“Beak, Tooth and Claw” by Mary Colwell – A Book Review

It’s not often that I write a book review. But every now and then I come across a book that I really wish everybody I know would read. In my podcast, the subject of our difficult coexistence with wildlife is featured in many episodes. By far the most complex and difficult issue is our coexistence with predators. Since the dawn of time, our species has lived in danger of being preyed upon, while at the same time competing for prey. With the development of farming, this conflict continued as we protected farm animals from predation. This created a deeply rooted aversion to predators and, as a result, today almost all of their populations are severely depleted.

Nowadays, we are becoming acutely aware of our impact on the environment and that it is not always something to be proud of. A complex picture emerges. We are torn between the old animosity towards predators and the new urge to preserve them or even rebuild their populations. In her book “Beak, Tooth and Claw”, Mary Colwell goes deep into this complicated topic, carefully examining our past and present relationships with predators living in Britain. And although the book is focused on Britain I believe it is equally relevant to Ireland or any other country. It is about the human relationship with predators in general. 

After the introduction to what a predator is (we don’t tend to think about badgers or tits as predators), Mary dedicated a chapter to each species. Foxes, badgers, eagles, corvids, lynx, wolves and so on. From these chapters, the reader can absorb many interesting scientific facts. What makes this book stand out is that it presents and acknowledges arguments from people on both sides of the spectrum. Those who want to kill and control predators and those who oppose such practices. In this regard, Mary does an excellent job! Never once did I feel like she was arguing from a moral high ground and telling the reader what to think.

What struck me while reading this book is the same thing that I noticed during the conversation, on my podcast, with environmentalist and photographer, Peter Cairns. The presence or notion of reintroduction of any predator species is always controversial and makes some group unhappy. Whether birds or mammals, if they’re causing any inconvenience to humans, we want them gone. Or at least pretty close to gone. And while that is too extreme, because humans have modified the natural balance between species, some lethal control measures are required and even well justified.

I would really thoroughly recommend this book for anyone interested in nature, conservation, hunting, farming or rewilding. If you approach it with an open mind and without prejudice, it will serve some serious food for thought. It might be your springboard to a deeper understanding of these complex problems.

If and when the opportunity arises, I would love to chat with Mary on my podcast. Until then, do yourself a favour and order a copy of “Beak, Tooth and Claw”. You won’t be disappointed. 

Housekeeping 2021

Dear readers, listeners, viewers, followers and subscribers! This is the 4th annual housekeeping blog. I summarize the past year and outline my plans for Tommy’s Outdoors for the coming year 2021.

Last year, like those before, was mainly dedicated to the podcast. I published 26 episodes and this year the podcast will remain the core of Tommy’s Outdoors content. One significant change, made late last year, was to switch the category under which the podcast is listed from ‘sports’ to ‘education’. I believe we all feel that this change more accurately reflects the content.

Like many of us, in 2020 I moved almost all my activity on-line. Only 6 out of 26 episodes were recorded face to face, two of those were from the previous year. The explosion of the popularity of Zoom and other online communication platforms made scheduling remote podcasts much easier. As a nice side effect, now all the episodes of my podcast are also available in video on my YouTube channel.

Speaking about my YouTube channel… I hope you have all subscribed by now, but if not, please do it here. The simple act of subscribing helps me a lot. I will continue to experiment with various video genres: podcasts, vlogs, reviews and more. Please don’t forget to let me know in the comments which type of videos you like the most. 

Overall, in 2020 Tommy’s Outdoors grew across all platforms 77% compared to the previous year. That’s a significant improvement from the previous annual growth figure of 45%. I am delighted to see that the growth of Tommy’s Outdoors is accelerating and I would like to thank you all for making it happen. After all, it’s you and your interest in my content that is driving this growth!

I wish you all the very best for the year 2021.

Angling for Critically Endangered Fish

My good fishing buddy posted some photos from his two-day boat fishing trip. One of the typical grip-and-grin photos showed him with the porbeagle shark (Lamna nasus). This made me envious. As a compulsive-obsessive shark angler, I chased these sharks for many years. I was only successful once and the specimen I caught was very young and rather small. To me, it didn’t really count. So this species of sharks is still on my to-do, or more precisely, my to-catch list. 

But here lies the issue and the reason why it is such a big deal to catch one of these sharks. After long years of exploitation and unregulated fishing their population collapsed. Now they are incredibly scarce and, although in recent years there seems to be an increase in catches and sightings, it isn’t clear if it is an indication of a recovering population or just a shift in distribution. Regardless, they are still firmly listed as critically endangered in the Northeast Atlantic where most of our angling activities take place. This obviously poses some problems and rather uncomfortable questions. 

Those of you who are following me might even remember that just a few days before my friend’s fishing trip, an officer of one of the environmental NGOs expressed his irritation after another angler posted a video of himself landing a skate. Another species of critically endangered fish. That sparked an interesting discussion related to scientific tagging programmes that, by their very nature, require these rare and endangered fish to be caught, boated, tagged and then released.

In this blog, it is not my intention to defend or condemn anyone’s position. As always these situations are complex and there are many factors to consider. For example, is there a landing platform, how quickly is the fish unhooked, and how promptly is it returned to the water? They almost have to be taken on a case by case basis. Instead, I want to share some of my thoughts. I started to ask myself what I would do in my friend’s shoes. Would I pose for a grip-and-grin photo and point out the benefits of a tagging programme? Likely. Would I point fingers at past exploitation by commercial fishermen and contrast it with the negligible impact that anglers have on the shark population? Probably. I have done all of the above before.

Unfortunately, we have to face up to the reality that without changes in the current status-quo, we either run out of fish to catch, some species sooner than others, or we run out of the fish species we are allowed to catch. Most of us anglers talk a lot about the conservation of fish stocks. But do we have the guts to put our money where our mouth is? We talk a lot about fish welfare and the importance of catch & release. But do we have the resolve to not target certain species of fish, even if it’s legal? And would it even matter? Perhaps, the loss of some species is inevitable and the only approach that makes sense is, catch them while you can. Because soon enough they’ll be gone. Forever.

Let me know your thoughts in the comment section down below or on one of my social media pages.

Lockdown Fishing

Like most of you I feel the impact of the covid pandemic. Outdoor pursuits are among the impacted activities. Even though many of them could be considered the original forms of social distancing. Obviously any travel, even very near, is off the table. Luckily for me I have access to a beautiful coastal area just a few hundred meters outside my front door. That of course means that angling is my daily exercise of choice. 

I know a few tried fishing marks in this area. Under normal circumstances, I don’t usually fish them. Ironically, I used to when I lived in the nearby town and had to drive half an hour to reach them. That made me think about how often we overlook what’s within our reach and instead opt for some “better”, more inaccessible, locations for our activities. It’s like the old angling saying, “The biggest perch are always closer to the opposite bank”. Does that sound familiar?

How often does the lockdown force us to discover or rediscover outdoor gems that we overlooked because they are so close and familiar that they seem bland and boring? In any case, I intend to make the best of what I have and, who knows, maybe catch an unexpected specimen fish!

I have a killer podcast for you

This week on Tommy’s Outdoors was a little quiet, but not because of the unfolding situation with COVID-19. It was due to some high priority work that I’m involved with. You can read more about it in my housekeeping blog from the beginning of the year. But worry not, as per the usual schedule, next week I have a killer podcast for you. It’s going to be about nature, conservation and hunting. But it’s not going to be the usual “hunting is conservation” mantra, coming from someone with a lot of pictures of dead stuff on his Instagram page. So don’t forget to tune in. In fact, the best you can do is subscribe to the podcast if you haven’t already! It is available on all podcast platforms and on YouTube.

thumb_hid_hero

Housekeeping 2020

It’s been a while since our last housekeeping update. So in this blog, I’m going to tell you what I’ve been up to recently and what to expect from Tommy’s Outdoors going forward.

First, I need to give myself a pat on the back. At the beginning of 2019, I promised to put out at least 30 episodes of the podcast. With episode 60 published on the 25th of December, I have successfully kept my promise.

In the coming year, I will keep the podcast on a biweekly schedule with new episodes published every second Wednesday. However, I am planning to do a few releases on Tuesdays to see if you like the timing better. As always, if you have any comments on this matter please leave them down below.

You’re going to see much more content on Tommy’s Outdoors YouTube channel. The videos will range from regular vlog updates to feel-good outdoors videos, from event reports to documentaries related to the issues important for outdoors people. I also hope to put out more video podcasts like this one.

Importantly, I am planning to cut back on the content on non-podcast weeks and use that time to focus on bigger projects, such as more ambitious video productions or blogs and articles that require more extensive research. I still might put out an odd blog post or vlog on those weeks, but I want to focus on quality over quantity.

Finally, you will see more affiliate links to products and services. This means that if you click on one of the product links and make any purchase (not necessarily the product that is linked), I will receive a small commission that helps me with the financial cost of running Tommy’s Outdoors platform. Obviously, the price you pay for the product won’t be affected. So if you need that roll of duct tape, go ahead and buy it through one of the links. You will get what you need and you will help me run the website and the podcast while you’re at it.

Tommy’s Outdoors Top 10 Photos of 2019

After publishing two podcasts back to back in previous weeks today, for something different, I am posting the top 10 outdoors photos that I took in 2019. Most of them have already been posted on my Instagram page, but if you missed some or all of them, or Instagram is not your cup of tea, then here you have it.

Is Angling a Blood Sport?

Just the other day, my buddy and I were unpacking our gear and were about to take a walk to our fishing mark. A passing family with two small kids waved at us and wished us good luck. This was not an uncommon occurrence. Many times, over the years, I have been greeted by, and even gotten into friendly chats with, non-angling passersby. On that day, while walking to our destination, we began to talk about how nonparticipants accept angling much more than hunting. We agreed that if we had been pulling out rifles, instead of fishing rods, from the trunk of our car, we wouldn’t have enjoyed such friendly reactions. 

So why doesn’t angling spark such negative emotions as hunting? This must have something to do with the arbitrary scale each of us uses to assign value to the life of various creatures. We usually do so based on intelligence (elephants are so smart) or size (whales are so big) or perceived scarcity of the resource (there are not many lions left in the world). No matter how you cut it, fish usually rank pretty low on the scale. They are fairly simple creatures which are not fluffy or cute and in most cases are perceived as plentiful. So the public doesn’t mind seeing a dude with a fishing rod on the river bank.

Unfortunately, with the growth of radical environmentalism coupled with the recreational outrage culture, things have begun to change. Nowadays, anglers are criticised more often than before. The arguments are not new. Anti-anglers use the same rhetoric as anti-hunters: the causing of unnecessary pain to a fish, the allegedly negative impact on the environment, the supposed sanctity of all life, and all the rest of the quasi-ethical arguments. Social media platforms provide a slick echo-chamber for perpetuating such arguments. Alas, many people choose to shape their view of the world based on the shallow and uninformed opinions of their favourite celebrity, rather than scientific evidence.

It is somewhat worrying that this trend can also be seen among the hunting and fishing community. It is becoming more common for sportsmen to criticise each other based on what tackle they use or what quarry they pursue. For example, I have met a few anglers who were very critical about hunting, clearly blindfolded to the fact that angling is, itself, a form of hunting. So if you are a hardcore catch & release angler, criticizing fellow sportsmen, remember that you might be surprised, sooner than you think, to find yourself on the wrong side of this argument.

Charter Boat Sea Angling

I was sitting at my desk working when my phone rang. It was a text message from my friend and charter boat skipper Luke, who was our guest on episode 41. He had some spaces free on an upcoming fishing trip and was checking if anyone was fancy to go.

Regular listeners of the podcast already know that for more than five years I went crazy for sea angling. It would be hard to recall all the trips I took and all the fish I caught. However, for the last few years, I have been involved in other outdoor pursuits and my fishing rods have been gathering dust. Needless to say, I was keen to get back on the horse, or rather, on the boat. After a three-year-long hiatus, I wanted to remind myself how great sea angling is off the south-west coast of Ireland.

A typical boat fishing day starts on the pier where the anglers load their tackle and the skipper gives a safety briefing. Usually, the first order of business of the day is to catch some bait fish. Although the use of artificial lures is common, no bait works better than a strip of freshly caught mackerel. Early in the year catching mackerel may be a little problematic, so it’s always a good idea to read catch reports and have some frozen mackerel with you, just in case.

Once enough bait is caught the skipper heads off for more open waters. The most typical target species are fish from the gadiformes order. That includes pollock, coalfish, haddock, ling, pouting and whiting as well as cod. Of course, that list of species is far from exhaustive and anglers often catch various species of wrasse, gurnard and other fish. Fishing for sharks and rays is also possible but they need to be specifically targeted to increase the odds of catching them.

It is worth noting, that unless you are skippering the boat yourself, it is the skipper who does most of the work to catch the fish. It is his job to put the anglers on the fish. On our trip, the weather, although sunny and beautiful, was not favourable for angling. Light wind and calm conditions caused the boat to drift slowly, keeping us from covering a lot of ground. This made getting onto the fish more difficult.

It didn’t really affect us much though, as we were in very capable hands. It was a pleasure to watch our master-skipper at work! Luke tried a few promising marks from his vast collection of fishing spots. We fished deep muddy grounds, slightly shallower reefs and shallow rough ground close to the shore. It was not surprising that some of them were quite productive. In the end, every angler on the boat caught a good number of fish that day.

If you interested in booking a day out with Luke, visit Fish and Stay website and check his facebook page for regular fishing reports.

Wolves and foxes

I want to add a few comments to a recently published blog post about fox hunting with hounds. The issue has to do with opposition to fox hunting. I hit on this briefly in that previous post because there is no way to talk about fox hunting without mentioning its opponents. I have had a few interactions online with folks who are wholeheartedly opposed to fox hunting and I have come to an interesting conclusion about their motivations.

I started it all by wondering aloud about how many opponents of fox hunting with hounds are also advocates for the re-introduction of wolves into the landscape. I was thinking that wolves inevitably kill foxes in the same way as hounds do. It is called intra-guild predation, or IGP. It is the killing of potential competitors within an ecosystem. IGP is a combination of competition and predation, i.e., both species rely on the same prey resources and one benefits from preying on the other. For example, the reintroduction of wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the United States caused a significant drop in the coyote population through intra-guild predation.

Since foxes and coyotes are different I wanted to find out what the interaction between wolves and foxes really looks like. So, I spent several hours trying to find relevant articles and papers. Unfortunately, most of the materials I was able to find were related to ecosystems in the United States. There the IGP looked like this. The greater number of wolves drove down the population of coyotes, which released the pressure on foxes, whose population then went up [1]. Obviously, I am grossly oversimplifying. But, this seemed to challenge my original theory that the reintroduction of wolves into an ecosystem would drive down the fox population.

Then I found a paper in Nature magazine that described the European ecosystem. In Scandinavia, the lynx occupies the place between wolves and foxes. The dynamics between species were fairly similar with the exception that in places with no lynx, indeed, the presence of wolves caused a permanent decrease in the fox population [2]. So this article supported my initial thoughts.

I thought that people who oppose hunting with hounds have foxes’ welfare first and foremost on their minds. To my surprise, it turned out they are completely okay with a fox being killed by a lynx or a pack of wolves. They claim that this is natural, contrary to the “unnatural” killing by humans hunting with dogs. In my opinion, this reasoning is flawed in a couple of ways.

Firstly, a natural killing by wolves isn’t any less painful than an “unnatural” killing by dogs. A fox, which is just about to be torn apart alive, is not any more at peace with its fate because it’s a pack of wolves, rather than hounds, that does the killing.

Secondly, hunting by humans is as natural as hunting by wolves. We are a part of nature. Unless, of course, someone thinks that we were dropped here by aliens. Mainstream science tells us that first stone tools and butchering marks on animal bones were found as early as 2 million years ago [3]. Roughly the same time as the dating of the first fossil specimen of a modern fox, that was discovered in Hungary [4]. So, human hunters have been here as long as these other species!

In the end, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that wildlife welfare does not matter to some who oppose fox hunting. They are just interested in imposing their own moral and ethical choices on others. “I don’t give a damn about the foxes, I just don’t want those blokes to go hunting”. This attitude is not productive. If we want to implement effective policies to protect wildlife and its habitat, we need to throw away emotional arguments and personal dislikes. The only way to get positive results is by looking at the scientific data and working with all stakeholders like sportsmen, ecologists and farmers.