Bounties paid in barren lands

Silent Fields
February 2, 2007

For a budding zoologist such as myself in the 1960s, a gamekeeper's gibbet was a veritable treasure trove. Finding a collection of mummified bodies strung up in a lonely wood engendered a mixture of fascination and fear. Those suspended corpses were at once both deeply disturbing and an opportunity, for like a graverobber I stole the heads of rooks, crows and other corvids - hundreds of them - and used their skulls for my undergraduate project.

A gamekeeper's gibbet is a rare thing today - as indeed are gamekeepers, and the few who survive know that displaying their trophies is not at all politically correct. In the early 1900s, there were no fewer than 23,000 gamekeepers, shooting, trapping, snaring and poisoning British wildlife. Their focus was those species considered to be "vermin": birds of prey, corvids, sparrows, foxes, badgers, weasels, stoats, moles, hedgehogs, rats, mice and otters.

For anyone interested in natural history, this fascinating book documents the wide-scale destruction of British wildlife in the name of farming and game preservation. Using churchwardens' records and other obscure material, Roger Lovegrove has carefully exposed the magnitude of vermin-killing from the 1500s to the present. Silent Fields provides a remarkable analysis of the social history of wildlife and our changing attitudes to it. Among much else, it provides an excellent historical background to the continuing controversy over fox-hunting.

The deliberate killing of vermin to preserve game for hunting started in the 1500s with the introduction of bounty payments. The figures make chilling reading, not least because they give us a feel for the abundance of certain species in previous times. For example, during the 17th century at Wirksworth in the Peak District bounties were paid on a total of 1,775 raven heads over just 18 years. Lovegrove estimates that the total number of house sparrows killed deliberately between 1700 and 1930 was no fewer than 100 million. As recently as 1980, bounties were still being paid on bullfinches.

Bounties were hardly an efficient means of eradication, for the hunters had a vested interest in not destroying their source of income. In the past century there was a bounty on grey squirrel tails, until in 1958 it was discovered that hunters were simply cutting off the tails to claim their shilling and releasing the squirrels so they would produce more tails.

Bounty-hunting was also ineffective because it was most popular (and lucrative) when the species were most abundant. With the exception of the introduced coypu, bounty- hunting did not work; and once persecution ceased, numbers bounced back.

In the Middle Ages it was generally believed that God had given us animals to do with as we pleased, and this included eliminating those that interfered with farming, hunting or any other human activity. Attitudes to wildlife were harsh to say the least - bull-baiting, badger-baiting and cock-fighting were commonplace.

A more sympathetic attitude started to emerge in the 1600s, but it took a very long time to change opinions. Even today there is much confusion and hypocrisy; some abhor the hunting of foxes with hounds, or the trapping of songbirds, yet apparently accept without question the almost unimaginable destruction wreaked upon small birds by changes in farming in the past 50 years. It is deeply ironic that bounty-hunting has been replaced by persecution of a more insidious kind, such that house sparrows and bullfinches, along with most other small farmland birds, are far less abundant today than they were 40 or 50 years ago.

In this scholarly yet readable account, Lovegrove takes us on a tour of species we have lost (bears and wolves) and those that continue to be persecuted. He describes the methods of removal; how he extracted historical data from parish records; and how such destruction was justified by its perpetrators, followed by detailed accounts of individual species.

Lovegrove finishes by looking at attempts to reintroduce species such as the red kite, sea eagle and the goshawk, once considered vermin.

Remarkably, these reintroductions seem to be working, despite continuing illegal persecution, but this is a fragile success. Once common across much of Britain, the raven has been persecuted relentlessly by shepherds and gamekeepers since the 1500s, and by the late 19th century was confined to western margins of the UK. As a result, the raven was a rare visitor to the Peak District, close to where I have lived for the past 30 years - the last breeding birds were killed in the 1860s.

Almost miraculously, in the 1990s one or two pairs returned to breed, and within a few years ravens were a regular source of joy for birdwatchers and walkers alike. Then, a few years ago, it seems that someone laced a sheep carcass with poison and at a stroke eliminated the raven from the Peak District once again.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behaviour and evolution, Sheffield University.

Silent Fields: The Long Decline of a Nation's Wildlife

Author - Roger Lovegrove
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 416
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 19 852071 9

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