KEEN royal fans like me will have been upset by the fact that Prince William and Kate snubbed the Queen and Prince Philip’s invitation for Christmas lunch and the traditional Boxing Day bloodbath blasting elegant game birds out of the sky at Sandringham.
Instead, the Cambridges joined Kate’s parents Carole and Michael Middleton and her sister Pippa and fiancé James Matthews for the festivities. What do the Middletons do on Boxing Day? Surprise, surprise they too kill little birds on a shoot at the Yattendon Estate in nearby Thatcham.
It seems our aristocracy and their posh mates don’t have a great deal of imagination when it comes to Boxing Day. It’s either riding with the local hunt or a day’s pheasant shooting.
Prince William and his in-law’s party of nine guns could shoot as many as 500 pheasants on the day, which will cost between £9,000 to £10,000. That works out at £39 plus VAT per bird to shoot a minimum of 200 pheasant and a few partridge. Anything over 200 birds will add to the bill.
Meanwhile if you would like to know what all the fuss is about, supermarket Aldi will sell you a pheasant, plucked and oven ready for three and a half quid. Country butchers and game keepers usually sell them for a fiver a brace because, the truth is, they are bred not really for eating but for killing purely for fun.
Pheasant shooting is a big, bloody, unprincipled but profitable business. Today between 35 and 40 million pheasants are released each year on shooting estates around Britain. Compare that with a total population of Britain’s most popular bird the robin. There are about four million robins in Britain against 10 times that many pheasants.
Many years ago William Blake wrote: “A robin redbreast in a cage, puts all heaven in a rage.”
Just imagine how he would feel about the 40 million pheasants and 10 million partridges that are mass-produced every year in battery cages to be sold to shoots. From the cages they go into giant pens that hold thousands and thousands of birds, and because it’s factory farming, they get diseases, which they then carry into the wild when they are released.
Tom Quinn, campaigns director for the League Against Cruel Sports told us: “Birds on most shooting estates come from intensive breeding farms and spend their lives confined in small barren cages similar to battery hens. While on the shoot many birds are wounded and left to suffer a slow death,” Mr Quinn said.
Although the people who actually fire the guns call themselves sportsmen and women you may be surprised to hear the industry is busy breeding game birds that fly slower and straighter making them easier to shoot. Now that’s what I call sporting.
In order to protect profits for these shoots, a vast number of our native animals of all descriptions — foxes, stoats, weasels and rabbits — are killed because they might pose a threat to the pheasants. These animals are shot, poisoned and caught in cru
In Herefordshire, for instance, RSPB officers secretly watched Ben Walker baiting legally protected birds of prey with poison-laced pheasant carcasses at Sufton Estate in Mordiford. Our X-ray shows the white spots that mark lead shot in a shot Buzzard.
The 26-year-old, employed at a commercial shooting ground run by tenants there, killed five ravens and two buzzards and was fined £1,000 at Hereford Magistrates Court after pleading guilty to 17 charges under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
Just before this Christmas, the RSPB put up a £1,000 reward after 10 buzzards were deliberately killed across Herefordshire and Worcestershire over the last year. Head of investigations for the RSPB Bob Elliott says he believes gamekeepers are targeting the birds in the mistaken belief that they take baby pheasants being reared on farms.
In July last year, Natural England issued a licence for someone — it wouldn’t tell us who — to kill up to ten buzzards “to prevent serious damage to young pheasants.” This was the latest stage in a long process.
In 2012, Natural England and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) proposed a trial to control buzzards to protect pheasants but then Natural England and Defra did a U-turn after a huge public outcry.
Then in 2013, Natural England and Defra issued a licence to destroy buzzard eggs and nests to protect pheasants. Things looked better in 2014 when Natural England and Defra refused to issue a licence to kill buzzards to protect pheasants.
This time Natural England and Defra have decided to issue a licence to kill buzzards, presumably based on the findings of last year’s Judicial Review which ruled that Natural England’s and Defra’s decision to refuse a buzzard-killing licence the previous year was unlawful.
Although Natural England’s statement lacks transparency and detail, it seems likely that last July’s licence was issued to the same gamekeeper in Northumberland who has been applying for licences since 2012, with the support of the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation.
- You can raise your voice in defence of the buzzard by emailing Natural England and Defra at email@example.com or Andrea Leadsom, Secretary of State for Environment: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 30 January 2016.