At the tail end of last week, news emerged that no groups of more than six people were to be allowed to gather together. Certain activities were to be excluded from the so-called 'rule of six' — and as soon as it was announced on Monday that various rural pastimes were exempt, the press had a field day. ‘No birthday parties but you can shoot grouse’, the Times announced. The Mirror declared that ‘Toffs can go on a Boxing Day hunt — but you can’t have a Christmas Day meal’.
Of course, I understand the problem: it simply isn't a good look. The two sports picked out by the papers — ‘hunting and grouse shooting’ — have always had a class-related image problem. And the idea that posh people are out shooting birds and hunting on horses while Joe public is stuck at home and banned from socialising with (more than five) friends or family simply doesn’t rub.
I completely understand their frustration. But at the same time, I get why the government decided to exempt both shooting and trail hunting from the 'rule of six'. It’s about far more than allowing posh people to stand around in tweed suits — or, for that matter, red coats. It's about rural communities — and the rural economy.
The official numbers state that the direct economic value of grouse shooting in England and Wales is £67.7 million per year. But while that’s a decent figure in itself, the reality is more nuanced than that. The money that grouse shooting brings in benefits the economies of some of the most rural and remote areas of the UK. Up on the North Yorkshire Moors, for example, the spring and summer tourist industry has taken a huge hit. Grouse shooting is a crucial income stream for these upland communities — not just for those working directly on shoot days such as beaters and gamekeepers, but for all of the surrounding industries, like the B&B, pub and hotel owners, the butchers, the gunmakers and tailors who support the industry; the garages that mend the vehicles. The government wants to see an economic recovery post-Covid. It’s small, independent businesses like this that need the most help if they're to succeed.
One estate manager, interviewed on the Today programme earlier this week, estimated that 80 per cent of people out on a shoot day were being paid to be there as opposed to paying to be there. It’s not simply posh people waving guns around. It’s rural people earning a living, and at a time when hundreds of thousands of people are furloughed or being made redundant, this is surely something to be celebrated.
It’s not solely about the economy, either. The other exemption that the tabloids jumped on was hunting. Back in 2005, Boris Johnson reported in these very pages from the East Sussex and Romney Marsh hunt; a day that was to be their last day before the Hunting Act came into force. The now-Prime Minister wrote of the ban then that it was ‘an attempt to exterminate a section of our culture; not just the hunt, but everything that goes with it, the hunt balls, the hunt suppers, the Jilly Cooperesque brayings and fumblings, and the dependent livelihoods of the men and women in green tweed and badges…’
These people might be clichés because of their clothing, but their jobs, and their communities, are no less important than any other. Throughout the summer, there’s usually an endless round of puppy, hound and country shows to take part in. Youngsters are judged and awarded cups and trophies. Older hounds parade around the ring at county shows and are patted and stroked by children, delighted at the opportunity to meet the hounds. At every single one of these events, hunt supporters turn up to drink tea, chat, and applaud (or criticise) the decisions of the judges involved. As Ursula Buchan writes in this week’s magazine, village shows — and hound puppy shows — have all been cancelled, much to the detriment of village and rural life. The government talk about getting things ‘back to normal’ and of encouraging community life. For many in rural areas, trail hunting is a major part of their social and community lives. Like shooting, it takes part outdoors, and it is nigh on impossible to do anything but socially distance when you’re riding a horse.
My job here is to explain why shooting should be exempt from the rule of six. Could I argue in support of the exemption? Of course I could. But the question really should be: why shouldn’t grouse-shooting and hunting be exempt? If gym classes, rowing and rugby are all exempt from the new rules, it’s clear that shooting and trail hunting should be too.