I spent Monday morning being taught how to use a shotgun at E.J. Churchill, a shooting ground in High Wycombe. If you’re a member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds you probably won’t approve, but it gets worse. I was with my friend Merlin Wright and we had taken our 12-year-old sons with us so that they could learn how to shoot, too. Needless to say, after they’d hit a few clays they were completely hooked and couldn’t wait to take aim at the real thing.
Merlin brought his own gun and is an experienced shot, but I’m a bit of a novice. Until two years ago I’d never been on a proper grouse shoot. Its appeal was immediate. I don’t just mean the sheer sport of trying to hit a low-flying bird travelling at high speed in a wiggly line (the avian equivalent of a North Korean missile). There’s also the beauty of the moorland when the heather is in full bloom, the springy feeling of the grass underfoot, the abundant wildlife.
But above all there is the sense of a whole community participating in an activity together, each person with a defined role: the gun, the loader, the beater, the flanker, the keeper, the picker-up. That last may not sound so appealing, but it refers to the men and women who come out with their gun dogs to retrieve the birds after they’ve been shot. On my last visit to a grouse moor earlier this year, I got chatting to a picker-up and she told me there was no place she’d rather be.
Which isn’t to say she wasn’t being paid. One of the strongest defences of shooting is that it contributes £2 billion to the rural economy, providing full-time or part-time employment for approximately 350,000 people. That’s according to a 2014 report commissioned by the Countryside Alliance. It also points out that two million hectares are under active shoot management, accounting for 12 per cent of the UK’s rural land. That’s more than ten times the area encompassed by all of the country’s nature reserves, and it adds up to an awful lot of copses, hedgerows, headlands, wetlands, ponds and rivers that are all maintained and cared for.
Much of this is heather moorland, which has all but disappeared on the Continent, partly as a result of EU agricultural subsidies. Most of the world’s recognised surviving heather moorland is in the UK, thanks to the wisdom and field craft of generations of gamekeepers.
It isn’t just grouse that benefit from this huge conservation effort. By controlling pests like foxes, crows, stoats and weasels, the keepers protect endangered ground-nesting birds, including black grouse, lapwing, skylark and grey partridge. A friend who owns a grouse moor in Northumberland talks lovingly about the curlews he has discovered on his land. He cannot understand why the RSPB doesn’t celebrate the efforts of people like him to create safe habitats for these red-listed species, instead of making wild accusations about the culling of raptors. Those allegations sit a little oddly alongside the statistics about the growing numbers of peregrines, red kites and buzzards. In the past 20 years, breeding pairs of buzzards have increased from 14,500 to more than 68,000.
I find it hard to take seriously the moral indignation of those who oppose grouse shooting when they appear so sanguine about the mass slaughter of other fowl. Surely the 500,000 wild grouse killed each year have a happier life than the 975 million chickens. They taste a lot better, too. Driven shooting may be a sport, but it’s important to remember that after the grouse have been shot and picked up, they’re loaded on to trailers and sent on a journey that ends on a plate.
The real reason for the opposition is envy, of course, often accompanied by left-wing dogma. I wonder if these class warriors are aware of just how popular shooting has become? Roughly four million people own airguns in the UK and around 1.6 million of them shoot live quarry. They can’t all be toffs. Nor can the 600,000-plus who hold shotgun certificates.
Shooting grounds such as E.J. Churchill have played an important part in democratising the sport. For instance, it offers competition days for under-18s for £50 a head. That’s cheaper than Legoland and a darn sight more fun. I’m heading back there soon with all four of my children. After all, I want them to give a good account of themselves when — God willing — they’re invited on their first grouse shoot.