Every now and then, a shooting-related story hits all the right buttons and explodes across the media - the shooting of Emperor, the huge red stag on Exmoor, is such a tale. The papers are full of the story, told in breathless, horrified tones. The Daily Mirror tops the lot, with the headline "Britain's biggest wild animal, the legendary 9ft red deer known as Emperor, is shot dead by vile trophy hunters" - illustrated with a photo of a man with an over-and-under shotgun!
So what really happened? And is it cause for alarm? The facts are sketchy, to say the least. It seems likely (but not certain) that this particular stag, familiar to local residents and wildlife enthusiasts, has been shot. Reading between the lines, it would appear the stag was shot legally, perhaps by a paying guest stalker, perhaps a visiting 'trophy hunter'. The decision to shoot that animal at that time may or may not have been a good one in terms of herd management; I don't suppose we'll ever know, and in any case deer 'experts' could debate that one for weeks.
The story seems to have reached the papers via Richard Austin, a wildlife photographer who photographed the stag earlier this month [following the TV news later, I learnt he is a staffer on the Western Morning News, and enjoys wildlife photography in his spare time]. He was contacted by a 'local naturalist' who had come across a 'a group of stalkers' standing over the carcass (who nevertheless weren't the ones that shot it). They watched as the carcass was removed. [Actually that doesn't quite ring true does it? I suspect the 'naturalist' heard shots, went to see what it was all about, and came across the stalkers in the process of gralloching and recovering the carcass].
Richard Austin then provided the story and his photos to a local paper [or as seems more likely, rushed back to the office with his scoop], which contacted Peter Donnelly, "a Dulverton based deer management expert with a lifetime’s experience" [we now know that Austin and Donnelly knew each other from previous stories on this particular stag]. Donnelly clearly has a bee in his bonnet about the deer seasons, because he took the opportunity to have a proper rant: "It’s a disgrace that this magnificent animal has been shot at this time because it could be that he didn’t get a chance to rut properly this year - therefore his genes have not been passed on this time round. The poor things should be left alone during the rut - not harried from pillar to post."
This story then got picked up by the national press, radio and TV, as these things do. Most of the journalists have taken the whole thing at face value, and rehashed the story with their own paper's spin on it. A few have bothered to look for further quotes and information to pad out their story, mostly completely failing to understand what they're told and writing utter rot as a result.
The whole thing has dragged out the usual hysterical comments such as: "Don't you just love the way these sad pathetic creatures who call themselves hunters, take guns, because it makes them feel like big men, they then hide in the bushes until defenceless creatures wander along so they can blast away at them."
Before long antis like the League Against Cruel Sports will jump on the bandwagon and demand an end to this 'sick sport' which 'has no place in the 21st century' and should 'be consigned to the dustbin of history along with cockfighting, bullfighting and badger-baiting' and the cycle will be complete. Then the papers will find something else to be outraged about - the antics of a footballer perhaps - and we can all get back to business as usual, except that Richard Austin's wildlife photography business will have received a welcome boost. [I think I was being unkind to him; watching him interviewed on TV, I don't think he did it for the money or the notoriety - he genuinely seems to care about the deer, perhaps in a slightly romanticised way, and it's the other players in the story who have hammed it up for the cameras].
So it goes.
UPDATE: I hear Mike Yardley did a good job of explaining the need for deer management on the Jeremy Vine radio show. It should be available to listen to on the BBC iPlayer shortly here. Mike's bit comes just past the halfway mark.
UPDATE: Excellent piece published on the Guardian website of all places, by BASC's Glynn Evans, here.
UPDATE: I've added some notes in square brackets as more information comes to light. Now, 24 hours later, the news is full of airport security, the Indonesian tsunami, an air-sea rescue off the Scillies, etc, etc. The Emperor is forgotten, save for a few follow-up pieces that will appear over the next few days. As a passing comment, once again I was impressed with the speed and professionalism of BASC's response - they're getting good at responding to media stories like this. Jamie Stewart, in partcular, strikes just the right note - knowledgeable, caring, and most importantly not an 'arrogant posh bloke' of the type that was a gift to the antis at the time of the Hunting Bill.
I hope, in time, BASC and perhaps others will become more proactive - one thing this incident showed is that the media loves a good animal story, regardless of the facts. It shouldn't be impossible to start creating the odd 'Hunters save Bambi', 'Pigeon shooters foil bank robbers', etc.
Oh, and if you don't mind a bit of swearing, you may like this robust take on the story by Bill O'Rites...
UPDATE: Locals "smell a rat" - according to this story in the Guardian, the stag may still be alive and kicking. Either way, it was/is a long way from living up to the claim of "biggest land mammal in the UK". Meanwhile, North Devon's hotels and B&Bs are enjoying a welcome boost from journalists and tv crews sent to find "Who shot Emperor". I took a call from a Guardian journalist this morning, asking me to explain "what people get from deer stalking". I dread to think what he'll write!
Talking of the Guardian, for a worryingly strange view of hunters and hunting, Ruaridh Nicoll takes some beating. " I am not against shooting, even if I have lost my hunger for it," he says, then goes on to explain it's the motivation of hunters that worries him: "The instinct that makes a man kill a creature like the Emperor, I have always believed, rises from inadequacy." He goes on to retell the apocryphal tale of the American hunter in Africa who would shoot an animal, have his wife lie on it and have sex with her - a story that sounds less likely every time I hear it. I have no time for people who have no idea why people shoot, and fill that vacuum with twisted ideas dreamed up inside their own heads.
UPDATE: Bloody hell - Chris Packham defending shooting on Autumnwatch - whatever next?! Audio here: