Rural groups are joining forces to safeguard the future of shooting, says Richard Negus
Having spent the entire weekend of the Game Fair trudging around Ragley Hall in Warwickshire, I left the showground in a surprisingly good mood. My cheerful mien wasn’t due to any guilty, frivolous purchase nor even the thought of savouring a dram when I got home from the bottle of Dalwhinnie that I won from Liam Bell in a rugby-related wager. My happy demeanour was a hangover from the Game Fair’s opening day.
On that Friday, I witnessed a public – possibly seismic – shift in tactics and direction by those entrusted to protect shooting. In the show’s Carter Jonas Theatre, the nine leaders of Britain’s foremost rural organisations came together to officially announce the launch of a partnership called Aim to Sustain.
This partnership, if it fulfils its potential, will provide, in the words of BASC chief executive Ian Bell, a “clear signal of intent that we are not running scared of our detractors and that the British countryside speaks with one voice”.
The announcement was unashamedly upbeat and refreshingly ego-free. This latter point is highlighted by the equal standing each organisation, regardless of membership size, is given within the coalition. Aim to Sustain comprises the Countryside Alliance, BASC, the CLA, the Game Farmers’ Association, the Moorland Association, the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation (NGO), Scottish Land & Estates and the British Game Alliance. The GWCT, thanks to its unique position as a conservation charity responsible to the public, will act as scientific adviser to the partnership.
Curiously, one of the catalysts in creating Aim to Sustain has been shooting’s most vocal detractor, Wild Justice. Over the past two years, the efficacy of collaboration by shooting’s organisations has been proved by their successful countering of the campaign group’s string of legal challenges. This has led to a formalisation of the partnership, a move that many in shooting have long hoped to see.
Concerns have been frequently voiced, from the back of the beaters’ wagon to the letters pages of our sister title Shooting Times, over the waste in resources brought about by duplication of roles and competition between the organisations. This is a fact from which Tim Bonner, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, does not shy away.
“Aim to Sustain will focus on three clear things to achieve our goal of supporting sustainable shooting, its communities and landscapes,” he said. “These factors are standards, science and social licence. While we all have knowledge in these areas, Aim to Sustain will utilise specific experts within each organisation and use them in areas where they will have the most effect.”
This ‘horses for courses’ mindset is echoed by Dr Roger Draycott, head of research for the GWCT, who is similarly enthusiastic. He said: “The coalition, we hope, will help facilitate even more scientific research by the GWCT. This will in turn lead to us seeing more wide-scale biodiversity gains brought about by sustainable shooting and management.”
The term ‘sustainable shooting’ is a recurring refrain, which the coalition explains as meaning a respect for quarry species and a determination to conserve and improve the environment. It avoids excessive consumption, complies with the law, improves the health and well-being of participants and provides food and economic benefits to the wider community. All of this will be underpinned by science and research.
Closer to the coalface of shooting, the mood is also buoyant. Liam Bell, chairman of the NGO, believes his members will be given a greater voice thanks to the formation of the coalition. “This is all of the countryside in partnership,” he enthused. “Each organisation carries as much weight as the next.
“Ian [Bell] and Tim [Bonner] will take on the role of co-chairmen for one year; after that an independent chairman will be elected. I am very keen that everyone feels that Aim to Sustain represents them. To that end, until October, we are inviting anyone within the sporting community to take part in a consultation process that will help to steer our collaborative thinking and communications.”
I bumped into my friend, and fellow Suffolk conservationist, Graham Denny outside the theatre and asked him for a farmer’s view. “It’s got to be a good thing, hasn’t it?” he replied. “We are pooling our resources and now when we go into a battle, we do so at full power. It is interesting to see that the CLA is involved — it brings another viewpoint to the table.”
I asked Graham if he thought that the National Farmers’ Union should have been seen on the partners list too. “I suppose most farmers don’t feel their businesses are directly influenced by shooting, even if many farmers do shoot as a hobby,” he replied. I asked the same question of Mr Bonner, who assured me that other rural groups will be asked to contribute to, or indeed join, Aim to Sustain as time goes by or when mutual needs arise.
It would be easy to get carried along on the wave of enthusiasm engendered by the announcement and believe that all of shooting’s woes are at an end.
Clearly, the success or failure of the coalition can only be judged by positive results. Doubtless there will be some potential areas for friction within the sport itself — for example, over the framework and mechanics of self-regulation that Aim to Sustain seeks to make more concrete, or the tone and voice that the partnership uses on its multiple media platforms.
Rob Yorke, the noted rural commentator, believes Aim to Sustain is welcome, but “must not become a partisan groupthink for the shooting community”. “Shooting practices in the UK are under public scrutiny, from lead shot to inappropriate numbers of released gamebirds. There are plenty of fresh narratives supporting shooting as a positive force in the evidence-informed restoration of wildlife and habitat conservation,” he pointed out.
What Mr Yorke seems to fear is that while a bullish approach from Aim to Sustain may chime with our own audience, it could alienate the wider public that is currently ambiguous, at best, about shooting. He believes “fresh, baggage-free independent voices” are required to get the message across.
Aim to Sustain will soon announce the chairmen for its key committees, covering standards, research and politics and engagement, as well as ambassadors to help communicate its message. The names and skill sets of the individuals taking on these key roles will provide a good indication of the direction of travel for game shooting.
Aim to Sustain is unashamedly focused on game shooting, which is clearly most under threat at present. Stalking, wildfowling and other fieldsports will continue to be supported by the existing organisations. It appears that among the organisations some humble pie has been eaten and a few egos have been parked.
The Game Fair announcement has seen a coming together in order to protect sport, jobs and landscapes. That must be applauded and the next few months offer everyone in shooting a chance to take part in the consultation and help shape our future.