Sadly, this is the last in my short series about my great passion, and it is also the least satisfying part to write. It is no longer a missive about my personal experiences, but the possibilities for all current wildfowlers, and those yet to come. Even thinking about a future where I may not be able to head out onto the marsh, or sit in a flooded gully under the moonlight and pit my skills against Mother Nature makes me feel overwhelmed with sadness. You may think it ridiculous that this obscure ‘bloodsport’ could be held in such high affection by a person in 21st century Britain, but I am sure that those of you who have read along so far will realise that this author is possibly a man out of his time, and not really suited to our modern progressive country. It’s probably why I feel so at home amongst your company.
Country sports in general have had a pretty rough time in recent years, and taken in isolation paint an all too familiar picture of modern Britain. Hostile governments and political lobbyists connive to limit freedoms, be they gun ownership or which species we are allowed to hunt, and how we are allowed to do it. The findings of scientific research are twisted to suit hidden agendas, and international laws are used to railroad change such as the banning of lead shot, and the protected status of land under SSSIs. Negative and misleading stories appear all too frequently in national press, highlighting raptor persecution and the dumping of gamebirds, tarring all with the same brush. Even the very organisations set up to safeguard and promote our sports have been infiltrated by bad actors. Some seek to feather their own nests, whilst others have been subverted to attack the sport from within.
In my lifetime, I have seen the legitimate ownership of certain types of gun removed by knee jerk legislation, with little or no positive effect on levels of crime. I was on the countryside march, when hundreds of thousands of my fellows tried to make our voices heard, only to be pilloried in the press as out of touch and elitist. I watched in disbelief, as Tony Blair’s Labour government used the parliament act to force through the ban on hunting with dogs after a record 1000+ hours of parliamentary time had been wasted endlessly debating and amending this act of misguided class spite. Even then, over fifteen years ago, the writing was on the wall, and it was bleak.
Wildfowling on its own has experienced great change since my father first ventured out at the very end of the 1950s. Many once common species are now protected, although that is no bad thing. We have heard a lot recently about being ‘guided by the science’, but in the case of Wildfowling, it really is. There are several organisations constantly conducting research such as the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation. Every year, quarry species are monitored, and shooters (mostly) abide by voluntary moratoria, and bag limits where deemed necessary. This way, we avoid blanket bans imposed by remote and heavy handed civil servants, but keep the conservation of our quarry as a top priority. After all, why would we seek to weaken our sport by hunting our prey to extinction? It’s in our own best interests to preserve. Lead shot over wetlands is now long gone, and is soon to follow in all other areas of sporting shooting. That is why shooting organisations are supporting a voluntary phase out of lead cartridges over the next five years. I’m in two minds about this, as there is a lot of biased research behind the lead shot issue, but I can see which way the wind is blowing.
What frustrates me the most is that country sports are always on the back foot. Every piece of PR is bad, no matter how hard we try to paint what we do in a positive light. There is still this elitist image of country sports, although that couldn’t be further from the truth, a more ‘diverse’ mix of people with one pastime in common you will never find. Our representative bodies are far from perfect, often doing the work of our enemies for them. If they aren’t squabbling amongst themselves, they are picking the wrong battles to fight, or showing themselves up with the petty criminal actions of their staff. Oh for a united front from these groups. With a combined membership just shy of half a million, and £100s of millions in yearly subscriptions, they could be a lobbying force to be reckoned with, up there with the NRA in America, but instead they plough their own little furrow and waste golden opportunities to go on the attack.
What of our enemies? They unfortunately are legion. From the faux terrorists of the League Against Cruel Sports, and the lawfare outfit Wild Justice to the concerned mums at the Gun Control Network, and once respected charities like the RSPB and the RSPCA, not to mention most of the political establishment, we have our work cut out. From the inside, it sometimes looks like we are totally surrounded, and it’s only a matter of time before it’s all over, but is that so? Public opinion, when you cut through the biased surveys printed in the Daily Mirror and sensationalist stories on the BBC about 8 year olds with gun licenses, has remained fairly consistent for decades. Mr and Mrs Average couldn’t give a toss about shooting one way or the other. This is my one shining light in the darkness, the apathy of the common man to anything that doesn’t directly concern him.
The real task for all shooting sports (especially wildfowling), is to make public, and in as much detail as possible, all the benefits of the sport to the wider community. Every year, thousands of hours of voluntary conservation work is carried out by shooters to preserve the habitats of the creatures we hunt, with the added positive effects for non-quarry species who share the same places. Shooting sports enthusiasts are some of the most charitable people out there, with millions raised for local and national causes through everything from charity clay shoots, to club open days, and distributing game meat meals and warm clothing to the homeless and needy. Although running only for a few months in the year, country sports generate an estimated £2.5bn boost to the economy, with nearly half of that figure being spent in some of the most remote parts of the country like North West Scotland and the islands, and providing 74000 full time jobs in places where there is low employment prospects. (All figures from The Value of Shooting Survey, BASC 2014). I think it’s also important to note, the positive effects shooting has for the mental and physical wellbeing of its participants. A recent study by BASC (2019) found that for most people (around 95% of respondents), shooting is a great outlet for stress, a chance to socialise and mix with like-minded people, and is particularly useful in older people for keeping their minds and bodies active. Personally, although I prefer the more solitary side of the sport, I often find that the marsh is the only place I can properly relax, and it’s amazing just how quickly the time seems to pass when I am out there.
So what of the future? Will wildfowling and the other shooting sports survive? Unfortunately, in the longer term I think the answer is no, unless some drastic changes to our fortunes occur. If the last few years have taught me anything, it’s that hate is a great motivator. Unless you are prepared to love with an equal fervour, hate will win every time. Most people who are against shooting sports hate them with a passion, and that simply is not matched by enough of us on the other side. Whether they are anti-gun, anti-killing or anti toff, they just want it more than we do. Every day sees a little more of my sport chipped away by politicians, the media, apathy and above all time. The average age of shooters of my acquaintance is well over 50. I’m among the youngest people I know who shoot regularly (and that’s not an insignificant amount of people). Without new blood coming into the sport, it’s doomed to atrophy.
The problems of shooting faces are three pronged as far as I can see. The first prong is political. They control the means and the opportunity. Westminster’s attitude towards country sports is neutral at best, and I’d estimate that 40% of MPs are openly hostile towards them. The civil service is similarly biased, with both DEFRA and the department for culture, media and sport (the two ministries with the most impact on shooting), making some very dubious decisions in recent years, such as the decision not to have a permanent legacy for shooting sports post London 2012 Olympics, instead preferring to build a £40mn temporary complex at the Woolwich barracks, and then demolish it afterwards. There is also the ongoing fiasco surrounding General Licences (the legal instrument through which certain pest bird and invasive species are controlled year round), with shooters needing to jump through numerous hoops to protect crops or endangered wildlife. I honestly cannot think of a single thing politicians have done to help country sports, since the abolition of the game license.
The second prong is cultural. As I have pointed out already, shooting has a PR problem and the general public just don’t care enough about rural concerns in general and shooting sports in particular, and with each passing day, they slip further from the public consciousness. Where once you could sit down and watch Jack Hargreaves presenting Out of Town, or Jack Charlton in Jack’s Game, now you can barely see the countryside in a positive light on TV at all. Countryfile, presents a sanitised view, distorted through a metropolitan liberal lens, and rarely tackles any pressing issues, preferring to focus on BBC pet subjects like Climate Change and Diversity. Chris Packham and David Attenborough (almost as ubiquitous on the telly as advert breaks) are the face of the natural world, and are free to push their warped agenda on a public already woefully ill-informed about the subject. The few good things to see are usually scheduled off peak or hidden away on obscure channels. There is some good stuff online, particularly YouTube channels like the Fieldsports Channel, but there is also a wealth of bad and embarrassing stuff posted on sundry Facebook pages for the world to see that do us no favours. Our organisations do some good, and attendances at regional and national game fairs (not this year obviously), are very healthy at around 750,000 visitors annually, despite the eye watering entry fees, but are these events purely preaching to the choir? Both these public platforms can and should do much more with the money invested in them, for they are the most practical way of reaching the layman and of bringing new people to the sport.
The third, and possibly the most important I will call the technical prong. How do new comers and maybe returnees actually access these sports? I will openly admit, there are far easier, safer and cheaper alternative ways to occupy your time, and why indeed should people even bother? A major reason for the lack of younger new participants is its lack of accessibility. Initial set up costs can be prohibitive unless you are really keen, and applying for certificates can be daunting. Finding somewhere to practice isn’t always easy, especially if starting out on your own. It can be a little exclusive to outsiders, as its most often enjoyed by older people who have plenty of disposable income and have kept the same company for decades. It really isn’t as elitist as it seems, but I’m not surprised that some people see it that way. But once these initial hurdles are overcome, I really think the positives are worth it. These sports are good for the mind, body, and soul as they offer a unique way to connect nature in all its wonder. They allow you to develop and hone practical skills that are valuable and possibly even essential. They teach patience, respect and the value of life. Through shooting you meet folk from all walks of life, and form deep friendships with people you otherwise would never interact with. Shooting is even good for business, if you get in with the right people. I myself owe my current job to friendships made in the field.
But that’s the why I hear you say, what of the how? Short answer is, I don’t really know. It certainly concerns the other two prongs, in that pressuring politicians for fairer treatment such as reviewing draconian firearms laws, and possibly taking responsibility for licensing away from overstretched police forces and returning it to the home office. Getting our message to a wider audience in the various media are vital. Maybe persuade those high profile country sports participants out there to be more vocal and enthusiastic about things. You would be very surprised to learn just which high profile celebrities enjoy shooting or riding to hounds and keep it quiet to avoid adverse reactions. The real power I think lies with every active participant in shooting sports. What if we all took one non shooting friend out for a go at Clay Shooting, or took a brace of Pheasants round to a neighbour, or even cooked them something delicious and invited them to dinner? How about offering them some tickets to a game fair, or a wildlife tour of their shoot or wildfowling club grounds? These are all things I have done in the past and continue to do now, and I’m pleased that I have won a few people round, if not to actually take part themselves, but to at least be sympathetic to my cause.
The truth is, I think we (as in country sports enthusiasts) should all do more, myself included, and I guess that’s why I stated to write these articles in the first place. Wildfowling is my past, my present and I need it to be part of my future, and so do a great many others. What is to come in the years ahead is far from certain, but I sincerely believe we can make a difference to our own destiny. Whatever your views on the subject, I hope you have at least enjoyed this series, and I would be delighted if you have taken something away from it. Maybe you could help out, by forwarding this on to someone who doesn’t visit this site but might be interested. Thank you for reading, and happy hunting.
This was actually the first article I decided to write in the series (before there even was a series) and I started fleshing it out nearly three years ago. I soon realised it was a bit of a heavy introduction and was much better placed as a concluding part. In the intervening months I have extensively revised it, but I have regularly returned to keep it as up to date as possible. It was only when I decided to finish it and was rereading it prior to submission that I realised just how much Shootings problems mirror what I see happening in this country right now. Maybe you think such comparisons are trivial or even ridiculous given how serious a position all of us now find ourselves in. Let me explain. You have the aspects of erosion of personal freedoms and civil liberties, the use of dubious political powers and spurious science to justify all sorts of things. You have apathy and a lack of willingness to make a difference, coupled with a desire of people in a position of influence to keep quiet and avoid confrontation, even if they know what is happening is wrong. Above all else, there is the desire by some to rewrite history, to destroy tradition and convention and to deny us our past in the hope of bending the future to suit dark ends. We simply must not allow this to happen, if indeed it isn’t already too late.
© Columba Palumbus 2021
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file