Why do I kill animals? According to a frothing group of usually anonymous Twitter commentators it’s all about compensating for my phallic inadequacy. As sure as Carrie Symonds’s terrier would be happier in the sticks savaging foxes, pictures of sporting moments posted on social media are followed by a deluge of comments about the hopelessness of hunters’ penises.
I’ve never been one for tradition but once a season, the morning after a big moon, when the bog beyond my house lies heavy with frost, I wander out in my pyjamas before breakfast to try and shoot a few snipe. Last year, it happened to be a mid-December Monday. Rural lore has it that flushed snipe zigzag into a breeze.
Accordingly, the diminutive wading birds are hunted with the wind at your back, which provides the chance of a shot when they take off towards you. With my greying little dog scurrying to and fro behind me, I set off for the far side of the field and then cut back through the rushes into the prevailing westerly. I was about a third of the way across the bog when the first bird lifted. Planting my feet, I swung my barrels after it as it curled round over a tumbled-down dyke, and fired. Protesting with a piercing guttural squawk, it flared upwards and disappeared into the sun.
Looking your dinner in the eye before you squeeze the trigger and take its life is not some sort of anachronistic tradition
After pocketing the spent case, I dropped a live cartridge into the chamber and crunched on through the half-frozen mud. By the time I got to the end of the bog, two more white-bellied snipe had beaten me, both of them zigging while I zagged feebly.
In a funny sort of way, the twitter trolls aren’t entirely wrong. Much of the allure of hunting is related to adequacy but they’ve got it the wrong way round. My love of pursuing creatures is about the poignant reminder it provides that humans are slow, graceless and imperceptive. On the sixth day God may have given man “rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air”, but having granted his animals better noses, eyesight and hearing, I can only assume it was a joke. A rushed shot, a misjudgment of wind direction, or a messily-cast fly and that snipe, stag or salmon disappears to some secret bit of wilderness.
Trolls of less Freudian predilections often attack hunting by arguing that it is really just an antiquated tradition that ought to go the way of bear baiting and cock fighting. Last year, during a lazy midsummer afternoon of drinking white wine spritzers in Shepherd’s Bush, I asked my pal Sachin Kureishi if he ever goes to the chicken shop at the end of his road.
“Not consciously,” he replied, “but sometimes, I wake up in the morning with a vicious hangover and lots of those salt packets on my carpet and suddenly have a hazy memory of buying hot wings in the early hours.”
“A fine tradition,” I laughed before clambering up onto my high horse and cantering off on a long harangue about ethical meat consumption. A few weeks later, after he’d unearthed a pair of wellingtons that he told me he hadn’t worn since the Libertines headlined Glastonbury in 2015, Sachin came stalking. It was a hot afternoon and the Oxfordshire wood we were in was listless and silent.
At about 8pm, the light was fading fast and I started to worry that the muntjac were going to evade us. On a last sweep, my friend Tim Weston, who is tasked with managing deer in the area, spotted a young buck browsing in front of an oak tree some 120 yards away. In one smooth motion, he swung his rifle down off his shoulder, steadied it on his walking pole and fired.
We tied the buck to a tree and butchered it, then lit a stove and fried the loins in the darkness. For Sachin and the vast majority of people in Britain such an experience represents a novel departure from the modus operandi of heading down to the local supermarket and filling a trolley with anonymous flesh.
Looking your dinner in the eye before you squeeze the trigger and take its life is not some sort of anachronistic tradition. In fact, it is just the sort of break from the tradition of mindless consumerism that we need as a nation to jolt us into making ethical food choices.
As a society we have lost our way. It seems we are less able than ever to appreciate nature and read wild landscapes and we give scant thought to the complex responsibilities that come with producing and consuming meat. If you’d like to become a better person in 2020, pick up a gun.
The world is at its most beautiful when seen down a barrel, but I’m afraid as far as any phallic inadequacy goes you’d best start looking elsewhere.
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