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Defining “fair chase”

What makes a memorable sporting day? Good company? Testing shooting? Wild, not reared game? Or just the ability afterwards to brag about what it cost?

You are at your peg and suddenly there is a 40-yard pheasant coming your way, on set wings and curling. By some magic you judge right and it thumps down way behind the line, dead as a knocker. It’s one that will earn you a pat on the back from a fellow Gun and you’ll remember it with an extra glow in the bath that night.

Does it worry you that your screamer had been in a release pen two or three months earlier? Of course not. It was well-grown, well-presented and had been at liberty for a good part of its life. On the other hand, if the birds are tailless, fl ying low or obviously too young, we leave them alone. That is our tradition. There’s no pleasure or satisfaction in the day otherwise.

When it comes to larger game, we now have six different species of deer around which a sound convention of selection based on good management has developed. The unique thrill of stalking red deer on the open hill comes from arduous sport among spectacular scenery rather than any question of trophy size.

With woodland deer, we have taken much from the European sporting ethic and adapted it to our own conditions. Obviously, numbers have to be controlled, not only for the good of the deer, but to avoid conflict with farming and other land uses.

The majority of stalking effort goes into this, but it is also legitimate to take good heads of full age occasionally, or to regard the fees that these may attract as balancing the inevitable damage that the deer may cause.

Now that we have wild boar breeding freely in several parts of the country, there are opportunities to collect a new and elusive quarry. This may involve many long waits in freezing high seats, but when a fine tusker eventually ventures out in the dusk, our patience is rewarded — this is an unforgettable experience. Does it matter at that moment how long since it has escaped or was deliberately released?

What makes a trophy “real”?

We do like to cherish our illusions. Sadly, though, there are shady operators exploiting the demand for bigger and better trophies by supplementing wild stock with penned or park animals purchased and released at short notice in front of unsuspecting sportsmen. Do those tusks represent a real trophy?

Trophies from park or domesticated animals have never been eligible for an offi cial CIC score, but the trophy judge has to base his decisions on what he is told or can deduce. The proud shooter may offer his antlers or tusks as wild, being completely unaware that he has been defrauded.

The problem comes in defining “park”. In the days when deer parks as such were virtually the only places where deer and other quarry species were kept in captivity, defining the origin of a trophy was relatively easy. Not so now. In Europe and other continents, large areas have been enclosed where animals live in nearly, or truly, wild conditions and are hunted as such, even though they may have been reared and regularly fed. Where should the line be drawn?

The whole matter came to a crisis when it was revealed to the CIC that a red stag, claimed as a record by one country, had been reared in close captivity in another. When the beast had grown a set of very large antlers through high feeding, it was secretly transported across the border and quickly shot after release in some woodland. A record was then claimed and only careful nvestigation revealed the unpleasant truth.

This, and another dubious story about a multi-point roebuck, prompted the search for a definition of what was implied by “fair chase”. Each extreme (“park” on one hand and “wild” on the other) could be seen as black and white, but the grey area in between has proved to be enormously difficult to ascertain.

How would trophies obtained from the enormous enclosures in the southern part of Africa be treated? Herds there live natural lives and the fence is a conservation measure to protect them from poaching and against straying on to farmed land, where they would be killed and eaten. How many of the European wild boar tusks proudly bearing a gold CIC medal have come from tracts of enclosed forest where, like pheasants, they have been reared, fed and released?

Certainly, in both these cases, the hunters concerned have been presented with game under very testing (that is, sporting) conditions.

The reverse of this is revealed by Dr Tomás Landete-Castillejos, vice-director of Spain’s national game institute (IREC), as reported in the latest issue of Deer, the journal of the British Deer Society, where he is quoted as saying:The farms of half of Europe are selling deer for reintroduction or creation of game estates or deer parks in many countries within Central Europe.

Figures in the article suggest that farmed deer is worth €500 for venison, whereas a good trophy stag can reach a value of between €2,000 and €5,000.

Dr Landete-Castillejos went on to say: Everybody knows there is a black market for reintroducing spectacular stags… for several thousand euros each, depending on the [trophy] weight. Selling trophies outruns venison production by a factor of 3:10.

Trophy guidelines

With its international stance, CIC has been trying to address this extremely difficult problem. Under the term “fair chase”, it has produced guidelines in an attempt to separate legitimate trophies from those shot under less ethical circumstances. One hurdle must be that different countries have varying concepts of sporting ethics.

If the CIC is to be congratulated on tackling a glaring and mounting problem, there remain large grey areas between “white” (the 40-yard pheasant which has already spent most of its life under wild conditions, or a truly wildbred stag) and “black” (a late-released pheasant or stall-fed buck).

One could conclude that the practice is becoming so widespread, and that distinguishing between heads obtained by “fair chase” or otherwise is so difficult, that the present pressure to obtain ever-larger trophies will make the whole scramble for medal heads pointless when somebody with an even fatter cheque-book will probably shoot a bigger one the following week.

Yet, when all is said and done, a trophy head on your wall ought to be a purely personal treasury of memories — not simply a reminder of what it cost.