A rather longer blog today, to give a serious topic proper consideration.
After the Summer lull, the season for shooting feathered game kicked off last week with the grouse season on the "Glorious Twelfth". Partridges and duck will join them in September with pheasant and woodcock joining the shooting party in October. As seasonal foodies it’s a time we look forward to as a rich choice of meats we haven't tasted for months come back on the menu. Feathered game is one of most traditionally seasonal elements of the British diet. The very fact that game can only be shot at particular times of the year means it is strictly (and legally) a seasonal treat. But it's not without its controversy.
As a country, we have a mixed relationship with game shooting - it tends to polarise us into one of two views. On the one hand, we have the cosy image of a traditional, countryside pursuit providing wholesome, free-range food for our tables. On the other, a cruel bloodspot defended by toffs and large landowners. The start of the season invariably brings with it press articles articulating both side of the emotive argument and rightly prompts people to consider the moral issues involved. Personally, I feel strongly that, when done properly, game shooting for food is very defensible from an ethical standpoint. But I recognise that "done properly" is a significant caveat and things are definitely not as black and white as lobbyists on either side would have us believe. I want to use this blog piece to look at some of the arguments both for and against.
If you are a principled vegetarian then you are unlikely to think that shooting is ever right. On the other hand if, like me, you eat meat, it seems to me that your duty must be threefold. First, to ensure that the animals you eat live comfortable lives, secondly, to give them a humane death and, finally, to ensure you make good use of any meat that is harvested.
Looking first at how game birds live, some birds (notably grouse, woodcock and snipe) are entirely wild. Others, including pheasants and partridge are bred and partially reared in captivity. They are then released into holding pens as poults towards the end of the summer and, finally, released into the open countryside a few weeks before the season starts.
So, there's a bit of a sliding scale here. To me, there can be little argument that wholly-wild birds live infinitely happier lives that any raised in captivity. They roam free, happy to scratch and peck their way around the countryside, the only danger pre-season being natural predators such as foxes (whose numbers will be kept strictly in check by the estate gamekeeper) so it’s a largely safe and comfortable existence. However, the majority of reared game (which includes most pheasants and partridge) are born in large scale hatcheries similar to chicken farms. And as with chicken, the quality of those hatcheries varies. On the one hand, the best will rear their birds in conditions akin to free range chicken farms, with plenty of space for each bird to move around and to behave naturally. At the other end of the scale are intensive operations, similar to battery factories. Clearly, the further down that scale you go, the less robust an argument you have that game is a free-range meat.
In terms of how game is killed, a skilled gun will know his or her limits and cleanly shoot and kill a bird outright maybe nine times out of ten. Most birds that are hit will be dead before they hit the ground or killed by the impact. It is a quick and, by most measures, humane death. However, even the most confident of shots wouldn't be so bold to claim they hit them all. The moral ambiguity comes with that tenth bird. Most will be missed altogether but, of course, occasionally an off-centre shot will injure or "prick" a bird rather than kill it outright. Well-managed shoots have a small army of pickers-up and dogs, trained to find those injured birds so that they too can be quickly dispatched. On those shoots, the vast majority of gamekeepers and shooters will not leave the field until all efforts have gone into tracking down all of the birds. Nearly all will be found quickly, but it's a undeniable fact that occasionally some won't be.
Those lost birds are, it seems to me, the unhappy price to be paid for accepting that game birds live, and are killed, in the wild rather than the more controlled conditions of a farm and slaughter house. Proponents of shooting point out that human error and the production-line nature of abattoirs means a stress and pain-free death is far from guaranteed - besides which, injured birds will be quickly found and gobbled up by foxes or birds of prey - no worse a fate than a sick bird would face in the wild. Those against shooting argue that we should not accept any level of avoidable risk when it comes to humane slaughter and that culling should only ever be undertaken by skilled professionals in a controlled environment. To me, this is the most persuasive argument against shooting in any form. On balance, however, because of the infinitely better life they will have lived, I still come down in favour of eating wild animals, notwithstanding the fact that this inevitably brings with it the potential for a less humane death.
So, what to do with the birds once shot? I can see no argument whatsoever that justifies shooting a bird simply for the sport in this country. Plenty has been said in recent weeks about the pros and cons of trophy hunting in Africa, so I won't go into that here, but to me at least one part of the equation is very simple - if an animal is killed and can be eaten then it should be. When shooting was having a heyday in the mid-2000s, before the last recession, there were reports of birds being shot on large corporate shoots and simply discarded into ditches or ploughed back into the fields because there was no market for their meat. Whether, or to what extent, this was actually true is unclear. But if it is true, it's utterly indefensible and the mere suggestion that it might be, understandably provokes outrage. No, in order to be comfortable with the shooting of animals, we must also be comfortable that they will be put to good use. Most people who shoot will take a brace of birds home at the end of the day but many more birds will have been shot and those will usually be sold to game dealers. The volume of birds shot in the UK is such that pheasant meat really is one of the cheapest available during the season (There is a tounge-in-cheek Victorian saying that reflects the economics of shooting - "Up goes a guinea, bang goes sixpence and down comes half a crown.") A shoot might sell an entire bird for just 50p meaning that, even once gutted and plucked, you'll rarely pay more than a fiver for an oven-ready bird and in many places you'll get two for that price. Of course, not all game ends up beautifully presented on the butcher's slab or restaurant menu. Some is rejected from the human food chain because it is badly bruised or shot from too-close range. Badly-damaged birds may be made into pet food which, to me is another area of moral ambiguity. It's better than being dumped in a ditch, but only just and I think anyone who shoots has a responsibility to ensure that those damaged birds are kept to an absolute minimum.
Finally, some objections to shooting seem to hinge on a discomfort with the fact that those who shoot enjoy it. I find this a curious argument because it ignores altogether the welfare of the animal and focusses only on the judgement of one person's feelings against another’s. It's undeniable that, if you do shoot, a day in the field is a real highlight of the year. But it's not right to think that what people like most about it is the act of killing. There may of course be people whose thrills come from the infliction of death but I can, hand on heart, say I have never met one of them. A days shooting involves so much more - it is meeting with friends, eating good food, walking through beautiful countryside and enjoying fresh country air. In fact, a comparatively small part of the day is spent actually shooting. I can’t speak for everyone else but I know that the feeling I have when shooting an animal is a mixture of primal urge to hunt, regret of the death itself, satisfaction of a clean job well done and anticipation of the meal to come. To me, the last of those is crucial. I shoot to eat and I enjoy knowing that I have harvested my meal from the wild. I will happily debate the rights and wrongs of shooting from an animal welfare perspective but, in my view, any argument based solely on the fact that I enjoy it rather misses the point.
So, there you go. Even as a fan of shooting, I know it is far from being a simple question of 'right' or 'wrong'. The argument is far more nuanced and whether we are instinctively 'pro' or 'anti' we'll do well to remember that there are two sides to the shooting coin. There are undoubtedly good practices and bad ones and we can all agree that the more of the former and fewer of the latter, the better.
For what it's worth, my view is that there is an acceptable middle-ground. Shooting on a small scale is, I believe, a good thing. It promotes healthy eating and a respect for the countryside, for its wildlife and the birds we shoot. It can create jobs, supply us with good quality meat and have animal welfare standards on a par with the best meat farming practices. As with so much of our food chain, it's when shooting becomes big business that things go wrong. A focus only on profit and the number of birds shot in a day completely severs the link between shooting and food and quite rightly raises objections. Those of us who do shoot are in a minority and I have always felt that it's for us to show that it can be done in a sensitive and ethically sound way - we should be the loudest objectors when it isn't.