Scarlett Penn of WWOOF UK recounts a thought-provoking evening of music and debate, after encountering a pheasant-shooting party in a Shropshire pub.
Last Sunday night I was in a fine Shropshire pub. I’d gone to play in a folk music session and this town was a bit further than I’d normally go, but a friend was starting up a new monthly event and I wanted to support him. It was an amazing night with a circle of about 15 musicians in a back room of the pub, plus a whole group of ruddy and rowdy men who’d come through from the front bar. They were revelling in the sing-along songs so we played to their enthusiasm and rolled out lots of well known tunes. It was a fun, cockle-warming thing to do on a cold winter’s night.
At the end of the evening we milled around having quick conversations here and saying goodnight there, and one of the hearty ‘gallery singers’, as we called them, came up to thank me for my Irish whistle playing. It was an instrument he’d always loved, such a great sound. ‘And you’re so lucky to have a local pub like this!’ he added. ‘It’s so alive, that sense of community, especially in winter, people doing things and having fun together.’
I’d assumed his group were locals, so I asked him where they’d all come from. ‘We live in Jersey. We don’t have pubs like this. We’re all saying we really envy you.’ I thought it was nice that this eclectic group of merry strangers appreciated such things in life, so I asked what they were doing up from Jersey. ‘We come up to do some shooting on land round here.’
I’m sure everyone within a large radius felt the atmosphere instantly freeze. In my peripheral vision I noticed other people (some my friends, some his) silently and without exactly appearing to move, drift to our respective sides.
Just the day before I’d had the most polite altercation I could muster with my neighbour, who allows shooting parties to get their killer kicks behind my smallholding. Thankfully it doesn’t happen that often but the mixture of gunshot, dogs barking, aggressive male voices, the purpose of the event – it sets me very on edge. On that occasion the party had done something particularly inconsiderate and I happened to be in even worse humour towards shooters than normal. (And don’t get me started on how is it even legal that people can rear livestock and then release it to run free all over your land, creating the kind of damage I’ve seen with another neighbour where the pheasants (poor things, it’s not their fault) peck at all her flowers, which represents her livelihood as a florist? How is that even allowed?)
Anyway, I took a slow breath, thawed my frozen smile and asked them why they come up here for a shooting ‘party’. ‘I’m a big property developer. It’s full on. I work an 80 hour week. I like to get out into the countryside, you know, to relax. The countryside is nice. I don’t know any other way of getting outside, especially with a group of lads, other than to come shooting.’
Facepalm. I almost felt sorry for him.
‘So… you’re trying to relax? You’re shooting guns and killing animals to help you… relax.’
Of course a conversation followed where I spoke about WWOOF, TCV (The Conservation Volunteers) and others, but he’d just finished another large whisky and along with becoming glassy-eyed and slightly absent, he’d also begun to stroke the arm of my jumper, mumbling that it felt exactly like a sheep. He liked sheep, they’re soft. Err… yes. Time to skedaddle.
But before I could move one of his mates – very genial and jolly – piped up with: ‘So would you prefer us to buy chicken in cellophane from Tesco’s where the bird has had a bad life, or eat the pheasants we’re catching tomorrow that have had a good life?’
Me: ‘Oh, are you going to eat these pheasants? Most shoots I’ve heard of don’t eat the birds and just dispose of them; often they bury them in the ground.’
Him: ‘Well… yes, we do chuck them away, you’re right about that.’
Him: ‘But this is the countryside way and people like you move out from the cities and don’t like the country ways, which were here before you were, to be fair.’
Me: ‘And you know the environment in which I grew up how?’
So who had been priming him with these quick-witted and brilliant arguments to use against Tree Huggers, I wondered. But more immediately pressing, it was definitely time to round off the evening and leave so I said ‘Listen, it’s been a great evening and I wish you all well, but I do hope you have a terrible shoot tomorrow.’ They laughed, raised their glasses and that was that.
But all the way home I was thinking about what they’d said. It’s a basic human desire to want to get outdoors, and it has proven mental health benefits. It’s natural to want to be a band of brothers. But it was a shock to me the only way they knew how to do that was to go hunting and killing. It brought up so many issues for me all at once, and for a while I went off on a crazy solution-finding tangent of business ventures to tackle just this precise phenomenon. And then I got to thinking about the more general mindset and how very widespread it is. Then I started to feel overwhelmed and helpless and before I knew it, I was driving home after a great night out feeling quite depressed.
So is there a positive end to this story; a wise nugget or some pithy point I can give you to take away? Really I’m still processing it all, but I suppose there is one thing I can think to say for now. A group of strangers, all with diverse backgrounds, interests and outlooks, managed to have a damned fine evening in a random pub that turned out to be no-one’s local, creating music, mirth and song together.
That at least has to be a good thing, right?
Find the original post by Scarlett Penn here over on the WWOOF UK website. Illustration: The Shoot by Gordon Allen.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1annbeirneanimalwhisperert March 7th, 2019
I admire your cool, I am afraid I would not have been so kind, to my mind the only time to shoot anything is if you are starving hungry and it is the only food available, although as a vegan there are many wild plants that would make nutritional and balanced meals, I am fed up with the excuses used to raise animals for shooting, is this any better than trapping lions behind fences so they can be hunted and have no where to run, what is wrong with the human race, we should be treasuring our planet, animals, plants, insects and birds, until we do there will be nothing left.
2Mike Pinard March 8th, 2019
I’m not vegan so I have no hang ups about eating meat and to eat meat you have to kill it so no problems with killing my own or anyone elses meat.
I farm arable and sheep in Surrey on the urban fringe. There is a huge demand for shooting here and it is in two parts. Firstly pest shooting be it pigeons jackdaws or rabbits. These can have a huge impact on growing crops and anyone who says otherwise just ”read it on the internet’ and is not in the practical world. Now I can charge £50 day for someone to have a days fun/sport and do my pest control for me so guess what? It’s win win for me.
The second is game shooting which I’m sure has most here getting a bit riled but the truth is, like pesticides, it’s the dose that makes the poison.
Like it or not shooting can be very beneficial to the countryside and to deny that is plain stupid. There are cases where moorland may be better off wooded but let’s get real, all the bodies that say that have no idea how to go about it or fund it so thats for the future. It does bring a large amount of money into remote areas and the most vociferous objectors usually don’t live within a hundred miles of a moor.
Pheasant shooting has got a bad rap because of the overstocking of a lot of large estates which I agree is not good
But in the plus side an awful lot of land is managed for the birds and this benefits a huge range of other wildlife. The key word is managed, a lot of ‘tree huggers’ (oops) have no idea that land has to be managed or it will go through the natural succession. This is rough grass (good), scrub (good) early wood (good) to mature wood (bad). So what’s wrong with a mature wood? Look at a bluebell wood, beautiful in spring but cold and barren for the rest of the year. No light penetrate no understory no life not even the deer stay.
We have a wood that is at that stage and we are now felling selectively to create ”lenses’ to let light in. This will allow an understory to develop and feed many plants and animals also we will replant to give a new wood for the future generations. Why do we do this? Well it is the right thing to do and improves the shooting.
Life is not black and white and very little is without consequences. Ban shooting and this work goes along with the wildlife that benefits from it.
3Dave Darby March 8th, 2019
Mike – I’d like to get into this debate, but too busy at the moment, so all I want to say now is that I’m bemused that there are enough people out there to enable this industry to exist – who will pay good money for the ‘fun’ of killing things (it’s not about food. Like you, I have no philosophical issue with killing for food. That’s nature after all.). But killing for fun? Am I missing something? Why? Were they abused as children?
4Scarlett Penn March 8th, 2019
@Mike – a lot of points I would take up with you but let’s go for this one for now: a local friend of mine has an organic flower business. The shoots, buds and blooms are regularly pecked at by gatherings of pheasants; birds which are bred by a local landowner and then released to roam free, all over everyone else’s land. Essentially, they are breeding livestock (or ‘pests’ as you might call them) for their own financial gain but to the detriment of her business. For starters, do you think is it fair or right or responsible to breed something, in vast numbers, that a) is not contained on your own land and causes a menace to someone else’s and b) can carry and spread disease e.g. the H5N8 strain of avian flu?
5Scarlett Penn March 8th, 2019
@Dave, it’s widely known that the pheasants killed in these shoots are usually not eaten. Even this group readily admitted they don’t eat them – for one thing they are riddled with shot; not good for the teeth. I’ve heard of people digging holes to put them all in, also gathering them in bin liners to dump in bins
6Dave Darby March 8th, 2019
Scarlett – I know – that’s what I’m saying. Don’t understand the killing for fun thing.
7Mikeo March 10th, 2019
@Scarlett I did say that the dose is the poison and I agree that large shoots have got out of hand now. Like anything when money can be made it expands to corporate level and buggers it up for everyone. They raise too many birds and can’t put them into the food chain because of the glut so they must be burned or buried which is criminal but whilst I agree this is wrong to say shooting should stop is equally wrong. It’s like saying premiership football is obscenely bloated with cash let’s ban all football.
Secondly I hate cucumber others like it that’s the way we are with most things we differ and that difference is what makes life interesting. Now to want to make everyone like ourselves with our own values and concerns is a trend that worries me. Have you thought this through? Would you really like everyone to agree with you on politics, animal welfare, dress sense social policies? No it would be hell. So let’s try to trim extremes where they offend but leave the baby in the bath.
8Dave Darby March 11th, 2019
Mike – I think you’ve got a very strange vision of hell. Everyone having the same dress sense as me is not my idea of hell (and it would destroy the fashion industry, which is a bonus). My idea of hell is to be a member of a species that can’t seem to work out how to live without destroying the ecology of its home planet. Extinction awaits any species that continues to destroy the environment that it lives in, and if everyone shared that concern, or even understood it, that definitely wouldn’t be hell, as far as I’m concerned. You really think it would be a bad idea if everyone shared certain values? That the sexual abuse of children is wrong, for example?
I believe that killing an animal (never mind the scale of the activity – one animal will do) for fun, is wrong. For food, or for pest control (i.e. for prevention of disease or the consumption of human food) – fine; but for fun, no. Do you not share this belief? And if you don’t, could you explain how you justify the killing of animals for fun?
9Mike Pinard March 11th, 2019
@Dave. No I’m sorry I don’t share your abhorrence of blood sports. It’s a trait some humans retain of the original hunt that societies are based on. It’s somewhere in my DNA and that’s it.
Your comment on paedophillia was obfuscation at best mischievous otherwise
I don’t shoot a lot and in not interested in big numbers pheasant shoots and they are hardly sporting but I enjoy the craft of stalking, decoy shooting and working dogs in cover as this is immensly satisfying but I cannot hope to explain that to you as we differ and I salute that.
Bloodsports are in no way responsible for the wholesale degredation of the environment and it is disingenuous for you to link them. I would rather youngsters spent their time outside fishing or shooting than the more usual pastimes of shopping Facebook and McDonalds that seems to enthrall most today.
My other view is that the reason that the environment is so degraded today is the divorce of everyday life from nature. To most food comes from the supermarket and trees are pointless. This brings about the total rubbish that is spouted about ‘Mother nature’ I can assure you as one that deals with ‘her’ everyday if nature was a mother she is a bitch that should be done for child abuse. The only saying that bears any truth is ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’
10Scarlett Penn March 12th, 2019
“This brings about the total rubbish that is spouted about ‘Mother nature’ I can assure you as one that deals with ‘her’ everyday if nature was a mother she is a bitch that should be done for child abuse. The only saying that bears any truth is ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’”.
My goodness @Mike, where are you living – it sounds like you’re already in hell!?! I too live very much with ‘Mother Nature’ every day and my experience is not at all as you describe. Yes I’ve had hens taken by a fox, yes I see the sparrowhawk taking its prey; that is nature feeding herself, not taking sick delight in the abuse of life.
I don’t mind debating different points of view (although I don’t understand your point above – why wouldn’t I wish that everyone shared my views and values on e.g. animal welfare, politics etc. – wouldn’t I then be living in my ideal and harmonious world?) and I don’t have any problem with a human pitting himself against an animal in a battle of wits with a view to sustaining his nutritional needs. But as I cannot even begin to compute the final extreme perspective of life on earth, I think I’ll step out now.
11Dave Darby March 13th, 2019
My reference to paedophilia wasn’t mischievous or obfuscating. It was straight to the point. You said that it would be a bad thing if everyone had the same values and concerns, and I disagree. I used paedophilia as an example of what I mean. We should all be on the same page when it comes to paedophilia, surely?
I agree with you about Facebook, McDonalds and supermarkets, and as I’ve already said, hunting for food – but not killing for fun. There are plenty of human urges that should be reined in. As a society, we’ve decided that violence, sexual assault, child abuse etc. are beyond the pale. ‘It’s somewhere in my DNA and that’s it’ is not a defence – or not a credible one anyway. There are plenty of ways to enjoy the countryside without killing things that you’re not going to eat.
I support a ban on killing for fun, and then it wouldn’t matter what was in your DNA, you wouldn’t be able to kill for fun without paying the penalty. Times are changing – bullying in schools was seen as inevitable, and now it’s not. Hopefully we’re not far from a society where killing for kicks will land you in court. Saying that you have certain urges that you should be allowed to satisfy really doesn’t work for me. Sounds a bit creepy, in fact.
12Dave Darby March 13th, 2019
PS – ‘the original hunt that societies are based on’ was for food, not fun. Hunter-gatherers tend to have respect for their prey.
13Mike Pinard March 13th, 2019
Let’s extrapolate the no killing for fun argument for a moment.
Now a dietician will tell you and vegans and vegetarians will be evident that you don’t need to eat meat to survive. I’m sure that can be agreed by everyone?
OK so why do we (most) eat meat? Well the answer has to be because we like it. Hmm that’s a problem because there is no need to eat/kill so don’t tell me that meat eaters are not killing for pleasure (fun?). So anyone who eats meat when other foods are available is killing without reason. So every person who is against bloodsports and eats meat is being very hypocritical, correct?
I’m sure there will be some weasel words of Oh not me etc but it’s really just an inconvenient truth that in the UK and most other places you don’t need to kill animals for food.
Secondly if you understand anything about natural systems you know that empathy, sympathy and kindness are all human emotions. They don’t exist above coincidence in the wild why? Because they can’t. The whole point of life from amoeba to humans is survival and reproduction and that depends on putting yourself first but only to test whether you are suitable to reproduce and improve the species. Groups have evolved such as packs or herds but those even with higher social orders are only for the betterment of the species not the individual. Females are hormonally programmed to defend their young they do not love them in a human sense or why would they drive them away to have more young? Males are hormonally driven to try to mate not because they are intellectually attracted but because there is a receptive female nearby ( hmm not much difference there with some humans). Some species mate for life but that is only an evolutionary survival technique that suits their circumstances.
Humans are different in having learnable emotions but they are not natural, we have been clever as we understand that if we use these emotions then there is more chance of our survival. We then put these emotions over things we like and sanitise them hence the mother nature stuff.
Doesn’t anyone learn from Attenborough? It’s a jungle out there as it’s said and probably very true we are only three missed meals away from anarchy.
14Dave Darby March 13th, 2019
Mike – we’ve debated this, ad infinitum, here – https://www.lowimpact.org/ethical-keep-animals-meat-dairy/
here – https://www.lowimpact.org/does-the-sustainability-of-meat-production-depend-on-the-size-of-a-holding-and-the-number-of-animals-kept-on-it/
and here – https://www.lowimpact.org/is-eating-meat-ethical-simon-fairlie-interview/
Our position can be summarised as follows:
1. We’re not philosophically against killing animals for food. If we were, it would mean that we were against hunter-gatherer societies all over the world, and we’re not. So whether people eat plants or animals, neither is for ‘fun’ – it’s for nutrition. Your argument could be reversed – e.g. people don’t have to eat plants – they could eat animal products instead. They therefore just eat plants for fun. That would be just as wrong. As far as we’re concerned, nutrition can come from plants or animals. Sometimes the plant or animal doesn’t have to be killed for humans to gain nutrition from it (fruit, nuts, milk, eggs), and sometimes it does. But if they’re killed, to then let them to go to waste is obscene.
2. Our main focus is ecology, and in terms of food production, this means supporting organic, mixed smallholdings over corporate monocultures. Preventing smallholders from keeping animals would put them at a disadvantage, whether corporate agriculture produced meat or not. Animals on a mixed smallholding provide a lot more than meat; they provide fertiliser, pest control, wool, dairy, eggs, honey, leather etc. All of which make smallholdings much more viable.
3. The ecoloigical argument applies to hunting animals for food from the wild. This is even more sustainable than smallholding, as no natural habitat has to be removed for agriculture. Not only is it a sustainable way of obtaining food (as long as not too many people do it, at current human population levels), but in case of societal collapse, those who have hunting skills will have a far greater chance of survival.
But using valuable agricultural land to grow crops to feed to caged animals that are then released into a wild that they’re not equipped for, and don’t fit into the ecology of, just for people to kill them for fun, is beyond obscene in so many ways. This is without looking into the psychology of killing for fun. It’s not (for me at least) at all about empathy or sympathy. To the animals, it can’t possibly matter whether they are killed for food or fun. Nature is cruel, and ecology would collapse without the death of many millions of animals every day. For me it’s about what killing for fun means for humans – what does it do to the individuals concerned, and for society as a whole?
Would I want to prevent certain people killing wild animals for pleasure, and letting them rot where they fall? Of course I would.
(As an aside, anarchy means the negotiated organisation of a decentralised society based on voluntary association without hierarchical authority, not chaos. It’s actually the most organised society there is. The ‘chaos’ definition was invented as a bastardisation of the term by those who preferred hierarchy and were threatened by non-hierarchical organisation.)
15Mike Pinard March 14th, 2019
“so whether people eat plants or animals, neither is for ‘fun’ – it’s for nutrition. Your argument could be reversed – e.g. people don’t have to eat plants – they could eat animal products instead. They therefore just eat plants for fun. That would be just as wrong. As far as we’re concerned, ”
I must say I cracked up reading that, seriously you don’t enjoy eating? This also rules out alcohol production and many other recreational drugs as well as natural fibre.
Christmas must be a blast with those values.
Meals are central to my family life, time to enjoy and spend time with others over good food and drink. It’s not just for nutrition it’s an enjoyable social ritual it’s fun.
Anyway I see it’s policy here so we’ll have to agree to differ but I feel I do see the odd mustelid showing its head.
16Dave Darby March 14th, 2019
You’ve misunderstood (which I guess is why you think you’re seeing ‘weasel words’). It’s the ‘killing for fun’ debate we’re having. I didn’t mean that ‘eating plants for fun’ is wrong, but that your argument (‘anyone who eats meat when other foods are available is killing without reason’ etc.) is wrong. My point stands – that ‘using valuable agricultural land to grow crops to feed to caged animals that are then released into a wild that they’re not equipped for, and don’t fit into the ecology of, just for people to kill them for fun’ – is wrong, in terms of ecology, animal cruelty, wasted resources, and more contentiously, damage to the psyche of the people doing it, and therefore to human society generally. But I guess that public debates like these are intended to influence the audience, not the participants.