Female hen pheasant

The big bang

On the ecological repercussions and economic contributions of big shoots

Country Notes

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

On a bitingly cold Saturday, earlier this year, I was standing next to the head keeper at Holkham in front of a dense wood. It was probably the best shooting invitation I’ve ever had, and I was letting myself down. “Tough wind, sir,” he said with a thoughtful nod as another hen bird shot by and I missed with both barrels.

As estates go, Holkham is quite something. Tom Leicester, the current earl, has worked hard to create a place where tourism, agriculture, forestry and shooting all run alongside each other as highly effective strands of a bustling whole. Even those who loathe the idea of earldoms, great landholdings and big houses seem to give Holkham a free pass.

In part it’s probably because they provide so much access. It’s also partly down to Jake Fiennes, the estate’s conservation manager. In his forthright way, he pioneers some very impressive nature recovery at Holkham, and he’s not shy about discussing it.

“Have you had much shooting this year?” the head keeper continued as a high pigeon flew down the line. I told him I’d managed to keep the freezer full. I’d had some geese on Lewis, I’d caught up with enough hares for a party at New Year, and I’d been invited down to Wales to shoot two very big days.

“Bit of a conflict for you, sir,” the headkeeper said wryly. And he was right. Over the years, I’ve been a vocal critic of the excesses of commercial pheasant shooting. At Holkham that Saturday we shot a hundred or so; what the Guns didn’t take home ended up at The Victoria, the estate pub.

The sort of days they put on at the place I went to in Wales are very different — 400 birds at Bettws Hall is standard fare. It would be wrong to suggest there’s anything shonky about Bettws — they rear their own game in immaculate conditions, the shooting itself is challenging, and everything ends up in the food chain. They are far too big to do things badly.

I’ve frequently said that if shooting gets bigger and bigger, it will eventually go bang, and Bettws has been at the forefront of commercialisation. I accepted the invitation, in part, because I wanted to see what it was all about.

The scale of the whole thing was extraordinary, and it was even shinier than I expected it to be. Champagne flowed, canapes came relentlessly, and there were often so many birds in the sky that it was impossible to pick one.

After the end of the first day, I stood in the pub talking to one of the keepers, and he asked me what I thought. I shot straight: “The whole thing is remarkable, but surely putting that many birds down has heavy ecological consequences?”

The young keeper didn’t disagree. “But this pub,” he replied, “this pub is only here because of Bettws — and the village shop would close without it.”

Bettws, I learned the following day, employs more than 100 people, as well as countless part-timers. The benefit to a part of Wales that has long struggled economically is immense. And yet the young keeper agreed, as somebody seemingly fascinated by nature and conservation, that sending a few ecologists onto the hill to look at the impact on invertebrates of releasing so much game would be interesting.

On that drive in Norfolk, I finally caught up with a hen bird, and I told the headkeeper as his spaniel ran out to retrieve it, that I suppose it was a bit of a conflict but I was glad I’d been. I wasn’t, I don’t think, totally wrong but I hadn’t appreciated quite how much Bettws — and shoots like it — contribute economically.

We seem to have fallen into a rut where people say things about farming, forestry and fieldsports that often aren’t true.

The countryside is immensely complicated and anybody, be they an environmentalist, a nature writer or even a gamekeeper, who claims to have all the answers is probably a bullshitter. Currently, across Britain, people are campaigning for more land access. Great estates, they’ll tell you, are no country for the common man.

Some of their points are valid but I couldn’t help thinking, as I parked up that Saturday next to crowds of people who were there to do ParkRun, that if some of those land access campaigners spent a Saturday at Holkham, many of them would probably find, like I did at Bettws, that things are never as simple as they seem from afar.

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