There is nothing sadder than seeing two teams of ‘the good guys’ squaring up for a ruckus. Heaven knows there are enough bad guys out there – let’s fight them! Or, even better, get them to wage an internal war of attrition. Instead, this weekend brought us another friendly fire incident – or at least the reporting of one – in Magnus Linklater’s Guardian article ‘Why the claws are out for the RSPB’.
The hook of the article is that the RSPB is under attack from some quarters for being overbearing absentee landlords (they own 300,000 acres and are Scotland’s eighth-largest landowner) who are riding rough-shod over rural communities’ needs in the name of bird conservation. An RSPB spokesman returns fire – ‘… 70% of people convicted of offences relating to bird of prey persecution since 1990 were employed as gamekeepers.’
It’s a wonderful cocktail of all the things we love to hate – on the one hand, an apparently urban-centred bureaucracy messing with the lives of country people; on the other hand, the big bad estate owners and lairds poisoning our magnificent birds of prey for the sake of their filthy-rich guns, out from the city for a weekend of fresh blood. Somewhere along the line a few crofters and hill farmers get caught up in this catastrophic crossfire for making it known that the recently reintroduced sea eagle is taking some of their lambs. Who do they think they are? But what it might be more interesting to ask is – who do we think they are? Are they the salt of the earth who cherish and nurture the land for precious little thanks and reward? Or are they a venal peasantry who would kill anything and everything just to send an extra lamb to the mart come September?
As many small voices in Mr Linklater’s article were keen to point out – none of this mud-slinging does the birds any good. (But to hell with the birds, right? – there are principles at stake here …)
Of course there are some bad guys in the mix. There are some atrocious people with large sporting estates who shouldn’t be left in charge of a window box, let alone a few thousand acres of upland Britain. But there are plenty of estate owners who know fine well the cost of land-management and that a paid gamekeeper keeping fox numbers in check benefits the curlew and the plover as much as they protect the grouse. There are no doubt some hill farmers so bludgeoned by our industrial demand for cheap food that they’d gladly kill every bird on the moor. But for the most part these are the very people who know the value, not the price, of a drumming snipe at dusk. And yes, I daresay there are both distant bureaucrats within the RSPB and some wardens on the ground who’d gladly clear the people and their damned livestock off the land for a single calling corncrake (though it’s important too to note that crofting produces better habitat for such birds than any liveried Landrover ever will). But let’s also be real – the RSPB as a whole is a one of the great custodians of our wildlife and our wild places.
Apart from the bad apples in each of these boxes – and by all means go and individually prosecute them or run them out of town – there’s the other, more important, lot of bad guys. They are the quiet faceless ones who turn the good guys’ fire inwards. They have no principles of their own – just a perpetual desire for the freedom to go on making money. And there’s nothing they like more than turning the principled against the principled.
We are all more or less comfortable in the company of the three archetypes presented in the Guardian article – the RSPB member, the landowner and the hill farmer. But the land and the wildlife, at least for the foreseeable future, need all three. It is our job to get out of our comfortable trenches and do the far more difficult work of forming durable partnerships.