708 SHOOTING THE SPORT by Colonel David Hancock

by   David Hancock

 In his little known but admirable book, The Book of Good Hunting, Longmans, 1920, Henry Newbolt makes some still-valid points about field sports, shooting especially. He writes, on the nature of sport: “What is sport? One might almost imagine the hasty answer – nobody knows, nobody cares. Those who have not this instinct themselves cannot know, for the subject is beyond their experience. Those who love any kind of sport do not care: they would rather practise it than think about it. But sport is worth a little thought, even a little clear thinking, for though it is one of the most absorbing, exciting, and recreative occupations known to men, it is far from being merely an amusement or pastime.” For country squires in past centuries, it was more an obsession than an amusement or mere pastime. And this shaped not just our countryside but influenced our attitude to the quarry forever.

 Newbolt goes on to state: “Most sport is some kind of hunting, and the object of hunting is to kill, but the sport does not lie in the killing. There will always be gluttons who do not know where to stop. Some men have slaughtered eight hundred elephants in less than two years, others measure a day’s sport by the number of pheasants  laid out at the end of it…”, claiming that this led only to boredom with the sport in time. Sir Samuel Baker, the greatest of great big game hunters once wrote: “To a true sportsman the enjoyment of a sport increases with the wildness of the country”. Newbolt observed “But ask the stag-hunter or the fox-hunter about the nature of his enjoyment, and the first thing of which he will speak will either be his horse or his hounds.” For many shooting men, working their dogs is more important than the bag. The most contented sportsmen that I know love the countryside, respect their quarry and most of all are in it mainly for the thrill of watching hunting dogs at work.

 Writing on what Newbolt would term ‘gluttons’, Charles Chenevix Trench, in his The Poacher and the Squire, Longmans, 1967, tells us that “In the late eighteenth century a good shot with a muzzle-loading gun might kill forty or fifty brace in a day; but in the seventies famous shots like Lord Walsingham, Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey and Maharajah Duleep Singh expected on a good day to kill four or five times as much. Walsingham once shot 842 grouse in one day; the Maharajah 780 pheasants and partridges in day with a thousand cartridges. The famous sporting estate of Holkham used to produce, from 1790 to 1800, three or four thousand head of game in a year; eighty years later, that would be quite a good bag for a single four-day shoot.” Wasn’t Walsingham ever bored by such activity? Did he have time to absorb the countryside and watch the dogs at work? There should be a clear difference between a shoot and a shooting range.

 After a day in which 4,000 pheasants fell, George V was overheard saying to the Prince of Wales: “I think we overdid it a bit today.”  Perhaps sadness or regret overcame boredom! When I lived in the great sporting county of Shropshire, I was saddened to see a local shoot firing away at half-starved birds, after a prolonged spell of freezing weather, and then the local Beagles pursuing rather gaunt looking hares across long-frozen terrain. This is not sporting! Having been on two Arctic expeditions and served in an Arctic warfare battalion, I know the challenge to your energy and stamina which freezing weather can bring. All my regard went to the quarry! Excessive bags should not be a source of boasting but of a rethink. Hunting or shooting whatever the condition of the quarry is not sporting.  I hasten to add that I have no time at all for false sentiment; I once shot a crocodile that was posing a danger to the children of a kampong, and a large baboon that attacked a valuable war-dog. But if you want your sport to be respected, then earn that respect!

 There is a huge difference between a sportsman and a shot; the Marquess of Ripon (Earl de Grey) kept a record of the 500,256 birds and beasts shot by him between 1867 and 1913. This bag ranged from 222,000 pheasants and 30,000 hares to 11 tigers and 2 rhinos.  Sportsman or shot? He lived in different times and so must we. Every sport has to adjust to the times; top class rugby football could be needlessly violent half a century ago. When I played for Bath in the 1950s, the Bristol pack broke my finger, the Gloucester pack broke my leg and a doctor playing for St Mary’s broke my nose! Nowadays the injuries are usually strains and tears not fractures. Players are acutely aware of evidence from cameras and off-field officials. Country sports are now better regulated, with admirable backing from organisations such as BASC and the Countryside Alliance. But perceptions matter! The working class hunter has been penalised most by the hunting ban but do the general public know that? Real sportsmen expect there to be rules, whether established on paper or in the mind.

 There is truly a difference between a sportsman and a shot; there is a huge difference between the shooting field and a shooting range. Sportsmanship truly matters and it matters most in the public perception given out by a sport. Real sportsmen respect their quarry and their habitat. For country sports to survive we must persistently strive to appreciate the public perception of them.  Newbolt was right when he wrote: “But sport is worth a little thought, even a little clear thinking…” Excessive bags belong in the past and will not be mourned by me. Sporting practice must come from a lot of clear thinking – if it is to survive the pressures of modern living.