There is little more tasteless than the campaign being waged by the Scottish Green Party to strip gamekeepers and their families of government support during the national emergency.
It’s a criticism which could surprise people to hear coming from somebody as outspoken about the grouse shooting industry as me. But criticisms of an industry are no excuse for acting without humanity towards its workers — and leaving people without income for food is most certainly inhumane.
During the recent burning season I got chatting with a friendly gamekeeper whilst he set fire to the heather-clad hill around us. It was never going to be a match made in heaven—he supported grouse shooting and I do not—but our conversation was friendly, refreshing and there were some details we could agree on.
One of those things, much to my surprise, was that burning blanket bog is unnecessary, particularly when less-intensive methods can be just as good for cultivating the surrounding heather. It was the pressure from his gaffa, the one who puts food on his family’s table and owns his tied accommodation, which left him with no choice but to follow orders.
Now pressure from above is no excuse for torching pristine peatland, no more than it would be a reason for another gamekeeper to blast a rare hen harrier from the sky to ensure it didn’t take his—or more accurately his boss’s—grouse for shooting. But it did make me think about the predicament many gamekeepers, who perhaps deep-down aren’t happy with the status quo, find themselves in.
For a number of years when studying toward my undergraduate I interviewed slaughterhouse workers about their experiences. These people, everyday people, spent long shifts covered from head-to-toe in blood, innards and shit on an abattoir kill floor so they could put food on the plates of their families.
It is obvious to any objective observer why this came at great cost to their physical and mental health. Having already worked to the bone, some would clock out of the abattoir shift, only to head to a second job just to make ends meet.
To add to the strain of life some would also suffer from terrifying nightmares. “Have you ever looked in a huge skip filled with hundreds of cow heads, each one skinned and still containing their eyes?”, I recall one slaughterhouse worker asking me. It just so happened that I have and didn’t sleep much for weeks afterwards, but thankfully I was in a position to just walk away from the nauseating ordeal. That slaughterhouse worker wasn’t as privileged.
It makes me wonder if the policy-pushers at the Scottish Green Party have ever had the life experiences of gamekeepers or slaughterhouse workers, or are instead just too far removed from reality by being insulated in their political bubble? I feel that if they had they perhaps wouldn’t be using working people as political pawns when gamekeepers are, let’s face it, also victims of ruthless shooting agents and moorland-owners who put delivering large numbers of grouse before all else.
We all know that when rules are found being broken in this endeavour it is the gamekeepers, not the shoot operators calling the shots from the shadows, who bear the brunt of any penalty — and it is the same shoot operators who refuse to take responsibility for their orders and cast the gamekeepers who have followed them by the wayside like trash.
How do I know this is what is going on behind the veneer painted by those jingo parrots who pretend there is no wildlife crime on grouse moors? Enough gamekeepers have come forward over the years to tell me. I respect their courage and I believe them.
Part of our job as critics of the way grouse and pheasant shooting is going is to lift gamekeepers out of the pressures shoot operators put them under to break the rules — starting with the understanding that empowerment, not othering, is the way to create lasting change.
Only when we contemplate the situation through other people’s eyes will we begin to understand the complexities of conserving wildlife.