A dead hare left on my doorstep

The idea that rural habits endure unchanged is a comfortable myth believed only by city folk
Click to follow

Those who live the relatively sheltered lives of town dwellers and suburbanites often fail to appreciate the sheer speed of change in the British countryside. The idea that rural habits endure, uninfluenced by what's hot and what's not in modern life, is a comfortable myth believed only by city folk whose synapses have become dulled by traffic fumes and mobile phone addiction.

Those who live the relatively sheltered lives of town dwellers and suburbanites often fail to appreciate the sheer speed of change in the British countryside. The idea that rural habits endure, uninfluenced by what's hot and what's not in modern life, is a comfortable myth believed only by city folk whose synapses have become dulled by traffic fumes and mobile phone addiction.

Nothing remains the same in the country. When, a couple of weeks ago, someone left a dead hare on my back doorstep, a traditionalist would have assumed that it was a present. Until recently, dropping off a brace of pheasants or partridges, or the odd hare, was a normal, friendly gesture by local sportsmen during the shooting season.

In fact, I quickly realised that the corpse was the result of an Independent article I had just written in which I had remonstrated, in a gentle, liberal way against the hunting of hares with hounds at a time when the species was in decline. The leveret at my door was not a present but a statement - either a warning, worthy of Straw Dogs, from a hunting enthusiast or, just possibly, the work of an agent provocateur from the PR wing of the hunt saboteur movement.

The news that country life is changing appears not to have percolated through to the land agent running the Queen's Sandringham estate. From the events of this week, one can only assume that he was under the impression that ordinary people, particularly children, rather like to gawp at the Royal Family and feel that a touch of glitter and enchantment has been added to their lives when a royal highness or a majesty passes by. Under those circumstances, it would surely be a moment of excitement and privilege when the Duke of Edinburgh and his shooting pals enjoyed their sport in the field adjoining the local school during break-time.

What a terrible miscalculation. As dead pheasants rained down from the sky, there was a major freak-out among the pupils of St George's Middle School, Sandringham. The teacher supervising the playground - who, poignantly, also ran the school's bird-watching club - later described how at least one corpse landed in the school hedge. A 10-year old girl wrote to the Duke of Edinburgh, asking the unanswerable question, "What have pheasants ever done to you?"

Even as trauma-counsellors descend upon the school to start the healing process, this latest royal controversy has divided moral opinion across the country. Hardliners have argued that, living in the country, the children of St George's should be used to the sight of birds being blown away by men with 12-bores.

Others have pointed out that the confusion of pheasants with pets is hardly surprising - until a few weeks ago, they were wandering about the fields and gardens as plump and domesticated as free-range hens. The day when these waddling birds were suddenly shouted at by men with flags and then shot at must have been as upsetting to the more sensitive children as it was to the pheasants themselves.

Personally, I hope that the teachers at St George's explained that shooting does have the benefit of preserving the landscape, and that sometimes the behaviour of tidy-minded former town-dwellers - putting up chicken-wire to protect their houses from the nests of swallows and house-martins, for example - is rather worse.

But beyond the shooting issue, the great pheasant massacre of St George's has prompted a wider debate about how cosseted our children should be. The new curriculum may have seen literacy and numeracy hours being made compulsory, while classes in citizenship are also in vogue, but there is precious little to teach children valuable lessons in real life.

The classrooms and the playground of St George's will this week be full of discussions about the morality or otherwise of shooting, and about how a man, who was for many years president of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, can also be one of the country's most enthusiastic shots.

Paradoxically, it is that small group of people which has the least possible contact with the everyday world who can provide the best lessons in real life. Because the Royal Family live in their own strange little bubble, the moments when they encounter normal pressures and crises stand out like a naked man at a cocktail party.

At last, the Windsors and their extended family may have found a role. Prince Edward has revealed that it never occurred to him to give blood. Princess Anne, with the help of her killer bull terriers, might reveal how pet owners can unwittingly communicate feelings of rage to their animals. The Duchess of York might be on hand to exemplify the emotional and practical problems of being a minor celebrity.

With lessons in real life provided by royal role models, British children will gain a grounding in the contradictions and confusions of adult life that will serve them well as they grow up.

terblacker@aol.com

Comments