Walling in the wildlife killers;Last Word;Opinion

16th July 1999 at 01:00
IT'S NOT that I am prejudiced. The braying county set, the Range Rover brigades with their personal number plates, are more often native species than we like to admit. They have as much right to live and breed in their habitats as the rest of us.

Besides, plenty of plebs and punters swelled the Scottish game fair's crowds (more than 25,000 over two days) at a sweltering Scone Palace two weeks ago - with decent hot dogs and chips on offer, as well as exotic seafood in the members' tent.

It's not that it wasn't a fine day oot. My 10-year-old heaved rough flat slabs on to a drystane dyke, tried her hand at archery, trampolined crazily, queued for hours to fling herself at the Marines' assault course, gazed open-mouthed as parachute teams tumbled unnervingly from the sky, gasped at the magnificent tethered hawks and golden eagle which seemed so oddly still, admired the immaculately groomed, perfectly behaved gun dogs and those trays of endless, dazzlingly coloured fishing flies.

It's not that I'm wimpish, sentimental or fanatically pacifist. I know deer in the Highlands have to be culled and that stag stalking will remain a Highland money-spinner. I eat meat sometimes. I'd shed no tears over extermination of creatures like vicious mink, and I reckon clay pigeon shooting an absorbing sport.

Whatever happens in the brave new world of land reform, many gamekeepers' skills will still be needed, and it was interesting to discover that in colleges from Thurso to the Borders (not to mention West Lothian) you can take National Certificates and HNCs in gamekeeping - with even a special course for Skillseekers.

It's just that the propaganda is so dishonest, so unreal, you have to blink and kick your shin. Everything is about "conservation", "biodiversity", "research and education", "understanding the countryside as living environment", "viable and sustainable management plans for Britain's wildlife". Preserving game and their habitats will, they say, do wonders for songbirds, flowers and insects.

Never in a millennium, from the literature and press releases at this major fund-raising event (the Game Conservancy Trust and countryside interests have grown very persuasive and publicity conscious), would you guess anything nasty like hunting and guns motivated anyone at the fair.

Never would you dream that the folks poring over rows of magnificent handcrafted rifles with price tags from pound;600 to pound;60,000 actually like shooting and killing things, or that the surge of enthusiasm to revive the grey partridge is remotely connected with the urge to blast it. For the nitty-gritty, the honest bit, you have to find your way to in-house magazines like Shooting and Conservation, where you can almost taste the bloodlust and excitement.

When charities such as the Countryside Foundation for Education offer resource packs to primary and secondary schools, I want them to include straight answers from the field sports lobby to these questions:

Why do you enjoy hunting and killing animals and birds, not for necessity, but for fun and sport?

How can you rear game birds, then get satisfaction from blasting these almost tame creatures who flutter a few feet from the ground? That is weird: to devise a whole annual economic cycle around rearing birds and animals to kill.

Let's have an honest, open debate in the media and the schools - on this one core question of killing for fun. Let's invite the "young shots" who crowded last year's "Fun, feather and fin" course at Strathallan to say what they got out of it, what they learnt and what they enjoyed.

Meanwhile, back amid the skydiving military, my daughter is in her element. "Can we come back next year?" she pleads. "Can I shoot more arrows? Can I do the Commando course?"

She was always ideologically unsound. I feel wimpishly inspired, though, by reading a pamphlet, Dry stone walls and wildlife. Stoats, wagtails, fairy foxgloves - "these and countless other creatures and plants rely upon walls for their survival".

"In effect," it adds, "dry stonewalls are one huge linear nature reserve." Who would have thought it? And exactly the sort of claims the shooting lobby makes for the vital importance of game habitats to our precious ecosystems.

Clearly, the real secret of maintaining all our precious plants, birds and animals is simply to build thousands of drystane dykes around the schools, the cities and the grouse-moors of our land.

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