Bird Haunts and Nature Memories/Chapter 18


CLOSE upon twenty years have passed since I contributed an article on "Game Preservation and its Relation to the Protection of Birds" to the Westminster Review. Conditions are not what they were then, but still are not what they ought to be. The deadly poletrap, a deceitful lure, has been declared illegal. An unbaited trap, usually circular in shape, was chained to the top of a post in some open position; the passing bird—hawk, owl, cuckoo, nightjar, even the harmless pipit, saw this promising rest, alighted, and sprung the trap; after an ineffectual flutter it hung head downwards, held by its lacerated legs, until the keeper chose to come to end its agonies. Declared illegal—yes, but has it gone entirely? Do those who are responsible for seeing that laws are respected ever cross the wild Welsh or Scottish moorlands with their eyes open? Do those who shoot, and perchance take their place on the Bench to deal out justice to that terrible criminal, the poacher, always instruct their keepers that no illegal traps must be set? Is it not more frequently urged upon these underlings that they must keep down the "vermin" without any instructions as to methods to be employed?

Yet, it is only fair to state, the present generation of land-owners and sportsmen includes a much larger number of men who take pride in protecting persecuted species, willingly sacrificing many head of game to the rapacious visitors. On many large estates bitterns, harriers, eagles, ospreys, and other rare birds may come and go without danger; there are estates, too, which are the best kept "reserves" for all birds, though their owners rear pheasants and shoot game and wild-fowl. The naturalist-sportsman often is the best bird protector.

All sportsmen, unfortunately, are not naturalists, and many a one cares little about the ethics of game preservation; he wants his pleasure, and it never enters his head that the means by which he obtains it may be other than right. The humanitarian roundly condemns the preservation of game, and indeed all sport, so far as the word is applied to pastimes which involve the slaying of animals, as immoral. His arguments are not unsound, but there are fair replies to which he usually turns a deaf ear; we must go to the humane sportsman or the scientific humanitarian to obtain a broad-minded view of the rights and wrongs of sport, or, which is an important point, of the wisdom of preserving a particular species for sporting purposes.

We are all hereditary sportsmen. From those far distant ancestors who had to slay or starve we inherit this love of the chase. In spite of advanced civilisation we are yet children of the savage, each born into the world uncivilised, primeval. Cruelty, alas! seems to be childish human nature; the child is cruel until it is taught otherwise; therefore, if unconscious, it cannot be immoral cruelty. Innocent thoughtlessness. and maybe a thirst after knowledge and sensation. prompts the infant to "pull the pussy's tail to make it yowl for fun," or rip legs and wings from flies upon the pane. If the child has been reproved, learnt what pain means, and repeats experiments in private, delighting in the torments of its victims, it is then cruel. Once the larger knowledge has been acquired the question is entirely different; it is then a subject for thought for the theologian and psychologist; it may be for action by the medical man or criminologist. The habits of the domestic dog and cat provide, to some extent, a parallel, but the habits under domestication must be considered in relation to those of their wild relatives. The main object of killing in wild animals of the dog tribe and in the larger cats is to obtain food; but, it must be admitted, the lust of blood has grown, and many wild creatures of predatory habits will slay far more than they require to assuage their hunger. To kill the edible prey becomes instinctive, almost reflex, and doubtless the habit increases skill, makes the meal more sure when it is required; preservation for future supplies does not enter into their primitive economy. Domestication has not entirely eliminated the hunting spirit in most dogs, though certain debased varieties have through ages of pandering become lethargic and effete. The well-trained sporting dog, though retaining the hunting spirit, has lost desire to feed upon its prey, and in certain breeds man has practically eliminated the wish to kill; setters and pointers hunt and enjoy the hunt, but the killing is left to their masters; the well-trained retriever will bring an unbroken egg or an uninjured rabbit at command. Yet even in the best dogs survives the ancient craving, and now and again lapses occur. I knew a small West Highlander which was ruining the morals of a young setter by frequently taking it off for days at a spell to chase the deer on a Scottish forest; punishment, when the worn and jaded pair returned, had an effect which lasted until the shame was forgotten, and that was all. W. H. Hudson's story of "a dog in exile" is a most interesting study of canine psychology. "With this excellence," he says, after describing what the sheep-killing exiled retriever could do, "there was the innate capacity to go wrong, a sudden reversion to the irresponsible wild dog—the devilry, to keep to human terms, that sent him into exile and made him at the last so interesting and pathetic a figure."

The cat, on the other hand, is seldom trained to hunt for man; its inclination is to destroy; it hunts for its own pleasure and profit. A desire for warm blood persists, and however well the domestic pet is fed it generally devours some portion of its prey. Much of the play of puppies and kittens, as indeed that of all juvenile animals, is "make-belief" of sport; the mock hunt is far more marked than the mock sexual fight or amour. We, too, are but domesticated wild animals; we have ceased to kill to supply daily need, but have not lost the hunting spirit. The boy who stones a cat or bird or hammers a toad to death is only allowing freedom to his inherent savage inclinations. Let us not judge him harshly, but deliver a salutary moral lesson—for preference with a stick.

"Much teaching," declared Canon Lyttelton, "is needed to make children learn what cruelty means, and sometimes a practical application of lex talionis is necessary."

Whilst actually writing the above paragraph I was called into the garden to interview a neighbour's tabby; it had struck down and was tormenting a hen blackbird. That cat is well fed, and it did not require a meal; the cat was sitting close by the terrorised and wounded victim, which had energy sufficient to flutter away, but dare not move The cat was waiting for it to attempt to escape, when it would have stopped it just when the bird imagined that it was free. Though perfectly aware that the habit of playing with the victim is natural, I object to my garden being converted into a Spanish arena or a torture chamber, but I found the unfortunate so mauled that I ended its miseries. Nevertheless it was an interesting example of feline instinct; the wild carnivore was there, had hunted for sport, and was killing slowly for its own gratification. Can we justly say that the cat was cruel? Is it not fairer to call it primitive, savage, and realise how wonderfully, in spite of all our softening, civilising influences, natural instincts survive? Your infant recapitulates the crude impulses of his long forgotten ancestors. "Surely they dwell," as Stevenson so aptly puts it in his entertaining but philosophical article on "Child's Play," "in a mythological epoch and are not the contemporaries of their parents."

The humane sportsman, if asked for arguments in favour of his pastime, will tell us that exercise in the open air, the necessary sharpening of the wits, and the pitting of knowledge and power against the inborn wariness of wild creatures, is health-giving and exhilarating. If he stops there he is right; if he adds, as some will, elevating, we demur. Familiarity with death, even of the meanest creatures, is apt to dull the sensibilities; after that it is an easy step to thoughtless cruelty, and thence to pleasure in giving pain. Blood lust, unfortunately, is no unknown disease.

Twenty years ago I stated that whilst deploring the massacre of wild animals I believed that were sports of the chase to lose all hold upon our countrymen, Britons would also lose much of the energy and grit by which the Empire was upbuilt. We have learnt hard practical lessons since then, and we wonder it much of this grit and energy was misplaced. How we might have colonised may be learnt from the early history of Pennsylvania, where there was no lack of true grit and energy, tempered by wise statesmanship. What we should never forget is the story of Tasmania, and our hands were not always clean in India, South Africa, and in many of those glorious victories which our history books paint in such glowing colours.

This, however, does not alter the fact that the real sportsman must be a man of untiring zeal and energy, a man of muscle and yet of brain. All outdoor sports, unless indulged in to excess, are health-giving; those savage ancestors of ours built up a race with iron muscle, inured to hardship, and, so far as venery was concerned, with brains superior to the creatures they hunted. Strong and active, keen-witted and cunning they were bound to be; when these qualities were dull they starved or were slain by the more powerful beasts.

The true sportsman is a good shot, if shooting be his hobby; he hates to wound and not kill clean. Often the drive has little fascination for him; he likes to tramp the turnips or the covert; he enjoys watching the well-trained dog, and insists that birds should be retrieved so soon as shot. Indeed, he will fire his second barrel to stop a cripple rather than leave a wounded runner to secure another head. Not infrequently he is more or less of a naturalist, watching the birds and other animals which are not included in the game-list. Sometimes he permanently exchanges gun for field-glass; some of our best ornithologists have been keen sportsmen, and still enjoy a shoot.

Unfortunately there exists another class; some of its members are town-bred men who have no real love of the country; they rent an estate and shoot over it at the proper time because it is the proper thing to do. They care nothing about their victims, but they like to make a bag that they can boast about; these are the men who are most ruthless in destruction of their rivals, the predatory birds and mammals. Bosworth Smith, pleading for the birds of prey, especially the persecuted raven, said that "as a rule it was not the great land-owner who was so much to blame, except in the matter of that culpable laissez-faire which led him to put a gun into the hand of his keeper without instructing him as to what he might and what he might not kill with it. The British landowner was, as a rule, pleased to see a rare bird in his grounds; if he possessed a heronry it was the crowning glory of his park, and be tolerated the otter in his osier beds, and the badger in his sand-hills. The arch-enemy of wild birds was the non-resident shooting tenant, and, worse still, the syndicate—hateful word and hateful thing—of shooting tenants. The shooting tenant had hardly any bowels of compassion; the syndicate had none at all. They valued the land chiefly or wholly according to the number of head of game; and dividing the entire animal world into game and vermin, bade the game keeper, in the words of King Lear, 'Kill, kill, kill!'"

On the shooting tenant's "big day" the unskilled guests blaze away, maim, and seldom kill; they snatch the gun from their loader, loose off, and snatch again, while around them lie the wounded, struggling victims of their slipshod shots, if we may use that term. When the drive ends the puffed-up host strides between the rows of slain like an Eastern potentate after a victory. Sport has degenerated into massacre; the butcher deserves the chastisement we mete to the lad who slays the harmless toad. How different from the other type! Roosevelt, an example of the better sportsman, declared: "I love hunting still, but slaughter is abhorrent to me." What really matters is the attitude of the game preserver towards the animal world; he is no true sportsman who regards everything which is not his game as vermin.

Game preservation, the artificial protection afforded to certain selected species, is unbeloved by many naturalists, but they only consider one aspect, the destruction of vermin. To provide a plentiful head of game it is essential to hedge the favoured bird or mammal with safeguards, to give it seclusion and security from its natural foes, to protect it from those circumstances which would normally reduce its numbers to the limit allowed by nature. An introduced species seldom if ever finds a groove exactly to fit; if food is plentiful and enemies scarce it flourishes abundantly, as witness the rabbit in Australia; if circumstances are against it nothing but artificial aid can save it. A bird like the pheasant, supposed to have been originally introduced, can exist to-day without artificial aid, but only because we have so reduced the predatory species that it has but few dangers; yet where it is truly wild it is never numerous. Hand-reared birds would have very little chance in an unpreserved district, even were coverts allowed to remain.

Woods and pheasant coverts, provided for the accommodation of the sainted bird, are important factors in the domestic economy of many other species; they even supply refuge for the very vermin under the preserver's ban. Most of these woodland inhabitants are tolerated rather than encouraged, for they do no harm to game; but the keeper is their unconscious guardian, their enemies are his also. The unreasoning keeper spends his master's time and money in protecting his worst enemy, the brown rat. A large proportion of the massacred vermin subsist upon small birds and mammals; kites, kestrels, owls, hobbies, buzzards, and others are exceptional robbers of game, but they are regular and successful hunters of rats and mice. In the pellets of the barn or tawny owl are a few skulls of robins, tits, and finches, but far more of the troublesome house-sparrow, and the quantity of murine remains is amazing. Even those species which are game robbers whenever they have the chance—merlin, eagle, peregrine, sparrowhawk, raven, and crow—kill far more birds and mammals in which the keeper has no interest than his own special pets. Thus, the destruction of predatory species undoubtedly helps the increase of the kinds preyed upon, but as species depends upon species in both animal and vegetable world, any interference with the normal numbers causes a dislocation which is beyond all calculation. The increase of one harmless species may result, through the drain upon food supplies, never an unlimited commodity in nature, in the destruction of many other plants and animals upon which other creatures depend. Nature has laws which are not to be tampered with.

The grouse moors, deer forests, trout streams are but different settings for the same problem; a sanctuary is supplied for many an innocent animal; their enemies absent, they flourish abundantly. Some, however—the rat and house-sparrow, for example—are anything but innocent so far as man's welfare is concerned, and they, too, benefit by food and asylum. Both in moderation might be useful members of society; unchecked by natural foes they are a menace.

That the sparrowhawk can be included as a bird with any virtue may astonish some preservers. Lord Lilford, sportsman and naturalist, shall answer in his words to Canon Tristram: "The sparrowhawk does good service by taking hard-billed birds, as Passer impudicus (Mihi), Damnabilis (Irby), Papisticus (Tristram), sanguiueus (agricola), and other grain-devourers." Even the most inveterate destroyer of game, so long as its numbers do not increase inordinately, is useful in preventing the multiplication of other possible nuisances.

The science and cunning of the game preserver and his agents have failed to subdue the adaptive Corvidæ, though some are in a parlous state. The magpie is rare in certain areas, but it makes up by overabundance where the gamekeeper holds no sway; there the lesser fowl suffer from its keen eye and wicked beak. The jay defies persecution; there may be many moulderlng corpses on the keeper's gibbet, but the survivors scream defiance from the thickets, eluding gun, trap, and poison. The keeper is not to blame in all cases for the scarcity of the raven, carrion and hooded crow in many areas. Sentimental protection has surrounded the rook and claw; they need no further help. The raven, ruthlessly driven from our inland shires, survives upon the coasts and in the wilder hills; there the shepherd rather than the keeper deals with it. Though undoubtedly destructive, its numbers are so far reduced that it deserves protection. The hooded or grey crow and the carrion are hated alike by everyone who has a hen run or a game preserve; but the natural cunning of their tribe has saved them, and in many places they abound. Neither keeper nor farmer has had much to do with the diminution in the numbers of the chough; the increase of the jackdaw is a more important factor; nevertheless the egg-collector is in his greed hastening the inevitable end.

Strict preservation of game serves one most useful purpose in the eyes of all who wish to see our rarer birds protected; it is a check on the depredations of that worst enemy of our disappearing avifauna, the unscrupulous collector. There are keepers, unfortunately, who add to their income by shooting birds and taking eggs to supply the market; but there are estates so well guarded by honest men that the collector and his agents cannot enter or trade. There are land-owners whose estates are bird preserves, not game preserves alone, and who are more than anyone responsible for the survival of the remnant of many a species. Where would the eagle, osprey, kite, harriers, bittern, and great skua be to-day were it not for benignant protection? We are too prone to blame game preservation and the sportsman for the destruction of rare birds; sometimes the men who blame most are the most guilty. Many collectors rave about the scarcity of certain birds, and yet pay high prices for British-taken birds and eggs, encouraging the dealer to seek out the last refuges of the unfortunates. And it is no excuse to say that they only have in their cabinets eggs they have taken themselves. "One or two specimens, a clutch or two for my own collection will make no difference," the collector argues, or, worse still: "The species is so near extinction that it is too late to save it." How can sense be driven into selfish heads?

Let ornithologists be fair; let them not wrestle with the mote while the beam blinds them. The sportsman will often listen sympathetically to argument, even sacrificing a few head of game for the sake of other species; but the collector, seldom a true naturalist, professes and does not act, a hypocrite at heart who wants the birds protected so that he may possess them, filling his miserly cabinets. Natural history specimens are of value in educational museums and in the hands of private scientific workers, but too easily does the collector persuade himself that he is making use of his collection. Most honest accumulators of specimens for genuine scientific work either give their collections after the special task is ended or leave them to some scientific institution for the benefit of those who will follow after. The true scientist is never selfish; his aim is to gain and spread knowledge. The collector for collecting's sake is a boarder, a miser, anxious to possess what others have not got; he will even boast that he possesses the "last" of any species.

Those of us who have more sympathy with the hunted than the hunter should not be blind to the fact that many sportsmen are more generous-minded than the pretended scientific collector. The aim of the scientist, as well as the man who is merely interested in the preservation of animals and plants for humanitarian or other reasons, should be to enlist the sympathies of land-owners and sportsmen rather than make enemies by calling them hard names. The preserver of game and the land-owner have opportunities of helping science; when he realises that there is interest in his vermin he often adds them to the list of creatures whose lives shall be preserved. It is not our place to demand that he should deny himself his pleasures, any more than it is his to tell us to mind our own business when we plead for creatures which are not personal property. All we ask is that he will show mercy to wild creatures which are at his mercy.