Hunting wild game is an ethical way to supplement a plant based diet
By Charlie Portlock, Founder – The Mindful Hunter
I’m an environmentalist and I’m a hunter. A few times a month, I shoulder my rifle and set out before dawn or dusk to stalk the woodlands, fields and hedgerows for rabbits, squirrels, wood pigeon and deer. For me, these animals represent the most ethical and environmentally sound sources of protein to be found anywhere in the UK as they’re hyper-local, feral and genuinely free.
Many of us in the green movement (myself included) eat a plant based diet and boycott the dairy and livestock industries because we feel that they’re inherently cruel. However, relatively few people in the UK would consider subsistence hunting as an ethical or environmentally sustainable alternative. It is for me and I think that it could be for you too given the environmental costs of delivering non-animal protein like soy to our tables.
A vision of the future
The UK is the fourth least wooded country in Europe with around 13% of our landmass under tree cover. One vision for the future is that we ultimately wean ourselves off farmed meat, turn animal pasture over to arable land and return the surplus to native woodland; re-wilding. This would lead to the growth of more trees, and space for cereals, vegetables and fruit. Biodiversity would soar and we could support a little more foraging also supplementing our diet with thoughtfully sourced animal protein.
Tariffs on imported meat and increasing consumer education would lead to a fall in meat consumption and the financial cost of eating wild meat would finally be a reflection of its true value. Hunting would be heavily regulated and this would make leading sources of plant derived protein like Quorn a more attractive proposition for consumers. People will always eat meat if it’s cheap. In this fiscally driven world, we must somehow make it expensive financially as well as emotionally.
At its best, a restrained and thoughtful approach to hunting can actually reduce overall levels of animal suffering and human-animal conflict. I’m aware of the paradox here but, like any good paradox, it works both ways. Where animal overpopulation has created financial pressure on landowners the result is an often ecologically and ethically unsound but cost effective approach to control. One example is the poisoning of grey squirrels with warfarin in order to protect young trees. Mindful hunting could reduce these conflicts whilst keeping animal populations healthy.
Despite the inroads that farming, industry and urbanisation have made into our green places, there are still many contexts where prey species are overpopulated. This overpopulation is a reflection of the fact that we’ve forced them into smaller areas that only have a limited carrying capacity. We’ve hunted and suppressed all of their natural predators and now grey squirrels and deer may eat as many saplings as they wish, free from the threat of wolves, lynx, wildcats, pine martens, polecats, raptors and foxes.
I dislike the term ‘control’ but if the populations of certain animals are not kept in check naturally, they must be by humans. This is not just because of the threat to commercial interests like agro-forestry or farming (though these industries depend upon it to remain commercially viable) but because bio-diversity would and does suffer when ecosystems lack an apex predator and herbivorous mammals can overgraze the understory and prevent the growth of new habitat. In these very specific contexts humans can and should fulfil the role of the hunter.
It would be wrong to discus eating animals without confronting the reality of killing them. This is an emotional topic and rightly so. I love animals and I always regret killing the creatures that I eat. That said wild creatures regularly die from poisoning, predation, starvation, traffic and disease (in the US alone an estimated 80 million birds are killed every year by traffic) and the rifle is merciful in comparison. At its best, death from a rifle is instant, painless and comes without warning or mounting fear. At it’s worst, it’s a painful and protracted affair. I’m consistently training and refusing risky shots in order to avoid this latter scenario but sometimes, depressingly, it happens as it does too in the context of non-human predation.
In either case, isn’t this the nature of death, animal or otherwise? Dying peacefully in sleep could well be a gentle but idealistic nonsense conceived to soften the reality for grieving families and small children. I’ve seen death in both human and animal form and it’s ugly. Perhaps this is why wildlife documentaries never show the kill? We don’t like to confront suffering because it reminds us of our own mortality. This reluctance to engage with death is also partly the cause of our predilection for clean, cellophane wrapped meat and our wider disconnection from our food sources. Nature is violent without being cruel and competitive without being conflicted. To this context the Mindful Hunter brings compassion.
In our age of abundance and disconnection form the food chain, we’ve developed a convenient kind of morality. We’re happy to eat what we’re told is ‘organic’, ‘free range’ or ‘grass fed’ and we guiltlessly swallow the friendly ‘green’ marketing along with the product. But what of the animal death implicit in every mouthful? Unless, we forage all of our calories from the hedgerow, we’ve allowed slugs, insects, birds and mammals to be killed in order to allow our food to grow. ‘Pest control’, although a hypocritical term, is as much a part of growing food as planting and harvesting. If it came down to the line, how many of us would allow these creatures to consume the last of our crops, the last calories with which we need to feed our children? There’s always a line somewhere but our corporate food system has allowed us to ignore it.
Cycle of life
The uncomfortable truth is that there’s always a cost to calories but this tagline doesn’t fit into any coherent marketing strategy, vegan or otherwise. Wherever we plant crops of any kind, there’s deforestation and the death and displacement of a variety of species. Whenever we import protein from far away we’re causing damage to the global ecosystem. Animal death and suffering is not just the bi-product of hunting or livestock farming, unsustainable as it may be. Through our mere existence on this planet in such great numbers, we’re declaring our right, conscious or not, to priority over the competition. But how many of us are willing to pay that price emotionally as well as financially? Animal death and the denial of animal life is implicit in our existence.
I hunt partly because it connects me to the reality of this cycle, humbles me and leaves me with a profound sense of duty to the planet and all of its inhabitants. Like the kitchen gardener, I’m grateful for the meat upon my plate because I’ve witnessed its journey. I eat less meat than ever, partly because I don’t need much but mainly because I never feel like going through the process of killing the creatures I love without good cause. If we ate less meat and only ate wild when we did, then we’d be sourcing our protein locally, sustainably and ethically from semi-intact ecosystems rather than importing soya, lentils and nut butters from far away lands. I feel that I’ve found a partial solution; I need help to complete it.
Hunting has parallels with politics. It’s the kind of activity that you can support in principle but not always in practice and, like politics, its proponents often do its reputation more harm than good. Hunting too is a spectrum and there are so many practical, cultural and ethical considerations that any meaningful discussion is difficult in the face of so much emotive potential.
As we abandon livestock farming and embrace a plant based diet, I believe that we should also embrace a sensitive approach to subsistence hunting; Mindful Hunting. Not one that harkens back to some kind of overtly masculine and mythical hunter-gatherer ideal, but one that’s based upon the fiscal realities of the modern world. This step would make a profound commitment to supporting bio-diversity and to the creation of a wilder planet. In terms of meat, let’s begin by eating less and by making sure that when we do, we eat wild.
The Mindful Hunter is about re-connecting humans with the earth in a mutually beneficial manner. It’s a place for people to witness, challenge and discuss all the realities of the food chain in a safe and open minded environment. Shooting is just a small part of what we do. If you don’t believe us then we’d love to hear from you and to welcome you, whatever your current beliefs.
- Anon, Forestry Commission. “First Release: Woodland Area, Planting & Publicly Funded Restocking”, (June 2017)
- Brakes, C. R., and R. H. Smith. “Exposure Of Non-Target Small Mammals To Rodenticides: Short-Term Effects, Recovery And Implications For Secondary Poisoning.” Journal of Applied Ecology 42.1 (2005): 118-128.
- Darmon, Nicole, and Adam Drewnowski. “Does Social Class Predict Diet Quality?–.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 87.5 (2008): 1107-1117. Web. 7 Feb. 2018.
- Fuller, R.J. “Ecological Impacts Of Increasing Numbers Of Deer In British Woodland.” Forestry 74.3 (2001): 193-199.
- Loss, Scott. R. “Estimation of Bird-Vehicle Collision Mortality on U.S. Roads” The Journal of Wildlife Management 78(5):763–771 (2014)
- Macedo, M. N. et al. “Decoupling Of Deforestation And Soy Production In The Southern Amazon During The Late 2000S.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109.4 (2012): 1341-1346.
- Sergio, Fabrizio et al. “Ecologically Justified Charisma: Preservation Of Top Predators Delivers Biodiversity Conservation.” Journal of Applied Ecology 43.6 (2006): 1049-1055.