British ecological crisis: is there a solution?
The British countryside is an ecological wasteland. By this I do not simply mean that it has been impacted by humanity—every landscape has. I mean that humanity’s actions have been so harmful that it is no longer a functioning ecosystem. This is evident to any ecologist who studies it, and so too is the solution—rewilding. But this is not an article in defence of rewilding—others, more eloquent than myself, have already written articles and books on why Britain must rewild. Sadly, there is no political will to rewild Britain. Even the mildest forms of rewilding, such as the reintroduction of hen harriers to the Scottish highlands, face stiff resistance from well financed astroturf groups which our craven politicians are loath to oppose. I write instead to argue that the Labour Party, in conjunction with vigorous support for rewilding, should consider an alternative to rebalance the British landscape, one which, while not ideal, is significantly better than the “management” we have now; hunting.
There are a myriad reasons why the British countryside is an ecological disaster, ranging from sheep overgrazing on hills that ought to be forested, to the destruction of hedgerows that used to house native birds, but the greatest reason is the lack of apex predators. These are species, like bears and wolves, which act as keystone species in their ecosystems; not only do they keep the populations of other species in check, but they have impacts that reverberate across ecosystems to make them functional. Britain has hunted itself out of them; the last British wolf was seen (and killed) in 1680, the last British bear disappeared around the same time the Anglo-Saxons showed up, and the last British lynx disappeared shortly before the War of the Roses. The centuries long lack of apex predators has had a number of impacts on the British environment, most obviously an explosion of their erstwhile prey.
Of all the prey whose population has exploded, the most harmful is deer. The deer population has exploded across the UK since the disappearance of their native predators. This is most notable in the Scottish Highlands, where deer dominate the landscape, but also the case in suburbs and urban areas. They eat the landscape dry, preventing native plants from growing, and causing drainage problems that contribute to flooding further downstream.
The most effective solution to deer overpopulation is the reintroduction of their wild predators. In North America, wolf reintroductions have resulted in a rapid reduction of deer numbers, and a return to a functioning landscape. Unfortunately, in Britain the political resistance to the reintroduction of wolves is so strong that we can almost guarantee that, apart from perhaps in the remotest portions of the Highlands, they will never be re-introduced. Many of the areas of Britain which suffer from deer overpopulation might not even be able to support functioning wolf populations, due to the landscape being urban or suburban. This is especially true in the south, where deer populations are high enough to cause ecological damage, but so too are human populations, making rewilding socially undesirable. Which brings me to the second-best solution to rewilding in order to control deer populations—hunting.
In North America, where hunting is much more common than the UK, and landscape management much more scientific, hunting has been shown to be an effective way to reduce deer populations and help the rest of the ecosystem. How effective varies by trial and the exact conditions of the hunt; whether it is part of a general hunting season, whether the landscape is urban or suburban, and whether the hunters are members of the public or professional marksmen with a quota, all appear to have an impact. What isn’t debated is that it is effective; so why don’t we have hunting in the UK as a method to control deer populations? The reasons aren’t due to uncertainty of its effectiveness, but due to politics.
Traditionally, hunting in the UK has been the preserve of the aristocratic elite. Even today, hunting is dominated by large estates that charge thousands of pounds in order to bag the perfect kill. Currently these estates are part of the problem that keeps the British landscape in the ecological hellscape that it is in. Estates are stocked with large numbers of deer and other species hunters like to kill in order to ensure that customers can get to bag a prime specimen, and anything natural that might harm the hunt is destroyed. Hence why game wardens have been on the forefront of the opposition to rewilding the British countryside, and why even supposed green hunting groups, like the British Association for Hunting and Conservation, care little for attempts to restore the British landscape to something resembling a functioning ecosystem. This sort of aristocratic hunting should be opposed by all socialists, and part of the Labour rural policy ought to be to break up managed estates like these, and to replace them with rewilded areas.
But if this isn’t the sort of hunting that the Labour Party should support, what is? For many comrades in the Labour Party, the answer would be no hunting. Many members are far too urban and squeamish to be able to go and pull the trigger on the deer ourselves. It is no coincidence that one of the few reforms of the last Labour government which is lauded by all segments of the party is the fox hunting ban – in many ways, hunting is plainly antithetical to the Labour ethos. But this view is far too urban and anti-environmental to make any empirical sense, and is more rooted in the animal rights pablum of PETA than the scientific socialism which comrades ought to espouse. The answer to the twin problems of deer overpopulation and the aristocratic domination of hunting isn’t to abolish the hunt altogether, but to champion the democratisation of the hunt.
Britain remains one of the last countries on earth where the pursuit of hunting is confined to an aristocratic few. In neighbouring France, hunting is a popular pastime, with few of the aristocratic cultural signifiers it has here. Nor does hunting and support of hunters have to be conservative. In the UK, rural areas have long resisted the Labour Party, making many members think that there is something inherently conservative in living in the country. Yet in Canada, many rural areas vote for the social democratic NDP, and form the basis of that country’s socialist movement. Many of the supporters of the NDP are hunters, and that is reflected in that party’s far more hunter friendly policy towards the sport compared to Labour’s antagonism to it. Even in the United States, Bernie Sanders has relied on the support of Vermont hunters for years in order to get re-elected, and has gained it by supporting democratising the annual deer season.
My proposal, that Labour enthusiastically support the broadening of deer hunting in Britain to the level of popular sport, may prove anathema to many party members. But it lies within the best traditions of the party. It is based on scientific evidence on what is best for the British landscape, would provide a new form of recreation and employment for rural Britons, and would break the power of the landed elites that still govern our countryside. What about it isn’t there to support?
The views expressed in blog posts are the views of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the view of Scientists for Labour (SfL) unless posted from the official SfL account.