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Promises, promises: the Government and country sports
Friday, 02 August, 2002

Our country columnist John Sheard ponders on a Labour minister's promise not to ban shooting - and thinks it might even be true.

IN A week when the spin stopped and Government plans for organic food farming went down like a lead balloon, I thought I might turn my attention instead to a statement by a Labour minister which has been given as much publicity as a chip-pan fire in Chorley.

Namely, a public guarantee, made before a highly sceptical rural audience, that this Government has absolutely no plans to ban shooting sports if - and when - it ever gets its hunting ban through Parliament.

This pledge was made by the Minister of Rural Affairs, Alun Michael, at the CLA Gamefair Show - said to be the world's biggest country sports event - which was a bit like Daniel telling the lions in their den that they could go on eating meat.

 Shooting - not to be banned
He even acknowledged that, as well as creating a great deal of rural employment, shooting estates were often the best-managed and conserved areas of land in the country.

Now I've known that for years. So have many countryfolk and particularly Yorkshire Dales locals, for this is the prime shooting country in England for grouse.

Even the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds approves, if somewhat reluctantly, of grouse shooting because it has saved vast areas of heather moorland from destruction, a habitat vital to many other species of ground-nesting birds other than grouse.

However, it interesting that a Labour minister should choose to give the sport an official seal of approval at such a prominent venue when the vast majority of his party in Westminster is baying for country sportsmen's blood - and is getting very twitchy indeed about delays in actually banning foxhunting.

Being the sceptic I am, could I be wrong in wondering if the Government is beginning to get cold feet in submitting to the demands of these mainly town-based MPs? For the countryside is fighting back.

There is another huge countryside march on London next month and some foxhunters are planning a rather novel scheme: they want to become martyrs. If and when the sport is banned, they plan to continue as normal, illegally, forcing the police to arrest them. By refusing to pay fines, they will then force the courts to send them to jail.

Can you imagine the public reaction at the spectacle of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of hitherto highly respectable people being thrown into jail alongside muggers, murderers and rapists?

There is another major political force as work here too: the three million British men and women who actually belong to angling clubs, plus the millions more who fish independently, by far the largest single-interest leisure group in the country.

And here's my theory on the Minister's pro-shooting pledge: if the Government were bounced into banning shooting, it would then be forced by their politically-correct extremists to have a go at angling too.

And three millions votes could lose them the next election assuming - as I do - that they have already lost the 60 rural or semi-rural seats they picked up, much to their amazement, five years ago.

So shooting and fishing are safe for now - for totally cynical political reasons. But whatever the reason, we out-numbered country folk should be thankful for small mercies.

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