I was idly flicking through the channels on TV last night, a rarely rewarding experience these days, but one show caught my interest. “Wild Alaska” was following a camouflage-clad husband and wife on a black bear hunt in the Alaskan mountains and at the moment I joined the programme they were lying on a rocky outcrop scoping a bear 300m away. I began to worry as the woman expressed concern at the range, admitting that she’d never shot over more than about 100m before, but her husband expressed encouragement and she decided to take the shot on. She missed.
The bear didn’t flinch, suggesting to me that she had missed by a wide margin. She fired again. She missed again. The bear raised its head, apparently alerted now that something was up. She fired a third time and seemed to miss again, but the bear was agitated now and span round. Her husband began firing and the bear was now provoked into movement, galloping towards the firing hunters (I had lost track of how many shots had been fired by now) before disappearing into a ravine.
The hunting couple looked at each other, looking a little bit guilty and a little bit worried.
Perhaps conscious of the rolling cameras, they decided to go and look for a blood trail. The husband claimed he couldn’t sleep if he thought there was an injured bear out there. I wondered how that sentiment sat against his willingness to injure the bear in the first place and was further disgusted by the desultory effort invested in this search. A cursory look around in the thick scrub ensued after which the husband declared himself mystified as to the bear’s fate. It occurred to me that a dog would have helped but the sheepish couple were heading home because “it’s vital to be safe and get off the mountain before it gets dark.” Right. Safety first.
I was shocked and probably you are too, even if you are a hunter; perhaps especially if you are a hunter. The people I know in the UK and Africa who like to shoot take great pride in the ethics of their sport, and would undoubtedly condemn such cavalier hunting in strong terms. This couple should never have taken on this shot given their evident lack of competence. They couldn’t even hit the bear when it was stationary, let alone ensure a clean kill. Having unloaded countless shots at the running bear they were left uncertain whether they had finally hit and injured the animal, while their attempt to then ascertain whether this was the case was pathetic.
But are UK hunters really so much better?
It is a curious fact that the British shooting establishment are perfectly happy to be critical of shooting cultures elsewhere – tut-tutting the songbird hunters of the Mediterranean and the American deer hunters happy to shoot deer with buckshot, or perhaps worse, pose with bloody dildos next to their dead trophies – but they are obstinately unwilling to be critical of any form of hunting still practiced within the UK, exercising impressive mental gymnastics in their desire to defend their sport from criticism and exhibiting a depressing inertia in their failure to set their own house in order or embrace change.
This blindspot for what takes place on their own doorstep serves an obvious purpose. The widely held view amongst the shooting community is that for a minority such as themselves, solidarity is the best way to ensure survival. But this approach has had the undesirable effect (for shooters at least) of uniting those who do not oppose all forms of shooting (like the RSPB) with those who believe all bloodsports should be banned (like the League Against Cruel Sports), and it seems to me that this has ultimately widened the increasingly pernicious divide amongst those with an interest in British wildlife, putting at risk many historically productive collaborations to the detriment of our shared natural heritage.
I have sometimes been accused by shooting apologists of being anti-shooting. I am not, although in recent years the ignorance, aggression and criminality exhibited by some members of the shooting community has made me more sceptical about the sport. But to be fair, ignorance, aggression and criminality are not the sole preserve of the men with guns. And to be clear, I still believe that shooting can serve conservation.
Conservation after all is different to animal rights. But an ethical approach to hunting demands consideration of animal welfare as well as conservation outcomes, and this is an area where both the shooting community and occasionally conservation organisations have come unstuck.
Consider driven bird shooting. There are many environmental concerns linked to the practice of driven grouse shooting in particular, while the ecological effect of releasing tens of millions of alien pheasants into the countryside every year is understudied. At the very least they have likely contributed to increased populations of carrion crows and other scavengers which in turn are thought to be pushing birds like curlews closer to extinction in the UK. But for now, let’s just consider the sporting ethics of shooting a bird on the wing that has been driven towards you by a beater.
Curiously, most UK hunters would frown on anyone willing to take a shot at a running deer due the risk of merely injuring the animal, but without any sense of contradiction, those same individuals would frown on anyone shooting a standing bird on a driven shoot.
Deer must not be shot on the move, but pheasants and red grouse must be shot on the wing, despite the real risk that birds may not be killed cleanly. It would be considered ‘unsporting’ to shoot them while they simply stood still. Why the difference?
Admittedly, the spread of a shotgun’s pellets make shooting a flying bird a more viable proposition, but birds are still injured. Why is it acceptable to risk ‘winging’ a bird, but not a deer (or a bear)? And this is not a small risk. Although the proportion will vary, significant numbers of birds are injured on every driven shoot. Some are picked up quite quickly and dispatched, but even this shortening of their agony would hardly be acceptable in any other form of animal slaughtering for food. It seems the fun of shooting a flying target trumps any concern for the animal’s welfare.
I have no issue with someone going out and shooting a deer or a rabbit with a rifle, if they are sufficiently skilful to ensure a clean kill, eat what they shoot and keep a careful eye on the local population’s capacity to absorb that animal’s loss without detriment to the wider ecology. Indeed, deer stalkers often benefit UK ecosystems nibbled to the bone by these numerous ungulates. But I find it harder to be so sanguine about driven bird shooting in particular and any form of shooting that risks injury to quarry species so recklessly. It may be sporting, whatever that means, but it isn’t humane, and for me that makes it indefensible.