Tuesday, 15 January 2008

The peculiar lure of game birds

I was born in Newcastle but always wanted to live in the Northumberland countryside, from the moment in childhood when I fell in love with my uncle’s remote holiday cottage. The yearning became particularly acute in the mid-1980s, after a period of working frenetically in London.

The clincher was attending a dinner party in Kensington, where a striking young lady from the Northumberland “county set” said “Oh yah, the Borders: that’s real 3D country.” I thought she was talking about the fabulous, Cinerama landscapes of the Cheviots, and proceeded to wax lyrical on the subject. She interrupted me to say, “No, I mean 3Ds as in Drunkenness, Debauchery and Divorce. It’s all they do up there.”

Two of those were then high on my list of interests, so I sold my London flat and made the move. While I have made my share of trips to the bottle bank over the succeeding 20 years, it’s only fair to say that my debauched experiences could be described on the back of a postage stamp. And I don’t mean one of those big, commemorative jobs they used to issue for Royal weddings and the like, and now churn out to promote James Bond or Harry Potter.

Even so, I have adored living here. But while I have occupied the same house for two decades, and am descended from generations of local agricultural labourers, I would never dream of describing myself as a countryman. Because I do virtually none of the things that countrymen are supposed to do.

In fact, I share many of the standard prejudices against the sort of people who hunt and shoot. The difference is that I’d defend to the uttermost their right to do so.

I have a particularly deep-rooted suspicion of riders, even though my heart melts whenever I see a woman wearing a stock and jodhpurs (and the rest of the kit, too). There seems to be something about mounting a horse that automatically endows people with an air of arrogance. Inevitably, they look down on you. Horsey friends tell me that what their expression usually conveys is not snobbery, but mild nervousness about the intentions of the bloke in the approaching car. Somehow that seems about as credible as the classic excuse for extreme rudeness: “He’s just very shy.”

Yet I stood on top of Cateran Hill in the glorious sunshine on Saturday, watching a hunt in full cry below me, and felt that there could be no more glorious sight or sound. They deserve an Arts Council grant.

Which brings me to shooting, and specifically to David Banks’s question of Friday: “Does the pheasant enjoy any better quality of life than the miserable battery hen?” Yes, of course it does. To my shame, I once handled PR for a company that ran battery and broiler farms, and I’ve been inside those sheds. They tried to kid me that the hens loved it in there, all warm and cosy, and wouldn’t go outside even if they could. Despite my staunch opposition to equating animals with humans, I couldn’t help thinking that the guards at Auschwitz probably span a similar line.

However short and unnatural the life of a pheasant reared for the shoot may be, it’s infinitely better than that. Where I live, it also keeps many people in work and provides even more people with pleasure. I may not understand the appeal of shooting, and the noise of distant gunfire certainly doesn’t give me the same atavistic thrill as the sound of a hunting horn. Nevertheless, it seems to me one of the less disturbing aspects of country life and of the way we treat animals.

If it is true that those tweed-clad Hooray Henries are blasting more birds out of the air than they can cope with, there can only be one solution: we must all eat fewer, bland, miserable battery chickens and more delicious, healthy, free-range game.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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