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How a townie took to the moors and vowed never to grouse about shooting again

Posted on 12:39 AM by Sameer Shah

Like many townies, my prejudices about the Glorious Twelfth were well and truly fully formed. The official start of the shooting season was nothing more than an ancient ritual to massacre thousands of defenceless birds.

The killers were a bunch of men with Prince Charles cut-crystal accents looking down their long aristocratic noses at ordinary folk like me, city folk, you know, the kind who have to buy their own furniture. Their dogs would have better pedigrees than me.

So it was with some cynicism and not a little trepidation that I agreed to take part in the Glorious Twelfth last Tuesday, the traditional start of the shooting season, on a moor on the Durham/ Northumberland border.

Wild in the country: Amanda Platell sets off in search of her first grouse

Timberland boots, Armani jeans and Tom Ford sunglasses were my way of letting them know I was no collaborator. I wasn't doing this because I wanted to see birds shot. I'm a soppy animal lover and can't bear the thought of creatures being hurt or killed. I even pick up slugs on paths and place them in bushes to stop them getting squashed.

Like most metropolitan carnivores, I'm a complete hypocrite, preferring to find my animals dispatched, cleaned and wrapped in Clingfilm in the supermarket chill cabinet, not hunted in the wild as nature intended. No blood, no pain, no cruelty, no death. I'm a townie.

Odd, isn't it, that we city dwellers feel squeamish at the thought of an animal being bred and ultimately shot in the wild, yet feel no pangs over the battery chickens or pigs raised in appalling conditions for our table.

But I wanted to put my prejudices to the test and, more importantly, to try better to understand the problems facing our beleaguered countryside, bled dry by a government that neither knows nor cares about voters outside of their urban heartlands.

I anticipated snobbery and a healthy dash of misogyny. What the hell was a woman doing there with a gun? Shouldn't she be carrying the guns, or the kids, or the whisky?

Moreover, I expected to be sickened by the sight of hundreds of slaughtered grouse falling from the sky like rain, no chance of survival, only sure and painful death. And for what? For rich men's fun. Less sport, more mass murder.

The argument from the pro-shooting lobby is that without field sports and the employment and income they generate, the countryside would begin to collapse.

I have great sympathy for the way country people have been treated under Labour. They have been silently under siege.

I understand why many people feel opposed to, or uncomfortable with, fox-hunting, but when one in five British children can't read or write at 11 years old, when by the age of 15 they're carrying knives and stabbing each other to death, you'd have thought the Government would have had other priorities than banning a minority sport.

There aren't many votes for a predominantly urban-based political party outside of the big cities, so it is no surprise that first Tony Blair and now Gordon Brown have literally bled the countryside dry.

Billions of pounds of subsidies have been secretly switched from Tory to Labour areas; the funding gap between London and the shires increased by 21 per cent in a decade.

That means London boroughs get an average £2,743 per person from the Government, the other big cities get £1,969 and the shires £1,413.

So the countryside has been hit hard. And that's without even mentioning the threat to community hospitals, local police stations, rural post offices and village schools.

No wonder country folk cling on to their traditions, the things they still control, to keep communities alive. And whether you like it or not, field sports are vital to that survival.

Apart from the sheer commercial realities of field sports in sustaining the countryside economy, it has always struck me as curious that with the threat of global warming and impending world food shortages, the calls to save the planet come loudest from urban dwellers, the same people who attack field sports.

They wear their green credentials with pride, yet few ever beat the drum for saving our countryside, perhaps our most valuable green asset. Field sports - hunting, shooting and fishing - contribute £1.6 billion to the British economy. They provide the equivalent of 70,000 full-time jobs.

As I townie, I always imagined the moors were as nature intended. I'm one of the 'nature equals good, man-made equals bad' group. In my ignorance, I didn't realise the moors were created and managed by man.

Traditional image: The tweed and Tam O'Shanter brigade still shoot, but they are not the majority

Without grouse-shooting, they would revert to the wild, the heather would die back - the habitat for birds and beasts wiped out.

So I was aware of the commercial imperative to field sports, but I still couldn't accept the mass slaughter of birds for fun. And I wanted to test my preconceived notions about this bloody sport. Was the grouse's pain worth the gain for the countryside?

The first step was to teach me how to fire a gun. The dashing Nick Foster at the West London Shooting School in Northolt had the unlucky task. To everyone's surprise, not least my own, I was a crack shot and hit five of the first six clay pigeons, then most of the 20 or so after that.

At least I could hold my own on the moors. Or so I thought.

And I was assured it would not be a case of the killing skies, that the take would be modest and each bird would end up on a table, either being taken home by those on the shoot or sold to local butchers to help pay for the running of the event.

The weather forecast was dire - heavy winds and torrential downpours - and for once the Met Office got it right. We met at 9am and I was fitted with a shotgun, stripped of my townie clothes and given a pair of gaiters, (I stupidly declined the waterproof trousers), a thick angora jumper, scarf, jacket and warm hat.

The 'guns' assembled and were reminded of the etiquette of the shoot: two guns at a time walking beside the dog handler until the dog freezes, or 'points the grouse'.

I've never seen a gathering of such magnificent hounds. There were yellow and black labradors, spaniels and the magnificent English and red setters, trained to detect the scent of a covey (brood) of grouse.

It's an extraordinary sight, setters leaping over the heather, coming to an abrupt stop then freezing, head forward, one leg up, tail outright. What a world of difference between a town dog and a working one, in temperament and in condition.

We were a group of about 30 - dog trainers, beaters, farm workers, mums with babies, young people, old people, titled, working class, a barrister beside a former jockey, a motley crew. In fact, all they seemed to have in common was their friendship and the grouse.

As the convoy of four-wheel drives crawled up the mountainside, the sun broke out over the purple heather, some of it deep in colour, some pale mauve amid bright green growth, mixed with the black of recent fires. We walked for four hours across the moors.

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