Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Who shot the Exmoor Emperor?

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:


Hubert Hubert said...

Thanks for your take on the genesis & production of this story, James. It's very interesting to get an idea of how these things actually do get assembled & then shoveled into the hysterical world of the red-tops.


Anonymous said...

Have been looking around a little bit - and found this on an old BDS deer bytes - an article from the telegraph from over a year ago...

[I]7 THE EXMOOR EMPEROR - Largest wild animal in Britain is 300lb, 9ft stag
Telegraph.co.uk [B]07.10.09[/B]
The annual mating season for deer is on and the wild stag has been spotted near the Devon-Somerset border. Weighing in at more than 300 lbs - and standing nearly nine feet from hoof to antler-tip - the stag has been identified by a local authority on wild deer as a "truly magnificent" example of the species.

"Red deer stags are the biggest indigenous land animal left in these islands, so it's possible that this is the largest wild animal in the country today," commented Dulverton's [B]Peter Donnelly, who has many years' experience in deer management.[/B] "The deer on Exmoor are larger than the ones in Scotland because of their diet and this is a very fine beast. He's so big and powerful," said Mr Donnelly. "He should be encouraged to breed - under no circumstances should anyone try to hunt or shoot him," added Mr Donnelly. "[B]He's not 'going back' as we call it; he's not getting past it and he's a truly wild animal, not a 'park' stag. "This stag is absolutely in his prime and should be left alone and in peace to have nookie with as many hinds as he can."[/B]

Not that the Emperor will be getting much peace during the next few weeks of the annual rut, when stags vie with one another for the attentions of breeding hinds.
But the real danger comes from trophy hunters, who may wish to bag Britain's biggest beast. In recent weeks two large Exmoor stags have been shot on land owned by fashion and restaurant mogul Richard Caring, who is offering a cash reward of £15,000 for information that may lead to an arrest.

Photographer Richard Austin is keeping the Emperor's location secret. "I've been lucky in getting close to a herd on the fringes of Exmoor where this huge stag has gathered up about 25 hinds. I counted four other stags in the same field and I thought - this is it, this is going to be the best chance I've had in 25 years of photographing stags locking antlers...'

"But the big stag paraded around and none of the other stags seemed brave enough to take him on."

So, it seems to me that someone has had a particular bugbear in their hat over this stag for over a year - apparently he was in his prime last year, and definitely not going back... impressively he's still in his prime and not going back this year either....

I'm starting to smell bullshite...

Anonymous said...

James - I think you may be wrong about how this came to the news - theres something else, deeper going on,

Look at this, Telegraph, just over a year ago:


same 'deer expert' same photographer, saying the same things about seasons and having to keep location secret - plus a deer that has apparently been in his prime and not going back both last year AND this year - too many coincidences

I think someone has been manipulating the media to press this issue, or maybe to press their career as a photographer... so, wheres the carcass, wheres the photo's...

James Marchington said...

Interesting stuff there, anon - thanks for the research. Having seen behind the scenes of these sort of stories ('killer bees', for instance), I know that there's usually someone who smells a quick buck, someone with an axe to grind, or someone out to make a reputation as a journalist. In this case we seem to have all three, potentially bankrolled by a wealthy individual with a grudge against the status quo in deer management.

I know shooters are worried about the 'negative' publicity for shooting, but there's another side to it that interests me. Reading through umpteen comments from 'members of the public' on news websites, what comes through is a powerful desire for a strong code of ethics to be applied to hunting; killing 'for fun' is abhorrent, killing for food and/or properly conceived wildlife management, and doing it humanely and ethically, is generally accepted although many wouldn't want to do it themselves.

Which is not a million miles from my own views.

This word 'sport' is our downfall - the public equate it with treating a wild animal like a football. I wish I knew how we could get round that one.

Alan Tilmouth said...

Surely "getting round it" isn't the right approach? Perhaps accept that the majority of people as you say have an issue with killing for the sake of sport/fun/pleasure and get away from these big money/big profits operations that satisfy only a small number of individuals.
Out of interest when these big days or big numbers are shot where does the meat go? I struggle to find grouse or pheasant in my local supermarket or butchers except at Christmas or in teh odd bit of pate.

James Marchington said...

Hi Alan,
Perhaps 'getting round it' is open to misinterpretation. I mean deal with the problem where the word 'sport' (which originally meant hunting, shooting and fishing, not football and cricket - correctly they're 'games') implies to the lay person an unethical approach. It's a semantic problem which is seized upon by anti-shooting campaigners, who are happy to encourage the stereotype of tweeded chinless wonders blasting pheasants from the sky.
As for where the meat goes, ask any game dealer. There's a huge market for game meat on the continent, but partly thanks to campaigns such as Game to Eat and Game's On, the market for good local wild meat is growing strongly in the UK.
I'd avoid the supermarkets if I were you - visit your local butcher, fishmonger and game dealer and buy proper food from ethical, sustainable local sources.

vicky said...

I am finding it really difficult to form an opinion on this story as FACTS seem so hard to come by. Who-ever manages the herd this stag was with must have had a reason to shoot him or allow him to be shot; maybe an injury, age, ill health, maybe an obscene amount of money. But we haven't heard from him. Only the 'wildlife experts' have seen any of the goings on. If a stag in his prime was shot purely for the trophy value then I would feel the harm to hunting and shooting of shooting a 'famous' beast outweighed any financial gain. But I also find hysteria over his shooting just because he is 'famous' is hypocritical. It's either ok to harvest wild meat or it's not (that's where I find my respect for really militant vegans; at least there is no hypocrasy when they complain about hunting or farming!).

vicky said...

Further reading suggests he was found near a road and the stalkers seen around him by the photographer had not shot him. Poachers? Road accident? This has been spun into awful publicity without much investigation of the facts....poor journalism by some.

Lets get the good news stories out there; grey partridge, songbirds, shoots raising money for charity.....

Bill O' Rites said...

Sometimes I get a tad carried away.....:-)

Meconopsis said...

Was the thing shot ? I have spent hours on the phone with my contacts down there and no news at all.

vicky said...

If this urns out to have all been a misunderstanding (or deliberate fabrication) I can't see headline apologies from the BBC and newspapers. The damage has been done :-(

(Nb, this google account thing is driving me up the wall James- it doesn't accept when I write in the wiggly letters)

James Marchington said...

Hi Vicky, you should only need to be signed in - I deliberately didn't switch on the wiggly letter thing cos it drives me nuts! The number of 'online casino' spam messages was getting ridiculous though. I'll give it a while then allow anonymous comments again and see if it's subsided.