Fieldsports' PR problem is not contempt but ignorance - so let's talk, urges Adam Hart in Shooting Times
When the Editor posed the question “Does everybody hate us?” to me on the phone, I laughed. At the time, I was visiting a friend called Angus who attends the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester. His digs weren’t quite your typical student house.
There were pigeon decoys on the lamp shades. Barbour jackets and wellies cluttered the hallway. Old copies of The Field were being used to get the barbecue going in the garden. Everyone I met came from the countryside and seemed to understand it. Angus’s friends loved fieldsports and talked about them.
Entire flats in halls of residence would go beating in the winter to earn themselves a free roast dinner. They went pheasant shooting on each other’s farms in the winter and decoyed pigeons in the summer. I was told by Angus that game, often still in the feather, could be found in their kitchen at most times of year.
So why on earth was the Editor asking such a question? Don’t all young people love shooting? At Cirencester, you could be forgiven for thinking so.
Fieldsports at school
Unfortunately, the Royal Agricultural University is not an accurate representation of the real world, particularly in terms of young people. I realise my education was far from normal too. I went to a sleepy boarding school in Monmouthshire from the age of 11 to 18. Lots of the boys came from the countryside. One of them made a game carrier for his A Level DT project. You get the picture.
But even at school shooting had a few opponents. Within this minority, some would take to social media to campaign against grouse shooting, or hunting, or whatever they found cruel and destructive. So what would people from the cities think of shooting? University students would surely not look kindly on shooting, given their ‘urban’ and ‘left-wing’ stereotypes? Having finished my undergraduate degree, I feel more qualified to answer this question.
The fact is the overwhelming majority of young people are indifferent towards shooting and disinterested in the countryside. Shooting barely registers in most university students’ lives. The countryside is to be looked at from the car window on the way back to uni. The countryside is dreary and boring in comparison to bustling shopping centres, lively Wetherspoons and crowded nightclubs.
University is throwing a bunch of teenagers armed with student loans into a city with complete freedom. Where would shooting feature in that mix? At the Royal Agricultural University, conversations about roosting pigeons and muntjac stalking dominated the evening’s barbecue. At any other university barbecue, Love Island would have dominated. Or the Euros. Or TikTok. My point is shooting would be the last topic of conversation to arise. Most people do not know who we are, let alone hate us.
That said, it is still possible to scratch beneath the surface and draw opinions and perceptions out of some people with regards to shooting. Sadly, with the exception of light-hearted jokes about being posh, the usual reaction I am given is one of mild disapproval. “Why would you want to do that?” is a common response when it is mentioned.
This was the reaction of my girlfriend when she discovered my love of shooting and fieldsports. I explained the usual benefits, such as how shooting provides sustainably sourced meat far healthier than supermarket fare, enables conservation and supports rural livelihoods. After a lengthy discussion she accepted all my arguments and realised the sense behind our sport. The conversation was typical of most I have with university students about shooting — it started with mild disapproval and ended with mild acceptance.
But it proved another point, that shooting seems to have a bit of a PR problem with young people. When I talk about shooting, I’m usually justifying its existence, not extolling its positives. Shooting always seems to be on the back foot. It is more often questioned than it is accepted, and that question is always along the lines of “why would you want to kill something?”.
At a university barbecue last summer, a similar debate arose concerning the ethics and morality of shooting. As we watched burgers being flipped and sausage fat dripping through the grill, two girls voiced their objection to shooting. They cited typical arguments, that shooting was an archaic, bloodthirsty sport where posh folk trampled the countryside to kill things. To which I listed the usual justifications, such as the ‘circle of life’, conservation benefits, sustainable meat and so forth.
I was supported by a farmer’s son from Surrey (no surprise there) and a vegan from Lambeth (very surprising). A fascinating debate played out where, under the pressure of common sense, the girls accepted the ecological and environmental benefits, but refused to believe that shooting a wild animal was morally right. The vegan saw no problem in killing what you eat if it was sustainable. The girls thought it wrong to shoot a wild animal in its natural habitat, but right for farm animals to be slaughtered en masse. If I recall correctly, the quote was “why can’t you just go to Tesco?”.
The barbecue revealed the source of shooting’s PR problem. A strange set of ethics is present in most young people where it is wrong to kill an animal yourself, but right to eat one sold in a supermarket. Going back to the conversation I had with my girlfriend, she understood and accepted the arguments I was making, but still wondered why I would want to shoot something.
Most young people are exactly the same. Young opponents of shooting see it as simply enjoying killing animals, which is why they prefer the supermarket meat aisle where responsibility for slaughter is someone else’s. But how wrong this perception is.
Despite all the ecological and environmental benefits, enjoying the sport of shooting underpins why so many of us spend our time in the countryside. But how do we fix this PR problem? The tussle between man and nature is tricky to visualise.
How could non-shooting people imagine the tension of a dog on point? The skills required to shoot a jinking woodcock? The satisfaction of seeing a pigeon commit to your decoys? The anticipation of flicking a dry-fly over a feeding trout? The adrenaline kick when a pack of teal ambush your pond? The excitement of watching a skein of geese approach your ditch?
The fact is fieldsports trigger powerful emotions that are challenging to put into words, let alone describe to someone in real life.
For this reason, shooting naturally finds itself at a disadvantage. As the UK becomes increasingly urbanised, shooting will continue to be misunderstood. In 2019, the urban population of the UK was approximately 55.91 million, while the rural population was around 10.93 million. Since 1960 the urban population of the UK has grown by 14.81 million, while the rural population has shrunk by around 370,000 (Statista).
Most young people are not connected to the countryside any more. Lots of my friends, through no fault of their own, could not tell a crow from a blackbird. How am I to persuade them that tramping through a bog after a snipe is fun, when they do not even know what a snipe is? We cannot empathise with something we do not understand.
Returning to the question, I realise I have given two answers. First, the prevailing attitude is one of indifference, certainly not contempt. Secondly, if you scratch beneath the surface and press young people for an opinion, there is a trend of mild disapproval, but this is easy to change. Conversations about shooting should not be reserved for other people who understand it.
Despite the difficulty in conveying the emotions and instincts inherent in shooting, we must engage and inform others about what we do and why. Cooking is a great way to do this. Using game to cook for others, or even bringing it to a barbecue, helps non-shooters to visualise the circle of life.
By utilising the field-to-fork narrative, we can demonstrate our connection with the land and our respect for our quarry. Suddenly, shooting has gone from a distant, destructive pursuit for country folk to a way of eating sustainably and healthily. Even my vegan friends from central London approved of my pheasant kebabs last summer.
Again, the easiest way to improve shooting’s PR is simple — talk about our sport. We cannot remain a silent minority content with the majority not understanding what we do or why we do it. More silence leads to more misunderstanding, and it is easier to hate what we do not understand. On that note, tight lines, shoot straight — and talk more.