One for the Pot, None for the Pit

Thirty five years ago Dudley Doust, an American journalist , spent time talking with and watching the legendary Ian Botham, now Sir Ian, at rest, work and play. The result was a biography and a very readable one at that. One of the passages that has remained with me though, was not about the cricket though, but about Botham’s attitude to shooting and fishing.

“Tell them that I eat what I shoot. Make sure you put that in the book.” Botham is reported as saying. Or words to that effect. My copy has gone missing, lost or accidently given away to a charity shop so I have had to paraphrase. I think I have the jist of it though.

It is hard to argue with that view point.  As long as the prey that is to be shot is legal, killed cleanly, and ends up in the pot, then it is a legitimate, useful sport. But much has happened in those thirty five years to cricket and to shooting. What English cricket would give to have a Botham now? What a difference his philosophy, if adopted by the shooting industry would make to the environment, and the countryside.

Thirty five years is a long time. English cricket has had its highs and lows and at the moment languishes in a mess and the shooting industry has changed.

I read a lot about the countryside and how it should be left to the people that own the land and the farmers to decide how it should be run[1]. They know best. Interfering, meddling townies, Guardian readers, weirdo’s who prefer to watch nature through binoculars, should all leave well alone and let the real countrymen get on with managing the countryside. But who do they really speak for?

I was in Somerset for my Uncle’s funeral. After the service family and friends went back to a local restaurant for lunch, to share stories about John, and to catch up on news of each other for sadly, scattered about the country as we are, funerals are one of the few occasions that we gather together.  I was sitting with relatives, several of whom I had not seen for twenty years. Shooting came up, as many of them are, or were members of local shooting syndicates.

“It’s not the same anymore.” Henry explained. “I have been shooting for over thirty years. I have decided to stop, I no longer enjoy it. For me the fun was in the companionship, a day in the countryside and the challenge of the shoot. Now it’s about volume and the size of the bag. And it’s becoming dominated by City types.”

His wife leaned across the table, swirling the wine in her glass around and joined in.

“Worse than that” She paused and went on “it’s no longer a case of eating what you shoot. Now so many pheasants are shot that they cannot be given away. Hundreds end up in pits and that is just locally. It’s wrong. It’s not what the countryside is about it’s not what shooting should be about.”

But Shooting is big business. Much of the countryside is just an extension of industry. How to produce the most for the least cost to maximize revenue. Often the people who shoot have no empathy with the countryside. They care little about the impact high density releases of pheasants have on the surrounding environment, of the impact game keepering has on the biodiversity of the ecosystem. Anything that threatens to reduce the number of game birds that can be reared, is destroyed or removed. Its quantity not quality that matters. “Never mind the quality feel the width” to quote Monty Python. The predator prey relationship in the countryside is unbalanced and no thought or understanding is given to the impact that that has or will have in the future. Now am sure that there are still small shoots owed and run by “ordinary” folk who still believe in the “I eat what I shoot philosophy” but they are becoming fewer and fewer.

A few weeks ago as part of a thread on Facebook that was discussing conservation and the countryside, I posed the question, why do we have to control predator numbers? It was a genuine question. My point was that perhaps there is a different way to think about how we manage the countryside. The point I was hoping to go on to make was that maybe there is a way to use the predator prey relationship to manage the countryside in a way that benefits everyone. The price would be a few less game birds, but many that are shot are often ending up in pits anyway, and the benefits to the environment would be immense. No need to litter the countryside with poisoned bait, or vicious traps. A sustainable way to manage the countryside, and one that provides real conservation benefits as opposed to the lip service that we are fobbed off with at the moment.

Take the buzzard to illustrate my point.

There is much agitation among those that run shoots about the return of this important bird of prey. There have been calls to lift the ban on killing them and requests to Natural England to grant special licenses for this purpose. Currently Natural England are resisting this and have as I understand declined a number of requests. But these are now subject to judicial review.

But does a buzzard really pose that much of a threat to a shoot. Some research, conducted for the BASC (British Association for Shooting and Conservation,  has indicated that buzzard predation will be responsible for around 1 to 2 percent of the pheasants [2] released into the wild. This amounts to a cost of £30 per 1000 released.  This is less than the number of pheasants that are killed on the road. Yet despite this, landowners and gamekeepers are demanding that we spend £400,000 of tax payers money on a trial to reduce pheasant predation by Buzzards.

But I never got to make my argument. I was a Guardian reader [3]who knows nothing about the countryside, or its ways. So be it. But dare to think differently for one moment. Suspend the contempt that is reserved for “green blobs” as a recent ex Secretary of State for the Environment called people who think the countryside is not just for farmers and those who hunt and shoot. Maybe there is a different way. One that will enable people who enjoy to shoot to do so and people like me, green blobs, who want to be able to watch Hen Harriers sky diving, Buzzards soaring on thermals or catch a glimpse of a Goshawk as it shimmers through woodland.

The shooting industry is not sustainable as it is. It needs to find ways of managing the countryside and the environment differently.

Quality not quantity, one for the pot and none for the pit.

[1] Countryside Alliance Manifesto for the 2015 General Election.

[2] It is estimated that between 25 and 40 million pheasants are released into the countryside every year.

[3] I take the Times and read the Guardian and Telegraph online.

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