Campaigner and proud member of OneKind, Charlie Moores, explores why the words we use to describe wild animals is hugely important.
Several years ago, a colleague and I started a podcast series for Lush called ‘Turning Point’. It had a very simple premise: “What was the one decision or conversation that changed your life forever”. Each podcast was just a few minutes long, and we recorded some fascinating responses.
Part of the challenge for each ‘guest’ was deciding which ‘turning point’ had been the most influential. If we’re lucky all of us have had numerous ‘moments’ in our lives when, for example, the fog has lifted, a single sentence has sent us off in a new, more fulfilling direction, or an idea that we’ve been playing with has suddenly come into focus. Typically that will have involved a conversation or article, a meeting, or a trip.
Two of my moments came in my thirties. One was meeting my vegetarian soul mate, Jo, who couldn’t understand how I could go out birding all day and then come home and eat a chicken. Strange as it seems now, I’d never thought of a chicken as a bird before. The second was a conversation I had with a good friend on a twitch to see a Greater Yellowlegs. We were driving through the night and as dawn arose we found ourselves in central England, surrounded by farmland. Which animal do you think has had the most impact on the planet, he asked me? Cattle, I ventured, thinking about the huge areas around the world lost to agriculture. You’re not looking properly he said…and he was right.
More recently, another turning point took place. It was on a visit to Scotland in early 2019 which took in the OneKind HQ in Edinburgh, some birdwatching, and a day at the Wild Animal Welfare Committee (WAWC) conference.
By this time I’d not eaten a chicken (or any other animal) for nearly twenty years, and knew I could never ‘unsee’ that it was (of course) us that had changed landscapes all around the world. The Turning Point series had been shelved by Lush, but I was making other podcasts for them and the trip north was scheduled to take in conversations with someone I knew quite well – Bob Elliot, the former Head of Investigations at the RSPB who was now Director of OneKind – and someone I didn’t – Libby Anderson, who’d been so influential at OneKind and who had invited me to the WAWC conference as the organisation’s Secretary.
I’d not met Libby before, but knew her by reputation as an extremely focussed and erudite campaigner. To be honest I was a little bit in awe (and even after recording hundreds of interviews a little bit nervous), but I knew that if I listened I’d learn (and here’s a mantra to live by: You’re never too old to learn).
It was a wonderful two days. Bob was as he always is: a natural leader with a reassuringly calm presence who speaks with authority after years in the field (good choice, OneKind!). Libby was everything I was expecting (but funnier) – self-effacing, supportive, and even sat in a hotel corridor with room-service trollies crashing all around us extremely articulate and clear-thinking.
The WAWC conference was a revelation too. Academics followed one other on to a small stage, asking us to question our assumptions and definitions. Why is there less legislative protection for wild animals than farm or lab animals? What might the recognition of animal sentience mean?
One talk in particular struck home as it was something I was already churning over. Who decides what is a’ pest’? What is ‘vermin’? And why?
The conference didn’t have an anti-shooting/hunting leaning – but I did and always will. I loathe the killing of wildlife for ‘sport’. There are many reasons why but my position has hardened over time. On a previous trip to Scotland, for example, I’d stood by crow cage traps and stink pits, seen snares and Fenn traps, and spoken to investigators about the way native predators were treated by the shooting industry. Across the uplands and lowlands, foxes and mustelids were ‘vermin’, corvids and birds of prey were ‘pests’. Legally and illegally they were all to be destroyed wherever possible simply to protect birds that would be sold to the gun when just a few months old.
Not only that, but it had become increasingly clear to me that the same industries had warped the meaning of ‘conservation’. ‘Manage’ always meant that wildlife was going to die. And how was a slaughter of Ravens in Strathbaarn to protect Red Grouse a ‘cull’? It’s use to describe that particular mass-killing was meant to sound somehow scientific and ‘more acceptable’, but the industry was brought to heel when Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) confirmed that the submitted licence application for the ‘cull’ did not meet the recommendations of SNH’s Scientific Advisory Committee and was rejected.
In the meantime my role at Lush had changed considerably. I was now co-ordinating what Lush co-founder Mark Constantine and I had termed ‘The War on Wildlife Project’. The remit was broad, but essentially we wanted to look at the anthropogenic (or human-based) activities that are heavily impacting our wildlife. That has meant discussing UK issues like grouse shooting and foxhunting as well as global-scale concerns like pesticide use, biodiversity loss and the wildlife trade. It’s serious stuff and it can be a bit disheartening, but there’s nothing like getting stuck in to a campaign to help you feel like you’re doing something – even if the wins might seem a long way off.
Which brings me to a campaign that we’ve just launched through The War on Wildlife Project. It’s called ‘Language Matters’ and it’s essentially all about those words that get me so riled up! Values-based words and terms used so casually and so commonly that many of us have lost sight of why they’re used and who they are used by: like ‘game/gamebird’, ‘quarry’, ‘pest’, ‘vermin’, and ‘cull’.
These are loaded and discriminatory words used routinely to describe wildlife and how we relate to them. Or more specifically how hunting and shooting relates to them.
We don’t need to go along with them. I am convinced that we can do better than describe sentient beings as ‘quarry’. Do better than tip groups of mammals and birds into a box marked ‘game’. Do better than demonise our wildlife as ‘vermin’ or ‘pests’ for simply trying to survive in our nature-depleted countryside.
And a good place to start is by understanding that how we describe wildlife is important. That language matters.
This isn’t a new idea of course. Many charities and campaigners have outlined concerns about how we use language, and as I’ve explained ,much of my own thinking around this issue was starting to crystallise during that trip to Edinburgh nearly two years ago. But if something is really niggling you, you can either ignore it or get on with trying to fix it!
The campaign will have a number of asks and a number of different elements which we’ll be detailing throughout the next few weeks. The changes we would like to see will take time and requires wide support. Altering mindsets (especially ones set in stone) takes time, so we’re not expecting to change the world from day one, but to begin with we want to
initiate a discussion about how we use language and what certain words and terms really imply. Creating a discussion about one will inevitably create discussion about others.
We want to challenge media of all levels to not unquestionably accept the theft of words like ‘conservation’ by shooting and hunting. In the longer term we’d like to persuade organisations, wildlife magazines and identification books to stop using terms like ‘game’ and ‘gamebird’ altogether and to call out hunting and shooting for describing wildlife as ‘vermin’ and ‘pests’.
Ultimately we would like to see the legal status of the horribly divisive term ‘gamebird’ removed, which will mean involving politicians and building up support for a forthcoming epetition.
As the world collapses under the weight of biodiversity loss, climate change, and coronavirus, getting wound up about a few words might perhaps seem mistimed, but I’m just going to dip back into my the Turning Point bag one more time and pull out another conversation I had once.
It ended with another great piece of advice: “It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing”.
If you’d like to learn more about the campaign or support what we’re trying to do please go to https://waronwildlife.co.uk and click on ‘language matters’ and look out for the hashtag #LanguageMatters on our social media.