What many people fail to realise is that fox hunting is, in fact, still carried out legally across the UK, as the law only states that dogs cannot be used to kill the animal. On top of this there are other types of hunting, such as bird shooting, which still continue.
At 9am on a snowy, mid-January morning, I travelled to a farm near Friskney to investigate the truth behind the shoot.
Delving into a world of tweed and leather elbow pads, the first thing to notice is that being in a room with peers dressed in plus-fours may seem slightly pretentious, but it does show how a group of young men have a great respect for their sport’s traditions and etiquette.
The farmer’s son, James, was the host and insists the main reason he enjoys shooting is the social side and the sense of camaraderie. “Shooting is really a social vehicle, which is proven by the fact that businesses are using them as corporate days to entertain clients,” he said.
In a world where world-class footballers use their hands to cheat, and professional golfers throw clubs in displays of temper tantrums akin to a toddler, this is quite uplifting. Director of the farm, Philip, who has spent his entire life in the farming community, explained how it is a traditional way of life in the countryside.
He said: “Shooting is a sport people enjoy in the country, but people don’t realise it is also a form of pest control. From a young age you will be introduced to shooting what we class as vermin, like rabbits and pigeons, as well as predators such as foxes and magpies. In fact, they are a threat to the ground-nesting birds like pheasants themselves.”
The plans for the day include a few drives in the morning, sloe gin, pork pie, sausage rolls, and soup for lunch, a few drives in the afternoon, and then roast pork and drinks in the evening. It sounds like a perfect day in the countryside.
Mother of the family, Janet, highlighted the fact that the dead birds will all be put to use and the day itself does actually support local produce, which the media are so keen to promote.
“I get the vegetables and meat locally, even though we are a potato farm, although I do have to pop to the supermarket for some things,” she said. The day’s prey was game, predominantly pheasants, with the occasional woodcock and ground game, such as rabbits and hares.
After being provided with a fetching wax jacket and some wellington boots, we made our way to the first drive. With around a dozen guns (shooters) everyone is arranged into position with the precision of a military skirmish. Eight guns situated at the opening of the wood and the rest flanking from each side.
With the bush-beaters advancing from the opposite side, waving their arms and shouting to drive the birds, the situation looked a little ominous for the animals. Despite this, after a cacophony of gun-fire, I was amazed to see a few pheasants meander to safety and the odd rabbit find sanctuary in a nearby ditch.
It is then when it dawns on you that this is a sport and the opposition are given a sporting chance. In 2010 it would be quite easy to use claymore mines and machine guns, but that is not the point and instead antique shotguns are used.
James explained how this is not the point of the shoot: “Not only is there respect for the animal but you also learn to respect the gun. In this environment there is a lot of emphasis on how to use the gun safely and being considerate of the people around you. There aren’t many people who know the damage a shotgun can do and at what range it can be lethal,” he said.
The lunchtime conversation wasn’t for the faint hearted, as the morning’s exploits were relived and male bravado kicked in. “Did you see it bounce?” and “that one’s skinned itself — it’s almost ready to eat.” But boys will be boys.
Despite this, he explained they do have respect for the animals they have shot: “I always wear a tie out of respect for what we are shooting. We try to be as humane as possible too. The reason we have dogs is to make sure anything that is just wounded is dispatched easily.”
As the afternoon went on it became obvious that there are a lot of rules about what can be shot: no hen birds until you have shot a cock, for example. Philip explained how it would not be in the best interest to stage a mass culling of the birds. “It’s all about the enjoyment of the day, not the size of the bag. There are commercial shoots nowadays run as a business, but the whole idea behind a shoot is that you attend friend’s days and then invite them back to your own. You just shoot a moderate amount of birds and then eat the produce,” he said.
I failed to make it through the day without getting blood on my hands. Despite not having fired a shot, I was coaxed into carrying half a dozen pheasants. I felt embarrassed by the way I grimaced as a bird’s neck was thrust between my fingers.
Animal welfare is often the argument against hunting, but despite the bloodshed the Labrador gun-dogs are in their element, retrieving the fallen prey for their owners. Compared with pit-bull owning, ASBO-laden youths in the city, perhaps campaigners should focus their attention elsewhere.
The amount of wild game on the farm has decreased, but it is not a result of the farming community, according to Philip. “In the 70s and 80s there were a lot more birds, but different pesticides were used which meant there were less predators such as crows and hawks. Since they have been banned I have noticed a lot more of these species around, and I believe they are more of a threat to the balance of wildlife,” he said.
Back at the house the day was rounded off with beer from the local brewery and a home cooked meal, plus a little sweepstake. Ellie, a medical student at the University of Central London, who has lived in the capital all her life, took part in the shoot.
She said: “I have been on shoots before and I love the day out, but this is the first one I’ve taken part in. I managed to shoot my first pheasant but I don’t feel guilty at all.”
Everyone writes down an estimate of how many birds were killed, with the closest guess claiming the pot. The number fell just short of a hundred. It is important remember that there will still be birds there next year and the farmer isn’t the only predator the game has to watch out for.
Many people fantasise about a quaint life in the country but look through rose tinted spectacles. Many aspects of the lifestyle could be deemed cruel but the upkeep of an age-old tradition that may kill a hundred of birds seems little to offset against the intensely farmed chickens many people eat.
You couldn’t get any more free range than going to the farm, shooting the bird yourself, and taking it home with you to eat at the end of the day.Tweet