This subject has never been far from my thoughts since I started this blog, but I would preface this post by saying that I am not an expert in this area. I saw my first fox up close when out walking on the South Downs at university, and later became aware of foxes scavenging from the neighbourhood bins in south London. Like many city dwellers, at the time I was thrilled to realise that I could be living in such close proximity to wild animals.
When I moved to the borders however, it was hard to ignore the fact that there were several active local hunts who then took huge packs of noisy dogs out with them, or that the hills were chequered with burnt heather patches to encourage the grouse population. Although the fishing doesn’t trouble me, as a walker I soon realised that it would be valuable to know when, where and how to avoid the hunting and the shooting.
Fishing with a gillie on the River Tweed
After living amongst and sharing the countryside with hunters, guns, fishermen, gillies, beaters, gamekeepers, and the invisible landowners who make serious amounts of money from these pursuits, what I would now say through gritted teeth to my old city self about the H word (which I still hesitate to use), is sadly just jobs, jobs and jobs. Many rural communities in this area suffer from high unemployment, rural poverty and lacklustre tourism compared to areas like the Lake District. Hunting, shooting and fishing are therefore a mainstay of the north Northumbrian and Scottish Borders economy, which provide sustainable jobs and attract tourists who need to be housed, fed, kitted out and entertained.
Fishing Shiel on the River Tweed
Without these jobs and income sources, far more young people would be forced to leave this part of the countryside in search of work, and the subsidiary businesses which are sustained by the hunting, shooting and fishing tourists would fail or close, making it an unsustainable community. Confronted with the stark reality of that fact, I am hesitant to be confrontational about it.
Although I wouldn’t hunt or shoot personally, I gradually realised that my existence in the borders was dependent on a successful local economy. Also I was surrounded by a ready supply of fresh, traceable fish and meat from farmers whose livelihood had been compromised by the foot and mouth epidemic. It was all a far cry from the meat section of the London supermarkets. So with my city morals and my vegetarianism increasingly under strain, I eventually even partook of the spoils on occasions, which probably makes me every sort of hypocrite. My objections to the H word are to do with the effects on the ecosystem of native plants and wildlife, which I am gradually learning more about.
There are already ghost villages, industrial remains and many abandoned buildings in Northumberland and the Borders to remind us that communities have come and gone since the Iron Age, so I would be sad to see this area emptied out and unable to regenerate.
Aerial view of heather burning in the Cheviot Hills. © Google Maps
What the area really needs are sustainable jobs and tourists such as walkers, cyclists, climbers, riders and nature lovers to visit and represent other interests in environmental and outdoor debates so, if you haven’t already sampled the local countryside, please do. It doesn’t all look like the photo above.
Note: The lack of more appropriate pictures in this post is due to the fact that I normally avoid areas where hunting or shooting are taking place. I have only once got close to a pack of hunting dogs and once to a shoot, and I got clear of both as quickly as possible, without lingering to take photos.