A ferret sprints across the lane with a pheasant's egg balanced on the end of its snout like a circus juggler. The 17 shelduck chicks that were swimming yesterday with their mother in a backwater of the river were only 15 in number this morning. Their parents will have succeeded hugely against the odds if five of the chicks survive into adulthood.
This is the season of the carnival of carnage, when tender new flesh, barely feathered or downed, gets ripped and torn by predatory enemies, whose own offspring are being stuka'd from the sky by hawks, owls and gulls. Every flesh-eating adult is loading up with protein and building muscle tissue for the winter ahead. The only animals not actively contributing to the carnage are the humans. They won't get out their guns and their hounds for another couple of months.
Bleeding agony and gory death are commonplace in the countryside. You must either dispatch the victims or abandon them to a natural death that shows no mercy in the midst of their torments. If you do not become expert at execution, you must become indifferent to pain. Or both: I was talking to a man last week who killed a myxomatosis rabbit in his hands without interrupting the sense or construction of his sentence. He flung the body in a high arc, like a wellington boot, far into a thicket of bramble and turned away without a look to see where it landed. The animal had been lucky to get into his hands.
With all this ripping and tearing of fur and flesh, guzzling of guts, bashing of brains and mutilation of scale and fin going on in every field, pond and eddy, it is a touch difficult understanding the sensitivities of those who want to keep human beings out of the slaughter. The predations of rods and guns in the hands of disorganised individuals seem negligible compared with the minute-by-minute massacre of defenceless fledglings and new-born which each natural species inflicts upon another or its own.
If a man or woman is fishing or shooting for food, killing their own catch; and if they pluck or clean, gut and dress the carcass for cooking; and if they cook the food themselves, then it does appear to me that theirs is a better entitlement to eat that meat than the individual who picks a lump of shrink- wrapped flesh out of the supermarket freezer and chalks it off on the credit card account. The shopper is, I reckon, supporting a process of greater moral dubiety than the hunter. The execution of half a billion terrified and screaming animals for human consumption every year in nightmarish charnel-houses strikes me as being a greater and more pressing moral issue than the deaths of some tens of thousands of wild animals killed for food, or even of a few thousand foxes killed at the hands or hooves of the hunt.
Although I love to ride horses, I never hunt. My chief objection to the hunt is not ethical; it is social. Given the choice, I would rather traverse the Gobi desert on a donkey than spend a morning in the company of most of the people I know who do hunt. Nothing personal: we just hate each other.
Even so, I do understand the attraction of the hunt. The chance to chase pell-mell across open country, jumping hedges and ditches, comes rarely, if ever, in the lives of horse-lovers who are not also landowners. You can get it, artificially, in a point-to-point. It is given naturally in the hunt, and I wouldn't deny it to anybody whose stomach is strong enough to stand the company.
Although I have loved to shoot, on my own or with one or two others - to walk a field, to steal into the reeds at dawn or into a wood at dusk when the pigeons come careening in to perch - I would never join a driven shoot. Of all the savageries that pass for sport, this is the one for which a moral defence is most elusive. In the driven shoot, the infliction of pain to no purpose amounts to a systematic effort, organised by experts and supported by paid hands. It is a cultivated brutality, the cruelty of a gang.
Most of the birds, bred for slow flight and driven into position to present a broad target, are as hard to hit with a shotgun as a balloon full of water swinging on a string. Crossing the line of guns, they are as likely not to be hit as a prisoner running the gauntlet.
If this can be called sport, I have been misunderstanding the nature of sport all my life: I always believed that an essential concomitant of the sporting ideal was that your opponent had a chance. Bull-fighting is a contest of equals compared with a driven shoot: the bull might kill the matador; the pheasant is not likely to harm the happy hunter sitting on his stick.
Of all the men I have known who liked to shoot, none has continued to take part in driven shoots into old age. Eyes fail, shoulders and hands give out, bones can't bear the cold; but those are not the reasons why my friends have packed it in. Every one of them, including a former editor of the Field and an old soldier who used to reckon to discharge 2,000 cartridges every season before the war, gave it up because they could not stand the pain they were inflicting.
'I simply couldn't justify the suffering any longer,' said one of my friends last year. Suffering, pain and violent death are ineradicable constituents of a country life. Where animals die for a purpose, especially if it is to feed other animals, particularly humans, the gore and blood-letting we inflict may pass with as little notice or lament as the snail getting hammered by the thrush or the eel decapitating the water-rat. It goes on all the time.
In our present high season of carnage, murder and mayhem are more common in these parts than in the south Bronx: there's just more sense to it, that's all.
Duff Hart-Davis will return next week.Reuse content