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SPORT OR SLAUGHTER? - The grim reality of pheasant shooting
Posted 1 January 2004
This powerful article gives chapter and verse on the sordid reality of pheasant production and shooting. It was written by Sue Reid and is from the Daily Mail, January 17, 2004.
Piles of countless dead pheasants, their rotting, bloodied bodies peppered with lead shot. lie dumped in a wooded gully in one of the most glorious parts of England. The beautiful six-month-old birds with their speckled plumage and vivid red eyes had become mere cannon fodder; flying targets for those willing to pay £2,000 a day for the pleasure of blasting them out of the sky in what has become the country's fastest growing participation sport.
At the end of the shoot, those unfortunate creatures, worth less than 20p each - half the growing rate for a wild pigeon - could not even be given away to their wealthy killers. Instead, they found their way - perhaps in a gamekeeper's trailer - to their last resting place, hidden by the roadside 12 miles from Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk.
Meanwhile, across the county border in Norfolk, another shooting party, said to have been headed by Prince Philip, was busy last week targeting pheasants near a school on the royal estate of Sandringham. Young pupils started to cry as shot birds plummeted from the air and landed 20 yards from the school playground. The gunmen's labradors lolloped about collecting the feathered carcasses.
One ten-year-old girl at the school, built on land given to the village by George VI, later wrote a letter to the royal estate complaining: 'I saw birds spiralling out of the sky and crashing to the ground.' Suddenly, a harsh spotlight had been turned on to the sport of pheasant shooting.
'For years, it has been portrayed as a traditional country pursuit, a chance for people to enjoy themselves in tweeds, with dogs and gun, but the reality is so different,' says Andrew Tyler, of the admittedly Left-leaning lobby group Animal Aid.
Pheasant shooting is a billion-pound-a-year industry, with corporate shoots and scores of farmers responsible for breeding birds specifically to be shot, meaning that the current pheasant population in this country is around 40 million. Mr Tyler adds: 'It involves the deaths of millions of birds each year, many of which have been treated as cruelly in their short lives as a battery hen. These reared birds are so fat, and often unwilling even to get off the ground, that they could be caught by a boy with a butterfly net.'
As with most modern sports, to find out how it works, you have to follow the money trail. The figures make staggering reading. On average, it now costs a shooter £25 for every successful direct hit. Indeed, it can cost a good deal more. A group of ten men buying a day's shooting was recently quoted £19,750 by one Suffolk estate, to kill 500 pheasants.
As farming has gone into decline, the rural economy is increasingly being propped up by shooting, with 2,000 farms and estates offering the chance to join a booming leisure pastime. Enthusiasm has been fuelled by celebrities such as Madonna, Guy Ritchie, Vinnie Jones, Prince Harry and Marco Pierre White. In the City, banging away at pheasants has become a British corporate perk, on a par with a golf tournament or a box at the Royal Opera.
The result is an unseemly massacre with even the British Association for Shooting warning its 120,000 members not to target more than 500 birds a day because the birds are not getting a sporting chance. 'Too many birds are being bred by big shoots. Meanwhile, inexperienced people are being encouraged to go after too many birds - sometimes killing more than they can even remember,' said one executive. As a telling article in the upmarket rural bible, Country Life, recently revealed: 'Commercialism has led to many so-called sportsmen losing sight of why they shoot game. Shooting should be the harvest of surplus birds for the table. Worryingly, on many commercial shoots, pheasants (and partridges) are regarded as feathered targets, not food. Many people who shoot them even decline to take home the traditional brace of birds.'
Millions of pheasants will have been reared and released before the four-month shooting season ends in two weeks' time. Fewer than half - and that's a generous estimate - will ever be eaten at a British table. And the rest? According to Country Life, they may be secretly buried by gamekeepers at the end of the shooting day, or simply dumped in the same way as those near Bury St Edmunds. 'If people understood the scale of how many pheasants are bred and killed just for fun, not for food, there would be an outcry which would make the protests against fox-hunting seem a very tame affair,' a senior executive of the Countryside Alliance admitted. But it is not just the way pheasants are killed that is at the heart of this controversy. Rather, it is how they are bred.
It is a process that it is often so horrific that few working in the commerical shooting industry are prepared to speak about it in detail. Suffice to say, 95 per cent of the shooting estates in this country - although Sandringham is not one of them - provide pheasants for shooters that have been raised in conditions little better than those of chickens destined for the freezer. Huge numbers of pheasants are now hatched in incubators at profit-making game factories which sell them on to shooting estates. Here, they are penned under artificial light, have their beaks cut back every 14 days (two operators can de-beak 1,000 birds in just two hours at a rate of just seven seconds a bird).
There are also stories that some young pheasants are fitted with what are called 'bits' - plastic or metal gags that stop their mouths closing so they cannot take an aggressive peck at other birds in neighbouring crowded pens. To stop their contracting diseases in these cramped artificial surroundings, they are often dosed with a drug called Emtryl - banned in most of the world as a suspected cause of cancer. While Emtryl is no longer sold in this country, it has not been banned. Consequently, it has been stockpiled by game breeders and keepers.
Once on the estate, the young birds are kept in grass runs and fed twice a day. When they are finally released, they are offered regular food by hand or from hoppers to encourage them not to fly away. 'The trouble is that the birds become reliant on humans because they have been treated like a domestic fowl. They have no sense of danger from man and that makes the business of shooting them as wild birds a joke,' admitted a seasoned countryman.
One Yorkshireman, hired as a beater to help get pheasants into the air, revealed to a local newspaper: 'We were instructed to scare the birds into flying any way we could. If a poke up the backside with a stick didn't work, we would give them a little encouragement with a boot. Sometimes, the cowering birds were simply picked up and thrown into the air! Afterwards the gamekeeper counted the corpses and instructed they should be ploughed into the earth.'
As for the birds photographed dumped in the gully in Suffolk, after the picture was published in the local East Anglian Daily Times, the newspaper's letters pages bristled with indignation. In reply, the British Association of Shooting speculated that the carcasses might have been stolen from a local estate's game larder by the anti-bloodsport protesters. 'That is the conspiracy theory at the moment,' insisted spokesman Simon Clarke yesterday.
But according to the paper's photographer, Michael Hall: 'Someone had obviously tried to hide them. You can't give pheasants away around here. They were deliberately put in a dip off the beaten track.'
All this points to the fact that commercialised pheasant shooting will soon become the target of as much fierce lobbying as endured by fox-hunters.
Of course, killing pheasants is not a new pursuit. The bird was introduced by the Romans to Britain 2,000 years ago, but the golden age for shooting was in Victorian and Edwardian times, when the breech-loading gun made it possible to kill a great number of birds quickly and the railways made access to the country houses more convenient. Estates, eager for royal patronage, vied with each other to produce the largest bags. It was discovered that game birds could be bred like geese and turkeys. It was, of course, costly and and a contemporary joke ran: 'Up goes a guinea, bang goes sixpence, down comes half-a-crown!'
Characters such as Lord Ripon had voracious appetites for shooting. His diary reveals that on December 6, 1905, he and a small party of friends bagged 1,073 pheasants on Hutton Moor. At least back then, the birds were born wild (not in incubator sheds) and often nurtured by gamekeepers with extra food to keep them healthy and to remain on the estate. And every brace always ended up being eaten - whether by the shooters or the servants.
Sandy Mitchell, a country pursuits writer and experienced shot, is well aware of growing public antipathy towards the well-heeled who kill 'man-made' birds for their pleasure. He illustrates the change in mood: 'About ten years ago, I watched the film based on Isabel Colegate's novel, The Shooting Party. Towards the end, a line of grand Edwardian gentlemen are shown happily popping off their guns at streams of birds being driven overhead when, all of a sudden, an elderly man marches into the line of fire to protest. He is accidentally shot and killed - but no one in the cinema was bothered.'
A year ago, Mitchell saw another movie, Gosford Park, another Edwardian social drama which includes a pheasant-shooting scene. 'Roughly a fifth of this sophisticated audience gave gasps of shock during the scene,' says Mitchell. 'This shows how the public has become highly sensitised to any kind of killing for sport.' It is not just the children at Sandringham who are uneasy about Britain's pheasant shooting industry.
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