As an interest in wildlife conservation developed, perhaps my most important realisation was that wilderness – understood as a primordial habitat – is now vanishingly rare. What we have is man-made landscape, the product of centuries of work and exploitation. Conservation is now a question of deciding which of our created landscapes we want to maintain, what we want to re-create and what new grounds we might build. These decisions are tightly fastened to deciding the flora and fauna that we want. While there are exceptions, in most cases ignoring the land and “letting nature take its course” – a superficially attractive notion – will create wastelands. Conservation has become a matter of husbandry; it needs to be seen as an industry which is surprisingly labour intensive and expensive. It will happen by way of direct state action, state subsidy, regulation and successful, sustainable agribusiness, tourism and catering.
A component of this industry is shooting and the production/rearing of game birds. Yes, a landowner /farmer will profit from it. Yes, birds will be reared and killed for the table – not unlike any meat industry. However, what separates it from the meat industry is that it is utterly uneconomic without the relatively rich people who pay to shoot. It is their money that bridges the enormous gap between the cost of a mass produced chicken and a partially wild pheasant. That is to say, because those who shoot are prepared to pay a great deal, this form of farming is viable.*
Viability is not sufficient justification for any enterprise and a major part of the argument for supporting the shooting industry is that it is environmentally desirable. The landscape that needs to be created and maintained for shooting not only appears as pleasant and traditional but supports the kind of living diversity that has fallen victim to more recent farming methods.
Moreover, the people involved – in particular the gamekeepers but also the landowners, guns, beaters, dog handlers and others – are interested in and committed to conservation; the shooting landscape with its mix of vegetation – open field, woodland, wetland, cover – and wildlife is the environment they want not only for themselves and for anyone who will respect it but also for their children.**
* Apart from the driven shoot discussed here, there are gun clubs doing more or less the same thing but they are not operating as a business and their labour input is voluntary.
** If you have a grá for poetry along with gundogs and shooting, this collection by my lifelong friend, Maurice Spillane, may interest you: http://sciroccopublishing.com/our-first-poet-maurice-spillane/