The trouble is I just don’t understand people who want to kill animals for a laugh. How can people who love wildlife want to kill it? I think I must be missing the gene. I have never had any desire to kill anything, not even an irritating wasp. In my living room, there is a box containing a wood pigeon with a broken wing, which I am nursing back to health. I know my efforts are not sensible. It’s just my instinct, which I can’t let go of. I want to look after things. I am a bunny hugger.I have been a vegetarian since I was five, when my seven year old sister made a conceptual leap over the Christmas dining table, proclaiming that turkeys were animals and she was not going to eat an animal. My views have shifted through the years, and for some time I have been thinking that if I were ever to eat meat it would have to be game. Grouse and deer spend, I reason, albeit shortened lives, doing their thing. Then they die, quickly, on home turf and in sharp contrast to most chickens and pigs which live and die mostly in boredom and discomfort.
But last month I went grouse shooting in Yorkshire in order to examine my pony-girl preconceptions, and to try to get a glimpse of the heart of the hunter. The air was languid, the moor purple and the class divides were sharply in focus. The beaters (local people paid around £30 a day) lined up in parallel to the sedentary shooters (a bundle of old school British upper classes and American oil magnates). On one side there was money and guns, on the other side, neither.
I stood in a butt next to someone called Jason Abbot, a veteran shooter and gun restorer from Oxfordshire. He started waxing lyrical about how he could almost give up his gun, and just come out on to the moors to enjoy the scent of the heather and the wind in his hair. But as the grouse came winging over, Jason couldn’t line up his gun quickly enough. I suddenly had an urge to grab Jason’s gun and drop the bird. When it came out of the sky,like a spinning tennis ball, I wanted to get it. Not close enough to see its living eye or to feel its terror, all notion of death left me for a moment. I didn’t pull the trigger and I wouldn’t. But for a moment I was in one mind with people who would. Suddenly calling this a sport seemed not such a pale euphemism.
So what about conservation and animal welfare in grouse shooting? The day I went shooting not one bird was half hit and left flapping around in pain, unlike the thousands of animals left half dead on our roads every day. And, until they are shot, the grouse (though not necessarily other game birds) are literally wild and free.
There is an assumption that urbanites are sentimental about animals, but the attitudes of all humans to animals seem to be determined by the effect they have on us and what we want from them. Some shooters think of barn owls as sacred because they hunt by night and take no grouse. Yet hen harriers, endangered in Britain and to my mind one of nature’s wonders, are to many of these people vermin. Equally, town foxes can be an enchanting, evening vision but many moor workers have a deep red-veined dislike for foxes because they think of them as competitors.
As I walked off the moor at the end of the day, I was accompanied by a beater, telling me over and over that predators must be controlled. All day long I had people telling me that magpies were the devil’s spawn. The aim on a grouse moor, they said, was to generate a surplus of birds which could be shot. At the end of the season, they argued, a breeding population must be left to generate next years’ stock, and humans then take the place of other predators: so other predators must go. Conservationists like me, quite happy for the predators to eat the excess grouse, have a different attitude.
It seems there is no objectively correct way to keep our countryside. Most decisions have been based on necessity, survival and economics. Now perhaps, with the future of our landscape under question we have a choice; we can choose a mosaic, keeping the moors, for their wildlife, their traditions, their beauty and their history but also allowing some regeneration of forest, for other uses like tourism, mountain biking and wildlife and predators.
But paradoxes abound. Shooting is definitely elitist. The moors constitute vast areas of Britain, guarded for the enjoyment of a very few, and while they preserve a kind of wild land, other forms of land management are far better for nature conservation. Exclusivity is about to be taken away as the Countryside and Rights of Way Act should give us just that and shooting does contribute to the rural economy. One shot upland grouse is currently worth about £40; one sheep can sell for just £5.
So am I a convert to shooting and to meat-eating? Three weeks after the shoot I was invited to a “grouse banquet”. I was the only philistine eating pasta with cheese sauce. I did try a bit of grouse. It was maybe the third time meat had passed my lips in 20 years. It tasted hideous, like gone off gorgonzola. Thus my taste buds neatly rescued me from having to solve that moral conundrum.