Rewind a year or two. It is February and I?m in Bristol talking about shooting to a group of voters who vary in age, class, colour and background. They don?t know much about our world; they don?t care much either, but they have views and they vote. They are not stupid. They are the UK today, and our sport flourishes only as long as they remain broadly tolerant of what we do and why. Johnny, our chairman for the evening, puts forward a few questions ? should we own more than one gun? Should children be allowed to shoot? How many birds should anyone be allowed to kill and what should we do with the dead birds?
Not far away in Gloucestershire, another group of voters meets in a local pub, but this is an end-of-season dinner awash with claret, roast pheasant and tales of brilliance and incompetence in the shooting field. It could just as well be one of dozens of similar happy events across the country. As the port flows, the talk turns to the future of shooting and how we sustain our sport in a countryside beset by social, economic and environmental change.
The contrast between these two scenarios has been highlighted in Roy Green?s recent article (United we stand, 26 September) and in the response from Nick Sotherton of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (Letters, 3 October). Few have done as much for the good of shooting as those two, and both have articulated a compelling case of the ecological benefit our sport provides the nation. Yet, I would question whether, on its own, this ever really grips the casual observer. After spending a few years in Parliament, perhaps I can offer a third, more political, diagnosis.
The noise of opposition
Recently, DEFRA has embarked on bold proposals to cull or control buzzards, badgers, cormorants and other pest species. It has done so because the evidence supported the need to control them for ecological reasons. But, with the exception of badgers, this process has been diluted, disputed and, in some cases, abandoned ? not because of evidence, but because of the sheer level of noise emitted from our opponents. They know this noise can strike a chord in places such as Bristol. It is in Bristol where elections are won and lost; not Witney, Kensington or the great shooting estates that make up the tapestry of the UK.
That is why the Countryside Alliance (CA) went to Bristol, and other urban and semi-urban ?marginals?, all those years ago, to test our case. We put our most regular and favoured arguments to the test. We asked people what they knew about our sport (almost nothing, as it happened), and what they liked and disliked about the parts of it they had heard of. We showed them photographs of some of the most beautifully managed land in the country and contrasted them with some of the worst offenders in monoculture. We talked about who went shooting, why they went and what it cost. The following is what we found.
The mention of guns generally evoked a negative response wherever we went. People associated them with gun crime and gang culture, yet 57 per cent of our sample group thought that ?only posh people went shooting?. And a staggering 91 per cent supported some form of age limit (starting at 21!) on the use of guns ? let alone owning them.
However, while there was opposition to shooting for fun (63 per cent were against it) people supported the idea of shooting for pest control (26 per cent in favour). Almost all of our research concluded that there had to be some form of ?purpose? to shooting, which is where food became much more important than anything else.
Though only a small majority (53 per cent) supported a total ban on shooting, there was a consistent view that the sport is as cruel as hunting (45 per cent and 46 per cent respectively) and that rearing pheasants is as bad as rearing battery chickens. This shows why the animal rights lobby chooses food safety and rearing practices as its favoured lines of attack.
The good news was that, providing we could demonstrate that shooting had a purpose they could relate to; involved a wide cross section of the nation; and delivered economic benefit, most people resisted a total ban.
Retreading old ground
These opinions provide a challenge to most of us, because they aren?t necessarily what we expect to hear. And the irony is that we have been here before with hunting. In that instance we had a wealth of science and common sense to underpin the argument, yet we made little headway because we couldn?t get past the ?toffs on horses? mindset of Labour politicians and some sections of the media in order to make our case.
You may remember the CA?s ?nurse advert? (see p.19), which was created as a direct reaction to the dilemma we faced at the time of the hunting ban, and which we face now with shooting. How do we make a compelling argument in less than 60 seconds, without using boring graphs or statistics, and in a way that challenges each and every charge we face?
?The nurse? did all of that and more. Why? Because nurses are nice. So, if nurses are nice and go hunting, hunting must be nice. Job done. With one move (though 40 years too late) we were able to deal with every argument levelled against hunting ? cruelty, class prejudice, the lot.
It?s no surprise that the CA?s research showed that the arguments that work best relate to the economic benefits and the fact that what we shoot ends up on a plate.
There was no feeling that bag limits provide any sort of solution ? the fact that we shoot anything more than a handful was anathema to our audience, but the knowledge that someone got a meal out of it totally melted the hostility. The result was the huge investment in, and subsequent success of, the Game to Eat campaign.
So the latest attack on shooters by Dr Debbie Pain of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, on the use of lead shot, is no coincidence. For years we have questioned the motives of those calling for a ban on lead on such flimsy scientific grounds. Is it really all down to lead ingestion, or is it that Dr Pain has realised, as we did, that the quickest way of damaging shooting is to trigger a food scare? (With no market for game, we have no case for shooting it.)
The public?s reaction to conservation issues was limited, but that is not the same as saying it is not important, or that we should not continue the great work that most shoots and landowners undertake. We must never underestimate the enormous indifference to the detail of our work. In our research, most people believed ? rightly ? that publicly subsidised agro-environment schemes outweigh what we do pound-for-pound. To most voters ? and, therefore, most MPs ? the countryside remains a ?great national asset that deserves protection?. But ask how, who by and who pays for it and interest evaporates. People just don?t care that much, and certainly not enough to stand up for us when we need them.
Facing the other way
Shooting has a great case for its defence, and a wealth of material with which to promote it, as well as more Parliamentary supporters than it has had for many years. Its future won?t be secured by either its wealthy backers or its more extreme opponents, but by those in between. In politics, our world is shaped by a lot more than just the technical arguments. It?s all about trends, moods and background noise. Country sports have always suffered from facing inwards and talking fluently to their own supporters in a language alien to everyone on the outside. We don?t need to convince our supporters, so it is never too late to face the other way for a change.
Simon Hart is MP for Carmarthen West. Prior to his election, he was chief executive of the Countryside Alliance.