Burning the hills, and deer democracy

Is there any point in contacting a radio show unless your view echoes that of a substantial sector of the population? What if you have a minority view that is, nevertheless, grounded in good empirical science? This is when things get interesting: you get trolled and berated, lampooned and virtually spat upon. What to do? Mostly, you shut up, because you get fed up, and depressed, and concerned about the safety and well-being of your immediate family. But sometimes the issues are so central to your own understanding of what is creating an increasing crisis in societies, here, and globally, that you decide to see if you can articulate it, without rancour or blame. Occasionally, you find your view is at the crest of an often tyrannously overwhelming wave of public feeling. Then you’re lauded for your bravery and honesty. Much more often, you prepare yourself for the inevitable, and sometimes damaging, flak.


Take the issue of ‘wild deer’ increasingly being blamed for entering and overgrazing agricultural land, for instance. They got a drubbing on the Joe Duffy show this week. There was little discussion of the rather interesting, and somewhat poignant, history of deer in Ireland (actually, there may have been discussion, but I became overwhelmed by depression at some point and turned the radio off). I did not hear any talk of species except a mention of Muntjac in reference to the the proposal to introduce the European Lynx: Muntjac are non-native; lynx are non-native (so said the caller), therefore introducing lynx was a bad idea. Hang on: lynx are historically native to Ireland, at least prehistorically. By contrast, there was much discussion of the damage they did to ‘our’ or, more often, ‘my’ land, and the monetary cost of the damage was mentioned frequently. So was the issue of responsibility. The farmer is responsible for his animals, so the argument went: why wasn’t the NPWS or Coilte responsible (for which I imagine one can read, financially liable) for the deer which must be, in some sense ‘theirs’ since they reside primarily on parks or forestry lands?


The answer is, of course, that wild animals do not belong to anyone, in the sense that farm animals do. If humans ‘own’ everything in a country (and the general consensus appears to be that this is the case: everything is either property, or a ‘resource’, including water, the surrounding seas, and even, one must imagine, for the purposes of allocating ‘responsibility’, the air) then humans must have laws that reflect how any ‘damaging’ aspect of their property’s activity is to be reined in, or compensated for.


Between listening to the radio, preparing the house for visitors, organising classes and doing all the other things one does to survive, I also came across references to the  burning of uplands in Ireland, a practice I recall was common enough on the heather moorlands of Scotland when I was a child, but something that, I’d thought, was generally seen as unproductive and, given how frequently dangerous fires get out of control, is now discouraged as ‘second best land management’ (Rackham). I was particularly provoked into thinking about humanity’s inconsistent thinking on the issue of responsibility when a news reporter described the second reason, after land management, for burning uplands as being fueled by the ‘primitive urge to light fires’, as though this was somehow excusable.

Let me make something quite clear: I have nothing against primitive drives, in principle. Sex is one. So, if we dig deep enough, is reciprocity. Both are deeply satisfying and potentially enriching. But primitive urges cannot always be acted on: sometimes, and especially if the urge is not reciprocated, we need to learn restraint.

Restraint is something of a paradox for people: on the one hand, we’ve managed to restrain ourselves enough to live in artificially dense communities, suppressing any primitive urge to make more space for ourselves at the expense of other members of our own species. On the other, as far as other species and ecosystems are concerned, we’ve shown little, if any restraint. This is largely because we see ourselves as being the ones who run the show (something I think is directly contraindicated by the longevity of the microorganisms that long preceded, and will long outlive us, and even by the species we like to  call ‘vermin’ or ‘invasive’ that manage to slot themselves into the niches we’ve vacated with sustained use of clubs, greed, roads, fences, noise pollution and fire. Many of our fellow species are considerably more flexible, more prolific, more tolerant and more enduring than we are).

However, if the story we tell ourselves about our mastery, our ‘god-given’ right to own and exploit all else as resource or property, were true, we would, surely, have an obligation to organise things to ensure their continuity, so we could continue to flourish and prosper. After all, we don’t just rely on the wild for the healthiest meat, the purest water, the clearest air, the finest biodiversity and the best experiences we can attain (although increasingly, a lack of access to these attainments must be replaced, and alcohol, drugs, and other acts of ‘consumerism’ do indeed numb discretion and provide temporary relief from the acknowledgement of their absence). We also depend on the resilience of systems and the graduation of the ‘solar flow’ that complex systems provide to allow all our technology and artifice to operate effectively. Sharp graduations, from tornadoes to sudden temperature drops to drought cause our human invented structures to buckle and collapse. This is not news. It’s well known, scientifically authenticated, empirical fact. But we choose to ignore it because it does not fit the story of mastery.

The most depressing thing about listening to the Joe Duffy show was not the call for culling, or the demand for responsibility. It was easy to appreciate the frustrations of the farmers who made the case that their livelihoods were threatened by the invasion. It was difficult to deny that a deer causes extensive damage to a vehicle if it is hit (hard to avoid the conclusion that the deer doesn’t benefit from the encounter either, but let’s leave that aside for now). What was really depressing was the lack of empathy or any attempt to look at things from a more objective perspective. We got no facts and figures on actual numbers, no details of the species involved, no review of the change, if any, in land use.

Cull, then, if you absolutely must (but use people who know how to kill humanely), and keep it to a minimum, until and unless you can do better research. Invest in research. Give the remaining deer somewhere to go, a let out clause. Somewhere undisturbed, and with clearances so they do not automatically seek to graze in neighbouring fields. Let them have some space, somewhere they can live and breed without causing a nuisance or being interfered with. Then do the research: learn about numbers, the history and movement patterns of each of the three species living here. The impact and extent of hybridisation. And disseminate the information, have workshops and discussions.

Oh, and when culling, how about considering distributing the meat to those who are most lacking in good nutrition – and who will not waste it. For minimal cost, and as an exercise in education and appreciation, why not consider having feasts in villages. Or special meals in prisons, or in homeless shelters.

Finally, consider reorganising how agriculture takes place, integrating routes or corridors into fields that deer and other migrating wild species can use. Culverts under roads need not be especially expensive, if the research into where to locate them has been properly conducted.

I talked about primitive urges earlier, and one final thing from Joe’s discussion stuck with me. Someone who had damaged their car by running into a deer said that deer ‘leap at the lights’. This seems unlikely. I used to go stalking with my father in Scotland and we had trouble even getting close enough for him to take a shot, let alone having them leap towards us for any reason. ‘Lamping’ is done, as far as I know, by driving around more or less in the dark and then visually ‘stunning’ the deer by shining a vast battery of headlamps directly at the animal. Blinded, they likely freeze long enough for someone to take a pot shot. The leap towards the lights is more likely to be a random attempt to escape than a counter attack, or evidence of attraction to light.

Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost touch with empathy for anything but ourselves (and even that is patchy) or for the animals we’ve ‘tamed’. Even they are liable to a kitch version of anthropomorphism – dressed up in human-looking clothes, accessorised, attributed human emotions.

The best farmers I know – the ones with the healthiest, most productive animals, the juciest fruit, the most succulent vegetables – are rarely rich. What they are is humane, and knowledgeable. There is knowledge in every rural community of Ireland, deep knowledge of the land, and the animals, domestic and wild, but it’s as counter-cultural, and as difficult to spot, as a thin eel wriggling upstream.

It’s unlikely that those with that kind of knowledge would venture to voice their concerns on Joe Duffy’s show. But those people are, in their own ways, more articulate, more in tune, and most importantly, more grounded in empirical knowledge, than any of the callers who demand yet more subsumation of the wild, that ‘it’ respect ‘our’ rules, without realising that, ultimately, we are utterly enmeshed in ‘it’.


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