Might I indulge in a short trip down Memory Lane? I suppose my first successful shoot was when I was eight or nine years of age. My father placed a shotgun in my arms and told me to have a pot at whatever took my fancy. Three-quarters of an hour later, I had shot a wolf, a lion, two zebras, a couple of snakes and a chimpanzee. Needless to say, the Keeper of London Zoo went hopping mad - proving, as my father was later to attest to the magistrate, that the poor man knew not the first thing about the delicate balance of nature.
Before the year was out, I had clocked up quite a few more trophies. Soon the walls of my bedroom were chock-a-block with every manner of stuffed head, never prouder than in death: here a wildebeest, there a penguin, here a partridge, there a tortoise (always so slow on the uptake!). Above my bedhead, I even exhibited the left shin of our elderly cook. The clumsy lady had failed to heed my silent warning, getting caught in the crossfire between myself and an errant hedgehog, simultaneously losing her leg, a 24-piece tea-service she had been carrying and her job, all at the same time!
Once one has caught the blood sports bug, it never goes. If ever there were no new birds around, I would cut corners by nipping to the village store, buying carton upon carton of eggs, tossing them high in the air and bagging them, one by one, until the earth for miles around was splattered bright yellow. But what those who do not live in the country fail to understand is that the shooting of bird and beast is not just a sport but a way of life. On idle nights, I leaf through the gamebooks of my youth, and, time and time again, I am transported back to an infinitely more joyous era.
"December 2nd, 1951: 3 brace of snipe, 7 hare, 9 stag, 1 whippet, 53 woodlice, 4 brace of worms, 1 ret'd station-master, 5 rabbit, 19 goldfish (v poor flyers)."
How vividly such entries evoke golden days of innocence and passion, before the forces of "political correctness" (dread phrase!) rushed to hold the hand of the cunning Monsieur Reynard!
Critics of field sports never appreciate the social side of things - so much more important than any blood-letting. Some of the most lively and stimulating conversations I have ever enjoyed have been while polishing off a picnic on the grouse-moor. Only last Saturday, our conversation zipped along like this:
W Arnold: Brrr! Anyone for another ham sandwich?
W F Deedes: I could manage one, if there's one going begging! Thanks awfully, old man!
W Arnold: Brrrrr! Chilly breeze from the west!
Peter Lilley: Did you say vest? I always wear a vest. A white vest, though - never pink. Never ever pink. I really hate pink - my wife will confirm that, if you ask her.
W F Deedes: I think you'll find he said WEST, not VEST!
W Arnold: Brrrrrr! Anyone for another ham sandwich?
Marvellous, no? And in my experience our own Royal Family has always been at the very forefront of the social side of field sports, never happier than when outflanking a pheasant before flinging it on the barbecue, for all to savour. And who could seriously argue that the Duke of Edinburgh's great love of shooting could be said to compromise his enthusiasm for endangered species? It does not take a fool to realise that without shooting, there would be no endangered species to love!
As the head of the family, HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother is never happier than when flopping around in a pair of old waders. It is a little known fact that she regularly wears waders beneath her voluminous ballgowns, often storing old copies of Horse and Hound in them for when the conversation starts to flag. And even at her grand old age, she retains a terrific love of the chase: only last week, I spotted her spearing a couple of goldfish in the fountains of Clarence House employing only a table-fork, a Swiss Army knife and an electronic cattle-prod.
As godfather to the young Prince William, I have long made it my business to interest him in the pleasures of the gun. If only the "urban underclass" (dread section of the population!) could be encouraged to follow suit, methinks there would be a marked decline in offensive weapons, abusive language and wanton violence. Tally-ho!