THE KILLING FIELDS
This third part of the The Killing Fields report looks at the role of the RSPB, shooting as a corporate perk, the shooting fraternity, and the evil of snares and traps.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Some Birds
Depressingly, Britain's largest bird protection society refuses to speak out against the shooting of pheasants for pleasure.
The charter of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) clearly states that its prime object is 'to discourage the wanton destruction of birds', while its further objectives are to conserve, and where possible enhance, the populations and natural ranges of wild birds and their habitats. However, the RSPB has 'no view' on the question of shooting game birds, as long as it is legal, except - it says - when such practices have an impact on the objects of the Society. It will only oppose the practice where the conservation of the species is an issue, and the shooting of pheasants is not considered a threat to their survival. This is despite the fact that shooting pheasants for pleasure is surely at odds with the Society's prime object of opposing the 'wanton destruction of birds'.
Although shooting for pleasure is not generally permitted on RSPB Reserves, where a condition of land being bequeathed is that shooting be allowed to continue, then that land will be accepted by the Society and bird slaughter will be facilitated. It would seem that the Society would rather take the land than take a principled position - or make more of a genuine effort to find a humane way forward.
The RSPB emphasises that it is concerned only with the protection of birds in the wild - and not welfare issues. It seems perverse to make such a distinction: for where does one end and the other begin? Conservation and protection of habitats and birds must also surely include their welfare.
It would be a significant breakthrough, both in the fields of conservation and welfare, if the UK's premier organisation for the protection of birds, which has a current membership of more than one million, finally took a stand not to facilitate the destruction of the very creatures it was established to protect. The Society would also enhance its reputation if it made the decision not to condone the shooting of such quarry and helped to end this cruel sport.
Killing as a corporate perk
It is a uniquely British corporate perk. Like football tickets, dinners at the Ivy, or a season pass to Glyndebourne, pheasant shooting is a way for some UK companies to afford special clients special treatment. For other companies, it's a way to reward loyal employees.
It is, those companies say, a chance for people to engage in a 'traditional country pursuit', replete with tweeds, guns and dogs. Never mind that this pursuit involves the death and injury of millions of birds each year, the depositing of tonnes of poisonous lead shot on both wetlands and dry ground and the slaughter of millions of mammals and prey birds in order to protect the 'sport'. Every year, the John Lewis Partnership provides 28 days of shooting over a five-month season to any interested employee.* Non-staff are also invited to participate, for a fee the company is coy about revealing. The high street department store group and owner of Waitrose supermarkets, stages the shoot on its own 3000-acre Leckford estate in Hampshire. Here the firm's shooting club, usually about 10 members at a time, is able to blast an average of 200 birds out of the sky daily. The estate is a working farm, which supplies apples, pears, mushrooms and milk to supermarkets. It employs about 400 people.
[*Opposition to John Lewis' involvement in bloodsports was launched in 1996 by the National Anti Hunt Campaign. (PO Box 66, Stevenage SG1 2TR.)]
According to a company spokesman, the pheasants are bred indoors in artificial light until they're six weeks old. Then they're released into pens and, when they're three months old, into the wild in time for annual shoots that begin in October. The carcasses are then sold to butchers and gamekeepers. In an attempt to limit the bird-on-bird aggression that is a feature of the intensive rearing system, John Lewis pheasants are fitted with a painful plastic clip that prevents the beak from closing. The device is fed between the upper and lower mandibles, and clipped into the nostrils to keep it in place. The company also uses 'specs' as an anti-aggression device. These are blinker-like contraptions designed to limit the field of vision. They are clipped into the birds' nostrils. (See 'A Short Life and a Brutal One'.)
Producing such a large number of birds all in one place attracts various 'predator' and other unwanted animals. John Lewis admits to killing foxes, stoats, rabbits and weasels in order to protect their sport.
Enterprise Oil, a UK-based multinational drilling and distributing company, has shooting rights on a number of estates, and offers clients the opportunity to enjoy shoots as part of its 'external relationship programme', said the company's head of public relations, in a letter to Animal Aid.
He added that the company does not 'in any way support cruelty to animals', and believes that the pheasants are reared in good conditions.
However, given the nature of rearing pheasants for shooting, the deposit of lead shot during the shoot, the large-scale 'predator control' programmes, and the tremendous risk of injuring birds and thus leaving them to die slowly and painfully, pheasant shooting is essentially cruel to animals, no matter what Enterprise Oil says.
Arrogance and bullying of the shooting fraternity
As an example of just how arrogant pheasant shooters can be, one need look no further than a farm and equestrian centre in the Scottish/English border region.
There, reports the resident farmer, the gamekeeper never consults anyone about his activities. He puts rearing pens where he wants and when he wants, and he organises shoots near the equestrian centre without warning, thereby putting both riders and horses at risk.
When the shoot does take place, shooters tramp over the land blasting the birds at will. The birds, who are reared under intensive farming conditions not unlike those for chickens and ducks, are often so tame that they're unwilling to fly. It means, says the farmer, the beaters literally have to boot them into the sky.
A neighbouring farmer, who raises vegetables for area supermarkets, has regular problems with shooters striding through his crops. They think nothing of walking straight through a patch of vegetables and damaging them.
The landowner is not at fault, says the farmer, except in so far as he's sold shooting rights to a group of individuals with no regard for anyone else occupying the property. The 'guns', as shooters are known, are often wealthy parties who turn up for a day and then leave, causing havoc in their wake.
It puts a lie to the argument that gamekeepers are somehow custodians of nature. Like the parties they guide and provide for, they are often there simply to exploit it.
The Evil of the Snare and other Traps
The thing about snares is that they don't discriminate. While gamekeepers may set them for foxes and stoats they'll trap any animal that moves: badgers, otters, rabbits, deer, even domestic cats and dogs.
John Gill knows that better than anyone. Ever since his own dog was caught and killed in 1991, the County Durham environmentalist has been waging a one-man campaign against the cruelty of snares. In the past nine years, he has removed thousands of the looping wires that hold their victims in iron grips, from public and private properties in four counties: County Durham, Northumberland, Cumbria and North Yorkshire. He's been arrested so many times, that in describing his work, he actually loses track of how many times he's been charged and for what.
But so determined is Gill to put an end to what he calls 'animal and bird persecution by gamekeepers', that what would daunt, even scare off anyone else, doesn't faze Gill. He went to prison last year for refusing to pay court costs after being given a two-year conditional discharge for removing snares from the Tyne Valley.
And if snares don't discriminate, neither does Gill. He'll remove any kind of snare from any kind of property because, he says, even legally placed snares can and do trap such animals as badgers, otters and deer in direct contravention of Section 6 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. He has videotape of himself and a partner rescuing a deer, screaming with pain and fear, whose leg has been torn in a snare. Other film shows a rabbit, a badger, and a domestic cat caught helpless in them. In other words, believes Gill, there is no such thing as an acceptable snare - legal or not.
Nevertheless, there is controversy over the legality of a newly developed snare. Manufactured by A.B. Country Products of Redditch, it's a wire-loop snare caught between the self-locking snare, an illegal device that continues to tighten as the animal struggles to escape, and the legal free-running snare that does slack off as the animal fights to set itself free. This new snare does both, making it a bone of contention in the courts and the countryside.
So is it legal? It depends on which side of the debate you're on. Gamekeepers say there's little difference between it and conventional free-running snares, except that it loosens its grip a little more slowly than conventional snares. Snare opponents like Gill say it is just as cruel and unforgiving as the self-locking snare. Therefore, it should be just as illegal.
On two occasions, Gill has been acquitted on charges of removing such snares, on the grounds that because they are self-locking, they could be construed as illegal. Even so, there has been no definitive, precedent-setting test case, and until there is, the controversy will continue to rage. So will Gill. Despite numerous charges that still hang over him, he remains determined to fight. He calls gamekeepers, the supposed custodians of the countryside, 'the biggest threat to wildlife that there is in this country', and his time, he says, is 'best spent trying to expose their hideous practices.
'I feel that the law is an absolute farce and that badgers, otters and domestic animals as well as foxes are always at risk from snares.'