Country Notes

Not child’s play…

Patrick Galbraith says hunting would benefit youngsters

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

It happens almost every year, usually just as the house martins are gathering on telephone wires before flying back to Africa and the first migrating geese appear in the night sky. This time it was different though. There was a child involved.

I was in my pants when I heard, sprawled out across the sofa, breakfasting on hot chocolate and artichoke hearts. Now that talk has turned to returning to offices, I’ve been making the most of what remains of this hiatus by working from home in the old-fashioned sense.

We should all feel sad when we think of the little future king standing among the heather, chasing birds for his supper

I tend to watch This Morning in much the same way as I chat to my grandmother. It is vaguely comforting but I’m often not sure what is being discussed, who the people being mentioned are, or what the significance is of any of it at all.

Wednesday 2 September was an exception. “This one is Prince William,” the peerless Holly Willoughby announced. “He’s been criticised for taking Prince George on a shoot.” I turned the volume up. It’s amazing how quickly the year has torn by — I’d completely forgotten the annual “outrage as Royal Family spotted shooting grouse” moment had come round again.

The details aren’t wholly clear, but a gamekeeper who works in that northerly neck of the Caledonian woods tells me the petit prince did indeed join his dad for a straight-forward morning of walked-up grouse.

As ever, people weren’t happy. Nicola Thorp, a Coronation Street star with a sideline as a po-faced talking head, was on the virtual sofa with Holly and Phillip to express her scathing disappointment. It would be a stretch to describe much of what she said, a large part of which was about her vegetarianism, as being constructive or thoughtful but towards the end of her harangue she inadvertently hit on something.

She said that while a child going shooting is normal for the Royal Family, the rest of us would face a visit from social services if we exposed a seven-year-old to guns. Nicola is entirely wrong in terms of detail but beneath her floppy conjecture there is truth.

Those who participate in field sports come from a surprising variety of backgrounds, but involvement is predicated upon owning land, being able to pay often quite large sums of money for the privilege, or living out in the sticks and knowing the right people.

In other words, if you’re a little boy like George Windsor but you live in an urban low-income family, the odds of you ever getting to shoot a rabbit for your tea are about as likely as Prince Andrew’s chances of being asked to become a patron of Save the Children.

Later, 1pm, fully trousered and telly turned off, throwing myself full-tilt into the working day, I sat down to scroll through the rest of the fall-out. Mimi Bekhechi, a director of Peta, had struck a fiery tone with her view that such an experience can “desensitise children to the suffering of animals”.

The words made me think of an evening the previous week, when I’d stood in the pouring Dumfriesshire rain, casting a fly out across the Nith in the hope of catching a salmon. For three hours I fished but as the river rose, growing peaty with water running down from the hills, it became clear I was out of luck.

In the final pool, about halfway down, I had a last couple of casts at the mouth of a small tributary. On my third or fourth attempt as the glistening orange fly swung round beneath the surface, the line tugged taut. It was only a small trout but the feeling of the cork handle quivering against my palm made me feel more alive than I’d felt in weeks.

When I got the fish up onto the bank, I ran my fingers over its iridescent scales dotted with sombre tartan spots before knocking it on the head. At £60 for a fishing ticket, my breakfast the following morning, filleted, dipped in flour, and fried, was one of the most expensive meals I’ve ever had. But it was worth it.

Whether it’s fish or fowl, far from being “desensitising”, hunting puts you back in touch. To catch a salmon or shoot a walked-up grouse, a person must learn to read rivers and interpret landscapes. The truth is that desensitisation happens closer to home when you reach for those flaccid chicken fillets in aisle six or for the avocados just off the plane from Mexico, planted where great pine forests once grew.

Like Ruth and Mimi, we should all feel sad when we think of the little future king standing among the heather, chasing birds for his supper. Not because it’s going to do him any harm but because society would be so much richer and more environmentally conscious if hunting were a privilege afforded to all our children.

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