In a world dominated by social media, photos of quarry are stripped of context and used against us, it’s time to wise up, says Gethin Jones
On 11 May, a media storm flared following the publication of photographs showing what was claimed to be a group of Scandinavian stalkers posing with muntjac deer they had shot in the grounds of Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, a property managed by English Heritage.
The images were published by a group called Bedfordshire Against Trophy Hunting (BATH), which describes itself as “a group formed in opposition to the unethical and cruel hunting of animals for ‘sport’, in particular the trophy hunting of the iconic deer at Woburn Abbey”. The photos were subsequently posted by wildlife campaigner Dominic Dyer on Twitter and his 30,000-odd followers did the rest.
Mr Dyer branded the photos an exposé of an international trophy hunting racket. Like a rabbit, or a muntjac, dazzled by headlights, English Heritage was caught in the crossfire of the social media furore, which prompted its spokesman to tweet: “We would never permit trophy hunting, and we don’t allow hunting for sport at any of the historic sites in our care… we have launched a full investigation.”
The head of historic properties east at English Heritage, Emma Fernandes-Lopes, commented on BBC Three Counties Radio that “though [English Heritage] employed a gamekeeping (sic) company to keep their [muntjac] numbers limited, it would never permit hunting for sport on any of its sites”.
So what happened at Wrest Park? Was this ‘trophy hunting’ as the antis claim or was it the culling of a non-native invasive species? We know—or the press would have us believe—that trophy hunting is something that happens on the distant plains of Africa, usually involving large American hunters with more money than sense and zero knowledge or concern for conservation.
They then take tasteless photos of themselves gurning triumphantly next to various species of slain wildlife, having paid a small fortune for the privilege of doing so. Surely trophy hunting doesn’t happen in the Home Counties?
Actually, it does. The three stalkers that were photographed in their hunting gear with their rifles and dead muntjac against the backdrop of the historic Bedfordshire estate are indeed trophy hunters. We can also assume they would have paid quite a sum to stalk and shoot specimens of Reeves’s muntjac—a species that does not occur, at least in any number, in mainland Europe.
An everyday case of culling animals for habitat conservation this was not. A gold-medal muntjac, worth £20 at the
game dealer, is suddenly worth £1,000 or more to a stalking guide able to attract the right client. And after
a successful stalk, the hunters wished to be photographed next to the deer carcasses and, as often happens, these private photos magically found their way on to social media.
So what’s the problem? Presumably, the stalker who has an agreement with English Heritage to control muntjac on its property has developed a sideline to make some extra pocket money, probably ably assisted by a sporting agent, by taking fee-paying overseas guests stalking for an exotic deer species they wouldn’t encounter back home and which would be shot anyway.
Essential pest control is carried out according to the landowner’s wishes, the stalker sells the venison to the game dealer and the guest Rifle gets a head for their wall and perhaps a medal as well as a photographic memento.
The end result, certainly for the deer, is exactly the same as if a local stalker had pulled the trigger. Surely it’s a win-win?
Well, not quite. It’s those darn photos. Let’s come clean and admit lots of us are just as guilty as these stalkers of posting photos of our quarry on social media—and if you genuinely haven’t, well done.
I know that there are a large number of photos of me and/or my friends out there which could be just waiting to be used as ammunition against shooting by the antis.
Small in number and short of members these groups may be, but with social media able to transform what you or I might consider to be an inoffensive photo into a torrent of online outrage within a matter of minutes, those of us who enjoy countryside pastimes that such groups disapprove of share private photos of our activities at our peril.
Context is everything. And context, nuance and facts are what are invariably lost the second we lose control of our photos. Then they end up being manipulated by those with an anti-shooting agenda. What occurred at Wrest Park was neither illegal nor unethical.
English Heritage, along with being “shocked and saddened” stated that “…we need to work with third parties to manage animal populations. It’s important to us that this is done humanely and respectfully.” I’d argue the photos that caused this uproar were actually in good taste and were indeed respectful to the quarry. The stalkers weren’t gurning and the deer didn’t seem to have a mark on them, not even a drop of blood. Had those photos stayed private, as they should have, there would have been no issue and Mr Dyer would have had to look elsewhere for his outrage fix.
With today’s plethora of social media platforms, we should realise that we’re not dealing with the real world but with a genuine parallel universe controlled by nebulous ‘influencers’, celebrity conservationists and their armies of followers. There’s a war going on in the social media firmament. And the ammunition used in this conflict to win the hearts and minds of the general public, most of whom are entirely neutral on fieldsports, is a combination of sensationalist narratives backed up by photos. Our photos.
A social media-savvy influencer will shoot down your sensible 280-character factual explanation of why muntjac should be culled because they destroy vital nightingale habitat with a barrage of explosive knee-jerk conjecture and weapons-grade fake news. Forget accuracy and truth.
When Chris Packham tells his 464,000 Twitter followers that trophy hunting is ‘unequivocally unethical’ and lethal control carried out on solid conservation grounds is simply killing wildlife for fun, you’ve lost the war before your first skirmish.
Times have changed compared with even a few years ago, when social media was in its infancy. It would be a pity if such a genuine ‘good news’ story as UK deerstalking was compromised by those who oppose all lethal control of animals. If the entirely ethical practice of deerstalking can be tarnished in this way, then other forms of shooting will be in serious trouble if our photos can be weaponised.
Those of us who shoot, stalk or even fish are likely to find ourselves increasingly on the defensive regarding the very purpose and ethics of what we do if we continue to share photos of what should remain the most private of moments with our quarry.
Once we lose control of the photos, we lose control of the narrative.
Post photos of yourself and your friends out shooting by all means, but sharing photos of people posing with dead animals should be a no-no. The non-shooting public don’t like it and when your photos are combined with propaganda carefully calculated to make shooting look bad, and you look like the baddie, you’ll find yourself drowning in a sea of online vitriol before you can say ‘Cecil the Lion’.
To stop such photos appearing is a relatively easy win for commercial shoots or stalking guides—simply explain to your clients that you have a ‘no trophy-style photos’ policy. Organisations such as English Heritage, which manage properties that are visited by the general public but which work with stalkers and pest controllers, should stipulate that no photos should appear of such activities on their grounds.
If you or I wish to post photos, let’s demonstrate the fruits of our conservation work by showing the results: hedges full of songbirds, flightponds rich with life, foreshores where wildfowl nest, moors teeming with waders. We have good news stories aplenty to share, and positive photos to illustrate these stories are worth 1,000 Twitter posts trying to defend ‘killing wildlife’.