How we ensure shooting’s future
Shooting's opponents are good at harnessing support for their cause; David Whitby says we must act and save our sport before it's too late
Nearly half a million people arrived by train, car and coach. Fishermen, falconers, ferreters, wildfowlers, game Shots, gillies and, of course, people who hunted turned out in 2002 to oppose a ban on hunting with hounds. How had this oldest of sports become indefensible to the masses?
The answer is that too little was done too late; arrogance, if you want a simple answer. Along with politicians, actors, the good and the great, were grassroots people from both town and country. They may well have never followed hounds, lifted a gun nor cast a fly, but they identified with a right to do so and perhaps understood a little about the countryside. They all knew that where foxhunting was concerned there was a swift death, no wounding and an overpopulated quarry that had to be controlled.
Hunting with dogs was almost as old as humankind. It had once provided food and now provided an exciting form of predator control. The biggest bugbear was not only that hunting with hounds was enjoyed, but the fact that it was largely enjoyed by the privileged, who often appeared somewhat aloof when on horseback.
Twenty-five years before the hunting ban, I found myself interviewing pro- and anti-fieldsports pressure groups. I was a student working on a final-year thesis about pluralism. I met a representative of the then British Field Sports Society (BFSS) — now the Countryside Alliance — a major player at the time. This man’s main interest was foxhunting, as was the BFSS’s if truth be known, and he gave the distinct impression that he would rather be anywhere other than answering a student’s dissertation questions. His manner was very formal with an air of arrogance; he saw no real threat from the “fox-hugging misguided rabble” who belonged to the Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA) and League Against Cruel Sports (LACS).
“Do you have any idea how many members of both Houses partake in fieldsports?” was his answer to a question on the perceived threat. He made not the slightest attempt to justify his sport. The winning of hearts and minds was deemed unnecessary by a small section of the community who had little in common with the masses. Their spokesmen were usually titled, with a perfect English accent, and had perhaps forgotten that there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance.
The antis could not have been more friendly. Misguided yes, but passionate about their cause; they truly disliked not only hunting but those who took part in it.
I can defend foxhunting all day long, though I have never liked stag hunting; beagling is a very fine sport and mink hunting a valuable form of control. Before the Hunting Act 2004 that banned it, there was nothing wrong with legal organised coursing; it was only certain factions that brought it into disrepute.
Without going into any detail, the hunting fraternity should have taken a good look at which sectors of ‘hunting with dogs’ were indefensible and unacceptable to most people and they should have been voluntarily cut out, before amputated by legislation.
What does this mean for the future of game shooting, the fieldsport that has not only given me immense pleasure but also a living, good friends and fine dining? I know we tend to remember the past as seen through rose-coloured glasses, but from my experience — which dates back more than 60 years — the people who shot generally came up through the ranks. They started very young and progressed from airgun to .410 and finally 12-bore. Their teachers were usually family or gamekeepers and respect for the quarry was paramount, though I must admit it was not always shown to predators.
A bag of 100 was a good day, 40-yard birds were deemed at the absolute maximum range and any wounded birds thoroughly searched for. Index-linked, a brace of pheasants was worth about £20 and was a highly desired gift. Both long-distance and close-range shooting were extremely frowned upon, birds were generally taken in front and hard-mouthed dogs not welcome.
Most Guns in those days were ‘shooting people’, rather than simply people who shot. At the end of a drive they would sleeve their shotgun and pick-up birds around the peg, watch the dogs work and ensure anything wounded had been marked. That word ‘respect’ comes to mind again.
With the antis having successfully removed hunting, we find ourselves increasingly at the forefront of fieldsports opposition. How are we placed to defend the sport we love so much? Though both LACS and the HSA still exist, it is the rise of a new pressure group that has focused on game shooting. Wild Justice is fronted by Chris Packham, Dr Mark Avery and Dr Ruth Tingay, who are not well-meaning amateurs passionate about a cute-looking fox; they are informed naturalists with the public ear.
Their argument that the annual release of 60 million gamebirds has a detrimental impact upon the environment is hard to refute. Their claims that the product of dead game is worthless and that supply far exceeds demand are true. That overcrowded, insanitary rearing conditions and poor animal husbandry have resulted in a disease-ridden stock — causing the annual death of hundreds of thousands of gamebirds and use of antibiotics on a shameful scale — is beyond doubt.
Where once the clean kill of a 30– to 40-yard pheasant taken in front was the aim of the Guns, now no shot is deemed too high or too far, regardless of competence. The result of this kudos-seeking practice is the wounding of millions of the very creatures that we should hold in the highest regard.
There was a time when Guns were expected to know their quarry, to have served their shooting and countryside ‘apprenticeship’ before standing on a peg. Nowadays, all they need is sufficient funds. We have welcomed one and all to this once traditional sport but done nothing to replace the long education that was in place for most who started in their youth.
What, then, of the future? I said I could defend foxhunting without any problem, yet it was lost. What is required to give driven game shooting a reasonable defence?
With the question of release density, each piece of ground will have a different holding capacity and as usual we must look to GWCT for guidance. However suitable or not your shoot is for a large release, if GWCT gave us a maximum density per hectare of ‘perfect habitat’, at least we would have a benchmark and able to give instruction that no shoot should release above this number per acre.
We must replace the traditional training of old with something like the German hunting course — and make it compulsory. It should cover quarry identification, safety and competence, and if Guns are going to shoot at ridiculously high birds, they must first prove they are capable on clays. The appallingly high incidence of wounding must be addressed.
The annual release of sixty million gamebirds and duck is a greater biomass than that of all other birds in Britain. We must drastically cut back to a number that is both equal to the demand for dead game and beneficial rather than damaging to the environment.
We need strict regulations in place when it comes to rearing, and the people who treat gamebirds like battery hens must be stopped. Rearing fields must be policed and prosecutions made when standards are poor, as they would be for any other livestock production.
The phasing out of lead shot must be fast-tracked. How can we possibly hope to sell our game when medical advice tells us it is dangerous to eat and must not be fed to pregnant women or young children? Lead has no safe level.
We need a think tank to draw up a hard-hitting set of proposals, address the problems we have and formulate a structure of changes to face the inevitable and, dare I say, indefensible onslaught of criticism. The benefit to wildlife of a well-keepered, modest shoot is beyond doubt — so many species thrive on the back of good game husbandry. But these are not the examples that will be used by those who seek to stop us.
The large commercial shoots that simply saturate the countryside with pheasants, partridges and ducks must somehow be made to see sense. Bag sizes and many other issues need addressing, whether you argue it is better to shoot more birds less often or fewer birds more often is not the point. Big bags simply do not sit well.
If people insist upon shooting at cruel distances, let us adopt the Spanish way of a secretario — who marks and keeps count of fallen birds — and charge for every bird hit, or perhaps for every shot fired. If quarry respect will not work, perhaps cost will.
I would imagine the number of people opposed to shooting roughly equates to the number of people who shoot, with most of the population not feeling strongly either way. They are there to be lost or won. If you switch on your television, most days you will see or hear Mr Packham doing a good job of winning them.
I don’t claim to be or to have been perfect as a keeper, far from it. Regrets come with age, but surely we can all see that our current situation is indefensible. The possibility of a ban on all leisure shooting in Wales is now very real. Have we learned nothing from hunting’s mistake of doing too little, too late?