A few years ago I was sitting on the sofa at Sandringham enjoying a ham sandwich with the Queen’s then-head gamekeeper, David Clarke. The thing about working for the royals, he said, is that if a drive’s a flop, they completely understand. What Clarke meant is that even if no royal bags a bird, they won’t complain. It’s about the day, not the numbers dead.
Sandringham (unsurprisingly) provides a snapshot of a bygone sporting era, a time when most shooting syndicates were collections of friends and locals, before entrepreneurial types sussed there was a few quid to be made out of shooting. Nowadays, armed with just an iPhone, a bloke on his City law firm lunch break can book a day where a bag of 500 pheasants is guaranteed. And it’s this sort of profit-driven shooting that may well do for the whole sport in the end.
Lawyers and city boys often cough up as much as £20,000 for a day out — that’s £40 a bird. The keeper often has no idea how deadeye or otherwise the party actually is, but when 500 birds have been paid for, he’s going to get it in the neck if he can’t deliver them.
Last year in Suffolk, I was with a smart young set who had dug deep for a big day. Some lacklustre shooting meant that by 11 a.m. it looked as though we weren’t going to make the bag. No matter. We were quickly whisked off to a drive where legions of pheasants heaved themselves a mere 15 yards into the sky and fluttered flaccidly towards the Guns. One well-fed youngofficer, up from Sandhurst for the weekend, who had never wielded a shotgun in his life, clobbered 11 pheasants on the bounce.
And what do you do with 500 birds at the end of the day? It’s no secret that game dealers often turn gamekeepers away as there isn’t enough demand for the meat. One poll taken by the Countryside Alliance found that more than 85 per cent of people had never bought game to eat at home. On a number of occasions, I’ve driven off with half the bag in the boot of my car because there isn’t a commercial outlet for the birds, and other Guns have made off empty-handed with tales of no room in their freezers.
But inglorious bag-filling isn’t the only consequence of the commercialism of shooting. Some months ago, I had a chat with Mark Thomas, head of investigations at the RSPB. Mark told me it’s not unheard of for young keepers to ring up for advice after they are asked to commit wildlife crimes. For instance a raptor, such as a hen harrier, flying through a drive can ruin it by causing game to take flight in the wrong direction. These raptors are protected by law, but there are tough targets to meet and unscrupulous keepers and land agents know when nobody’s watching.
The more birds a commercial shoot releases, the more money they can make, but more birds has the potential to damage the surrounding countryside, meaning more grist to the eco-warriors’ mill. It’s easy for those opposed to field sports to claim that malpractice born out of hyper-commercial shooting is representative of the sport as a whole. The League Against Cruel Sports website argues that the idyllic conception many people have of shooting — just a group of friends out in tweeds to take the air and bag some birds for the pot — is ‘nothing but a sham’ and that the whole sport ‘should be banned’.
But the League is reluctant to admit that when shooting is done right — and it so often is — it can be of tremendous benefit to our ecosystem. At places such as Sandringham, foxes and carrion crows are controlled, which allows endangered ground-nesting birds such as lapwing andcurlew to flourish. Meanwhile, cover crops planted up and down the country for gamebirds provide vital sustenance during cold snaps for corn buntings, linnets and yellowhammers.
Back in March, I met a plain-speaking Suffolk farmer called Graham Denny, who explained to me he sells a few modest partridge days because it gives him funds to spend on turtledove conservation. He told me in no uncertain terms that if the League had their way and shooting went, the turtledoves would ultimately go with it.
They’re not usually an outspoken bunch, but you don’t have to look far these days to find a gamekeeper who will tell you that shooting was never meant to be something you could make a great profit out of. Capitalism requires regulation, in this industry as in any other. If we don’t do something to stop the rise of hyper-commercial shoots and the bad practices they engender, they’ll put paid to a rich part of rural Britain and many of the birds that live there.
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