In July, Natural Resources Wales received a letter from environment minister Hannah Blythyn AM stating that Welsh Government does not support pheasant shooting, the breeding of gamebirds, or the birds being kept in holding pens, on the Welsh Government Estate. The letter referred to “ethical issues”.
As part of BASC’s campaign to challenge the subsequent decision to ban pheasant shooting on public land, council member Ian Coghill has written to the minister to challenge the “ethical” basis of her intervention.
You may not be entirely surprised that your view, that pheasant shooting, something which is widely accepted as a normal part of rural life over much of Wales, is unethical and immoral, is not universally popular with a large section of the Welsh electorate, especially but not entirely in rural constituencies.
A problem encountered by people who attack shooting is that there is a wealth of evidence that properly conducted game shooting and wildfowling have a significant positive impact on both conservation and the rural economy.
It has been repeatedly demonstrated, not only that land managed for shooting has greater biodiversity and higher conservation value, but perhaps even more striking, that without the techniques pioneered and used in shoot management, biodiversity in the wider landscape can be compromised and the survival of some important species may even be in doubt.
Numerous surveys have demonstrated the importance of properly conducted shooting within the rural economy with an inflow of funds in the region of £2 billion per annum, much of it into rural communities surviving in extremely challenging circumstances. To this must be added the unquantified positive cultural and community impacts resulting from what, in many rural areas, is a key focus of local social activity.
Faced with these inconvenient facts, those who attack shooting increasingly seek to simply ignore them and instead claim that stopping shooting is a moral and ethical necessity. They claim that enjoying an activity which involves killing of any sort is ethically repugnant and immoral. This clearly condemnatory position is extended to include those who allow such activities to take place. These are arguments which are intended to have the maximum political impact, an impact so great that those with power will use it to infringe the long-standing rights of a socially responsible minority. As they have apparently influenced your decision to implicitly criticise the chosen way of life of thousands of Welsh citizens, they are worth considering in detail.
To have any validity, morals must be universal and absolute. The moral precept, ‘thou shall not steal’, applies to everyone and all things. Thus, a moral code which proscribes my freedom on the basis that I should not enjoy an activity which involves killing animals, should, to be valid, apply to all activities which involve killing and which give people pleasure. It should also apply equally to all people.
The list of enjoyable activities which involve the death of animals is a long one, eating meat and keeping carnivorous pets being two of the most obvious.
People who want to criticise my chosen way of life, from what they see as their position on high moral ground, understandably object when their own morality is called into question on the same basis that they wish to apply to others. They claim that eating parts of the body of a month-old chicken is not the same. That there is a moral distinction between getting pleasure from eating a chicken killed by someone else and that derived from shooting and eating a pheasant oneself.
Morally, this is obviously nonsense. You can’t outsource moral responsibility. Try telling the judge that you didn’t murder someone, you only paid a person to do the murder and see how you get on.
That said, whilst there is no moral distinction, there are indeed practical ones. When we kill our own food, we can make sure that it is done as humanely as possible; and when it is taken from the wild we can make certain that its harvest is sustainable and that it has lived a natural life. Obviously, when you employ others to do the killing on your behalf, whilst you are still entirely morally responsible for the deaths involved, you can do nothing but hope that the process is sustainable and humane and, in many cases, would have to be an incurable optimist to believe that the life experience of your enjoyable dinner even vaguely approximated to nature.
Interestingly, many, probably most, of the abolitionists who pester politicians will in private agree entirely with the argument I have just briefly set out. They, and the organisations they represent, will have accepted the ‘Declaration of Animal Rights’, which states that ‘All sentient creatures have the right to life, liberty and natural enjoyment’. This obviously precludes not just eating animals, but most forms of livestock farming and pet keeping. They may agree with me in private, but they will be at pains not to do so in public. They have made an entirely rational strategic decision to pick off the outlying targets first, the minority, little-understood activities, that people will think can be sacrificed for a quiet life.
They are also adept at confusing practical issues of humanity with moral issues and rights. The moral question is clearly, ‘Is it acceptable for humans to enjoy activities which involve the killing of animals’? If the answer is ‘no’, then we should stop all those activities. It would hardly be a morally sustainable position to stop those I take part in whilst keeping those that suit you. If the answer is ‘yes’, then other questions arise about how we can ensure the highest practicable levels of humanity, sustainability and naturalness. But these are practical considerations which should be based on science and practicality.
Obviously, some vegans and fruitarians can argue from a position which is at least not obviously hypocritical but that does not necessarily make them right or give them the right to sit in judgement on those people who live differently. The mere fact that someone makes a personal decision to abstain from an activity, does not make those who do not do so, wrong. The existence of teetotallers with a profoundly held view that drinking alcohol is immoral, does not make those of us who choose to drink immoral. It merely shows that different people hold different views and choose to live different lives, which is the most important characteristic of a free, pluralist society.
What should matter to most people, who do get enjoyment, in whatever form, from activities which involve the killing of sentient creatures are the practical questions of whether the animal’s life was as natural as possible, whether its death was as humane as possible and whether the whole process is sustainable. When shooting and angling are tested in this way they are found to be superior to most systems which generate culinary pleasure for those who do not kill their own food.
You only need to compare the lives and deaths of farmed salmon with wild ones, or supermarket chicken with pheasants to see immediately that there is no contest.
The process of releasing pheasants into the wild begins when they are six weeks old and put into extensive open topped pens in woodland. When they are acclimatised sufficiently to function as a wild bred bird, which takes a week or two, they fly from the protection of the release pen and live what is, to all intents and purposes, a natural life. Only around 30% will ever be shot and they will die swiftly whilst taking natural avoidance behaviour. The ones that are not shot will either be subject to natural predation or live out their full lives in the wild, and may well breed, thus completing a life cycle which is entirely natural apart from the first few weeks when they were under the care of the game farmer and gamekeeper.
The supermarket chicken hatched on the same day as the pheasant will have been eaten by the time the young pheasant has been released. Its five-week life will have been as far removed from the virtually natural existence of the pheasant as it is possible to contrive. It will have been killed by putting it in a crate, driving a lorry full of crates to an abattoir, hanging the bird upside down, electrocuting it and then cutting its throat. If it is particularly unlucky the abattoir may, for religious or cultural reasons, skip the electrocution. As far as I have been able to ascertain you consider all of this entirely ethical and morally acceptable.
It is an understanding of these contrasts in life and death that lies at the root of one of the most problematic issues in the countryside. To a large part of the rural population, shooting game or catching trout or salmon for the pot is, like corn harvest or sending lambs to market, a normal, natural part of life. They are accustomed to people in towns and cities having no knowledge of their lives and problems. Why should they? But what is increasingly occurring is the attempted imposition of the views and opinions of people from outside their communities on their chosen way of life. This would be intolerable, possibly illegal, with any other minority. It is particularly galling when those who are attacking an activity are operating from a position which is manifestly hypocritical.
What often makes it worse is that when challenged the critics say that they are not attacking the individuals and communities involved but the activity itself. This can only imply that those involved are too stupid to see the error of their ways without the help of their critics, but it also relies on the nonsensical idea that committing immoral acts does not make you immoral.
If you claim that shooting game and wildfowl is immoral, you cannot escape the inference that you are also claiming that the thousands of people involved are themselves either immoral or at best too stupid to understand what they are doing. As the activity is far more humane, natural and sustainable than the process which enables more than 60 million British citizens to enjoy the tender meat of 700 million 34-day-old chickens every year, do not be surprised if those who are criticised take it badly.
Ian Coghill BASC council member