Tim Bonner: The guns that defend our countryside

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TODAY marks an important day in the calendar of the Yorkshire countryside – the start of the game shooting season proper. From first light this morning until February 1, groups of “guns” will be out at the thousands of shoots across the county, hoping to bag themselves pheasant, as well as other game that is already in season.

There are many reasons why people shoot, among them is the benefit of getting out into the countryside. And where better to do that than in Yorkshire. It is estimated that there are 4,000 providers of shooting in the region – from casual DIY shoots to bigger affairs – that attract big money to the county.

If you include all the people who shoot clay pigeons, live quarry and targets, around 87,000 shoot in the Yorkshire and Humber region alone, and their sport ploughs some £120m into the economy.

As well as the shoots themselves, there are the considerable benefits to hotels, pubs and restaurants where guns and their partners stay and eat, the specialist shops and outfitters, not to mention those employed by the industry as beaters, loaders, gamekeepers and other staff – in fact, whole communities.

And as some of the areas of Yorkshire where shooting takes place, particularly the grouse moors, are wilder landscapes where little farming, except sheep rearing, takes place, the shoots are often the major industryand economic driver.

Shoots are also of considerable importance to conservation. Across the UK, shoot providers are making improvements like sowing headlands and grass strips around fields, creating and maintaining hedgerows, planting cover crops, thinning and coppicing woodland, creating ponds, maintaining rivers and streams, controlling bracken – the activities go on and on. This work has shaped the countryside that we know and love today, and which draws hundreds of millions of visitors.

Many vulnerable species thrive on land maintained for shooting. Predators such as foxes, rats and crows prey on both songbirds and game birds, stealing their eggs and killing their young. But on land where wildlife management is undertaken, bird numbers increase. Research shows an average three-fold increase in the breeding success of lapwing, curlew, golden plover, red grouse and meadow pipit when predator control takes place.  And our smallest bird of prey, the merlin, also thrives on grouse moors.

In Britain, we are blessed with some of the greatest conservation organisations in the world, like the Wildlife Trusts, National Trust and RSPB. In addition, shooting is involved in the management of some 14 million hectares – which is about two-thirds of the rural land of the UK. Within that, nearly two million hectares are actively managed for conservation, such as heather moorland. That represents 12 per cent of the UK’s rural land, more than 10 times the area of all national and local nature reserves. Some £250m, and the equivalent of 16,000 full-time jobs, are spent by shoots on that conservation each year.

To quote RSPB conservation director Martin Harper, “the contribution progressive shoots can make to supporting threatened wildlife is significant”.

Another reason to be cheerful is that eating game makes you happy. Pheasant, partridge and venison all contain high levels of selenium, which has been proven to improve your mood. There are also other real health benefits. Pheasant and partridge contain a high level of iron, protein and vitamin B(6) and venison is high in protein, low in saturated fatty acids and contains higher levels of iron than any other red meat.

In the aftermath of the horsemeat scandal, people increasingly want to know where their meat comes from, and game is a perfect example. The fact it is also a wild, free-range alternative to farmed meat, just adds to its attraction.

Figures from last year showed that sales of rabbit were up 20 per cent in a year at Marks & Spencer, pheasant sales increased by 30 per cent, while partridge sales jumped by 234 per cent. Waitrose’s venison sales were up by 92 per cent year-on-year. You can buy grouse in Iceland and Lidl and Aldi both have extensive game ready-meals sections in their freezers.

So whether you enjoy crisp, winter days out in the field, with your dog and friends, young and old, or if you enjoy fresh free-range game at its best, be thankful that the shooting season is 
here again.

Tim Bonner is chief executive of the Countryside Alliance.