A historic example highlighting the ways the press misrepresents stalking

First published April 2013

Over the Easter weekend I came across two rather unexpected references to shooting. One was in The Sunday Times Magazine, the other in Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility. There was more than met the eye to both – one for good reasons, the other for not so good reasons.

The reference in Austen comes early on, when the romantic Marianne Dashwood is rescued by the apparently dashing John Willoughby, “a gentleman carrying a gun, with two pointers playing round him”. He seems much more exciting, modern and sensitive to matters of the heart than stuffy old Colonel Brandon, with whom he has been set in contrast. However, Willoughby turns out to be a cad and a bounder of the very worst kind.

Notwithstanding the fact that he is said to look very fine indeed in a shooting coat, be an excellent Shot and one of the boldest riders in England, Austen takes great pains to reveal the sinister truth that lies behind the apparently pleasant façade – and the dramatic revelation of Willoughby’s dastardliness is accompanied by the elucidation of boring Brandon’s more heroic qualities and is a pivotal point in the novel.

The same cannot be said for the feature in The Sunday Times Magazine. On the face of it, the feature is just another photograph spread. The first two pages show rugged Scottish scenery and men in tweed. Brief captions explain that deer have been hunted for food and sport for centuries, and that they are now hunted by paying guests during the season.

The next page contains a large picture of 50 or so deer trophies from the Mar Lodge estate accompanied by a short piece of text. The caption reads: A View to a Cull: a collection of antlers on display at Mar Lodge, a neighbouring estate near Braemar. Deer are stalked across Scotland because, with no natural predators, the population could explode and damage the habitat, including crops. They can also be hunted for sport on private land – as many of these were. Now Mar Lodge is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, so the emphasis is on conservation. Injured or sick animals are targeted first, followed by those that are barren or very old.

Sinister subtext

As with the Austen passage, the more sinister subtext is not immediately apparent. Unlike the Austen, however, the subtext never becomes apparent in the newspaper feature. The average reader would probably take it as read.

This is a problem because, like our first impression of the arch cad Willoughby, the snippet is misleading. First, it implies that there is a distinction between culling deer for environmental reasons and “hunting for sport on private land”. Much of the stalking on private land may well be enjoyed as sport, but it forms at least as valid and humane a part of the deer cull for environmental reasons as the operations undertaken by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS). Without selective culling on private estates, and regardless of whether the culling is enjoyed as sport, the health of whole herds would suffer as deer numbers increased beyond what the hills could support – more deer would die slowly, as lack of food left them vulnerable to starvation and disease, and less able to withstand the highland winters.

Second, it implies that stalking on private land does not prioritise conservation and that the NTS is somehow unusual in its targeting of old and infirm animals. Again, the suggestion that cull animals on private estates are not carefully selected with a view to the good of the herd and the broader ecology of the area is wrong. Stalking on the Scottish hills is not about trophy heads; it’s about conservation, regardless of who owns the land on which it takes place.

Third, and perhaps most surprisingly, it mentions neither the fact that, until recently, the NTS’s management policies at Mar Lodge meant the slaughter of hundreds more deer per year than on any other estate of comparable size; nor the fact that many of those deer were shot out of season or at night (by special licence); nor that the number of red deer on the estate was reduced by more than half between 1995 (when the NTS took over the running of the estate) and 2008 – from around 4,500 to around 1,500.

This slaughter was performed in the name of conservation, or to be more precise, regeneration. The aim was to help restore forest to the estate; previously the deer had destroyed the majority of young trees, and, for various reasons, it was felt that culling on an unprecedented scale, night and day, would be preferable to, say, erecting fences to protect the young trees. Aside from its effects on the deer, the policy did little to help the trees.

The Sunday Times Magazine gives the impression that since the NTS took over, Mar Lodge has been run as some sort of deer version of Dignitas. In fact, it was the Trust which instituted the policy of culling more deer than ever before, and it was only after an independent inquiry and consultation with and help from local “traditional” stalkers that the large-scale killing of deer at Mar Lodge ceased.

The villain of the piece

However, it is implied in the magazine that stalking on private estates is the villain of the piece – outdated and unfeeling compared with the modern conservation focused methods used by the NTS; like Jane Austen’s Colonel Brandon compared with the dashing Willoughby. However, unlike Austen, the newspaper does not reveal the true characters of the two.

As the average Sunday Times reader has little knowledge of stalking beyond a scene in the Downton Abbey Christmas Special, there is a real danger here that he or she will be left with the impression that traditional stalking has little or nothing to do with conservation, or the welfare of deer, and that the whole question of deer management could easily be managed by the likes of the NTS without need for paying guests on private estates.

It may well be that the author of the feature didn’t set out to give this impression, but it is still, sadly, what will come across to many people. As too often with articles in the national press, this feature only reveals a tiny part of the whole story, and that part is, at best, woefully unrepresentative of the whole; at worst, it’s dangerously misleading. It’s no wonder the general public is unsure of its facts on fieldsports. And it’s why I’ll be sticking to Jane Austen (and John Buchan’s John Macnab) in future.