The reasons behind pest control

Pete Brookes goes all 007 on us and explains the rationale for taking a life, only this time it’s with an air rifle rather than a Walther PPK.

Credit: David Jinks

They say people can judge one’s age by your favourite James Bond actor, the one who would have been playing the part during the time of your earlier and influential years. In my own case that would have been the late, great Roger Moore, although my actual favourite 007 outing is 2012’s Skyfall.

Not only is it partly set in the majestic Glen Etive in Scotland, where incidentally, struck by the beauty of the place, I spontaneously proposed to my partner, but there is also a scene earlier in the film set in the National Gallery in London where  Bond and the new Quartermaster meet for the first time. Here the young upstart Q mocks 007, intimating that secret agents are only required “as every now and then a trigger needs to be pulled”, to which Bond typically and brilliantly reposts: “Or not pulled.”

Cinematic genius in my book, but that line can equally equate to ourselves if we hunt with our air rifles. I am not talking about the physical safety of the shot, what I am looking at is the reasoning and justification for the pulling of the trigger and the resulting killing of any animal.

As airgun hunters we go about the process of killing animals in several ways, and we process the rationale and justification for what we do in our own individual manner. 

I am pretty confident that if you have spent your hard-earned money purchasing this magazine and an interest to read this article so far, you have no desire to invest time and money solely to kill something. That short period of the conclusive result is just a small timespan in the participation of your sport when you think about how much time you spend on the lead-up to that actual point. 

When I leave my house with a rifle in hand I hope for a positive outcome, with a successful bag being taken safely and humanely. If not, then so be it, but at least I will have been lucky enough to have got out into the countryside and I can always plan for my next trip. 

Two years ago I came across a journal published by Exeter University titled Killing Squirrels: Exploring motivations and practices of lethal wildlife management. (Crowley, Hinchliffe & McDonald, 2018). I was a bit sceptical  at first with it originating  from an academic source, as in my opinion the university culture tends not to favour the shooting and countryside ethos these days.

This work did not condemn, but then neither did it defend non-human killing, and I can honestly say it changed my whole perspective and understanding of my reasoning and justification for why I shoot and hunt. This is a fitting piece of real-world research, so If you get the chance give it a read. With the authors’ consent I base this article around extracts from the journal, and I hope I give them credit by doing so.

We can identify motivation for hunting the smaller species of wildlife that we as airgunners consider legitimate quarry. We tend to use the words “pest” and “vermin” to identify rats, grey squirrels, rabbits and corvids alike, which somehow makes the process of killing more acceptable. 

In the case of the rabbit it is easy to be comfortable with the large scale lethal control of any destructive species, but when that small mammal is lifeless at your feet as a result of your actions then personally I have no animosity towards that individual creature. 

In Germany and Austria, where hunting is still part of the national culture, they honour a shot deer by the “Letzer Bissen” or “last bite” and place a small twig in the dead animal’s mouth as a final meal to show respect. A bit much for a slain bunny, but the point is there that we should really respect all that we hunt and kill.

Is it killing or controlling? When the responsible shooter controls, they also kill, but the term doesn’t always work the other way round

It is difficult not to use euphemisms when we discuss killing animals as we tend to use words that are less impactive and have a tendency to utilise nicer basic wording such as “dispatch” and “cull” to describe what we do. The whole world is guilty of this, myself included, but maybe when describing wildlife management, as the necessary and functional activity it is, there is no wrongfulness in the manner of this wording, and in this case the actual terminology used may be more accurate and helpful.

Our actual reasoning for the lethal control of animals can be broken into three main distinct groupings, these being reparative/sacrificial, stewardship and categorical killing. I am not including killing for food as I very much doubt anybody relies on a firearm to completely feed and sustain themselves these days.

Conservation is a classic example of reparative/sacrificial killing where we have no real qualms killing one species to protect another. The red squirrel is not an endangered species worldwide, but it does attract a more positive view in some part to its more cute and fluffy appearance than the grey squirrel. 

Add that to the potential loss of an indigenous species in its historical context and the threat to our national broadleaf forestry due to the actions of an invasive species such as the grey, then people are more inclined to take the action of killing grey squirrels when possibly they would not have any real inclination to do so in any other circumstance.

Stewardship killing is an area that as airgunners we regularly assist, be it protecting crops from rabbit damage or keeping grey squirrel numbers down in commercial woodland. Here we tend to link it into the essential workings of the countryside, so we consider it totally acceptable and necessary to kill, making it sometimes more matter of fact. 

In these circumstances we are more inclined to think of quarry as “the enemy”, but on the flip side we do tend to have within the whole shooting community a strong desire and mindset to ensure a quick and humane dispatch for any animal we shoot. I am sure we have all experienced that gut-wrenching feeling when we know we have hit the quarry, but it manages to get back into cover out of view and unrecoverable. Not a nice feeling.

Categorical killing can be linked to the prior examples and our participation. This relates more to our perception of the quarry, and if we describe the animal in a particular manner it makes it more “killable”. I earlier mentioned how we identify “pests” and “vermin”, which implies a shoot on sight policy as if the animal must be killed whatever the circumstances. It must be remembered that if we kill any animal, we are killing it for what it does, not what it is!

There is a fourth category having the unpleasant expression of “recreational killing”, which at its best we could say may be linked to the aforementioned categories where airgunners actually pay to shoot quarry. At its worst it is taking a potshot at a grey squirrel in your back garden from the bedroom window, where there was no real reason or justification to do so. 

A small population of greys within an urban area, isolated from the rest of the country by concrete buildings and spaces, will have no impact on red squirrel conservation or protect forestry, but may have a positive aspect on other people’s lives who live there and actually like squirrels in their garden, whichever species that may be.

From my police firearms days, the reasoning for the potential use of lethal force on a person was firmly grinded into my own mind. No credit here for my own natural consciousness, more to do with hours of realistic and demanding training and operational experience. 

For me it was not a gut feeling, but more a confidence to assimilate information to reach the proverbial “line in the sand” before taking the shot – or not. If that shot were to be taken then it was not to kill, but more about saving a life, be it yours truly, my mate in blue standing next to me or an innocent member of the public. There must always be a reason and justification to kill and take any life.

Shooting publications are rarely comfortable using the word “killing” although opponents who use the word “murder” are doing themselves no favours with inaccuracy. Yes, it is killing, but I feel no shame how I communicate to others and I am quite happy to rationalise in my own mind what I do. 

Human expansion via building developments, including technology expansions, will wipe out more of our valuable wildlife and habitat than a couple of million conservation-minded shooters over the generations. Death is very much part of living, so if we, as airgun hunters, carry this out humanely and respectfully then the justification will always be there.

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