Children should put down their computer games, abandon virtual shooting and take up the real thing, the new head of the Countryside Alliance has declared. Sir Barney White-Spunner is urging a new generation to take up arms and embrace country sports.
In a provocative hunting and shooting message, Sir Barney said fishing, farming and clay-pigeon shooting trips have a vital part to play in preventing an exodus of the young from the countryside.
"In an age when an awful lot of children spend their time in their bedroom on a laptop, I don't think that's necessarily very good for future generations," Sir Barney said.
"What I would love to see is more children and young people getting out, particularly fishing and shooting if they can, and that's one of the things we are trying to encourage."
However, previous attempts to introduce children to country sports have not been without controversy. In December, a Cambridgeshire primary school had to defend taking children on a duck shoot, which one parent said had left pupils "distraught".
For children growing up in rural areas, particularly on farms, country sports are an integral part of life. In 2010, 4,899 under 18s held a firearms licence, including 26 under-10s. Rural police forces, including Devon and Cornwall, Norfolk and Thames Valley, had higher numbers of children with gun licences. According to a report by consultants PACEC, shooting is worth £1.6bn to the economy.
"I think what we have to do is portray country sports as part of the whole of rural life," Sir Barney, a former Army officer who served in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, told the Western Morning News. "They are big employers. They are a big focus for social community activity. They are how a lot of people living in the countryside want to spend their recreation. I think they are indivisible from those wider issues of rural businesses and rural communities."
Sir Barney, who lives and farms near Bridport, Dorset, also renewed calls for the repeal of the 2004 Hunting Act. In January, David Cameron said the legislation was "bizarre" and "was just taking the criminal law into an area of activity where it didn't really belong". The coalition agreement commits to a free vote on the issue, but Whitehall sources admit it will not be in next month's Queen's Speech, delaying it until late 2013 at the earliest.
But Sir Barney, warned: "It's very unclear to people who run hunts what is legal and what is illegal. It's putting a lot of unfair pressure on hunts to operate within what is a shockingly badly worded, sloppy piece of legislation." And he hit out at urban critics of country sports who turned the issue into one of class war: "You have this urban, Labour Party myth that people who hunt are sort of red-coated, toffee-nosed snobs riding roughshod over the countryside. Well, it's just total rubbish."
He added: "If people object to hunting, fine. But no one's asking them to go hunting. They need to respect that if someone like me does think it's morally acceptable, and I can satisfy my own conscience, then it's up to me if I go hunting. It's not up to them to interfere with my moral decisions."