Steel Yourselves

10 February 2022

Steel Yourselves    

See you next year?

by J.R.Thomas

It is that time of year known in some country circles  as “The Holidays”.  This may seem an unlikely appellation, especially for non-skiers, and it goes on for an unlikely length of time, until 12th August in fact, when everything comes back to life.  That will give it away to regular readers of this column. Yes, it was the end of the game shooting season on the 1st February, for all other than those diehards continuing to pursue that most challenging of birds, the pigeon, which being vermin and a confounded nuisance can be shot at any time with the permission of land occupiers who are suffering their depredations.  Rabbits are subject to the same rules but just now the rabbit population in most places is low, the result of some sort of epidemic.  (This may change rapidly as rabbits are rightly known for their tendency to, ah, breed like rabbits.)   

But there is change ahead in the slightly secretive and reserved world of game shooting; that is, in the legitimate pursuit of birds classified as “game” – pheasants and partridges, grouse, wild ducks and geese, and less commonly, woodcock, snipe, and guinea fowl.  Changes that could lead to new approaches in the way the activity is monitored and run – and what it costs, always a sore point. Life in the countryside is, slightly grumpily, having to adapt.

Quite a lot of the urban population of the UK, and even some of the rural inhabitants, are not that keen on shooting for sport.  The shootist will argue that he shoots not so much for sport as for the pot; that’s as maybe; the response to folks in funny clothing roaming around with guns is usually an emotional one, one way or the other. (Even more to groups of folks on horseback in pink coats or black, or even yellow in the posh bits of the Cotswolds.)  Country sports persons though will say that if you eat meat then it does not do to be too uppity about how it begins its journey to the table. 

Pheasant or partridge is wild meat, although usually with some supplementary feeding in the spring; free range, though with a tendency to return home after a day roaming woodland and hedgerows.  Home is often a large woodland pen, a reserve protected with wire netting from numerous other carnivores, especially Mr Fox, but later in the summer the pen will be opened up, the supplementary feeding will stop, and it is every bird and fox for themselves.

Then from 1st September for partridges and 1st October for pheasant it is open season for mankind as well.  Woodcock and snipe are subject currently to a code of practice under which they are not shot unless numbers are sufficient, and not before mid-November, when the migrating birds come south from Russia and Scandinavia.  (Mr Putin may not be keen on this abandonment of the motherland but cometh the November full moon, goeth every self-respecting woodcock to warmer climes (not Ukraine)).

British game shooters, the guns, go forth in groups of eight or nine, the birds driven towards them by beaters who traditionally frighten the birds into flying high and fast by tapping sticks, whistling, and making vaguely birdish impersonation noises – football rattles are not unknown; shouting is frowned on.   Behind the guns are the pickers-up, who not surprisingly, do the picking up, though usually delegating the work to retrievers or spaniels.  So it has been for one hundred and fifty years or more and nothing much changes.  The guns pay, often £800 to £1000 a day, roughly £37 to £45 per bird shot, they paying even if there are few birds, or they don’t shoot any.  The beaters and the pickers get paid, not a lot, maybe £30, more if they have a dog or two, get a free lunch, and a day’s free shooting at the end of the season.  It is an occasion for much banter and fun, and most people do it because they love the day out in deep country.  The guns get a brace of pheasants at the end of the day – so that is £500 a pheasant.  You’ve got to enjoy the day when you can get the same items, oven ready, in the local butcher for £9.

But, as we said, change is in the air.  Game shooting has become too popular and in particular, there are too many big days for the city types.  A big day might involve 300 to 500 birds being shot; a more old-fashioned country day would be a hundred or two.  Five hundred is a lot of pheasants and there is an increasing problem in getting rid of so many onto the nation’s dining tables.  Delicious and nutritious a pheasant might be, a partridge even more, but the spouses of those city types mostly don’t want to cook them when their hero comes in from the hill.  There have been rumours of big days ending with pheasants being buried in pits.  Only once has there been film proof of this, but the rumours continue and the sport loses much of its justification if the quarry is not eaten – and appreciated.

The result is that it is becoming unfashionable, unacceptable even, to run big days and to rear large numbers.  Increasingly the emphasis is on quality and on wild birds, better lifestyles (for the birds that is) and more challenging sport for the guns.  And, incidentally, more fun for the those behind and in front who are often better shots than those who are paying for the day and are endlessly entertained by what goes on in the paying seats.

Now a cloud, long on the horizon, is causing a new problem. Lead.   It is not a great idea to breathe in too much lead, which was banned from petrol for that very reason. It is not a good idea to eat it either; but shotgun cartridges contain lead pellets, the most efficient way of killing a fast and high bird.  Researchers have long been worried about birds ingesting pellets on the ground, and use of lead shot was banned years ago for birds that live by water where concentrations tend to build up.  Now there is concern about lead in game birds and the supermarkets have introduced policies that they will not take onto their butchery counters pheasants and partridges shot with lead shot.  This is likely to remove much of the already wobbly market for the product of those jolly days out.

To an extent this had been foreseen – the former head of BASC, one of the two main lobby groups representing field sports, resigned and joined an anti-lead group some years ago. The cartridge making industry is busy trying to find good alternatives.  Bismuth is one such, but impossibly expensive for most small local shoots.  Steel is possible, but does not work as well as lead and wears out shotguns much more quickly.  For shootists who pride themselves on using ancient craftsman-made guns that is simply not thinkable (or indeed safe).  The latest thing is soft steel, and there are tests going on of various polymers that perform as lead, but without its toxicity.  At the moment there is no wholly satisfactory solution, but the enthusiasts are sure of one thing; their days out are going to become a lot more expensive – and they’ll still only have two birds to show for it when they get home.     

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