‘Canned hunting’ and lion farming are two distinctly different issues

Diggory Hadoke explores auction trends and the public threats that can impact big game industries.

Recently, Gavin Gardiner put up a significant collection of air rifles for sale by internet bidding, prior to his 1 May London auction at Sotheby’s in Bond Street. The auction featured on Gavin’s Home Page and gave potential buyers the opportunity to bid on lots at their leisure until 12 May, when the highest bid would be declared for each lot in turn.

The collection was quite remarkable in the sheer number or air weapons that one man had accumulated; 268 lots, including air pistols and air rifles, from 1980s cheapies from Sussex Armoury, through ancient childhood staples, like the Gem, and collectable classics like Webley Service models to modern workaday stuff like Air-Arms S200s and Weihrauch HW80s.

There didn’t seem to be much of a theme to the collection, it was simply a really large accumulation of air weapons available over the last sixty or seventy years. 

Reserves were priced to sell and, as of 29 April, bidding had started on some lots. The nature of these things is that people tend to watch and wait until as late as possible and then get involved, hoping nobody else has been paying attention. If you have ever bid on eBay, you know the score.

However, by 5 May, with seven days still to go, some lots had already started to break their reserves; with £250 bid on a Theoben and £400 bid on a vintage Britannia .177. 

Gavin’s live sale, also listed on his Home Page, included some very good pairs by Boss, Lang, Lancaster and Purdey, some notable single guns by major London makers and interesting rifles by Wilkes and Holland & Holland that were well worthy of inspection.

I collected a Holland & Holland .375 made for Lord Lonsdale and a minty A.A. Brown side-lock with 25” barrels for a client, for £13,000 and £11,000 respectively. 

However, though there was an impressive array of best pairs in very good condition, most of these high-value lots failed to sell on the day. Lots 159 and 160 were 1930s guns – pairs by Purdey and Lancaster in very high condition but beset by unfashionably short barrels. This underlines the continuing difficulty for such guns, especially in the UK. Americans will still buy them for walked-up shooting. 

Even Lot 157, a lovely, Kell-engraved pair of Langs went unsold, as did a very rare pair of side-lever Boss guns and a very nice pair of Purdeys. All had long barrels.

Most of these pairs were in the £25,000 – £45,000 bracket but Gavin’s top sale figure was £27,000 for a virtually unused, cased, 1984 Purdey, listed at £30,000-£40,000. Given that the price of a new one is around £150,000, this was a real bargain. 

It is interesting to see really good guns like these fail to find buyers despite being good value in terms of the new cost of similar guns. Confidence in the market has been weak for some time and the scarcity of bidders for the best guns in top condition, offered by a well established and reputable London sale room, is somewhat worrying for all of us involved in the trade. 

As always, one or two opportunities appeared from left-field. The price of Rigby Mausers is climbing steadily and a very similar rifle in .275 by Woodward looked like it could be a good alternative.

Someone else thought so too and it made £2,200 from a reserve of £1,400. A Gibbs .256 Magnum, on a Mannlicher 1903 action with the Schoenaur rotary magazine is distinctive. Its folding leaf sights make it an unusual piece of kit, for not a lot of money.

It sold on the day for £1,500. As Gavin commented afterwards: “The rare and unusual remain in demand and items of collector interest dominated the sale.” 

Regular attendees will need to remember to register for the sales in advance from now on. The requirement is emblazoned in red print on Gavin’s page but I’ll bet a good number of old-timers forgot to send in the right request (which requires photo ID) and get a printed viewing pass in advance. 

While on the subject of Gavin’s sales, I must thank him for the generous use of one of his old images for the cover of the second edition of my first book, Vintage Guns, which is about to be printed.

I have made some revisions to reflect the changes in the market over the twelve years it has been in print and felt it was time for a new cover to make the second edition distinctive. 

In the media, we have become used to having really good studio-shots of a huge variety of guns, from London auctioneers like Holt’s, Bonhams and Gavin Gardiner, with which to decorate our articles and publications. In the future, these will form a fascinating library of reference for students of firearms. 

More media assaults

On the subject of media, in May I was preparing to appear on Good Morning Britain, to discuss another ‘bad news story’ associated with our sport. Lord Ashcroft, the tax-exiled, ex-Tory Party chairman has been using his considerable fortune to embark on a crusade against what he calls ‘lion farming’ in South Africa. 

Specifically, he is rallying against the breeding of lions and their subsequent use as attractions for tourists, their supply to the ‘canned hunting’ industry and, in many cases, slaughter for the supply of bones and body parts to the Vietnamese pseudo-medical trade. 

He made a short film, which to my mind, was rather vainglorious and painted himself as some kind of superhero on a covert operation, with ex-special forces personnel, to expose the business.

Actually, it has never been hidden. Go to the Free State, as I have many times on bird shooting expeditions, and you will see large enclosures with big, healthy-looking lions all over the place. You can walk right into many of the centres and have a chat. 

Lord Ashcroft has singled out lions for special status. He objects to farming them. He does not appear to extend this protection to any other animals and his reasons for singling out lions seem to be no more well developed than he personally admires them. That does not seem to me to be a very solid basis for making policy. 

Let me be clear, I detest ‘canned hunting’ and anyone involved in it. It is a pointless, soulless, horrible example of the very worst fringe of ‘hunting culture’ and I see no way any genuine sportsman can look upon it with anything other than revulsion. But canned hunting and lion farming are two distinct issues. 

The facts are awkward. If lion farming were stopped tomorrow, twelve thousand lions would be shot the next day, never to be replaced. In a world in which the gene pool of lion DNA that can be used for research, for future breeding programmes and as an insurance against further drops in wild populations, is that wise? 

I don’t have all the answers but I see yet another arbitrary, emotion-led campaign of the sort that drives the anti-grouse shooting and anti-vermin control pressure we see in our own country.

We need to assess these difficult issues with evidence and scientific evaluation of that evidence, not make policy based on rich men’s personal emotional investment in a particular cause. 

The appearance on ITV was cancelled at the last minute, as is often the case when news priorities change. I’m sure Lord Ashcroft will be back though. Our sports and freedoms are being attacked on an unprecedented level at the moment and, it seems, from every angle.

My worry is that public sentiment has become so infantile that the ‘My feelings don’t care about your facts’ mentality is in danger of winning the day. Certainly, the likes of Piers Morgan are championing that approach and it seems to be working. 

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