I have mixed emotions about Islay’s feral goats. They’re a photogenic bunch and our guests at Beach Cottage love to snap them snacking on seaweed on their strolls to Carraig Fhada lighthouse.
But the caprine chums have also chomped their way through hundreds of my trees and stamped their unclean cloven hooves all over my dreams of a house surrounded by a blanket of yellow gorse flowers from January to June.
The neighbours feel the same way. “Who can we get to shoot a few of them”, is a regular subject of conversation in our corner of Scotland’s whisky island.
So it’d be hypocritical of me to claim I was greatly perturbed last week when I first came across American trophy hunter Larysa Switlyk’s egregiously boastful social media posts about having “dropped” one of the shaggy alpha males of the colony from 200 metres after two days of back-in-‘Nam style stalking in fetching khaki combats.
Scene above led to the one below.
To spare you clicking on it, this post concludes: “Made a perfect shot and dropped him …. ( Good thing too because he could have ran off the cliff into the water).
Larysa could not have known this but the reason goats were introduced to Islay in the first place was that they don’t fall off cliffs. They are so much more sure-footed than their dopey sheep cousins that they were brought in to create paths on the cliff faces to stop the baa-baa bunch from falling off in profit-sapping numbers.
So all the people who refer to them as wild goats/wildlife would do well to consider that their introduction to Islay was part of changes to farming that saw people cleared from land to facilitate wool production.
I digress. On seeing Larysa’s posts, my first thought was ‘well the goats did need culling,’ followed by ‘this is a bit of a story’, ‘these bozos are hilarious without realising it’ and ‘it’d be a good thing to Tweet about them’. So I did:
Conscious that a story – which is essentially what a Tweet is – has to say something clear to be noticed, I slightly over-egged my disapproval. I should be ashamed of myself but my followers count was flagging badly and Larysa looked like virtual Viagra.
I wasn’t completely surprised that it became my most widely-shared post on any social media platform. I was a bit taken aback, however, that, by that evening, Larysa’s exaggerated exploits were leading the Scottish tv news bulletins and being given an extensive write-up in the New York Times.
I think it’s this elevation of a storm in a Twitter teacup to international news that is the most interesting — as well as disturbing and depressing — aspect of this episode.
I shouldn’t complain: the furore earned me a slot on the following day’s World at One on Radio Four discussing the damage the episode had done to Islay’s image and the question of whether Scotland’s hunting laws should be amended. If you are in the UK, you can listen here:
What gave the story legs, of course, was that politicians, starting with the local MSP Michael Russell, rushed to reassure @outragedalways, @Iheartanimal and @Ihateyanks that they shared the anger expressed on social media, a position from which it is a small skip to “something must be done” followed by “we’ll certainly look into whether (or not) something can be done.”
This is how that went in this case:
Senior MSP calls for trophy hunting to be banned. Scottish government says it will review the legislation.
Fair enough. With those kind of top lines, it’s an easy call for an editor to push the story up the news agenda and pad out bulletins with another outing for the well-rehearsed discussion of hunting’s role in the management of Scotland’s land and populations of non-native semi-wildlife with no natural predators.
Everyone’s talking about it, lots of people care about animal welfare, good strong opinions on both sides: let’s have a heated debate, as Mrs Merton used to say.
Except it only takes a moment’s reflection to realise that there is not a snowball’s chance in Hades of Scotland’s hunting laws being changed any time soon.
What are you going to do? Legislate against Americans behaving crassly in scenic spots with the aggravating circumstance of wearing a baseball cap back-to-front? Compulsory tweed on all hunts? Ban deerstalking and let the deer run wild or, er, kill or sterilise the lot of them?
In saying that I’m not taking the side of the hunting lobby, just pointing out that this is a complex issue and reform will inevitably have wide ramifications. I liked this tweet from Pat Kane on that theme:
And I also had sympathy for those commentators who regretted that ongoing human tragedies around the world fail to gain similar news-generating traction on social media, including this one from my old Elgin High School teacher, Jeff Dugdale.
From a news person’s perspective, I think the key point was that apart from the fiendishly complex practicalities involved in reform, there are overwhelming political reasons for Nicola Sturgeon to avoid starting a sidecard fight with landowners at a time when she is engaged in a destiny-making headline bout over Brexit and its implications for the possibility of a new referendum on independence.
Not so long ago, the “could this actually happen?” test of a story would have resulted in Larysa’s tale being relegated to the second tier of the running order, if it wasn’t simply impaled on a spike.
Now, it seems, we are close to a situation where a row on social media, in itself, is enough to qualify an event as worthy of broader coverage.
It’s a trend that is only going to accelerate on the watch of news producers for whom, “it’s trending on twitter” has become the equivalent of “it’s running on the wires” for an earlier generation of hacks.
The difference being that news agency reporting and twittering are not remotely the same thing and the world would be a better place if organisations like Twitter and Facebook did more than they have done so far to ensure that the former activity survives the choppy transition to our brave new media world.
That’s the end of the serious stuff. Every story has a silver lining: The p7 kids at Port Ellen primary school made me laugh with their goat-themed Halloween pumpkins.
And I discovered the benefits of Ram Goat Liver (It’s good “fi mek mannish water” apparently) courtesy of my friend Bernie and Pluto Shervington.
That’s all folks!