Most people in Scotland would be uncomfortable with estates in the countryside promoting themselves as theme parks for people who enjoy killing birds. But that’s exactly what happens during the pheasant season, which runs from 1st October to 1st February.
The shooting industry is keen to portray pheasant shooting as a sport. To most people, calling an activity a “sport” means that it involves elements of skill and chance. It promotes the idea of tradition; of a handful of hunters, dressed in tweeds, shooting a brace for the pot.
But several sporting estates in Scotland that provide driven shooting advertise that a small number of guns can shoot 500 or more birds in a day. In order to hit one bird, very little skill is needed and the pheasants have very little chance of escape. It is also unlikely that anyone would be able to consume anything like the number of pheasants killed, particularly if they take part in several beaten shoots throughout the season.
What the promotional websites don’t mention are the number of creatures killed as collateral damage, in the name of this “sport”. Most estates use snares, which they claim are needed to protect pheasants and other birds from predators. These are indiscriminate about what they hurt. So, in order to preserve the life of the birds to the point that they are killed for fun, many badgers, foxes, rabbits, and even domestic animals like cats and dogs, are injured or killed by snares.
The legislation in Scotland has recently become more rigorous – snares must be checked every 24 hours; must be marked with identifiers; and farmers and gamekeepers must undergo training before setting snares. It is an improvement, but it’s not enough.
One of the main reasons that the Scottish Government stopped short of a full ban of snaring was the supposed economic benefits of shooting. The shooting industry argues it brings jobs to Scotland: another of its favourite images is of the gamekeeper, his face weathered by sun and rain, earning a living from the land he loves.
But it doesn't quite work like that either. The same estates that promote 500-a-day bird shoots charge £25 - £35 per bird. Pheasant poults can be bought from farms for around £3 and days old chicks cost around 50p. Gamekeepers usually get paid around £10,000 per year. You do the maths – most of the money is not used to employ locals; it is kept by the businesses and owners that run the estates.
The League doesn't want to add to the economic problems in some parts of Scotland – but neither is shooting going to regenerate the rural economy. In fact, where local people own and manage their own land, through community buyouts, the overwhelming majority promote their land as being somewhere tourists might go to see wildlife, rather than as shooting estates.
The shooting industry might like to portray itself as being romantic. But in truth, it’s a big business and an ugly one.
During this season, thousands of birds have been killed. Many will have been shot but not killed outright, and suffer a slower death than is humane. Those who run the shooting industry will spend the next few months rearing thousands more birds, to be blown away when the “hunting” season opens again in October. This might be the way things have worked since modern pheasant shooting became popular, in the Victorian and Edwardian eras – but just because something has been happening for a long time, doesn't make it right.
To learn more about the murky truth behind the UK’s shooting industry watch the League’s film, Gunsmoke and Mirrors.