315 Feeding the Antis

by   David Hancock

 The poet John Keats once described in a letter of 1817 the condition of "negative capability", that is when man is capable of bringing in uncertainties, mysteries and doubts, without, in his words "any irritable reaching after fact and reason." This condition is behind much of the wholly negative thinking towards country pursuits and the poor old domestic dog. Nowadays the outraged of urban Britain can more readily tell you of what they disapprove than of what they approve. And so often they disapprove of things they can't comprehend or simply don't understand. Sadly they don't have the humility to admit the latter.

 One tiny example came with my village newsletter of April 2000, which contained these words 'Did you know that sheep can become infected by dog faeces?' No authoritative reference was given for this statement, no quote from the infectious diseases department of MAFF or from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. For 14 years one of my responsibilities was the management of a sheep farm which was open to the public and was crossed by public access. I know of no case in which a sheep became infected by dog faeces. 'The irritable reaching after fact and reason', as Keats described it, didn't seem to afflict the schoolteacher who supplied the words in my village newsletter.

 We live in difficult times for country sports, country life and country pursuits. The creeping menace of Nanny State is trying hard to protect us from every conceivable risk: from a dog that growls defensively, the noise pollution of a crowing cockerel or church bells, rabies infection from dogs imported from countries where the disease doesn't actually feature, toxicarsis lurking in every public park when none of us has ever met a sufferer, a perceived threat from legally-held securely-contained shotguns, the plague likely to afflict us if we eat beef, unpasturised cheese or homemade pate and the hole being punched in the ozone layer by steaming manure, as a vicar warned me recently. We are becoming a frightened, anxious, knotted-up society, a nation once admired for its levelheadedness.

 We live too in a world of perplexing contradictions. You can poison ground vermin but get castigated for killing tree vermin. So many newcomers to country living have simply no idea of how the countryside they claim to love was shaped by country sports and survived only through the relentless and ruthless control of vermin. It is bad enough having ignorant people in the suburbs feeding grey squirrels on bird tables, now it's happening in villages too. Many of my farmer neighbours don't actively control vermin any more. Visitors to country estates which are open to the public will not tolerate Larsen traps, baited mink traps or 'coney-cages'. But they want to enjoy song birds, cygnets and flawless lawns!

 We live in an age of moral vanity, when vets won't dock a dog's tail but they'll castrate one on the flimsiest excuse and do little to prevent dogs being bred with inheritable diseases which disable the offspring. Pigeon vermin in Trafalgar Square are, if threatened, suddenly much loved, at a time when racing pigeons are being slaughtered by protected raptors. The rural poseur will tell you how much he values wildlife then crash round the fields in the breeding season in his four wheel drive battle wagon. Such a creature claims to be pro-countryside but is actually anti-countrymen, rarely sharing their interests. Prince Charles's guru, Laurens Van Der Post, once described 'townmindedness'  as the greatest single threat to civilised living. Alarmingly it is becoming consensus thinking, almost entirely through ignorance.

 Regrettably there is a new breed of young farmer who can't identify a bird, plant or tree and sees the latter mainly as a means of saving a fencing post. And worse, there is a new cult of shooting man who either blunders about with little regard for safety and the law or wants the whole activity to be without sweat or inconvenience. I used to live in Shropshire where the local shoot had  members who would cross obstacles with unbroken guns, have to lift their so-called gundogs over every fence (with a gun, not made safe, under their free arm), leave maimed birds unpicked-up, illegally shoot from the public footpath and blast away in the field next to my house without having the courtesy to warn me. Activities like these feed the antis and provide heaven-sent opportunities to those wishing to cite embarrassing examples of the countryman's undesirable ways.

 Just before leaving Shropshire I asked after the health of a keeper on an estate in an adjacent county, only to be told that he had been shot twice in a year by 'executives' out pretending to be sportsmen for a day. Now I'm all for introducing new people into countrysports but not when game shooting is treated as an indulgence out of context and confused with a shooting range or gallery. Casualties in the shooting field at their very least feed the statistics of the antis and antics in the name of shooting do nothing to promote the real thing. Company activity days, mixed with corporate hospitality, are a regular feature on many estates and bring in much needed revenue. But essentially they should have an element of explaining the fuller and richer experience of a day's shooting rather than just an hour's discharging of guns in an artificial setting.

 Information and education are vital ingredients in the effective promotion of country sports, as many worthy organisations demonstrate every week all over the country. But sadly there are now periodicals covering living in rural areas whose staff seem to know little of real country pursuits and even less about sporting dogs. Polo and croquet are much preferred to ferrets and Fell terriers. There are no 'kennel editors' nowadays on the staff to edit the blunders of the misinformed. Organisations too, like the Kennel Club, are no longer run by sportsmen; the townees are taking over all around us. But those merely posing as countrymen can actually do more harm. They send out all the wrong signals to those who can so easily misunderstand or get misled through being antagonised.

 Those wanting only to be associated with the uncontroversial aspects of country living, the comfortable sanitised forms of country pursuits and the 'Walt Disney' concept of living with nature are unreliable dishonest cowards. Many citizens confuse the 'environment' with the countryside and use the two words synonymously. The environment is anything we want it to be; the countryside has been shaped by countrymen for several millennia and is dependant on them for its survival. Bad countrymen and bad country sportsmen feed the antis more than other group.

 Contemporary law-making is being conducted on the basis of mainly emotive, usually misguided or unbalanced and often malicious, but still highly effective, single-issue lobbying. Every sportsman must now look at his own performance and personal contribution to the debate, if age-old country  sports, with great benefit to the countryside, are to survive. The Daily Telegraph of 25 April reported: "French MP trapped by hunters; A French Socialist MP had to be flown to safety over the weekend after being mobbed during a protest over a hunting bill." Five gendarmes were injured in this incident. Here we all condemn incidents where policemen are injured but I suspect public confidence in our once-revered police service is being eroded, not by the public but througth the actions and attitudes of the police themselves.

 On the same day as this report was in The Daily Telegraph, The Times carried a report where a dog took a stick home from a local park and after its owner was traced on the police computer, she was informed she had committed a criminal offence. Earlier this year a man in London bought an American Bulldog and, wishing to be a responsible owner, contacted the Met's dog-handlers to obtain advice on training such a powerful dog. A policeman came to his house, discussed the dog over a cup of tea -- and then seized the dog, which had broken no law, under the disgraceful Dangerous Dogs Act! What kind of policemen are we paying for these days? We talk about the lack of quality in our politicians exhaustively but the lack of quality in our police service is much more worrying.

 If you combine poor quality policing, ignorance of country ways, anti-dog attitudes, townmindedness, and a Walt Disney approach to wildlife with bad practice in country sports, in a Nanny State setting, then you have all the essential elements to contribute to bad law making. Country sports supporters can do something to get some of these elements corrected. But bad practice in country sports must be given all the attention it warrants.

 Poor weapon safety, discourtesy to neighbours and other countryside users and a flaunting of the law over where you can legally shoot contribute nothing to the promotion of country pursuits. The negative capability referred to by Keats will only be countered by a positive capability being displayed by country sportsmen and the sooner the better. Society and its attitudes change with each generation. Heraclitus once said that you cannot step into the same river twice. But if the river dries up then no-one can do it even once. If country pursuits are not to 'dry up' we have to do more than go with the flow!