How is hunting viewed in other countries?
Those against hunting seem to grow ever more vocal, but how does the UK compare with other countries, wonders Matt Cross
Covid will leave behind many traces. In 1,000 years’ time, archeologists will find a layer of disposable face masks, or in a few decades grandparents will point to lines on the pavement and say to grandkids: “That is from when we had to queue 6ft apart during the pandemic.” Deep in the archives of some American states another trace will remain — a curious spike in hunting licence applications. With workplaces closed and indoor recreation opportunities limited, Americans took out their guns and went hunting.
As the world’s health suffered, the health of hunting blossomed, but as with lockdown puppies and the Netflix series Tiger King, the fad passed. Hunter numbers dropped back down and the world returned to something like normal. But what is normal for hunting across the world?
Hunting in America
Whether you fancy packing elk out of the remote Rockies or sitting over a barrel of doughnuts for a bear in Maine, the US has a reputation as one of the great hunting nations of the world. But things are not all rosy. Hunting is in a distinct long-term decline. Hunting peaked in the US in 1982 when there were 17 million registered hunters across the country. In 2021, 11 million Americans held some form of hunting licence.
This looks bad, but it is actually worse than it first looks because in 1982 there were almost 232 million Americans and now there are 332 million. In terms of the percentage
of the population, numbers of American hunters have halved.
Hunters remain a politically influential lobby in the US, not least because of what Americans see as an implicit connection between hunting and their rights to bear arms. The right to bear arms is a classic ‘wedge issue’ in the States, used by politicians to mobilise their vote and demonise their opponents.
The National Rifle Association (NRA), America’s largest and most prominent pro-gun-ownership organisation, is famously politically influential. Though its chief executive Wayne LaPierre did little for the cause of hunting when a video emerged online of him repeatedly failing to kill a wounded elephant, despite his guide standing next to it and pointing where he wanted the shots to strike.
The prominence of hunting and its links to gun rights has been a double-edged sword. If you want to attack those rights, attacking hunting is a way to do it. This has caused some hunting organisations to distance themselves from the NRA. From 2005 to 2010, the American Hunters and Shooters Association (AHSA) tried to establish an independent voice for hunters, leading the NRA to call it “the latest front group for the anti-gun movement”.
Public perception of hunting in the US remains broadly favourable. A 2017 national survey found that 87% of respondents agreed that it was acceptable to hunt for food. But only 37% agreed that it was acceptable to hunt for a trophy.
Hunters are rarely the good guys in popular films, but one country delivered a rock-solid hero as a hunter in one of its most successful film exports: Mick Dundee, inhabitant of Walkabout Creek, and famously the possessor of a very large knife. So how is hunting in the land of Mick ‘Crocodile’ Dundee? Australia has around 300,000 recreational hunters of about 25 million people. At 1.5%, that is lower than the percentage of Americans who hunt.
Hunting in Australia
Hunters in Australia have a serious issue around how they are perceived by the hunting public. As ABC correspondent Cameron Wilson put it: “To many Australians, hunters are ‘rednecks’: an uncouth group out of touch with mainstream Australian values and ethics”. Australia is a highly urbanised population, even more so than the UK.
Explaining his desire to leave Australia and move to the UK, an Australian former colleague told me: “You think of Australians as Mick Dundee, but actually we are much more like Harold Bishop.” If you have never watched Neighbours, Bishop was quintessentially suburban, extremely respectable and rather tedious. It would be hard to imagine him taking on an angry water buffalo.
There have been several legal challenges and restrictions in Australia. Earlier this year, proposed changes to the law in Victoria threatened hunters with 24 months in prison if they gave away game meat that hadn’t been through a licensed processing facility. In the same state, there has been a series of attempts to ban duck hunting. When the most recent failed, the West Australian carried the headline “Why controversial ‘sport’ will go ahead in Victoria this weekend”. The inverted commas around ‘sport’ say a lot about the paper’s attitudes.
The theme of a largely urban population struggling to understand the values of rural fellow countrymen and using the law against them will be familiar to many UK hunters and shooters. However, the situation in Australia is markedly different from the UK and the US. Nineteenth and early 20th century efforts to introduce European wildlife and domestic animals to Australia were spectacularly successful.
The consequence is that it now has problems with rabbits, foxes, water buffalo, camels, red, fallow and axis deer, wild pigs and feral goats. The presence of these animals and their ability to devastate Australian biodiversity more or less guarantees an indefinite ongoing role for hunters.
France was a country that was never on my professional radar. For stories of hunters making fools of themselves I looked to the US; for good practice and wide cultural acceptance, Scandinavia; and for controversy, southern Africa. Other than that French hunters shot one another with depressing regularity, I knew very little about hunting in France. Then a devastating wave of avian influenza, or bird flu, hit the game farms of north-west France, causing turmoil in gamebird supply chains in the UK.
I subscribed to various online hunting magazines, made friends with a knowledgeable Breton called Kevin. As I got to grips with what was happening on the other side of the Channel, I found a situation with some remarkable similarities to that in the UK. French hunters are predominantly older, white, male and rural dwelling. A description which applies to most Gun buses and beaters’ wagons in the UK.
They, too, are facing repeated highly technical legal challenges often based on points of European law. At times, trying to follow who was banning or unbanning what became almost impossible.
They, too, have an ingrained conflict between hunting interests and some conservation and animal rights groups. Where we have the RSPB, they have Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux, the Bird Protection League, perhaps the equivalent of our League Against Cruel Sports. Playing the role of Chris Packham, they have the former actress Brigitte Bardot.
Overall, anti-hunting groups have probably made less progress in France than in the UK. This is in large part because, despite dropping to half the number of 50 years ago, France still has more than a million hunters, which gives it one of the highest rates of participation in hunting in Europe.
Hunting is France’s third most popular sport after football and fishing. This has allowed French hunters to develop a powerful political lobby, headed by the redoubtable Willy Schraen. The working-class credentials of most French hunters has made them a hard group for the Left to attack and the Right have courted their support.
However, French hunters have not always helped themselves. Hunting has a dreadful safety record in the country, with deaths and serious injuries not uncommon. The French hunting lobby also uses its political energy to defend activities such as using glue to trap songbirds, hunting curlew and shooting turtle doves — now banned — all of which seem, from the outside, difficult to justify.
Compared with the situation in many other countries, the UK is reasonably typical. We may not have got caught up in wedge politics like hunting in the US, I don’t think we are seen as ‘rednecks’ like our Aussie brethren, and mercifully we don’t shoot people with the regularity of the French. But the hunting of wild quarry in the UK has many of the same struggles.
We are facing an opposition that no longer waves placards but instead hires lawyers, and we are confronting the widening gulf between the values of urbanites and rural dwellers. We are growing older and smaller in number. Looking around the world, it seems to me there are things we could learn if we want to stem that tide.
The Americans show us that a clear link between hunting and food is socially palatable, the Australian hunter has found an almost unassailable niche protecting biodiversity and French hunters have built a mighty political lobby based on mass participation. If we can learn some lessons from around the world, perhaps we who support fieldsports can avoid going the way of the face mask and the lockdown puppy.