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Are fieldsports diverse?

Shooting is far more diverse than some suggest, says Richard Negus

man and woman on heather moorland

Whatever vitriol, abuse and allegations are heaped upon the shooting world, Richard Negus is pleased to report that it is inclusive

Why fieldsports are inclusive

The towpath of the Waveney was chest high with dusty stinging nettle and magenta-coloured loosestrife. This floral barrier added to the challenge of finding a chubby-looking swim in which to trot a size 16 hook baited with writhing maggots. I spotted a likely place ahead of me. An arthritic crack willow bent its gnarled back over the slowly trundling water, casting a cooling shadow beneath. I spied a swirl in an eddy and my mind immediately raced to visions of plump chub holding station there.

As I began to part the fronds to make my way from towpath to bankside, I discovered, with no little annoyance, another angler was already ensconced there. A large, shaven-headed man sporting serious biceps and a vest was staring intently into the water. His rod was set up and rested against the reeds that fringed the water’s edge. The man turned, his face changed in an instant from fish-borne reverie to a frowning mix of aggression and surprise.

sign in polish

To stop ‘Polish poachers’ there is a warning sign by the River Ribble, but Richard shares his experience of a positive encounter

“Any luck?” I asked in the way anglers are required to do when they bump into another of their ilk. “Not much, too bright,” he replied, the frown softening slightly. His heavily accented English and general appearance set me on guard. Like many anglers here in East Anglia, I have read in numerous blogs and chat rooms that the fishing in our rivers is in its parlous state thanks to ‘Polish poachers’. The story goes that, for the past decade, large groups of Eastern Europeans have caught any and every species they can, by any means possible, so that they can slake their demand to eat coarse fish.

“Have you been here long?” I ventured, not quite daring to ask to see his club membership or rod licence. The man looked back to the river and replied from the side of his mouth, “Very early.” I could sense that his only wish was for me to leave him to fish in peace. I then decided to bite the bullet and pursue my quarry now that I had found him.

“I am doing some research for an article about inclusion,” I explained. “You know, about how people from, erm, different backgrounds get on in the countryside?”

As a journalist, when you ask awkward questions of people, there are two types of response. One is disdain and silence, the other is akin to opening a floodgate. Julius, as I discovered my fellow angler was called, fell into the latter category. Chub forgotten, he began to tell me of his annoyance at Poles being blamed for poaching.

“Dirty water kills fish, not us,” he told me adamantly. He went on to say how many of his fellow countrymen who work with him at the nearby chicken factory love to go fishing.

“We don’t eat the fish and, yes, we buy rod licences.” Then he paused, his stern face smiling for the first time, adding conspiratorially, “Sometimes we do share the licence.”

We chatted for another 10 minutes or so about tactics, bait and fishing on the Vistula river. We parted on good terms and I left him to go back to his swim.

Rural areas

Julius’s annoyance at being viewed as an outsider, or even a criminal, because he isn’t a local lad, is arguably not that uncommon for minorities in the countryside. Rural areas are by their nature sparsely populated places and, out with twee hotspots, tend to be home to generations of the same family. We are in essence local yokels. Therefore hearing a foreign accent, seeing a skin colour other than white or spying someone flying a rainbow flag from their garden flagpole is a novelty. Changes from the norm tend to become topics of conversation more readily in the sticks compared with more densely populated and cosmopolitan urban areas. Does that mean we are racist, misogynist, homophobic or unwelcoming? Does it follow that minorities are excluded from participating in fieldsports, that most rural of pastimes? (Read more on how to start shooting.)

While spending a few days at the Game Fair with my son, I took the opportunity for a closer look at my fellow showgoers. It wasn’t what one might describe as a racially diverse place. However, a show dedicated to country sports is understandably going to attract more people from rural areas, which tend to be largely white. According to the last census, 81.5% of the UK population live in urban areas, the ethnic groups most likely to live in urban locations were Pakistani (99.1%), Bangladeshi (98.7%) and Black African (98.2%).

Therefore, the Game Fair wasn’t an exclusive event, it merely reflected the racial breakdown of the British countryside. I chatted with one couple from Croydon who run a spice company. I asked them if they felt their Indian heritage and urban home excluded them from the countryside. They told me that they were not participants in fieldsports, but were drawn to the fair to see if they could incorporate game into the recipes they create that accompany the spice mixes they sell.

“Have you encountered any racism here?” I asked, rather sheepishly. They both laughed at my question “No, why would we?” Then they said, “Can we ask you a question? The Wi-Fi signal is terrible here. Is it like this everywhere in the countryside?” I proudly told them we had 4G in Suffolk. They laughed again and I felt a little foolish. Over at the Fairfax & Favor stand, I chatted to two ladies in their twenties about the lack of choice they found in sourcing stalking clothing for women. “They think we only want to dress for show rather than the field. No one makes coats or trousers that fit women,” one said. “Is that a sexist thing?” I asked. “Probably not, more market forces.”

disabled shooter

Where there is a will, there is a way and everyone is welcome

I then spoke to a gay couple. My son Charlie spotted the two gentlemen, both with gun slips over their shoulders, holding hands. I found it excruciatingly embarrassing to strike up a conversation about sexuality with total strangers. The pair from Gloucestershire were kind enough to recall how they had met at work and shared a love of clay and game shooting, both being members of the same syndicate.

“Do your fellow syndicate members ever comment on you being a couple?” I asked. “Not really, it’s just not something that ever comes up.” Although this poll of a mere six people is in no way scientific, it highlights the realities of inclusion in fieldsports. We are a remarkably inclusive bunch. This unity has been forged, almost by accident, to counter the constant stream of vitriol, abuse and generalisations that the media delights in heaping upon us, regardless of our social status, colour, gender or sexuality.

We should perhaps take greater pride in our fieldsports fellowship, even if it is largely because, as the Millwall fans used to sing, No one likes us, we don’t care.