Born in East Anglia, but raised in the Arabian Gulf, Ed Hutchings was always going to have two things – itchy feet and an inquisitive mind. After leaving university with a degree in hospitality, he embarked on a career as a sommelier for a decade, working at various Michelin-star restaurants; in the process winning the prestigious sommelier competition UK Torres Quizmaster in 2004.
Ed eventually decided that wildlife was his true passion in life and he went into conservation. After working for the RSPB at Symonds Yat Peregrine viewpoint in Gloucestershire and surveying Nightingales for the British Trust for Ornithology, his writing started to take centre stage. What started out as a casual column in a local village rag, escalated to writing articles for Bird Watching and Nature’s Home, as well as contributing to several other publications. He also leads tours worldwide for Greenwings Wildlife Holidays and The Travelling Naturalist.
Ed is passionate about birds and their ecology, with a particular interest in raptors. He is also fascinated by bird vocalisations and takes pleasure in committing new ones to memory. Above all, conservation is closest to his heart and the preservation of the wilder reaches of our planet.
“Whether peer or postman, tipster or tycoon,
Heed these words of warning otherwise you’ll soon
Realise what happens in most every court –
‘Ignorance of Law’ can mean ‘Farewell to your Sport’.”
In the early eighties, whilst my family were living in the United Arab Emirates, the jazz musician and broadcaster Humphrey Lyttelton stopped off at our humble village on his British Council tour of the Middle East. In the early hours of the morning, he was to be seen wandering the desert sands armed with a pair of binoculars. ‘Humph’ was indulging in one of his favourite pastimes – birding. It was an interest which grew as a child when he lived in the English countryside and accompanied gamekeepers as they patrolled the big estates. As he told the Khaleej Times at the time: “I went armed with a gun, but my heart was never in it and I gave that up as soon as I decently could.”
Humph grew up in very privileged surroundings. He was born at Eton where his father was a housemaster. His grandfather was the 8th Viscount Cobham, whose family seat is the handsome Palladian mansion of Hagley Hall in Worcestershire. Whilst my background is considerably more modest in comparison, his experience mirrors my own. I once told people that “I used to shoot myself”, until I realised it didn’t sound very healthy. I came from solid Oxfordshire yeoman stock that had shot for generations. My grandfather was a good friend of the editor of the Shooting Times and author of ‘The Young Shot’, N. M. Sedgwick. I even worked on a game farm for a whole summer after leaving school and before starting university. It was in my blood and there to stay. Or so I thought.
The shooting lobby often like to rebut arguments against driven game shooting by branding the opposition as ‘lefties’ and ‘townies’. Personally, I am an ex-public schoolboy, who once voted Tory and shot driven game several times a year. We are often accused of meddling with their countryside, despite the majority of us living within it most of our lives. But as Mark recently demonstrated on his blog (see here and here), more people signed his e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting from Conservative rather than Labour seats and from rural rather than urban seats. That must have made uncomfortable reading.
Another argument often centres on tradition. As if something historical cannot be challenged. How many obsolete laws no longer exist? How many of the great landowners’ houses have had to be patched up over the centuries? Nothing lasts for ever. I’m all for tradition, and a monarchist to boot, but it has to be for the greater good of all concerned. Is the British countryside suitable for driven game shooting in the 21st century? As species continue to decline at an alarming rate, we should be throwing all of our collective energies into conservation. It’s time to start putting something back.
Man has sought game and wildfowl for centuries, initially for food and latterly for recreation. Game shooting became more popular in the 18th and 19th centuries when shotguns were improved. This era also saw the rise of the gamekeeper, employed by the landowner to protect game by any means necessary. Coverts and other habitats were managed in order to be more suited to game. Mantraps were employed on perimeters to deter poachers. ‘Vermin’ such as foxes, corvids and birds of prey were culled almost to extirpation in some areas. The gamekeeper’s gibbet still provides the most macabre of scenes to anyone unfortunate to witness it. All for the sake of recreation or ‘sport’.
Is it sporting to shoot something that has been driven from cover and directed towards you? I have often wondered that as I stood there with gamebirds streaming overhead. I have seen many a pheasant maimed and die an agonising death, fluttering on the ploughed earth behind me. I am still haunted by those birds I didn’t ‘kill’. Friends have told me harrowing tales of deer being shot, despite strict instructions not to fire at ground game. A messy and protracted death with dogs usually follows. A few bad apples maybe, but the joke is wearing thin now. No animal deserves to suffer.
What happens to all these birds after the shoots? Each gun and beater is given a brace and some go to game dealers, but I have seen numerous carcasses rotting in sheds. On some of the bigger shoots, the bags are so excessive that there have been instances of hundreds of birds being incinerated. How can we square these actions in this day and age, especially when people are still going hungry?
Since The Wildlife and Countryside Act came into force thirty-four years ago, some of the bird species that are permitted to be shot in their respective open seasons have declined considerably. Snipe and Woodcock are the best examples of these but one really has to ask whether Golden Plover remain a valid quarry species for shooting too. Maybe they’re considered a delicacy in some far-flung parts of the British Isles, but I failed to find any recipes online. I suspect it is their prestigious swiftness that warranted their inclusion in the first place. A question about the flight speed of Golden Plover (now known to be up to 60mph) during a shooting party in Wexford prompted Sir Hugh Beaver (then chairman of the brewery) to found the Guinness Book of Records in 1955.
Even stranger is the appearance of the humble Coot and Moorhen on the list of permissible quarry species. Neither is renowned eating, nor going to give you much ‘sport’. Utterly pointless. Yet the greatest concern comes from a pair of gamebirds that are Red-listed Birds of Conservation Concern – the Grey Partridge and the Black Grouse – and therefore threatened species. On their website, The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust offer this advice for ‘conserving’ Grey Partridge:
SIX GOLDEN RULES FOR GAME SHOOTERS
1 Do not shoot wild grey partridges if you have fewer than 20 birds per 250 acres (100 hectares) in the autumn. Below this level the population has little ability to compensate for shooting losses.
2 Stop shooting wild grey partridges as soon as the threshold of 20 birds per 250 acres (100 hectares) is reached, for the same reason.
3 Avoid shooting grey partridges after the end of December. Birds pair up in the New Year and shooting at this time reduces the breeding stock.
4 Never shoot at grey partridges that are in pairs.
5 With driven red-leg or pheasant shooting, take special precautions to ensure that wild greys are not shot at the same time.
• Warn the guns if grey partridges are likely to be on the drive.
• Tell the guns to watch out for higher birds in tight coveys that might be greys. Tell them, if in doubt, not to shoot. Perhaps fine them if they shoot greys!
• Arrange a system of whistles for beaters to warn guns that greys have been flushed – their distinctive call also helps to identify them. Have observers in the line of guns to do the same.
6 DO NOT SHOOT GREY PARTRIDGES AT ALL UNLESS YOU ALSO TAKE STEPS TO CONSERVE THEM
Apart from the incredulously nonsensical and counterproductive final statement, I find this list deeply concerning. How can these ‘golden rules’ possibly be enforced? In the heat of the action, and I am speaking from experience, very few shots are going to be able to distinguish between the two partridges, especially a covey going at speed and at height. Fine them? More like a bit of gentle ragging over the lunchtime port. Here’s what the GWCT have to say on conserving Black Grouse:
Black grouse and shooting: a sportsman’s code
Black grouse are legal quarry and may be shot in season (20 August to 10 December). But sustainable shooting is possible only where productivity is high.
Therefore do not shoot unless…
• Spring counts show that leks always have more than 15 males each year, and that overall there are two cocks for every 100 hectares of suitable habitat.
• August counts with dogs show that there are more than three young per hen at the end of summer, taking an average of at least 10 broods.
• Surveys on neighbouring ground show similar good numbers of birds.
• There is a programme of predation control and habitat improvement in place.
If you do shoot…
• Shoot only cocks – avoid greyhens.
• Don’t shoot in September. Wait until October or November when cocks finish moulting.
• Make sure all guns can identify greyhens and don’t confuse them with red grouse.
• Never shoot more than 15% of the spring stock of cock birds.
• Provide details of the shoot and the spring and autumn counts to the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust.
Code for bird watchers
Lekking blackcock are a natural ‘must see’ for bird watchers. But…
• Never approach displaying birds on foot. Watch from a car parked over 100 metres away. Set up before daybreak and do not disturb them by opening doors or starting the engine.
• When walking in areas frequented by black grouse, keep to footpaths and keep dogs on leads.
Once again, difficult to implement and enforce. Only the sharpest eyes on the moor will be able to distinguish between a greyhen and a Red Grouse. It’s good of them to provide a code of conduct for birders though. Poor things must be stressed out after all that shooting and we don’t want to make matters worse. The Red-listed Capercaillie was responsibly moved to the Schedule 1 list in 2001.
It is interesting to note that Jack Snipe is shot in Northern Ireland but protected elsewhere in Britain. Coot and Moorhen are protected in Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man but shot elsewhere in Britain. The Isle of Man is also the only place to protect both Golden Plover and Grey Partridge. Not only that. They have a healthy population of breeding Hen Harriers on the island that are completely free of persecution. A model for the future perhaps? Here’s to the common sense of the Manx.
Then there are the ‘ground game’. Lagomorphs such as Brown and Mountain Hares are declining, but did you know that the European Rabbit is now classed as Near Threatened? I am concerned that the increases in sightings of European Polecat and Pine Marten in England will be tempered by more people trapping these delightful mustelids. The Pine Marten is officially protected, but that means very little in the eyes of some, as we have discovered when it comes to protected birds of prey.
Bird of prey persecution in the UK increased dramatically during the 19th century when game shooting became more widespread. As early as 1808, the 1st Marquess of Bute required all keepers to swear an oath of employment to “…use my best endeavour to destroy all birds of prey with their nests”. Five of our fifteen breeding birds of prey (Goshawk, Honey Buzzard, Marsh Harrier, Osprey and White-tailed Eagle) were driven to extinction before the end of the Great War. During the two World Wars gamekeeping declined as men of fighting age were drafted to the fronts. (The stalking skills of ghillies were particularly popular with Scottish Regiments and they were regularly deployed as snipers.) This resulted in less persecution and raptor numbers began to increase. Full legal protection for all species came in 1954 (bar the Sparrowhawk which was protected from 1963).
Sixty years on, things have improved dramatically. When I was a boy growing up in East Anglia, I had to travel to the West Country or Wales if I wanted to see a Buzzard. Now several inhabit the environs of my Suffolk village alone and I regularly see Red Kites to boot. And yet the dark days of raptor persecution haven’t left us completely. Numerous cases of poisonings and shootings are still depressingly regular. The shooting community offers the ‘few bad apples’ analogy but it doesn’t wash anymore. How many industries regularly flout the law and get away with it? The law is pitifully lenient on the rare few that get caught and is no real deterrent. Friends in high places no less.
I do realise that a certain species require to be controlled. The introduced Grey Squirrel and American Mink have had a severely detrimental effect on the environment. Likewise, the rampant deer population in the British Isles needs to be addressed, particularly the non-native species of Chinese Water Deer, Reeves’ Muntjac and Sika. Deer have probably never been so abundant in Britain and, in some regions, numbers are so excessive that they are having a pernicious impact on the flora and the natural regeneration of woodland. Lynx reintroduction would keep this in check.
The RSPB’s chief executive, Dr Mike Clarke, recently called on those within the shooting industry to take responsibility for both the positive and negative impacts their industry has on the wider public interest, including biodiversity and the natural environment. One of the key trends he talked about was the marked increase in the intensity of management on some driven grouse moors in the uplands, especially in England. Mark has written plenty about this of late, so I have nothing to add.
Let us look at the other key trend he spoke of – the continuing increase in gamebirds released into the environment – now well over 50 million birds a year. Mike said: “It is ecologically naive (at best!) to think that you can introduce this amount of biomass – of a similar magnitude to the biomass of all the wild birds in the countryside – without any impact on native species populations and food webs.” A beak of food for a pheasant is a beak less for a native bird, despite the supplementary winter feeding provided for gamebirds. What right do they have to this food whilst others struggle?
One of the biggest arguments for driven game shooting is the amount of money and communities it supports. According to ‘Public and Corporate Economic Consultants’ (PACEC), “shooting is worth £2 billion to the UK economy (GVA)” and “supports the equivalent of 74,000 full-time jobs”. A drop in the ocean with regards the entire economy and working sector. Yet does this justify its existence on the back of its ethics? We’re told that, “nearly two million hectares are actively managed for conservation as a result of shooting” and “shoot providers spend nearly £250 million a year on conservation”. I’m sorry – on targeted conservation work or managing habitat suitable for gamebirds? It’s becoming a little muddled here. Yet that’s not all. Apparently, “shooters spend 3.9 million work days on conservation – the equivalent of 16,000 full-time jobs”. Do they give up their spare time willingly, like the thousands of volunteers assisting wildlife charities around the UK?
What is this conservation work they speak of? Landowners that participate in field sports claim they are more likely to conserve and reinstate woodlands and hedgerows because they are utilised by quarry species. A study in 2003 showed that they are around a quarter more likely to plant new woodlands than landowners without game or hunting interests, and also conserve a far greater woodland area. Subsequently, they suggest that field sports can provide valuable tools for wildlife conservation in the UK, without the need for governmental subsidies or protective legislation.
My ‘Handbook of Shooting’, published by The British Association for Shooting and Conservation in 1983, states that “A keepered environment sustains a greater overall wildlife population then an unkeepered environment. The reason for this is that the gamekeeper, whilst looking after the interests of the game population by creating or protecting existing habitat and killing vermin which predate upon game, is providing habitat and protected surroundings for songbirds, wild animals and plants. In this way he is making a valuable contribution to the conservation of the countryside.”
The same handbook proclaims “excessive management of, for example, a woodland habitat for Pheasants, or a pond for Mallard, can sometimes harm other wildlife species.” Never has a truer word been spoken. A couple of years ago, I spent a whole spring researching Nightingales for the BTO in East Anglia. Of all the numerous and wide-ranging habitats I surveyed, the only one that produced no evidence of Nightingales was that land that was clearly used for driven game shooting. Not only that, I found them to be the quietest overall and distinctly lacking in wildlife generally.
Landowners may undertake management measures to improve habitats for quarry species, including shrub planting, coppicing and sky lighting to encourage denser undergrowth. Yet this doesn’t necessarily result in higher abundances of native birds. Overall evidence that game shooting is beneficial to wider biodiversity has been inconclusive: high densities of gamebirds are known to negatively impact ecosystems, resulting in shorter grassland vegetation, lower floral diversity in semi-natural woodlands, fewer saplings in hedgerows leading from such woodlands and possible reductions in arthropod biomass attributable to predation. I have never been completely convinced.
I have been privileged to enjoy much of Europe’s countryside in my line of work. Apart from the distinct lack of Pheasants, what strikes me most is that vast tracts of the landscape are not ‘keepered’ and yet full of birds. They are lands where corvids, raptors and songbirds live in harmony. Where each of them is appreciated as a cog in a delicate ecosystem. Some of these countries are not without their own problems – the illegal hunting of migrants in the Mediterranean is a particularly long-established and thorny issue. But on the whole, their landscape is scruffier and richer for it.
The only other country worldwide that takes driven game shooting seriously is the United States and they only release 10 million birds a year – a fifth of what we unleash into our countryside. Driven game shooting in this country is so tied up in tradition that it has pervaded our consciousness as something acceptable – the norm. But if we stop and think about the ethics for one moment, about the endless slaughter of gamebirds and their predators, we have to ask ourselves where this ends?
Is it acceptable for us to behave in this manner for ever? This is not shooting to survive. It is killing in the name of ‘sport’ and there are detrimental consequences for the environment. I also tire of witnessing the endless dead pheasants that litter our roads. Such a senseless waste of life. I become further disillusioned by the aggression vented by the shooting community in response to perfectly rational questions levelled at their choice of recreation. A psychologist would argue that it is the behaviour of those that have something to hide. All for the sake of this peculiarly British tradition of driven game shooting that had its heyday in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. This blog may have raised more questions than it may have answered. Provoking thought is no bad thing. The pertinent question remains – is driven game shooting relevant and righteous in 21st century Britain?