Wednesday, 25 April 2012

You Might as Well Try to Plait Fog

It’s the weekend.  Sunday to be precise; and I in one of the few local pups that haven’t shut over the course of the last six months.  Moreover, I’m in auspicious company.  To my right is Tony; in hunt service since he was 16.  Kennel huntsman, Field master and recently MFH.  A hard-drinking, strong-minded Irishman, who covers his country with style and courage.  On my immediate left is Dave; one of the most respected long-dog men in the country.  Although he would never admit to that, he is far too unassuming; I hear it a lot on my travels. Rather, he lets his dogs abilities do most of the talking.  On his left is Dick, professional terrier man, breeder of some of the best terriers I have had the privilege of seeing.  It’s not that often that we get together, but it’s going to be a hell of an afternoon; it always is.......  Banter and opinion.  Beer and pig snacks.  Bugger! I’m a bit out of my depth.... I only breed a few cockers and shoot a bit!  Best behaviour it is then! Best intentions.......

As usual, we talk about what we have in common; a deep love of the countryside and of field sports.  We’ve all got a good deal in common, but we all have differences of opinion and priority which mirror our respective passions.  We all rub along rather well, but it’s clear that there are certain topics that are less harmonious.  Dave hates to see hares shot and I have to say I am in agreement with him.  I used to shoot hares and I still love to eat them, but these days I’d rather tip my hat to them than raise the gun.  Dave thinks that many shooters are less sporting than the old coursing men; blasting away at anything that moves.  Right or wrong, that’s his belief.  Tony is telling stories of farmers who shoot all the foxes on their land before the hunt comes through.  Obviously, this makes no difference to Tony as he is hunting a trail! Hmmmm....  Dick’s not very argumentative this afternoon; he’s getting stuck into the new Dark Mild that has just appeared on the bar and quite unreasonably, it has brought out his mellow side.  To say that Dick has a mellow side is a little like associating Attila the Hun with flower-arranging, still its nice whilst it lasts.  He hasn’t punched anyone in at least an hour, and I’m running out of pubs from which I am not barred; but if pushed, it is terriers and digging that really floats his boat.  For me, it’s my gundogs, pigeon shooting and running the beating line.  Each to their own.  We all appreciate each other’s interests (obsessions if truth be told), but when it comes to it we are all similar but different.   So whilst I care passionately about a potential lead ban in shooting, the others broadly agree with me, but it’s not a priority for them.  Similarly, Dave hates the association in the minds of the general public of the genuine coursing man with the “poacher with a lurcher” type; I agree, but that particular public perception doesn’t hinder getting permission for me as shooter in the same way as it does for Dave as a long-dog man. 

The one topic that galvanises our group is the Hunting Act.  Specious, stupid, unenforceable.  We are all immeasurably poorer for Blair’s legacy to the countryside.  We all want repeal.  It’s ironic that this asinine law has brought us all more into agreement than probably anything else in the last 20 years.  The countryside spoke with a strong united voice under the guidance of the CA, and whilst Blair didn’t exactly listen, the little shit was pissing down his leg into his Patrick Cox’s for quite a while.  The Hunting Act gave us all common territory and purpose, something that seems to have faded in the recent past.  The CA had their time in the spotlight, but now sadly struggles to balance the books and recruit new membership.  In many ways that is a shame, as they still hold the values of the British Field Sports Society, the organisation from whence they came in 1997.

You only have to look at the number of representative bodies that claim to stand up for field sports to realise how divided our common ground has become.  Where once we were all represented under the broad church of the BFSS, chances are if you like albino mole-racing, there is an organisation out there willing to take your subs and claim to represent your interests.

It seems to be all change for the senior personnel of our representative bodies at the moment.  The Countryside Alliance has a new Executive Chairman, Sir Barney White-Spunner and BASC is recruiting for a new Chief Executive, following John Swift’s announcement of his upcoming retirement.  Both of these positions are high profile posts and some would argue key in the fight to defend field sports.
The appointment of Sir Barney seemed a pretty curious move.  You can just see the perceptions of our opponents... here we go another honour-laden double-barrelled toff in a trophy job.  Not perhaps the PR image that we would want either.  I certainly had my doubts.   Interestingly, for the first week that Sir Barney was with the CA, he was Twittering.  And what a Twitter feed it was!  Not the run of the mill bland anodyne company-speak that we all expected.  There were real opinions, serious doubts about the organisations that he had just joined, jokes, swearing and some sensible observations.  My opinion of Sir Barney grew immeasurably!  Maybe this is the guy who can rejuvenate the spirit of the BFSS.  Sadly the feed lasted for 7 days before mysteriously disappearing.  Sir Barney’s PR department must have got wind of the fact that the old bugger was out there in the Twittersphere – EXPRESSING HIS OWN OPINIONS.  They must have had a blue shit fit!

Representative bodies and groups are strange beasts at the best of times.  They purport to exist to further “our” interests and our passions; to fight “our” corner when those who would see us relegated to the past come calling.  But mostly they seem to be interested in furthering the interests of those that work for them. 

Field sports, no matter how you look at it, are a minority interest.  In fact, it’s made up of lots of small minority interest groups, who all broadly enjoy the same objectives; getting out in the countryside to do our thing, whatever that may be.  We are certainly a diverse bunch that encompasses hunting, shooting, fishing, and coursing; to name but a few; but that diversity means that whilst each facet of our sport is represented by a body, no one really is looking after overall wellbeing of field sports in general.  Oh each of the bigger bodies such as BASC and the CA claim to speak for all, but in reality BASC is about shooting (well wildfowling really!) and the CA is about hunting; The NGO are great, but like Jethro Tull, they are living in the past and desperately need a technological kick up the arse... and despite all these organisations protestations to represent the broad church of field sports, each fight their own corner and in general attract a client base whose interests mirror those of the body.  Much like our earlier conversation in the pub.

Let’s face it, as a group we are not very well liked by the general public.  We kill stuff, mostly cuddly animals.  We seem to enjoy it!  We seem to have a lot of toffs amongst our ranks (I said seem to...!).  And, whilst our organisations seem to be more interested in what others think about us than in our well being, we aren’t generally very good at PR.  All of which makes us vulnerable.  By vulnerable, I mean we lack political clout.  Why does the US government pay so much attention to the NRA?  During the 2008 presidential campaign the NRA spent $10million on lobbying!  The NRA currently has 4.3 million members.  That is a hell of a lot of votes.  Politicians have to take notice of any group of that size, irrespective of whether they like them or not.  You just can’t afford not to!

I’m not saying that we need an NRA in the UK, but having so many small minority interest groups, instead of one over-arching representative body, dilutes our ability to hold the ear of politicians.  They don’t care what we want, they don’t care what our opponents want, what they care about is votes.  BASC has approx 130,000 members.  The CA has approximately 100,000 members.  The NGO has 16,000 members.  It is estimated that 480,000 people participate in shooting live quarry in the UK (PACEC Report).  I could go on.   We all like field sports, but far more importantly in the eye of the government, each and every one of us has a vote.  The only thing they care about.  If there are enough like-minded people of voting age in an organisation, the government will kiss it’s arse, even if it has to close it eyes in order to do so. 

Trying to find validated statistics referencing the numbers of people participating in field sports in the UK is giving me a headache!   Needless to say it is a lot, but not a majority.   Add fishing into that and now you are talking.  A group of minority interest individuals represented by a single organisation that is of sufficient magnitude that the government has to listen.

It is time for field sports to speak with a single, united voice.  It’s time to stop diluting our lobbying power with petty power struggles and increasing diversity. It’s time we had a single organisation who really looked after our wellbeing.   It is time for a new BFSS. 

But as they say around here........ you may as well try to plait fog.