Shooting sports in the USA have their problems, but having the recent chance to converse with some participants in England, I learned to be thankful for what we’ve got.
I just returned from London where I participated in “The World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities,” a conference on firearms ownership. The event took place at the Tower of London, which was fitting as the Tower is a repository of weapons. The famous ravens at the Tower have a different cry than those in my backyard, and British hunters, I found out, also have a different vocabulary.
It took a little time to understand the local language of sport. For example, “hunting” in Great Britain means hunting with hounds, as in foxhunting — riders on horses chase hounds that are pursuing a fox, or a deer. Fox hunts are social gatherings as well as hunts. There are some 4,000 of them a year in Great Britain, involving more than one million people and 300 packs of hounds. Hunting expenditures are £14.07 million per annum, 40 percent of which is direct employment. Annual capital expenditures on hunting average £2.9 million. In short; hunting is a major cultural force in rural U.K.
And, of course, hunting has recently been banned in Scotland. Meanwhile, Tony Blair and the House of Commons are trying to ban it in England.
“Sport shooting” is the English term for what we in the U.S. call “hunting.” Common varieties of sport shooting include: “stalking” (hunting deer on foot — there are six kinds), “rough shooting” (walking up small game), “driven hunts” (people drive game to stationary hunters), “pigeon shoots” (pigeons are agricultural pests), and “wildfowling” (hunting waterfowl). There is also clay pigeon and target shooting; “pest control,” where dogs chase foxes, rabbits, and hares into range of a shooter; “ferreting,” where ferrets are used to drive rabbits out of their burrows so they can be shot or caught with a net; and “coursing,” where dogs chase hares, although there is not necessarily a kill.
More than 700,000 sport shooters in England take part in hunting animals with guns. Deer stalking and pheasant shooting with released birds that have been raised are growing in popularity, despite a vehement anti-hunting movement.
Regardless of what you call their sport, hunters in the U.K. face more opposition than in America. A recent public opinion poll found that 69 percent of people in great Britain believed game shooting should be banned, 78 percent thought that rough shooting should be banned, and 23 percent thought that target and clay-pigeon shooting should be banned — all despite the fact that sport shooting and hunting are responsible for 39,000 jobs and more than £500 million for the economy each year. (This is in contrast with U.S. polls showing that about 80 percent of people in the U.S. favor some sort of ethical hunting.)
Add to this the draconian British gun-control laws. Pistols are forbidden. To possess a shotgun or rifle it is necessary to hold a certificate granted by the police. Certificates are not easily obtained. Applicants are subject to police checks, and gun owners must store their guns securely. Only small-caliber air guns, like BB guns, are exempt. Pistol-shooting members of the British Olympic team have been forced to practice abroad.
While there are more than four million bowhunters in the U.S., in England, despite the national legend of Robin Hood, shooting game with bow and arrow is prohibited. According to David Bredin of the Countryside Alliance: “I am not aware of the reason for such prohibition other than it is ‘generally’ thought in [the] UK that a ‘penetrative missile’ other than that delivered from a firearm . . . is regarded as inhumane!”
Hunters are an endangered species in the U.K., but they are only part of a rural culture that has fallen on hard times. There are now less than 370,000 people in the active farm force, and the number is falling at 4 percent a year. The situation has been made worse by recent outbreaks of hoof and mouth disease and mad cow disease. Preventive measures have resulted in the killing of millions of livestock. In short, a whole way of life with a rich heritage going back for centuries, is threatened.
The conflict between those who cherish rural lifestyles and the urban animal rightists jumped into the spotlight last September 22, when more than 400,000 supporters of rural traditions joined together for the Liberty and Livelihood March. This was the largest peacetime demonstration in British history. The ruralists passed through the streets of London to the sounds of Scottish pipes and hunting horns as a protest against the politically correct New Labor members of Parliament who seem intent on banning hunting. Opposition leader Iain Duncan Smith joined the march, as did Earl Spencer, comedian Rory Bremner, and actor Vinnie Jones. The consequences of the march and the Countryside Movement may be seen in the recent elections that weakened the strength of New Labor in Parliament.
Only 2 percent of Britain is considered government-protected nature reserve. Farmers and landowners manage the vast majority of reserves –some 88 percent — and half of this sustains some form of shooting. Reserves ensure the survival not just of the pheasants, partridges, and wildfowl that sportsmen like to hunt, but also many other species of wildlife. They also preserve the character of the English countryside, which is priceless.
About 1.4 million Britons have at some point taken part in game shooting. More than 700,000 continue to be active, including Madonna, her husband Guy Ritchie, and the Royal Family. This significant population delivers the hunting economy, which, you would think, Great Britain would want to hang onto. Economic growth is slowing in the U.K., and unemployment is rising. Walking London’s streets on my time off, I was shocked by the number of vacant shops with signs announcing “To Let.”
When I travel abroad, I don’t go to McDonald’s or Starbucks, which seem to be on nearly every block in London. I am interested in a country’s unique culture and heritage; hunting and sport shooting are a fundamental part of the heritage of England. On my next visit to the U.K., I would love to put on tweeds and shoot grouse on the moors. Many other U.S. sportsmen might like to hunt and fish in the U.K., as well. The current airfares make it cheaper than hunting in many parts of the states.
But economics is not all that’s at stake here. As Joseph Campbell once said, “Flesh eats flesh is the master pattern of life.” By taking life for nourishment, we learn to revere it from the heart.
— James Swan is a contributing editor of ESPNOutdoors.com. He also writes for the Outdoor Channel’s Engel’s Outdoor Experience, which just won a Golden Moose for the category “Best Waterfowl Shows 2002.”