Animal Aid

PHEASANT SHOOTING: A special report

In the third part of this special Animal Aid report, we relate one man's experience of the pheasant shooting industry.

'It is time to have this wanton slaughter stopped'

Theo Hopkins used to allow the shooting of pheasants in his West Country wood. Then he came to understand the calibre of the men he was dealing with.

Ten years ago I bought 50 acres of beautiful ancient semi-natural oak woodland near Oakford in Devon. I manage it for the wildlife and to maintain the natural ecology, as well as looking after the more ecologically diverse and important woodland edges and their traditional Devon hedgebanks.

I like to think it is a pleasant place, through which local people can walk. It's on one side of a valley with a broad stream and some little rivulets. It's my love and my pride and my hobby. In the summer I sometimes live there in a tent.

Eight years ago a pheasant shoot started in the valley. I was happy with this development at the time. A few local people would spend Saturday afternoons with their dogs, shooting the odd pheasant for the pot... or so I thought. No animal welfare problems were apparent. Game shooting? A quick kill, they say - and a traditional gamekeeper nearby to nurture the land and maintain the wildlife. I didn't know that I was a townie being taken for a ride by a rural agribusiness.

The shoot offered to rent my land: £500 in my back pocket each year for just allowing them to feed and shoot a few pheasants. Not bad. Woodlands cost money to maintain, even when managed for biodiversity. I happily accepted.

For the first year things were fine. A few birds shot, a little noise, no problem. And a 'thank you' brace of pheasants from the 'keeper at Christmas. I even did some beating: it's sociable and fun. But I became just a tad worried when I saw that the empty feed sacks we had used to flush pheasants into the air carried the warning: 'This feed contains antibiotics'. Not, perhaps, the organic bird I had imagined. Oh well.

In the second year, the shoot expanded and intensified. One evening I went up to my precious hedgebank. I was horrified. A hundred pheasants in a hundred metres were demolishing the bank - crawling over it like feathered maggots. The floral layer, violets, mosses, dog's mercury and bluebells were being rooted up, the earth turned to dry dust. And with them went the bugs and beasties that feed the native birds, mice and voles. I told the shoot to leave: keep your money, I want my hedges intact.

The shoot grew and expanded.

At first, I just worried about the ecological destruction, for I was starting to get damage even though my land was not 'in the shoot'.

The pheasant, an alien bird, likes our woodland edges and hedgebanks. However, these woodland edges and hedgebank combinations are vital for habitat and biodiversity. I discovered that with the expansion of big commercial shooting, this damage was happening all around me, and even the Exmoor National Park Authority were having trouble.

All around me were cover crops of kale and maize. Lines of plastic feeders sprang up by the hedges, encouraging yet more damage. And netted release pens were being constructed, inside which hundreds of birds fresh from the even more crowded rearing sheds were crammed together. The more I found out about the shooting, the more I realised that this was a squalid, environmentally damaging agribusiness. (Agribusiness was a word the gamekeeper happily agreed with.)

Up till then, while I had taken part in beating birds into the sk

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