There is no wilderness in Britain. The landscape which today forms the battleground between conservationist and farmer, developer and gentry, is only the latest expression of the work of millennia, to shape and subjugate wildness into something more amenable to humanity. The land is manmade. Once a vast forest covered the country, almost to the peaks of the uplands; the Broads and the Fens were water; the Suffolk coast was heath and bosky wood. The nature which inhabits these industrial landscapes is that which, broadly, we allow to exist – everything dangerous is long-gone, and everything not useful has retreated significantly, adapted itself around human settlement. Hares, snails, pigeons, rabbits, deer, introduced by waves of invaders and migrants as sources of food or entertainment, have all become part of the British ecosystem. Nothing is natural, nothing is wild; a muntjac eats the brambles in my back garden. The pig farms of Blythburgh have as much right to the land as Folkestone Warren.
Any radical conservation (if you’ll excuse the phrase), that is to say, any attempt to rebirth a truly wild British landscape, would require, ironically, a huge intervention, in the form of a vast holocaust. A near-total annihilation of the human population, not to mention of dogs, cats, cattle, sheep, pigs, alpacas, horses, goats, elephants, wallabies, rheas, hares and so on, a final eradication of the mark of so-called civilisation from the map, would be followed by the reintroduction of wolves and of bears; the regular cull that our semi-wild deer population receives would be carried out more naturally. There are those who advocate for this, if not in such extreme terms – it is the logical conclusion of a certain strand of conservationism, but most people tread a more compromised path.
To return to total wildness, let’s say, is impossible or undesirable or both – what then? If you agree that we have some responsibility towards the rest of nature, to try and ensure we do as little harm as we can – well, it seems arbitrary to choose now or rather a rose-tinted recent past as the moment to conserve, but what else to do? Muddle along, I suppose. Even if we had the inclination to resurrect ecosystems past, we don’t have the ability or the knowledge. The culture in a pot of naturally fermented kimchi has still not been successfully modelled – imagine the complexity of the wild wood! So we tend to our garden, we manage and conserve, we farm the things we think are farmed, we hunt and forage the wild ones – and this, really, is the problem. Most of them are not wild.
The humane farming of animals for meat has taken huge strides in recent years. A loose coalition of chefs, farmers and consumers has made a huge positive change to animal welfare and to its importance in public discourse; everyone knows to at least pay lip service to happy hens, blissful cows, quietly ecstatic pigs. If there is still some distance to go, there is at least a general recognition that, quite apart from ethical issues, meat tastes better when it has spent its life outside, eaten a varied diet, had a gentle death. The quality of good meat in Britain now is really quite astonishing, and cooks both professional and amateur are right to insist on the good stuff; it is more expensive, but so it should be; it takes space and time to farm well, and these things cost money.
On the other hand, we have game. I have written a few times before about rabbit, and nothing’s changed since then; it is still, alongside pigeon, plentiful and generally healthy in its large feral populations, shot at by farmers as pest control. It is, I think, right to eat it for as long as these conditions attain. Although farmed in some places, the various types of deer which roam Britain are in a broadly similar situation – in the absence of their apex predators, they are regularly culled. I don’t especially like venison and, still treated as a meat of kings, it is pretty expensive, but I don’t have a problem with it; eat away!
Game birds (pigeon excepted) on the other hand, are very different. Most, like the rabbit, were introduced to be kept as a semi-wild food source, though lacking the rabbit’s capacity to breed, adaptability to various environments, and resilience to even horrific biological warfare, they need keeping, breeding and rearing as chicks, their environment heavily managed to the detriment of other species – all so they can be shot at. Are they wild or farmed? The huge pens called ‘grouse moors’ are kept solely for the benefit of these creatures. Foxes and stoats, which prey on them, are trapped and killed, as are hares, which can carry parasites harmful to grouse; the surface of the moor is burnt away. All of this, I think, is legal, but there are also many recorded instances of birds of prey trapped or poisoned, which is not. Higher ground is drained, to the detriment of lowland towns.
This is farming, free-range farming on a wastefully gigantic scale – but without the payoff. Where cows are herded into abattoirs one-by-one, unaware of the imminent blow of the bolt-gun, calmly led to euthanasia, semi-tame grouse and partridge and pheasants are released, hounded and flung into the air to be shot at, winged, dispatched, shoved into ‘the bag’. No wild meat should require such intervention; no farmed animal deserves such a death. Driven grouse shooting gives us the very worst of each world. The reason it is allowed to continue, of course, is that it is a hobby of the very rich, for whom nature is not red in tooth and claw but just another playground under their petulant command. It creates jobs, they cry, it is economically necessary – stop buying grouse, that cruelly half-farmed highland chicken, and it won’t be. Remember that when you cook with grouse, when you eat it, you are cooking not wild untrammelled nature but the discarded carrion of an aristocrat’s game.