With the rise of social media, these apparently superficial disagreements can quickly escalate into something heated. As conflicts grow, we lose nuance and perspective in favour of prejudicial, almost tribal, assumptions. Lobbyist groups form, public petitions rapid-fire around the internet, and sweeping, generalised statements are made in 280 characters or less. Here, political strategy dominates. Middle-ground is non-existent, compromises unreachable.
When I began studying the grouse shooting debate, I came from a marine background and knew relatively little. But I did know that I was interested in the voices I wasn’t hearing - those on the ground, at the local level. Away from the tribal rhetoric, the misinformation, the blogs, the sensationalist newspaper articles, what was it exactly that tipped people over the edge, from cooperation into conflict?
To delve deeper would require more than simply attending meetings between various interest groups; it took me years, and a lot of listening to folk from all backgrounds to even scratch the surface. I spoke to gamekeepers, land managers, raptor monitors, ecologists and NGOs, with more of an open-ended approach than my previous training had allowed. For once, I was without hypotheses. As uneasy as this made me, it allowed that nuance to come through. Our discussions covered the usual suspects – illegal wildlife killing, muirburn, environmental stewardship. But over time, a deeper picture began to form: not of what the debate was about, but how people acted within it, and why.
I came to think of people’s reactions to conflict as either ‘fight or flight’. Interviewees would typically adopt an antagonistic position or choose to avoid the situation entirely. These reactions were deep-rooted in a whole suite of social and political dilemmas, fuelled by a distinct lack of trust in the ‘other side’, as well as policymakers and those in power. There was a complex relationship between gamekeeper and landowner, as well as concerns about the increasing popularity of factoring agencies and the intensification of moorland management. This, of course, was not everyone’s view, but it was more common than we might think, and featured in the narratives of not just the opponents, but the supporters of grouse shooting.