Bird-brained reports

Caroline Roddis provides further evidence that ‘birds are real’ as she casts a scathing eye over recent broadsheet reports into pheasant dumping.

What happens to gamebirds after they are shot has become the focus of much media attention

Isn’t it amazing what people do when they think no one is looking? Particularly because, as we all know by now, there is always someone looking. Google, for example, is a great resource for the budding anthropologist – check out these related searches that come up when you enter the words ‘are pigeons…’ into the search field:

  • Are pigeons smart?
  • Are pigeons dinosaurs?
  • Are pigeons real?

The last one, I admit, had me a little flummoxed. We all have plenty of proof that pigeons are not only real but also shootable (in theory at least…) and very tasty. Turns out though, there are around 70,000 people who believe – and I use that word loosely – that the birds aren’t real and that our favourite flying vermin are actually drones. That’s right, drones.

Apparently, the American government killed all the actual birds between 1959-1971, and replaced them with these drones, which recharge themselves by sitting on power lines. Makes perfect sense, right?

Before you go mocking the fake birds too loudly, however, be warned that they have friends in high places. Here’s a quote from a recent article in The Sun about the drone-pigeons: “The group [Birds Aren’t Real] claim John F Kennedy was assassinated as he was against what was happening to the feathered creatures, and that since then the CIA have rigged every US election to ‘allow candidates who were anti-bird and pro-citizen surveillance to win the Presidency’.” If anyone shoots a pigeon and it explodes, please contact the editor at your earliest convenience.

[Communications by carrier pigeon are no longer being accepted – Ed.]

While some people use anonymity to pose the questions they think might sound stupid, other people use an assumed freedom from scrutiny to do things that are downright stupid – as in the recent case of the (of course) American woman who started bragging about shooting a deer out of season to a stranger on a dating app.

As the BBC reported, however, the stranger turned out to be a local game warden, who used the picture she’d sent him to track her down. He was so successful that his colleagues were able to turn up on the woman’s doorstep the next morning – holding a demand for a $2,000 fine rather than roses.

Another group of people who surely wish that no one had been looking are those at Cotesbach Game. The film of them dumping pheasant carcases, shot by antis who were undoubtedly trespassing, was one of the key features in a Times investigation into pheasant shooting, which spanned several days and was comprised of about six articles.

I have to say that I’m a huge fan of The Times’ journalists. They’re clever, hardworking and they can really hold their drink. But I can’t help wonder whether someone promised the editor of The Times a day’s shooting and then cancelled at the last minute, or perhaps just called him a really bad shot, because this ‘investigation’ almost feels like an afterthought: it doesn’t have the gravitas of some of the paper’s others, and certainly lacks the focus – which is perhaps why it got so little attention from other media outlets.

Come on guys, ‘fess up, which one of you poached too many of the ed’s birds?

The main point behind the investigation, as the ‘Pheasant’s Revolt’ leading article of 17 January explained, was that wealthy townies are demanding bigger and bigger bags, with the consequence that the birds shot don’t go into the food chain and have to be disposed of by other means.

“Typically”, it said, “these shooters treat the pursuit much as they would a low-grade video game, with the intent of boasting later about their haul. Up to 600 birds can be killed six days a week for the length of the season. Millions of pheasants and partridges are being shot in this way, resulting in a glut… As The Times reported, the dead birds are being shoved into landfill or left to rot in fields.

The link between shooting and the food chain, the chief justification for killing driven game, is being severed. A good day of shooting for these self-indulgent guns is a bad day for rural Britain.”

Conspiracy theorists – largely in America – argue that real birds were replaced by drones nearly 50 years ago

The only evidence the investigation has for this, however, is the one video from the antis (in which the pheasants have been breasted) and some Freedom of Information data that shows only 6 per cent of birds enter the food chain through government processing plants – hardly surprising given the informal and participatory nature of the sport, and how game birds are in general distributed.

In addition, the article, which discusses the video in depth, includes quotes from figures such as the NGO’s Liam Bell that condemn the footage, something which surely suggests to any reader that the industry doesn’t regard or defend this as normal practice.

Sure, the video is uncomfortable viewing, misleading for those who don’t have a working knowledge of pheasant butchery, and a nightmare in that it portrays shooters as people who don’t respect their quarry. But at the end of the day it is just one video, not a whole dossier of wrongdoing.

Trying to assert that this video indicates a wider problem is like saying one snowflake is incontrovertible proof that a new ice age is here. If these are truly the entire fruits of the investigation then its conclusions feel quite irresponsible.

Let’s look at another investigative piece used to bolster The Times’ thesis, an article entitled ‘super-rich pay £50,000 for weekend’s shooting’. Using only anonymous sources, who talk about non-specific instances in which badly dressed and inept foreign shooters (always foreign) spend huge amounts of money to miss or wound birds on Exmoor, the article insinuates that these instances are widespread, and that these inelegant invaders are the source of all pheasant-related evils.

Funnily enough, it doesn’t notice the internal inconsistency with saying that people who can’t shoot very well are littering the countryside with unwanted dead birds. It also must have been written by someone from the 1940s, because the way it delicately hints at Italians flying in ‘ladies who are not their wives’ to be part of the shoot entertainment is delightfully prudish.

The inconsistencies and fuzziness are part of what frustrates me about all the articles in this ‘investigation’: the lack of depth. This might sound quite odd, given that I’m not one to be in favour of articles that try to attack shooting or set groups within the industry against each other, but within all these pieces The Times sets itself up as the defender of rural values and traditions, and then manifestly fails to deliver on this.

Where is the interview with the Country Food Trust? Where the in-depth look at game meats versus intensively reared meats, or the changing tastes of the British public, or the success of the Taste of Game campaign? Where’s the look at a small family-run shoot? If you want to truly investigate the state of the pheasant shooting industry, then surely you need to focus on the good, as much as the ‘bad’, and stop dealing in generalisations.

Throughout all the articles, The Times also makes it clear that the dim countryfolk are just doing naughty things because they’re dazzled by the gold coins dangled from the fingers of their urban paymasters.

It patronisingly talks about “large commercial shoots that simply strive to export metropolitan merry-making to country hideaways”, but until it can bring some real objectivity to bear on a look at pheasant shooting, I think The Times should keep its metropolitan meddling out of country issues it doesn’t understand.

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