Unnatural Hunting

I’ve been reading an article about hunting mortality, where the authors ask how we should arrange our hunting so as to mimic natural mortality. But they leave aside one very important question – why should we want to mimic natural mortality?

At first sight, it seems a reasonable thing to do. There are various arguments to suggest that this will be difficult to achieve, but we’ll set those aside. Instead, I’m interested in why we think this is goal is so desirable.
The reason seems to be the sense that we leave things unchanged, and hence they are more natural. But the fact we are hunting the population means that it is not in its natural state – mortality is higher, and bits of the population keep on getting attacked by a predator armed with guns1. So, the problem boils down to a more general one – what do we mean by”natural”?
I have been thinking about this problem in the context of conservation in places like the UK. Every so often a story appears on the BBC website about how farmland birds are ding badly we all think that this is terrible, and Something Must be Done. But on reflection, we could argue that the numbers are artificially high – birds that live on farmlands are, by definition, living in a habitat that is artificially maintained by man. So shouldn’t we be controlling these species, the way we do with, for example, rats and mice2? The problem is that we don’t see them as living in artificial habitats – we see hedgerows as natural.
I’m sure some cultural anthropologist has studied this in detail, but it’s clear that our notion of a natural environment relates to what we are used to, or perhaps what our parents were used to. This is culturally and temporally specific – the Finnish version of Natural is very different to the British (it involves more trees), and the “natural” British fauna does not include animals like wolves and badgers, but does include grey squirrels. The only way to find out what is truly natural is to get in a time machine, and set it for… when? 500 years ago? 1000 years ago? 10000 years ago? And even if we decide when Britain (or wherever) was natural, I bet the climate was different then.
So, back to the hunting. If “natural” isn’t natural, what patterns of mortality do we aim for? I honestly don’t know. The problem is not scientific, it is one of values – whether aesthetic, ethical, or just pounds sterling. Those sorts of issues are not ones we can solve as scientists – we can inform them through our knowledge, or say how any decisions might be implemented based on these vales, but the values themselves are societal. I can’t see how to begin to build these values – “natural” and “financial” are the only ones that seem to be based on something objective, but the former is difficult (as we’ve seen), and the latter misses much of what it means to be human: as Douglas Adams pointed out, we spend a lot of time trying to make the world a happier place by shuffling green pieces of paper around, which is curious because it’s generally not the green pieces of paper thatare unhappy.
So, having rejected values based on naturalness and monetary values, what have we left? I don’t know!
If anybody wants me, I’ll be hunting wabbit.
Richard Bischof, R., Mysterud, A., & Swenson, J.E. (2008). Should hunting mortality mimic the patterns of natural mortality? Biology Letters 4: 307-310. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2008.0027

1 Feel free to insert a Sarah Palin joke at this point. I can’t be bothered to think of one.

2 But not, of course, cats.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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9 Responses to Unnatural Hunting

  1. Mike Fowler says:

    I think there’s a hidden assumption in all this, Bob. I could come along the corridor to describe it to you, but I’m too lazy.
    I totally agree with you about the arbitrary temporal view of many conservationists. I even had an argument with someone about this recently, and he pointed out that the only reason for using biodiversity values from 200 years ago as something to strive for, was that they were higher than they are today, and quite probably higher than they were 2000 years ago. Not too sure about the validity of the 2nd part of that statement, but the point was “we must maximise biodiversity, that’s a good thing”.
    But, are humans and their influence on the biosphere really unnatural? Having no hang ups about supernatural intervention, I feel safe in saying I’m perfectly natural except, perhaps, my boob implants. Other organisms live in within species communities, often with “repressive” and “abhorrent” caste systems (Hymenoptera) and high incidences of rape (mallard ducks). Plenty of organisms modify their environment, sometimes even to the exclusion of other species! Are any of these actually unnatural situations?
    Perhaps we should just come out and say we want places near us to be like local safari parks, so we can enjoy some easily accessible wildlife and cafe latte’s at the same time.

  2. Cath Ennis says:

    “I’ve been reading an article about hunting motality”
    I hear that the lesser spotted Northern motality is particularly tasty.
    Has anyone else seen the Life After People documentary about what would happen in the 10, 50, 100, 10000 years following human extinction? I saw it on Sunday (although I missed the first 15 minutes) and it was pretty good, although the parts I saw didn’t get into the long-term effects of heavy metals and other toxins etc. Very reassuring how quickly London and Berlin might be overrun with deer and wolves and what have you…
    I don’t want to spoil the ending for people who haven’t seen it yet, but their projection of what would be the final human structures to disappear was very interesting. Any guesses?!

  3. Anna Kuparinen says:

    The question of what is ‘natural’ is actually very interesting. Yet being only an image in people’s mind than any solid fact it is a very powerful image – think how many products are advertised and sold with the tag ‘natural’. A good example in this context are the transgenic plants: they are mainly opposed by consumers due to being ‘unnatural’, whereas more traditional agricultural breeding is considered perfectly natural. Perhaps the authors of that paper thought that – by default – selling a conservation strategy to politicians/public is more easy if this mysterious ‘naturalness’ is involved?

  4. steffi suhr says:

    @Kath: but their projection of what would be the final human structures to disappear was very interesting. Any guesses?!
    hmm.. anything to do with power generation?
    So, putting together Bob and Mike’s comments – is hunting then to be considered ‘natural’? You could make yourself quite crazy going further: is hunting with guns natural, or just with sticks and your bare hands? Or shooting wolves from helicopters? (Sorry to whoever already linked to this recently – I can’t remember).

  5. steffi suhr says:

    See, and this is what happens when you suddenly stop hunting.

  6. Bob O'Hara says:

    What do you mean, Cath? It says mortality. 🙂

  7. Bob O'Hara says:

    I think Mike’s comment can be interpreted as implying that anything we do is natural, so by that criterion anything goes, which short-circuits the whole problem, but doesn’t make the pheasants’ lives any easier.
    Anna – it may not surprise you to learn that I had been thinking about these problems in a GM context as well. The same issues arise, although I think there is a sense that transferring a jellyfish gene into a cat isn’t natural, but that becomes a matter of scale. If we say that isn’t natural, how about transforming barley with Mla6 (it’s a barley mildew resistance gene)? If that’s natural, then we can ask about moving rye genes into wheat (which has been done by conventional breeding), and then we go down the slippery slope…
    Incidentally, the paper’s authors didn’t say anything about why mimicking natural mortality was good, they just assumed it.

  8. Cath Ennis says:

    Bob, it does now
    Steffi, power generation is close, but no cigar! Although in this documentary the Hoover dam lasted a respectable amount of time before exploding in an orgy of cheesy CGI.

  9. Mike Fowler says:

    Bob. Mitochondria. Horizontal gene transfer in bacteria. Recombination. Eeeeeeeeeeek! It’s all there in nature’s wonderful naturalness.
    And as well as having the ability to shoot shit from whurlyburds, we also have the capacity to choose not to as it’s neither big, not clever. We have social policing mechanisms that will hopefully lead to the control of such obnoxious behaviours. Like ants. Naturally.
    Cath, whatever you do, don’t mention power generation around Anna. She’ll go on a mad pro-nuclear rampage and slaughter anyone with even a hint of a green tinge on these boards.

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