the land of the British Isles, and whose influence and control were historically exerted through the Conservative and Whig parties, the House of Lords, Oxford and Cambridge, the Crown and the armed forces.
The cousinhood, as well as the institutional landowners, continue to profit – often through uncovenanted benefits, such as when previously worthless land becomes fortuitously valuable – from the great land-grabs of British history: the Norman Conquest; the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, which freed up a quarter of the land of England and Wales for redistribution to allies including some Oxbridge colleges, and among families of influence that were prepared to embrace the new religion; Oliver Cromwell’s capture of Church and Crown land (much of the Crown’s lands were not returned after the restoration in 1660); the Highland clearances and the enclosures of common land into private estates from the end of the 17th century up to the mid-19th century. Even today, much of the land owned by the cousinhood is not registered; Her Majesty’s Land Registry has not carried out a cadastral survey of Britain, and it was confirmed to me that as much as 30 per cent of the land in England and Wales remains unregistered.
In 2007, the Land Registry expressed the ambition to embark on a nationwide survey of land ownership – nothing less than the compilation of a contemporary Domesday Book. Little progress was made. Like so many public bodies, the Land Registry is now being reduced and weakened by public spending cuts.”
This cousinhood – and its murky unregistered extent – is even worse in Scotland, where it distorts our landscape, contaminates our culture and our own sense of ourselves. If we are divorced from nature, as we surely are, it is largely because we don’t have access to it, don’t have ‘ownership’ of it and not because of our dumb incomprehension.
To get a sense of perspective about the level of this estrangement it’s worth noting that a fifth (a fifth!) of Scotland is managed for grouse shooting.
Amongst the giddy celebration of the rural let us realise the connections between this extreme form of inequality and its impact on land, ecology and carnage.
“Driven” grouse shooting – where “beaters” flush (drive) the terrified grouse towards a static line of armed hunters dressed head-to-toe in tweed and hiding inside grouse butts – is no less obscene as Ms Switlyk’s activities. The “glory” is defined by the number of red grouse shot (the more the better) and the “guns” often pose with the corpses at the end of the day, congratulating themselves on their potency.
The first is habitat manipulation (rotational burning of heather) to produce a mosaic of nutritious young heather for grouse to eat and older heather to provide nesting cover and protection from predators. The second is parasite control, which includes medicating the grouse with a veterinary drug dispensed via medicated grit and direct dosing, and also the mass culling of mountain hares that host some parasites. The third is lethal predator control – typically of foxes, weasels, stoats, crows, but some grouse moor managers are also involved with the illegal persecution of birds of prey.”
Far from any of this being ‘natural’ – the wilderness designation of large parts of Scotland is a myth. This is a designed landscape, and when you celebrate its wilderness status you are celebrating the political historical process that rendered it that way.
The idea of the urban-rural divide is also a myth that ignores the extent to which the urban has been ‘wilded’ and the rural industrialised.
“Red grouse are now maintained at such artificially high densities that they are badly affected by a disease (Cryptosporidiosis) usually associated with high density flocks of captive poultry. This disease, which spreads via the communal use of medicated grit trays, threatens not only the red grouse but also species of high conservation concern that inhabit grouse moors, e.g. black grouse.
The killing of predators on driven grouse moors is a relentless, year-round slaughter. The number of animals killed is unknown, as there is no statutory requirement for reporting, but the annual toll on predators must number in the hundreds of thousands, at least. Mountain hares are killed to such an extent (almost 38,000 reported in 2017 alone) that this protected species has suffered a catastrophic decline on grouse moors in the Eastern Highlands, including inside the Cairngorms National Park.
In addition to legal predator control, birds of prey continue to be illegally persecuted on some driven grouse moors, to such an extent it is causing population-level effects on iconic species such as golden eagles, hen harriers, red kites and peregrines.”
This model – where managed grouse contaminate wild birds can be seen across Scotland in other areas – the same is true where farmed salmon contaminate and undermine their wild cousins. But this is also the motif being held up to sell Scotland globally – salmon, grouse, deer are the icons of Scotland around the world – but they represent a a bland simulacrum of what a ‘nature’ Scotland might actually look like. The icons we revere are the very things which are contaminating our land. Funny that.
Whether its sheep, deer or grouse the culture and economy of hunting points to a Scotland in which we are strangers in our own country, alienated and disconnected from land itself.
But there is nothing ‘natural about any of this. As John McGrath wrote in the 1973 Cheviot the Stag and the Black Black Oil: “The Island of Rhum was cleared of its inhabitants, some 400 souls, to make way for one sheep farmer and 8000 sheep.”
What we need to ‘unleash’ is not another round of carnage but a new Scotland that rejects these models and structures of inequality and is for life and for democracy.