Opinion: Prejudice and Predators

pine marten northshots peter cairns

This post is about pine martens. Well… actually that’s not true: it’s about prejudice and ignorance. Strong words perhaps, but fair I feel. It started with a recent post on Facebook. The post showed an image of a pine marten – quite a nice image as it happens – and this is (word for word) one of the responses:

“I would see it in Hell. Nothing is safe from it.” 

Really? Is it possible for a cat-sized weasel to be guilty of such heinous crimes that it deserves to be committed to the bowels of the Earth for eternity? Yes, pine martens sometimes eat capercaillie and black grouse; some will take domestic chickens and pheasants given the chance, but golden eagles, goshawks and even wildcats also predate native grouse. Are these to be judged and condemned by the same poisoned criteria that befalls this (protected and recovering) omnivore?

“Nothing is safe from it”.

What exactly is meant by ‘nothing’? A squirrel perhaps? Fair enough, martens eat squirrels. A lamb? (as was suggested in the same post) A live lamb? I’d like to see evidence of that in the same way that I’d like to see evidence of sea eagles snatching babies from prams – another historically quoted misconception.

pine marten northshots peter cairns

As you might gather I’m not a huge fan of such ill founded, inadequately informed, sweeping generalisations – and I’ve heard lots over the years beyond this particular post. I accept that not everyone likes pine martens. I accept that as a predator they eat things that we might prefer don’t get eaten, but come on, martens aren’t evil monsters. They’re just martens doing what they need to do to survive. Ditto red kites, foxes and any other predator for that matter. And by the way, if we can’t accommodate an overgrown stoat in our midst, we really haven’t come very far.

Here’s my theory: people who hate martens don’t actually hate the animal itself – they hate what it stands for. Over the last few decades, conservationists have championed the cause of martens and other predators, something that traditional land managers have never previously encountered. Moreover, the law now protects predators that many consider to be unworthy of protection. And so pine martens represent change and, more significantly, it is change perceived to be brought about by bunny-hugging academic urbanites who know nothing of the ways of the country. It is then perhaps the change itself, the change in societal values that pine martens symbolise that is resented along with those who have catalysed that change.

There’s a very real question smouldering under the fire between conservationists and land managers (excuse the crude and over-simplified tribe titles: I’m generalising myself now) and it’s this: What do we want our landscape to look like?

For some, the British landscape has been raped and pillaged for too long and is in need of restoration – more forest, more pine martens, more predation, more Nature. Such a notion flies in the face of a traditional, utilitarian, even religious view, which sees the land as a commodity to be managed and exploited for the benefit of just one species: us.

The belief systems that underpin the hatred of pine martens are the same as those that fuel raptor persecution, badger culling and, across much of the developed world, the routine killing of wolves. It’s not about the animal: it’s about what it stands for.

What do we want our landscape to look like? That depends on your point of view of course, but a landscape governed by fear and prejudice, a landscape subjected to extreme control, bereft of its natural processes; a landscape where a pine marten isn’t welcome, is to my mind, a landscape without soul, without heart. In other words, a landscape without Life.


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Based in the Scottish Highlands, Peter Cairns is a nature photographer with 15 years professional experience. Tooth & Claw, Highland Tiger, Wild Wonders of Europe, and more recently 2020VISION, are all projects that have been an integral part of Peter’s career. He is a Senior Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers.

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