My interest in conservation and hunting came about through my discovery of ‘rewilding’ some years ago, and my eyes being opened to the degraded state of nature in our National Parks and rural areas. It took me a while to realise that my empathy and interest lay as much with the people trying to make a living from the land as it did with biodiversity and wildlife. I was intrigued by the human stories of how we have impacted our countryside, and how we see ourselves as separate from nature, rather than living as nature. 

Three years ago I read a book called ‘The Last English Poachers,’ by John F MacDonald, about a father and son who live off the land in the UK by illegally hunting game and fish from private estates. I became fascinated by their controversial story, and how it correlates with societies diminishing connection to nature, at a time when we are seemingly so enraptured by the ecological crisis. 

I wanted to make a documentary film about this complex and emotive subject, and decided to try and find the poachers. I began by trawling through the internet but rather unsurprisingly they had no online presence or contact details. Through one newspaper article I discovered the father had passed away a few years ago – I persevered on the assumption that the son, Brian, would still be active and therefore worth pursuing. I tried the publisher and the author of the book – I left a voicemail, sent emails asking for an introduction. Nothing. 

I got fed up with waiting and decided to take matters into my own hands. By referencing landmarks featured in their story on Google maps I figured out which village they most likely lived in (the writer didn’t specifically name it in the book). I took a punt that my research was accurate enough, packed up the van and set out to try and find him. Suddenly the hunter became the hunted! 

 

 

Poaching in the UK is steeped in a long, counter-cultural history. It’s roots begin with the reign of William the Conqueror, who introduced ‘Forest Law’ to Britain in the 11th Century which reserved hunting rights on huge areas of land for the aristocracy. Hunting then became illegal for the commoner, and poaching was born through the poorer rural inhabitants sneaking onto the land to take game to feed themselves and their families. 

As a way of life, poaching has now almost died out in the western world. It seems archaic and controversial in the modern age, where you can do an online shop and buy a whole chicken for £3. Yet somehow the slow inexorable decline of our rural communities made this story quite poignant for me. Over the centuries, the ‘Forest Law’ has been somewhat compounded and maintained through private land ownership. The enforced displacement of people from rural land through the Enclosures Acts, the Highland Clearances and the Industrial Revolution, have all contributed to the slow decline of community, and our appreciation and understanding of what it means to truly live off the land. Today our countryside is about economy and industry, where little else matters but profit and gain.

After a three hour drive south from my home in the Peak District I arrived in the centre of the village. The old high street had seemingly turned into a busy rat-run through to the motorway, a new housing estate under construction at one end, at the other a glaring set of traffic lights choking the road with exhaust fumes and impatient commuters. House names dotted about were reminiscent of a bygone era, ‘The Old Post Office’ ‘Coppers Cottage’ ‘The Old Police House’ ‘The Old School.’ It gave me a funny sensation that I was chasing a ghost. 

 

 

I spotted the Social Club – it looked as though it had seen a fair few characters cross it’s threshold over the years so it seemed like a sensible place to start asking around. Within minutes of stepping inside I was propped up at the bar talking to a lady who told me her older brother had been in the same year at school as the poacher. “I know who you mean.” She reflected for a moment. “But I haven’t seen him around these parts for years.” 

The locals frequenting the club were curious about my intentions and slowly gathered around, asking me lots of questions. Had I thought about what would happen if I did find him and he wasn’t particularly friendly? 

It suddenly felt a bit foolish, a quest to find a man who I had never met or spoken to, for a film idea that he may consider entirely compromising to his life and outlook. 

I decided to stay for a beer, considering other options for the hunt but already resigning myself to the long drive home in the morning empty-handed.

After about an hour of chatting, I heard a shout from the other side of the bar. The landlady beckoned to me. “Pat over there – she knows Brian! He’s her next door neighbour!”

Pat appeared, all smiles and curiosity, and enthusiastically whisked me out through the back door of the social club, down a dark narrow lane and through an old wooden gate into a yard behind a small brick terrace house. Her confidence reassured me, despite feeling a bit bewildered by this sudden change in fortune.

A short sharp knock on the kitchen window from Pat brought the silhouette of the poacher to the back door. “Brian, there is a lady here who would like to speak to you about a film.”

 

 

I stepped awkwardly inside and sat in a tiny living room adorned with taxidermy. An elderly lady sat knitting in a cosy armchair by the fire. I tried not to stare at the albino hare in a glass case above her head. It felt intrusive to have approached this man’s home in this way, but his acceptance and welcoming attitude calmed my nerves. I carefully explained who I was and what I wanted. He seemed to take it all in his stride, thoughtful yet eager. 

Once we had the measure of each other, the conversation turned to my plans for the evening. I considered heading back to the social club for some food and to finish the pint that Pat had made me abandon at the bar. I didn’t want to outstay my welcome. But Brian had other ideas. He offered to take me out poaching and I didn’t hesitate in accepting – the thought of experiencing first hand what I had read and thought so much about was too good an opportunity to turn down. 

 

 

We walked through the countryside, over fields and through woods and dells. It was a cold, clear, starlit night, mid February. There was something quite primal about moving quietly over the land, looking for roosting birds and listening to him talk in hushed tones about his life as a poacher, his relationship with his father (who had passed away four years ago) and his utter disregard of the system and the establishment. He seemed relaxed and at one with his surroundings, noting the signs of wildlife and correcting me when I mistook the bark of a roe deer to be a fox. 

We stood on the edge of a copse, looking back at the lights of the village, and I felt as though we had stepped into the past and were staring back at a dystopian future. Street lights, fences, keep out signs, central heating and take away food, the orange glow of the village arced up into the sky like a protective dome. Many of us have chosen to remove ourselves from the natural world, yet here was a man who seemed to haunt the paths of his ancestors.

Watching Brian tiptoe around the woods and dismiss any notion of what he was doing as ‘illegal’ made me think of indigenous people being displaced and traditions forgotten. 

 

 

It was obvious from the start that he is not a part of the modern community in his village. Indeed he sees the village merely a commuter’s hub, full of outsiders and “plastic people who have given up their lives for work and money.” He explained that he doesn’t see anyone out in the countryside – only on the footpaths and fringes of the vast acres of land he covers every week. He clings to a fragile existence, reluctant to relinquish his hold on the rural traditions he was brought up with. Indeed, it is all he really knows.

I carried his old canvas post bag he’s used for 40 years and he carried his gun. He shot one pheasant and I found myself bagging it up – poaching comes from the old Middle English word ‘pocchen’ meaning ‘bagged’ – and then hurrying along the lane behind him, back to the village like a couple of outlaws. 

Brian agreed to be interviewed for the documentary. We parted ways in the early hours of the morning and I struggled to get to sleep in the van, acutely conscious of the strange yet somehow poignant journey I had set in motion.

 

 

One year later and we have just wrapped on the filming with a small but dedicated crew who I cannot thank enough for their support, humour, patience and creativity. This is a subject that understandably divides opinion, yet the threads of the poachers story pull on so many elements of our social history and our current climate crisis, and ties them together in a way that is delicately prophetic. 

We are protected from the harsh reality of nature, our ideas around food production in particular are sanitised and controlled by colourful advertisements, packaging and the ever-increasing desire for convenience. We fight to control our own biased perception of wilderness and nature. We draw on our own experiences that have played out within no more than perhaps 50 years of modern history – a controlled and managed and utterly diminished wild – rather than the millions of years of untamed life cycles that we evolved from – that we could not have evolved from without. 

As a crew we all felt conflicted about what we witnessed during our time on location. We spent six days over two winters following the processes of tracking, ‘marking up’, snaring, shooting, plucking and gutting, accessing private areas of land under cover of darkness. It was not romantic or endearing. It was raw and hard to process at times. Hunting for sport is something I fundamentally disagree with. But hunting for food – the skill required to track and trap animals and then use every part for sustenance is intrinsically linked to an understanding of wild nature. 

For me this begs the question “what kind of world do we want to live in in the future?” We all seem happy with the mechanical, digital, industrial world we are faced with, because we have had our sensibilities of wildness amputated. We no longer live as nature.

When this poacher is gone so too will another connection to the land be consigned to the history books.