Country Notes

Gunning for shooting

Why field sports are so misunderstood

This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Most pigeon shooters seem to think that seven is the average number of birds shot in a single outing. I suspect somebody just plucked the number out of thin air a couple of decades ago and it was repeated often enough to work its way into rural lore. Every serious pigeon shooter will have had days when they shoot 100 birds. 

When woodpigeons find easy pickings, in the form of a crop that’s lying flat, they will flock in from miles and miles around, but equally we’ve all had days when we’ve sat there for hours on end without seeing a single bird in the sky. 

Some weeks ago, my friend Tom Payne and I were having the second sort of afternoon. It’s not much help to the farmer when the birds that have been devouring their crop fail to turn up when the boys with the guns are out, but it’s still a pretty pleasant way to pass time — me with my flask of tea and Tom with his two packs of Marlboro Lights. 

As we sat there looking out across the Oxfordshire field, we fell to discussing how much things have changed in the past decade. As a teenager I regularly got the bus with a gun in a case and often someone would strike up a happy sporting conversation. 

I was telling Tom that some days previously, I’d been standing in the queue for coffee at my local, with my spaniel pup, when a friendly man with a Labrador came wandering along the pavement. His dog had no lead and no collar on, which is always a bit of a tell-tale sign and he stopped to ask about Jessie. 

“I used to have lots of spaniels,” he told me cheerfully, before adding tentatively that he used them for beating on a shoot near where he grew up, “but I’m not into field sports,” he added apologetically. 

Over the ten minutes that followed, the man’s position changed. Upon realising that I’m very much into field sports, he conceded in a quiet whisper that he is actually very keen on shooting. His Lab, who was trained by a gundog man in Suffolk, has never been particularly good on the peg on driven days apparently but she reportedly more than makes up for it when she’s out rabbit shooting. 

As I walked back home, with Jessie trying her very best not to pull on the lead, I felt slightly sad. The man had assumed that if he told me the truth, if he told me he had grown up in the countryside and enjoyed shooting, I would take against him. 

He imagined that, because of prejudice and a lack of understanding, I would think it was completely reasonable to assume some sort of superiority. 

I wonder if social media itself is at the heart of the problem

There is no doubt that aspects of field sports can and should be criticised, just as aspects of livestock farming are a bit grim. But almost every day I see people on social media railing against gamekeepers and farmers from a position of a partial understanding at best. Perhaps it’s human nature, but I wonder if social media itself is at the heart of the problem — providing an illusion of understanding things as opposed to having to go out and really find out about them. 

I was walking, recently, with a young writer in the North of England. For quite some time she had been vegan and had felt like it was absolutely the right track to be on. Social media reassured her of that day in, day out. But her values changed when she took to walking in the hills. 

She spoke to all sorts of people along the way — publicans, farmers, and shepherds, people in small rural communities who were just doing their best. Over time, she started to appreciate that producing high quality meat has immense importance. It ultimately didn’t seem to her to be a destructive thing but rather something that kept a culture going. That’s not a win for being carnivorous over veganism or anything like that. It’s simply a win for listening and trying to understand. 

Only two pigeons appeared that afternoon with Tom. He shot one and I missed the other. That evening I sat out in my Camberwell garden and as I plucked the bird for dinner I wondered how many other pigeon shooters there are in SE5? A fair few I’d imagine. Except, I suspect, most of them would tell you otherwise. 

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