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Killing in the Name of Sport

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PIGEONS GOOD AT MATH
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In 2011, fishing lake owners and anglers called for a change to the protected status of otters so that anglers could legally shoot any otter believed to be threatening fish.

Earlier this year, the government wildlife conservation agency Natural England allowed the destruction of four buzzard nests and their eggs. The reason was to protect a nearby pheasant shoot.

Currently, the RPRA - the Royal Pigeon Racing Association - is lobbying to re-classify racing pigeons as livestock, which would enable pigeon-racers to circumvent the protected status of sparrowhawks and peregrine falcons to shoot them.

The people behind these stories all have one thing in common (apart from an enthusiasm for guns) - an arrogant belief that the lives of other animals cannot possibly be worth as much as their own pleasure.

The animals whose lives are in question also have something in common - they have all been persecuted to the edge of extinction in the UK, and have only recently begun to recover. Otters vanished from most of their former range between the 1950s and 1970s. There are now believed to be "several thousand otters present in England today" according to the Environment Agency. Buzzards became confined to outlying regions in the 1950s and 60s, but have recovered since, with their population being estimated at 31,000-44,000 in 2000. Sparrowhawk numbers dropped severely in the 1950s for similar reasons to buzzards, only beginning to recover in the 1980s to about 32,000 breeding pairs, although they have recently experienced declines again. Peregrine falcon numbers are estimated to have reached 1,500 pairs after a low in the 1960s.

These species are recovering thanks to the removal of factors which helped to cause their original declines, such as hunting and pesticides, and also active conservation measures such as breeding and releasing. But the existence of these species is, to 'sportsmen', an inconvenience. They decry the taking of carp, racing pigeons and pheasants, even though only 14% of pigeon losses and 1-2% of pheasant losses from shoots are attributable to birds of prey (while a third of all pheasants die on roads). There has also been much discussion recently about whether recovering predator species have resultantly caused a decline in species like songbirds. But this is mere scapegoating, a distraction from the inconvenient fact that such declines are the result of a combination of pressures from human activity. Predators cannot thrive if their food sources are not thriving, unless we are providing alternative food sources - how about 35million pheasants per year? Or the multitudes of fish bred and kept for angling?

The calls for culls and legalised shootings are just another manifestation of the 'mine mine mine' mentality that drives human persecution of so many wild animals, whether it is cormorants, seals, raptors or otters. We do not mind living alongside other species, so long as they never dare to infringe in any way on our lifestyles. And if they do infringe, even if only because we have dismantled their ecosystems or presented them with opportunity, it is an insult not to be borne. The message being given out by the calls for killing, and perpetuated by the government's favourable response (at least in the case of the buzzards' nests) is that nature will never be more than tolerated in this tidy human world of ours, and dealt with swiftly for any infractions.

Would killing wildlife like otters and raptors to protect game birds and fish even work? Predators are often territorial, and as experience with various species has shown us again and again, removing or killing individuals merely invites others to move in. Shooting troublesome otters and raptors would only create a conveyor belt of death and, perhaps in the cases of species whose recoveries are still fragile, like peregrine falcons, a gradual retreat back to rarity. So long as the food supplies we have created remain, and we refuse to acknowledge the need to restore ecosystems, the predators are likely to remain too - unless we wipe them from the face of the Earth completely.

The very nature of sports like game shooting involves killing. This should not be seen as intrinsically bad, so long as such activities are managed in an environmentally-sensitive way and the actual act of killing is performed as quickly and competently as possible. To argue that no one should hunt or fish is to deny our own biological and cultural past. But it is also true that the ever-growing human population is placing ever-growing demands on the planet for food, water, space and other necessary needs. To demand yet more death to accommodate what are little more than leisure activities demonstrates a phenomenal selfishness, and makes a mockery of us all.

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