My entire life is dominated by shooting, and the sport pays all of my bills. All I ever wanted was to earn my money from country sports, and now that I do, I think I’ve got quite a good insider view on what makes the “industry” tick at the moment. On the whole, I love my various jobs almost as much as I love the sport itself, but there are a few things which are not quite so fantastic.
Given that shooting has been threatened with legal destruction a few times over the past twenty years, people who shoot are naturally very defensive about their sport. It is a tight-knit community which is quick to attack any idea which it views as threatening – it’s only natural – shooting becomes an all consuming way of life, and if a ban came through, the impact would be far deeper than just finding something else to do on a saturday. For many, it would demand a total revision of priorities and a major adjustment to set up again outside traditions which have been in the family for generations. For gamekeepers and true sportsmen who live and breathe the countryside, the destruction of shooting would be a stunning upheaval, and it’s hardly surprising that these folk are the same people who defend the sport when it comes under attack.
Shooting has been under attack for so long that there are some long-standing protocols for dealing with the arguments of “antis”; the first and most important of these is always stick together and never break ranks; send the message to the world that shooting is worth protecting because it is good, sustainable and belongs to part of a venerable tradition which encourages people to get to know the natural environment. However, behind this shield, a few people are making hay while the sun shines. Knowing that people who shoot will never call them out on it because it’s not the “done thing” to turn on members of your own “side”, some things quietly go on which would make normal shooting people sick.
Purely from the perspective of personal taste, I don’t really like pheasants, and I don’t really see the point in commercial pheasant shooting. It’s fun to shoot them on a rough day, but a big bag groaning with pheasants is not my idea of a good day’s shooting. Some estates release pheasants like livestock, doing nothing to compensate for the arrival of so many greedy mouths and doing no work to improve the habitat for other species. They dump the birds down, then shoot them a few weeks later. Some people like it, and although I think it’s strange, they probably think that walking through the snow on a dark April morning looking for blackcock is pretty strange too. Anyway, like my wholesale indifference towards fox-hunting, each to his own.
As part of the mass production of pheasants, it’s obvious that corners are being cut in terms of welfare. Shooting charities stand up for badly farmed gamebirds because their members want access to cheap birds to put into their release pens. Along the way, you get images leaked to animal welfare charities of pheasants and partridges in raised pens – some dead, starving and diseased at the end of the season. All very well, the animal rights charities hype up what they find to suit their purposes and the problem is exaggerated out of all proportion, but it is still a problem. I saw this pheasant (above) on the Chayne which had presumably had a botched job done on the debeaking process. The bird looked stiff and was struggling to feed without a beak, so I shot it. It was an ugly business, but what a good reminder of the few dark, unpleasant corners of the game industry.
The same is true for the estates who reputedly dispose of shot pheasants by dumping them. I’ve never seen it happen and would kick up one hell of a stink if I did, but I’m afraid that I believe that somewhere it does take place. Obviously it’s very rare, but that doesn’t stop “antis” from going to town and saying in press releases that “most” pheasants shot during driven shoots are dumped. It’s a scandalous lie, but it would be easy to deny it altogether if I could put my hand on my heart and swear on behalf of the shooting industry that dumping birds had never happened at all.
The test for shooting now that it has saved itself from imminent destruction will be to see if it can iron out these few nasty creases in what is otherwise a fantastic and thoroughly worthy sport. People who criticse shooting are insane if they base their beliefs on what they are shown by animal rights charities – as if that information were balanced and fair – to buy into the literature that the League Against Krool Spots and Animle Aide (Misspelled so they don’t show up on search engines) produce is to participate in a self righteous monologue that does nothing more than reinforce its own beliefs. What makes them so ridiculous is that they will never concede that they are wrong about anything. There is a danger that shooting could fall into the same trap, and be weakened by its failure to recognise and resolve its own problems.