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The future of our sport laid bare

Richard Negus visits the Game Fair at Ragley Hall and asks, when it comes to shooting’s woes, is there light at the end of the tunnel? 

walked up grouse

You would be forgiven, if you had just witnessed the huge crowds over the three days of the Game Fair, all beaming smiles and bearing bags stuffed with sporting goodies, that next season, and beyond, is one of sunlit uplands and high hopes. Conversely, in the corridors and meeting rooms of power, politicians regardless of hue have turned their beady eyes on shooting. 

In Scotland, the recommendations of the Werritty Review will lead to seismic changes in grouse moor management – an entire landscape and way of life has been turned on its head. In Wales, driven game shooting is hanging by a thread while in England, proposed changes on gun ownership, the release of gamebirds in Special Protection Areas and a cessation of sporting lets by United Utilities send clear messages that storm clouds gather over our sport. 

Similarly, the media in all its forms takes a largely jaundiced view of shooting and practical conservation, as do a seemingly endless array of celebrities. Bird flu, Putin’s war and a UK agricultural sector in post-Brexit meltdown compound financial woes. 

Gross stupidity and repeated greed by a few within our own ranks adds to the whole faecal sandwich, leaving many wondering if this may be the end of days for game shooting as we know it. I used the Game Fair as a crucible of opinion. With so many sporting types gathered in one place, Ragley Hall provided a unique opportunity to talk to some of shooting’s sharper minds and ask: “Is our sport in its darkest hour, and if so, how do we save it?” 

game shooting

The way we pay for shooting may need to change, such as paying for the day’s sport rather than the size of the bag


Richard Prideaux lives and works on an estate in North Wales. He is a professional forager and field guide, taking tourists on excursions, teaching them the joys of nature and wild food. His clients are far removed from the type of people we shooting lot are familiar with. They are predominately younger, more urban and urbane; sufficiently engaged with the countryside to want to be ‘in nature’ – the current buzzword for going for a walk – yet largely unaware of the mechanics of our managed British rural landscape. 

“The majority of my customers are influenced to try wild food by what they see on social media,” he said. “It is overwhelmingly shows from the US that inspire them. I’ve had people ask if I can get them some elk meat or take them bowhunting.” 

Richard’s view is that transatlantic influencers have reassured people that shooting a wild animal and eating it is not something to be viewed with horror. However, he believes they see the backwoodsman-style of our American cousins as something far removed from British fieldsports, the former being wholesome and the latter somehow tweedy, seedy and not for them. It would be very easy for we old rustic curmudgeons in Britain to sneer at the Millennials, writing off their opinions as nothing but a misty-eyed view of the countryside stuffed with hashtags and filters. This, Richard says, we do at our peril. 

“Everyone has a superb camera in their pocket thanks to their mobile phone. We must all become media savvy, use images on social media and show to a huge audience, outside our own bubble, that shooting does bring meaningful conservation benefits. If we do that, shooting has a future,” he explained. 

Richard’s experiences with the influential Millennial demographic were echoed by Louisa Clutterbuck, CEO of the British Game Assurance. “If asked, many younger people will respond by saying anyone who kills an animal or bird for sport, be it one or 100, is a pretty ‘grim’ human being,” she said. “However, when we go to music festivals or sporting events and use wild food as a medium for engagement, the act of shooting rarely comes up. What attracts them is this is tasty, healthy, sustainable and nutritious and the bird or animal has lived a good life, a wild life. That word ‘wild’ is important to them.”

Being one of those traditionalist types who eats ‘game’ rather than ‘wild food’, I questioned Louisa if semantics could truly save shooting? “I don’t need to convince you or anyone else who shoots about game or wild food. It’s the 95% of the population who don’t, who I need to satisfy that shooting is good for the countryside, good for wildlife and the food we produce is good for them,” she explained.

Richard speaks to a number of people at the Game Fair

Political prejudice

The attacks on shooting instigated by national and devolved governments tend to get justified on the grounds of supposed science. But it could be argued that much of the cited research papers are misquoted, acting as fig leaves to mask political prejudice. I chatted with Amber Lole and Jodie Case from the GWCT to ask them why the science they produce, proving sustainable shooting is a force for nature recovery, seems to fall on deaf ears. Jodie’s view was that our communication is too focused on “preaching to the converted” and that we are failing to get our message across to the wider general public, the group whom our politicians rely upon to vote them in to power.

She added: “We simply don’t communicate well with people from urban backgrounds. When we do get a chance, at events such as Open Farm Sunday, we tend to receive only positive feedback on matters such as predator control. I suppose the truth is that people who are willing to learn have open minds to the practicalities of conservation.”

Amber added that she feels we are also failing to educate within our own ranks: “Of course we need to educate trainee keepers at entry level about conservation, but we also need to reinforce the idea with farm and estate managers, sporting and land agents that shooting is not just about shooting. They are managers of landscapes and all wildlife; their roles are no longer solely focused on game.”

Tim Furbank, a co-director of Oakbank Game & Conservation, is one of shooting’s most eloquent communicators. He shared the GWCT view that we are failing to tell our stories well. He also added that we should not fear admitting we enjoy our sport. “Some people will never accept that we can take pleasure from shooting, but we can counter that by highlighting the overwhelming conservation benefits that shooting can bring,” he said.

Tim then alluded to the elephant in the gunroom: “However, not all shoots are good for conservation, nor is every farmer. Licensing could be an extreme answer; better still we must swiftly self-regulate, otherwise Government will do it for us. Paying Guns need to ask questions of shoots – are they biodiversity contributors? If they aren’t, tell your friends; word of mouth spreads. Everyone who shoots can play their part in this.”

Another straight-talker was Nick Levett-Scrivener from Shooting Star, who touched on the thorny stick the anti-shooting fraternity love to beat us with, namely big bags. “Big bags get bad press. I understand that commercial shooting needs us to shoot large numbers to make it pay, so why not look at a different way of selling shooting?” he asked. “This may involve re-educating Guns; look back at how we shot in the 1960s, paying for a day’s shooting rather than shooting numbers in the shortest time possible. If we can grasp that, then I think there is a great future.”

My take-home view as I left the Game Fair was that our sport does have a future, a strong future at that. The reasoned voices I spoke with fully understood our failings and had a method of addressing these ills. We clearly have a superb story to tell to a wider audience, yet we fail to do that cohesively or concisely. Perhaps it is time to stop firefighting and go on the attack? I recommend Louisa, Amber and Jodie lead the assault.