The unofficial book club review no 1

I receive on average a book every week and manage usually a review for a mainstream publication once a month. Yet some of these books are superb and deserve attention, so I have decided to post occasional pieces about books that I think deserve coverage.

Birds of Passage: Hunting and Conservation in Malta, by Mark-Anthony Falzon (MAF), Vol 25 Environmental Anthropology and Ethnobiology, Berghahn, Oxford. £99

MAF is a birder but also an anthropologist and he has tried what few attempt: to understand the other side in the debate. Hunting and conservation in Malta are highly polarised spheres and yet theoretically there should be common ground between naturalists and shooters everywhere. Why?

Because both are deeply embedded in a relationship with nature. Both suffer great privations to fulfil this encounter. Both are deeply attached to the lives of their chosen objects – birds, mammals etc – and experience their ‘target species’ mediated by expensive equipment to which they devote substantial resources. Both are increasingly anxious about sustainable populations of, say, birds and mammals. Both are profoundly opposed to the extinction-by-neglect that threatens the biosphere, because of the massive increase in human indifference to the natural world. In short hunters and conservationists care about other species and the full repertoire of connections should be a source of shared ground.

Yet the two camps are fundamentally divided. Their relationship is really based on anatagonism. In the case of Malta, hunters have committed acts of shocking violence upon their opponents to defend their pastime.

I have always felt that entrenched attitudes but especially among my ‘own’ side (my side: since i have shot a single bird in my life and devoted half a century to enjoying and celebrating wildlife) are counter productive. So why are the two sides so siloed and antagonistic?

MAF draws out an interesting socio-economic overlay that informs the conflict. Maltese conservationists tend to see hunters as regressive, rooted in nature relations of the past, and largely of a lower socio-economic background – labourers and tradespeople. Conservationists by contrast are middle class, educated professionals and fell they occupy a moral high ground that has increasingly informed wider public opinion. This is impacting upon hunters and there is evidence of its effect, as MAF points out, in the decline of hunting not only in Malta but in mainland Italy, where it has halved in the last few decades.

It brings to mind for me the British scenario at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the successful abolition of finch and bird-keeping, song-bird competitions and commercial songbird sales were all achieved. For most conservationists, including me, there is nothing wrong in curbing such practices. At one time finch trapping threatened to inflict localised extinction upon several species including chaffinch.

What I do object to, however, is that we ended the working man’s delight in songbird competition yet it is written into the RSPB’s constitution that they cannot even challenge the sport of the upper classes: driven shooting, which is arguably a far more impactful practice. The truth is that finch keeping was easy prey to the powerful voices of the new middle-class conservation community. Meanwhile the upper class sport of driven shooting and, even worse, the now outlawed fox hunting with dogs persist more or less inviolate, because of the political clout exercised by an upper class cadre.

So I think a book that attempts to portray both sides with equal attention and neutrality is to be hugely welcomed. MAF even, in some sense, leans towards his hunter informants, partly I guess because of the simple human debt he owed to the people who trusted him, but also he was entering a cultural realm that has been, by and large, unacknowledged among naturalists. MAF sees his role as bringing back from across the lines the untold story to a substantial portion of his book’s audience. He is attempting to equalise the relationship a little, mediate and allow reconciliation, and all this has been done in the smoothest, largely jargon-free anthropological voice. It is a model of reasoned argument and I heartily recommend it despite the price. £99! Academic publishers!

The other very positive part of the book is its illustration of the massive changes and adaptations made by hunters’ collectives in Malta as they struggle to make their practices acceptable in a world increasingly dominated by the ethics of environmentalism. Caring for nature, concern for sustainable wild populations, engaging the community in good environmental works – all of these attitudes and actions have been adopted in public, at least, by Maltese hunters. They have shifted massively in response to an onslaught of negative publicity. All sides now agree that the bad old days, as described by the brilliant Natalino Fenech in his various books, have largely gone. I think there are really strong grounds for optimism buried beneath the ongoing rhetoric from both sides in Malta.

However, there is an interesting question that is really unanswered in the book and which cuts to the heart of matter. I have long pondered it and cannot resolve it myself. But it is this.

Both communities clearly feel profound attachment to nature. Both in many ways shape their worlds to live in alignment with this passion for wildlife. Alas, one side rises in the encounter to kill it. It calls to mind the paradoxical Wildean notion that each man kills the thing he loves.

My own thoughts about the shattering moment when the gun explodes centre on the issue of subsistence. If hunting were merely a reenactment of the protein-foraging which stretches back to the very origins of our species – the necessary winning of food from the wild – I really would have no objection. In fact I have no objection to subsistence hunting. A single large or 2-3 medium-sized prey taken for the pot and consumed in their entirety after a full’s day hunting: that, as far as I am concerned, can go until the end of our species.

What I think lies at the heart of the fundamentally irreconcilable division between the two camps is where hunting fulfils some pyschic urge to kill for its own sake. Hunters seem sometimes to need to take life, not because it is providing food, but because it is a consummation of their encounter with life. It may be atavistic, rooted and urgent but it is psychopathological. It comes from a dark place of failure. It is against human nature, although, one should add, that one finds it in nature too. But we are not just natural species. We aspire to something else.

Why would you shoot anything without having some socially acceptable or justifiable rationale? But if the killing comes from a dark and private hole within and nothing more, what are we to conclude? I should add that after someone kills a spring male golden oriole, or guns down a rainbow flock of bee-eaters, or slaughters a male Montagu’s harrier or a honey buzzard on its 7000km migration journey, I don’t doubt that they can still accommodate these destructive urges and emerge from the moment a relatively normal person. Ie the hunter can still integrate their pyschopathological desires with the responsibilites of being a good, kind citizen and a loving family member. But that is not the point. For the other side – for me and for all those who do not take life – this kind of killing will always look like mindless nihilism and a sickness that has to end.

In his exceptionally well written Birds of Passage: Hunting and Conservation in Malta Mark-Anthony Falzon has sent us – through his careful, cautious, open-hearted, even-handed probings – along so many avenues of fresh reflection. But he has not convinced me that anything other than subsistence hunting should have a future.

As well as an author and naturalist Mark Cocker runs wildlife holidays and breaks, and offers bespoke writing support. For the website click here.