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Hunting with guns makes a comeback

ONLY two years after the Government's clampdown on firearms, Home Office figures show that hunting with guns is enjoying a revival.

For the first time in 10 years, the number of shotgun licences issued by the police has risen.

Hunters are once again turning out to shoot pheasants, partridges and even rabbits, despite the anti-gun mood generated by the Dunblane massacre when 16 children and their teacher were shot dead three years ago.

The main group representing country gun owners claims its numbers are at record levels. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation now boasts its highest-ever membership at 130,000 - a 10,000 increase in only two years.

"Shooting is becoming a lot more popular because it's more accessible and affordable than in the past," said the BASC's Stephen Lea. "Wages have gone up, but the price of shooting hasn't risen so dramatically."

The number of licences issued in England and Wales in 1988 was 627,600, a one per cent increase on the year before, covering 1.35 million guns. After the Dunblane massacre, the Government tightened the rules for all firearms, but only handguns were banned.

The Gun Control Network is unhappy with the trend, which comes as a Home Office select committee reviews the procedures for all firearms ownership. "Shotguns are certified in a lenient fashion and that needs to be tightened up," said Gill Marshall-Andrews, spokeswoman for the group, which includes members of families bereaved in the Hungerford massacre as well as at Dunblane.

She said: "The onus should be on shooters to prove they are fit persons to own the gun. At both Hungerford and Dunblane the killers had huge arsenals of weapons and we need to avoid people building up such arsenals. We need fewer and fewer guns in circulation, not more."

Graham Downing, a consultant for the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance, confirmed that shooting was back in favour. "Game shooting and deerstalking are on the up,' he said. "The number of deerstalkers in particular is increasing rapidly. The sport reflects the economic cycle: when the economy does well, people spend more money on shooting."

"The big trend is that more and more people are forming shooting syndicates," said Stephen Lea of the BASC. "Groups of friends buy the rights from a farmer and effectively run their own shoots." Even cheaper, people can go "rough shooting" over certain fields, as long as they get the permission of the landowner.

The British gun industry was hit hard by the 1997 Firearms Amendment Act, but now it has received further good news - a pounds 1m attempt to revive the ancient art of Scottish shotgun making.

A group of shooting enthusiasts including a Texan millionaire with a penchant for quail shooting has begun the manufacture of high-quality shotguns - a craft dating back to the mid-18th century. Their clients will, for the most part, be foreign and wealthy but the hunting grounds will be Scottish.

Dickson and MacNaughton, the company involved, will make guns which are still favoured by the Royal family and were once the choice of Lord Nelson and the great game hunters of the early 20th century.

The company was recently formed by a merger between John Dickson & Sons Ltd, the Edinburgh gunmaker established in 1820, and its rival James MacNaughton. The firm is now intent on reviving the names of some of Scotland's finest gunmakers, including Dan'l Fraser, Alex Martin and Thomas Mortimer.

Prices for the guns are high. A Dan'l Fraser hill rifle starts at pounds 4,000, an African Magnum at pounds 6,000, and a bar-in-wood trigger plate MacNaughton shotgun starts at pounds 25,000. Sidelocks come in at pounds 30,000. The company will also offer weekend shooting packages to visitors, a lucrative business with trips starting at pounds 1,000 per person. Most clients are expected to come from the US and the Middle East.

"Without shooting, Scottish wildlife would be in a sorry state," said Jim Newbigging, Dickson and MacNaughton's retail manager. "The shooting season only lasts four months. We spend the rest of the year raising birds and creating an environment for them to flourish. All those opposed to shooting wildlife do is create a lot of noise. They do nothing for wildlife. There will still be shooters after the last anti has gone."