Next Monday is the Glorious Twelfth, the date when the shooting season officially begins. Depending on which side of the fence you sit, you might prefer to call it the ‘Inglorious Twelfth’, and there is furious debate as to the positive and negative aspects to shooting game birds.
The argument for shooting goes that effective moor management helps sustain the red grouse population, with managed burning of heather supporting the precious peatland habitat that enables them to thrive. According to the Moorland Association, heather, which forms the main part of the grouse’s diet, is now more scarce across the world than rainforest, with the UK being home to 75% of what is left globally. In fact, the North York Moors National Park has the greatest continuous expanse of heather moorland still surviving.
Supporters also argue that the industry provides 2,500 full time jobs in rural areas, and contributes £150m to the national economy. As my dad explains in his column from 11th August 1979, red grouse are unique to this country and notoriously difficult to shoot, thanks to their propensity to fly very low at incredible speeds of up to 70mph, and then suddenly change direction at the last minute. So overseas enthusiasts will pay huge sums of money for the privilege to shoot them on the North York Moors.
Those against shooting suggest that the burning in fact damages the habitat and pollutes the environment. As well as the obvious argument of it being cruel, supporters of animal rights accuse gamekeepers and landowners of forcibly getting rid of the grouse’s natural predators such as foxes, stoats and hen harriers (which are protected, so killing them is illegal) in order to boost the population of grouse for the shooting season.
As for me, I am one of those infuriating fence-sitters. My animal-loving side can’t abide the idea of killing any creature just for fun, and I can’t understand how any pleasure is gained from loading a gun and aiming it at a defenceless creature. However, shooting estates argue that their sport is not just for fun, but is one of the most effective ways of looking after the land and its animal occupants. Land management has evolved through the experience of generations of country-dwellers, and so they must know a thing a two about it. So you see, although I wouldn’t ever participate in it, I don’t have anything against a properly organised and responsibly-managed shoot.
I am also an enthusiastic meat-eater, and love a well-cooked game bird. In fact, London restaurants pay a hefty premium to get grouse shot early on the 12th August on to their menu by evening service. Back in the day, it was quite normal to prepare the game meat from scratch yourself. My dad’s mum, Nana Walker, was a dab hand at plucking pheasants, and I have a memory of her sitting on her back step amidst a cloud of flying feathers, a bird between her knees, and her hands moving with phenomenal dexterity and speed. It’s a skill that only a few outside the butchery or restaurant trade have today.
Here in North Yorkshire, it used to be normal for newcomers to be welcomed into a village with various foodstuffs left on their doorstep, such as a bag of home-grown vegetables, a rabbit, or a brace of game birds hung on the door handle.
When my parents moved into the police house at the top of the bank in Oswaldkirk in the mid-1960s, they were welcomed in such a way, as my dad describes in his first Constable book, Constable on the Hill. As was usual, there was no note with the gifts:
“We were surprised to find a cabbage in a string bag hanging from the door knob…” and then, on the back door, “..a brace of pigeons from that door knob. Then, on the office door, was a monster of a hare…Here was I, on my very first day at Aidensfield, with presents all around me, and not a single hint as to their origins.”
Back then, the attitude towards small game was that they were a valuable source of food, and the sort of sentimentality that I feel towards the animals was, well, just plain daft. Nevertheless, whatever side you fall upon, I don’t think you’ll dislodge me from my perch on that fence.
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