week saw the Glorious Twelfth of August, the date on which the grouse
shooting season begins and is celebrated, or at least noted, in the
British Isles. In times past when bloodsports was an accepted feature
of rural life and there was a reverence for the disciplines of nature
conservation, no thought of political or ethical correctness entered
anyone's head. There were races to get the best grouse from Scotland
on to London's top restaurant tables within a few hours and the
winner would have been headline news.
season for the shooting of other game begins respectively on
September 1 for partridge, and October 1 for pheasant, and goes on
until February. There are different dates for other species, with
seasons overlapping. Game licences have now been abolished both for
keepers and dealers in Britain, and all game, except hare, can be
sold year round, thanks to freezer technology which wouldn't have
been available when the original Game Act was passed in 1831. It's
interesting that the law forbidding shooting on Sundays and Christmas
Day still holds good in a country whose Christian heritage,
incorporating sacred bloodshed, is largely forgotten.
reminds me of Isabel Colegate's The Shooting Party, a novel of jaded
mores and pursuits among the late Edwardian aristocracy. It mirrors
the ritual of blood-letting and the drive to outwit and conquer the lower
orders. The tale is a microcosm of what happens within groups of the
human species when arrogant assumptions about entitlement run riot. It is an ominous metaphor for the triggers in the psyche that
precipitated World War 1 and saw a whole way of life swept into
are the imbalances of nature, culling may sometimes be necessary. But
the thing I note on walks with my dog, Jack, through the woods and
fields of southern England, is the aggressive dedication with which
game is conserved for sheer sport and greedy profit. (I am told there
are fortunes to be made.) The birds are kept in pens, hidden deep in
the woods, and artificially fed on a regular basis. “I'm back and
forth all day,” says one keeper in a country journal. “My poults
are eating like it's going out of fashion.” Actually, it is.
They're eating like there's no tomorrow because they're terrified.
Man is their enemy. These periodicals are plastered with legal
advertisements touting for clients among those accused of breaking
animal welfare laws.
goes on in season and out. (Who is doing the shooting and what they are shooting, I cannot say.) It takes place dangerously close to public
footpaths and sends wildlife into a frenzy for miles around.
Increasingly, walkers are deterred from using any but the safer long
distance hiking routes. Paths are allowed to become rampantly
overgrown, either by nature, or by tall crops, maize or rape, for
instance. Stiles fall into disrepair and laths are rigorously trimmed
with barbed wire. Occasionally, an electric wire will be continued
beneath a stile step so that dogs can't pass through unless they are agile and confident enough to hurdle the barrier.
some readers will know, Jack is a Springador. A pedigree cross-breed!
A gun dog. He can roll uncooked eggs off the kitchen counter, carry
them in his mouth, and disgorge them intact where he chooses. He can
strip feathers from dead birds. He can catch rabbits in lightning
retreat. It's what he does, what his ancestors did from time
immemorial. His head lifts and his shoulders brace when he meets a
pack of gun dogs on the foray. He wants to show them he knows what
they're about. But as a domestic animal, he's been trained not to
scare the birds and small mammals which visit the garden. Among them,
we have a large family of wood pigeons, and one of collared doves,
which are no problem at all. Jack understands that his job is to care
for them on our patch because, in their gratitude – and they are
trusting and interactive – they are helping to protect our fruit
and veggies from micro pests. It's very touching how proudly they
show off their raggedy new offspring who have yet to learn how to
forage and how to take flights of distance. Perched on the fence,
they croon their coos and reflect peacefully on life, keeping
seagulls well at bay, whose plaintive din knows little abatement and
very little night if they decide to roost nearby. Believe me, Larus
Occidentalis is up well before the lark!
Jack was a puppy beginning to investigate the sounds, scents and
sights of his environment, he would bring in small pieces of granite
from the garden and deposit them on my lap or at my feet. It took me
a while to understand that these were treasure trove. He'd seen
chunks of rose quartz, calcite and amethyst glinting on my desk.
When, a few weeks later, he started exploring the English landscape,
he'd retrieve used cartridge cases dropped in the grass. He loved
finding them. Somehow, he knew what they were, that they were
significant to his identity. But how I dread the sight of those
articles now! And they are strewn everywhere! I know there will be
dead carcases, heaps of torn feathers.
couple of years ago, I came across a beautiful teal duck with its
head tucked under its wing, who had died from a gunshot wound. When
something like this happens, Jack will bury his nose in the feathers
and snuffle up the smell like a truffle hound. A look will come into
his eye and his demeanour change, his metabolic chemistry suddenly
altered. He'll race across the fields looking for rabbit prey. And
he'll catch one. Thankfully, now that he's on the threshold of his
golden years, although he can still outrun his juniors, he's grown
more laid back about the whole thing and seems to appreciate the 'big
is red in tooth and claw but only mindless in the sense that it's
ruled by the exigencies of survival. These instincts are heightened
and subverted by panic through disregard of the eco-system by
plundering, blundering, human primates who have the reasoning power
to subdue their baser drives and employ their energies in
constructive management. It seems that a proprietorial attitude to
guns slackens our grasp on the awfulness of killing. And the ether
becomes charged with our ethos.
and this may seem contradictory, I think it's why we have to support
our troops. We are asking them to expose themselves to all that, and
what it will do to their lives if they survive. The ostensible causes
of war are another issue, but, like charity, even they begin at home.
within our walls and palaces. It may sound like a high ideal, but
it's one that can change the world, and, if you look closely, is