15 November 2019
Heads Down, Chaps
BASC, the “British Association for Shooting and Conservation” is one of two lobbying and representative groups for those countrypersons who like their dinner to be of the flying type and to harvest it themselves; (the other is GWCT, the “Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust”). Their memberships might be best described, in shorthand, as players (BASC) and gentlemen (GWCT). Or it might help if we tell you that BASC was historically for gamekeepers and those working in country sports, and GWCT for those who deployed the shotguns or owned the land over which they are discharged.
BASC is the most political, energetically lobbying politicians to protect shooting interests. That trigger finger was deployed at speed when the election was called. Within an hour BASC had sent an email to all its members (around 150,000) to suggest they let BASC know the orientation of local candidates on country sporting matters. Then, says, the lobby group, “each candidate will be given a rating relating to their stand on shooting – either ‘supportive’, ‘neutral’, ‘anti’, ‘don’t know’ or ‘unknown’.” Further instructions may follow, though the implication seems clear enough. Don’t vote for the anti-blood sport types and throw your weight behind men in well-worn Barbours. Never mind all that stuff about Europe and NHS and renationalisation. Safeguard country sports.
And BASC have a point. The threat to traditional country sports looms ever greater. Fox hunting was severely constricted by legislation during the Blair years, and although hunters still follow foxes, and the anti’s follow the hunters, the threat of prosecution for the hounds, or at least their masters, hangs over them on every outing. Fishing and shooting have been remarkably free from legislation so far, though grouse shooting rouses particular ire in the hearts of anti-shooting campaigners. Or perhaps, in the hearts of those who don’t like the rich, especially armed. Oddly, really; grouse shooting being probably the easiest of all the game shooting to justify. After all, the grouse are wild, free, and very difficult to shoot. And good to eat, as it happens.
Pheasants and partridges, the other main target of sporting gents (and ladies) tend to be bred for the sport, in incubators and pens, artificially fed and watered, and protected from the various threats which can overwhelm birds of low guile and intelligence. They are then driven by one group of hullaballoos with flags and sticks and shot by another bunch with guns and dogs. Many survive the shooting season and thereafter live wild; a better survival ratio than a field of lambs or a shed of pigs. Or battery chickens. And pheasant or partridge is better eating.
But shooting is increasingly controversial. There is something that upsets the average town dweller about the countryman, armed and looking for his supper. Even if death and mastication is a feature of much animal life, there are some who don’t like the idea that their neighbours should be the instruments of that end. There are more who don’t like the idea that the rich may be (a) causing the demise of sweet furry or feathery creatures, and (b) having fun and exercise doing it. This is a misleading representation, as there are many involved in pursuit of feather (and fin, and even fox) who are not at all rich, and many others whose livelihood and lifestyles depend on it. That is a problem that GWCT in particular recognises – that urbanised Britain has simply lost touch with what goes on in the country, and no longer understands the delicate balances needed in a very crowded island to maintain the countryside, keep predators to a reasonable level, and allow country people to make a living.
Every election represents a high point of threat to country sports. Labour has become more and more opposed to hunting of any type. The LibDems, though less open in their uneasiness, are mostly not natural country types. The Conservatives, not surprisingly, are much more inclined to preserve the traditional ways, though not to shout about it – its leaders are rarely seen now with rod and gun. Mrs May proved a strange exception to this in promising a free vote on repealing Mr Blair’s constraints on the pursuit of Reynard – and was not popular even in her own party for so suggesting. This spring Natural England revoked what is called the general license – the right granted to every landowner and their nominees to shoot feral birds that may destroy crops or be a nuisance –after what appeared to have been a coup within that quango. The Ministry of Agriculture hastily took the necessary powers back from Natural England and revoked the revocation after howls of protest from the fields and woods, but it was a warning of what may soon come.
Now a new threat has arisen. Not Chris Packham, every countryman’s favourite bogeyman. Not Mark Avery, formerly of the RSPB, but now a strident anti-shooting campaigner. Not even John Swift, CEO of BASC, who retired, to campaign for a ban on the use of lead shot (*see below); as if Mrs Thatcher in 1991 had joined Momentum. The great cloud arising now is the RSPB, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The RSPB has tended to quietly tolerate game shooting, partly because many shootists are enthusiastic (and generous) supporters, partly from recognition that managed shoot habitats tend to be good for wild and rare birds, such as the endangered curlew – now only flourishing on keepered grouse moors.
But that quiet harmony is breaking down. More than anything else, that is down to birders’ increasing interest in raptors – hen harriers, buzzards, hawks; and undoubted evidence that some shoots have had, at least in the past, such birds mysteriously found deceased about their premises. This has caused outrage to many bird lovers, who prefer a beautiful set of talons and wings high in the sky, to a large number of imported pheasants.
Another problem is the increasing commercialisation of shooting. Let’s put this one down to those boys from the City – we blame them for everything else. Many modern shooters are as urban as the rest of the population, and with as little sympathy for country traditions. They like shooting – it is an excuse for expensive toys and is wonderfully competitive. They don’t care about a brace for the pot, they want a lot of bangs and action, and keep a subtle score of who is getting the largest bag. That has produced rumours of such large numbers of birds shot that they are buried in pits (only once proved by photographs, but that is enough). A group of farmers and country types might shoot 50 in a day, no more than can be carried home to eat. The smart boys will shoot 500, more. Or would. BASC and GWCT are well aware that this is behaviour to ensure a ban on all game shooting, and shoot bags are diminishing fast, but perhaps a little too late for the sport’s reputation.
The RSPB also has changed; more radical and more campaigning. Its members are saying that tolerance of game shooting must end, and that the RSPB should campaign for more controls. If Labour wins on 12th December the RSPB may find that controls are in place at a speed it has not yet even dreamed of.
*Lead shot: Shotgun cartridges contain small lead shot, the most efficient and economical way of killing a distant target. With current concerns over the toxicity of lead, that is causing disquiet in government. Both shooting groups are encouraging the development of alternatives – but pleading for time to be given to allow that to happen before lead is, as seems inevitable, banned.