The MP for the Cotswolds, Sir Geoffrey is chair of the influential all-party parliamentary group on shooting and conservation and a keen shot himself. We caught up with him to hear his opinion on the current state of shooting in the UK.
Politics is in the blood for Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown. He is related to no less than seven previous MPs, including two who became Speaker. After Eton, the young Sir Geoffrey attended the Royal Agricultural College and graduated as a chartered surveyor.
The call of politics dame later in life and he has been an MP since 1992, knighted in 2018 for his services to political and public life. He has held a variety of senior roles in the Conservative party from assistant Chief Conservative Whip to Treasurer of the 1922 committee and has held two shadow ministerial posts including Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Trade and Investment.
We caught up with Sir Geoffrey late in November via telephone. We kicked off with an easy question: Tell us about the all party parliamentary group—who’s on it and what do you do?
“We have about 150 members from both houses, House of Commons and House of Lords, and considering there are hundreds of groups we are one of the larger and more active. We have six to eight meetings a year on relevant subjects such as firearms licensing, lead ammunition, trophy hunting and so on.
“The more important work that we do is that we regularly meet and liaise with ministers such as Michael Gove over general licenses which were at risk during the summer, George Eustace over the release of birds in protected areas, so our agenda this year has been surprisingly full, despite Covid-19.
“There’s been a lot going on. We have an annual game dinner, and as chairman I represent the interests of shooting in parliament. I work closely with Jonathan Djanogly MP, a member of the all party group and chairman of the British Shooting Sports Council.
“Our group is useful in briefing supportive parliamentarians and mobilizing them when shooting is being discussed in parliament. There’s a reasonable cross selection of different sorts of shooter in our group. We like to represent everybody in shooting, that’s our role.”
We wondered what sort of shooting Sir Geoffrey enjoyed himself…
“Mostly shotgun, a bit of clay, bit of live quarry: peasants, partridge, pigeon. I do a bit of rifle shooting, the odd bit of deer stalking. Out and about in the countryside is what it’s all about, formal or informal it doesn’t matter.
“The one thing I’ve really missed during Covid is that I haven’t been able to shoot, and to meet all my friends. The question I face at the moment is as I get a little bit older is am I going to switch from a 12-bore to a 20-bore to get something a bit lighter?
“I’m not sure, but as it happens one of the few days I did manage to get out this season I had one of my best days ever in 50 years of shooting. It was a shoot very near me, with a mixture of people and I felt very relaxed and was shooting very straight. It was a social day with some shooting on the side and there’s nothing better than that when the weather is nice.”
We wondered if Sir Geoffrey had a shooting story he might like to share with us?
“I can tell you a story about my late father. He and I were shooting on a neighbour’s shoot in Suffolk, when I was a boy. He always had badly-behaved dogs. He had this black labrador that suddenly—in the middle of a shoot—started coursing a deer over several fields.
“Dogs always have a high-pitched yelp when they’re chasing deer: there’s something about the bigger the quarry the higher the pitch of the yelp. So anyway, the whole shoot was distracted and watching this go on—with the dog around five fields away—and eventually after a lot of shouting and yelling my father got the dog back and was giving it a severe telling off when his neighbouring gun came up to him and said: “Why are you chastising my dog?” “Oh,” said my father, “I thought it was my dog—it looks exactly like it. They’re all the same these black labradors.” And ever after that every black labrador he owned had a bright red collar on it.
Once GTN had finished laughing, we decided to get on to the more serious stuff: What’s the biggest threat facing shooting today?
“There’s a bit of a list unfortunately,” replies Sir Geoffrey, suddenly grave. “I think really, getting to the kernel of it, an increasing number of people not really understanding how shooting fits into the countryside is at the heart of it. And therefore—not being understanding of it—they’re instinctively hostile to it.
“And that leads to a number of problems. It allows our enemies in the press to exploit the bad behaviour of a very small number of shooting people, for example burying birds or raptor persecution and then people just believe what they read in the press hook, line and sinker.
“This is then used to tarnish shooting as a whole, and to demand ever more restrictions over shooting. Everybody involved in shooting must make sure that the ethics and standards of the sport are observed by all of us, and to support those of us in Westminster who are fighting the battle to keep shooting going unhindered.
“And it’s almost as simple as just saying ‘Good morning’, or ‘Hello’ to someone who is passing a shoot on a footpath. I’ve seen so many guns almost sneering at people on a footpath: ‘what the hell do you think you’re doing here in the middle of a shoot?’ sort of attitude.
“And that’s totally wrong. We should smile at them and say ‘Good afternoon! Hope you’re enjoying your walk in the country!’ And make friends with people all the time.”
GTN suggests that in fact the followers of organisations such as Wild Justice and many who shoot would in fact want essentially the same thing for the countryside: especially when it came to diversity of habitat and wildlife.
Sir Geoffrey enthusiastically agrees…
“Shooting over the centuries has shaped the countryside like it is. It wouldn’t look as it does today with all the woods and hedges and everything else if it wasn’t for people who loved their shooting, who wanted a countryside that was varied, attractive and a fantastic habitat for all sorts of wildlife.”
So we agree on public perception of shooting, but where does Sir Geoffrey stand on a slightly thornier topic for the industry: lead ammo?
“As you know I was instrumental in getting all the shooting organisations to agree that we should be phasing out lead over a five-year period. I think that’s got to be right; we shouldn’t be splattering lead about the countryside because it is poisonous.
“And if we can find something else that does the job then that obviously has to be the right thing to do in conservation terms. We had a discussion with Eley in one of our group meetings and they were clear that they are on the verge of being able to produce steel shot which will go in most guns, providing they can get pressures and loads and everything right.
“The problems in their way are twofold—obviously it’s going to take time to scale up and we fire 50 million cartridges in this country every year, you can’t just conjure up 50 million cartridges just like that, so if this ban from Europe came in too quickly that would be a problem.
“The other problem is that the best steel, the soft steel that you need in cartridges because of the steel is too hard it just will wear out the steel barrel of a gun is made mainly in America and we’ve either got to get them to scale up their manufacture or we’ve got to manufacture it ourselves and hopefully somebody like Eley would do just that.
At this point GTN suggests that from conversations it has had with other manufacturers there may be a reluctance to announce any new product at the moment, because of Covid. Marketing expenditure can be difficult to recoup right now.
“Yes I think that’s probably right,” agrees Sir Geoffrey. “No one’s paying attention to that sort of thing at the moment and they would be better off doing it when Covid is over.
“I suspect this season will be on and off all season and I would think that next season, or just before next season might be the time. Meanwhile the suppliers know the ban is coming and they can be working flat out to try to introduce it.”
Does Sir Geoffrey think that even if it does leave a few guns unable to be used then that might be a price worth paying?
“I think so I’m afraid, and from all the stories I’ve heard I think steel does the job as long as you have the right size load with the right size cartridge—in most guns it will do the job.
Steel will rust into dust over a period of time and that’s what we want. And if you put in biodegradable wads that will stand steel—Eley demonstrated thes to us at our meeting—that development is really helpful too.”
Moving on, GTN wonders if Sir Geoffrey is concerned about the effects of a potential no-deal Brexit on the import and export of guns and ammunition?
“I think there are two issues here,” says Sir Geoffrey. “The European passport is one issue for anyone who wants to take their rifle or shotgun to various european countries. Obviously now a passport that is issued by the UK authorities will not work in all countries and those people will have to fill in the paperwork to get their rifles and shotguns in to those countries.
“The second issue is that we don’t know what goods will have tariffs, so it might be that Italian or Spanish guns could become more expensive, and parts for them more expensive too. But then that might give a boost to the British gun trade.
“Often these sort of things have a silver lining. What we need to do is make sure there’s a gun for everybody at every price level, the chap who goes clay shooting the odd few times in a year needs a cheap gun, he can go and buy a second hand one, but basically we need to ensure that those who want to buy a gun can do so at an affordable price.
So you think it might be a shot in the arm for the auction side of the industry?
“Well I think it will! The problem is of course as we discussed earlier which of these older guns—particularly side by sides are going to be able to take the steel shot. It’s not yet clear.”
And conversely there may be some issue with tariffs being put on British guns that are being exported? We wondered…
“Yes and one would hope that common sense would be that either there are no tariffs on either side or that the tariffs would be equal on either side.
“That’s why I think that a Brexit deal, even if it’s a fairly bland deal, would be better than none because I think a no deal will at least for a time lead to bitterness, whereas a bland deal will enable people to get on afterwards and say that’s the best we can do now, let’s put it into effect and see how we can benefit consumers. I remain optimistic that we will get a deal because I think it’s so much in both sides’ interest.”
How does Sir Geffrey feel about Wild Justice? Does he admire their tactics?
No. I think their litigious actions, particularly when the government is so busy facing its problems with Covid and Brexit is not really the most sensible way to go forward. It hasn’t really altered very much but it’s made things like the general licences and the licences for releasing game birds in protected sites that much more bureaucratic for everyone to administer.
“The beauty of the old system was it was simple and everyone really understood the rules. Now how much that will make a difference in practice remains to be seen given that the general licences have only just been issued in their final form and that the licence for releasing game birds is probably only going to be announced in March or April, so it remains to be seen how these will be enforced—but I think it’s not been helpful.
“Everybody understands that predators need to be controlled—things like rooks and pigeons need to be controlled for a variety of farming and other reasons. Everybody understands that game birds are going to be released and you know we have to be sensible whether they are released in special sites or not.
“The numbers of game birds are enormous on some shoots and I think again people have got to think very very carefully about that. As to what sort of image that is presenting of shooting I think that some of these very big shoots are not helping people like me to defend the sport.
“People have got to think very carefully about that. A 700 or 800 bird day—not that I’ve ever done it—but I just think it’s unnecessary. It detracts from the sport rather than adding to it.
“On a 150 bird day you can remember everything—you’re shooting two, three or four birds per drive, and you can remember precisely at the end of the day every bird you’ve shot and relive it and enjoy it. If you get too many birds you can’t do that.”
What’s Sir Geoffrey’s view on Natural England. Are they fit for purpose?
“I don’t think they are. The fact that DEFRA has to bring in house—away from Natural England—the drafting of these licences proves that. I’ve had various talks with various ministers and I think we will be looking to see how NE could be reformed to make it more effective.
So does he think it likely that NE will continue in its position?
“I don’t think that’s necessarily certain at all and I think they’re being driven for too far towards groups like Wild Justice; they’re dancing to their tune instead of actually saying well what is the correct thing to do here?
“They’re listening to every word, dot and comma that Wild Justice are saying and writing. Wild Justice are raising a lot of money and bullying their way around how things should be done in the countryside.”
Wild Justice rather caught everyone on the wrong foot…
“They did! They absolutely did! And again if NE had been up to the job and been reviewing these general licences regularly as they were supposed to, then none of this would have happened.
“The whole issue of wild fowilng—the fact that Natural England withdrew the licences from people who had been operating the system perfectly legally for many years because a few people in the same catchment hadn’t done their paperwork is just unbelievable.
“Stop the people who haven’t done their paperwork but leave alone those who have done the proper paperwork. You can tell that I don’t think that Natural England are doing a particularly good job.”
Covid has been very difficult for many retailers, who have had to adapt quickly to survive. What does Sir Geoffrey think would be the biggest help the government could give them?
‘Well they’ve already given quite a lot of help. Certainly in my area the hospitality sector has had lots of grants. They’ve issued various loans free of interest, they’ve issued a general furlough scheme and a self-employed scheme—all of these things have helped the gun trade and the associated shooting industries.
“It’s been hard for everyone and I think the best thing one can say is that I hope the vaccine comes along soon and we can get back to normality as quickly as possible. What is interesting is that those who have a good online presence have certainly done better than those who haven’t.”
Will Sir Geoffrey be going to the Game Fair next year? Is he a regular?
“Absolutely! I was due to go this year. I love the Game Fair. I think it’s a fantastic opportunity to a) catch up with a lot of old friends and contacts, b) to be able to go round all the guns stands and the dog stands and have a little bit of a go at the clays.
“I just find it a wonderful day out and I hope we’re going to be able to get back to normal and operate it in a normal way which we couldn’t this year.”
Earlier you touched on Trophy hunting, what do you think the future looks like for that?
“Well we had very good representation—we had a whole meeting devoted to this subject and clearly nobody wants trophy hunting on red list or endangered species. I think there are two issues. One is bringing trophies into this country from abroad and the other issue is taking trophies out.
“On the import issue, there are a lot of poor communities in Africa that actually make quite a bit of money out of stalking, and the stalking of the species that are plentiful—deer and so on, which need culling anyway, I think it’s a shame to ban those trophies coming into this country.
“I also think there’s a bit of a worry that if we ban trophies being taken out of this country like deer heads and antlers—a lot of rich Americans and Germans and so on come and pay a great deal of money to come and shoot those animals which again need culling anyway—and some of them like to take a trophy back home. So I think that would probably not do that industry any good either.
“I fear that the political argument is probably lost though. We’re going to lose the argument full stop which I think is a great shame but there we are. I think we have lost that one and I can fight so many issues but one can’t win all of them and I fear this issue we’re not going to win.
Will the export of deer trophies will be halted?
I think this is an argument where there’s still a little bit to go and we may still be able to run that argument and maybe we’ve got a chance of winning it, I don’t know.
You’re not entirely optimistic though?
No, I’m not, whilst it would be sad and do some economic damage stalking can still take place in this country and I think we’ve got to be grateful for that really.
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