Jack Charlton fishing at Cornhill-on-Tweed
Country Notes

Funny old game

What would Big Jack have made of today’s shoots?

This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

My knowledge of 1970s footballers is limited. But there is one — being the editor of Shooting Times — with whom I feel a sort of connection.

About four years ago, I was in the office, digging through the archives, when I came upon a grainy photograph of Jack Charlton reading the magazine to his three children.

As well as being a hard-tackling centre-half for “The Peacocks”, he appeared in two world cups, scored 35 goals in internationals, and was known as “the dirty big giraffe”, among Liverpool fans. When Charlton died, in 2020, his family said that for all he enjoyed football, fishing always meant more to him.

Charlton was involved in field sports all his life and if you were to ask the average countryman about his greatest achievement they’d almost certainly say Jack’s Game, the TV series which saw him travelling the country to do everything from beagling to ferreting. 

Shooting began to be sold commercially, on a per-bird basis.

A couple of nights ago, while rewatching the episode where Charlton heads to Wales for a day’s driven shooting, it struck me that at the start he merrily says there are “ten million pheasants shot in the UK each year. Five million reared and five million wild”. I’m not quite sure where those numbers came from but 40 years on, shooting has — so to speak — exploded.

Due to agricultural intensification, there are now very few rough forgotten corners where wild pheasants can eke out a quiet living, but there are some fifty million captive-reared birds released every summer.

When Charlton was my age, buying a day’s shooting would have almost been impossible. The wealthy had their own estates, while everybody else had to make do with lying out for geese on the foreshore or shooting rabbits.

In Jack’s adult life, though, all of that started to change and shooting began to be sold commercially, on a per-bird basis. There are plenty of scientists who recognise shooting is responsible for all sorts of ecological positives. Not least because it necessitates woodland being maintained to serve as drives.

But the sport’s transition from being a pastime for the few to becoming a business enjoyed by the many has had some pretty stark consequences. When Charlton was at the height of his footballing career, given the supply of game was so limited, butchers were paying two pounds a piece for birds. These days, so much gets shot that game dealers often charge estates to take their birds away. You wouldn’t be far off the mark if you suggested that carcasses have become a business by-product.

As much as a day’s shooting is wonderful escapism, the countryside doesn’t exist in a vacuum and world events mean that the forthcoming season is set to be the most disrupted in living memory. Pheasants are big consumers of wheat, 15 per cent of which is grown in Ukraine. But with farmers downing their tools and taking up arms, Europe’s breadbasket is out of office. At the same time, the cost of fertiliser, which shoots need to grow crops that birds shelter in, has rocketed. Not least because much of it comes from Russia. Finally, in France, a large producer of game birds, avian flu is spreading rapidly, which has resulted in a ban on bringing them across the Channel.

That dirty big giraffe would have got my vote

In Charlton’s day the situation would have been hard but it wouldn’t have been catastrophic. There wasn’t a big industry built on the sport, and wild birds that were still around would have kept people going. But things are more fragile now.

I’ve already heard of a few shoots knocking it on the head and almost nobody claims to know where we’ll be come Christmas. The real danger is that days get sold but costs climb even higher and operators end up with holes in their finances. It might lead to a great reset — perhaps with fewer birds being shot, game will become valuable again.

Either way, it’s the gamekeepers I worry about. In a generation they’ve gone from being people who worked hard for landowners and were given a cottage for life upon retirement to often being employed by businessmen who are happy to run them ragged, then lay them off when the wind changes.

What old Jack would have to say about it, I don’t know. He famously stood shoulder to shoulder with the miners on the picket line and was twice asked to stand as a Labour candidate. He never did, but that dirty big giraffe would have got my vote.

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