It is February and we look forward to spring although last year the Beast from the East swept in at this time to delay growth. We can also take stock of another successful shooting season.
The growth of game shooting over recent years has been phenomenal. Demand has increased every season and shoots have responded. This is excellent in many respects as it brings money into the rural economy, often in tourist areas such as Dartmoor and Exmoor that would otherwise have little economic activity at that time of the year. The sport brings people into the countryside to enjoy exercise, fresh air, wildlife and our stunning landscape. The camaraderie brings social benefits whilst money is ploughed back into habitat, food and vermin control that is beneficial to many species, not simply game birds.
The meat, too, has health benefits, free range with good dietary attributes. The problem here is that the consumption of game is relatively low, certainly compared to chicken or pigmeat. Sales are increasing, by 5% to £126 million last year according to a report published by BASC recently. That was the fifth successive rise but increased sales in this country are not sufficient to match the supply caused by the growth in shooting. The result is that a large proportion of shot game is exported to countries such as France, Belgium and Holland.
There have been initiatives to remedy the situation such as BASC’s Taste of Game or the Countryside Alliance’s Game to Eat. Celebrity chefs have been recruited to promote consumption with considerable success, notably in country pubs and restaurants. Last year saw the launch of the BGA (British Game Alliance), designed as a game marketing board and an assurance scheme.
There has been a lot of media attention on country sports, shooting in particular, with e-petitions to ban driven grouse shoot, for example. One of the main aims of the BGA is to ensure that the sport is conducted to the highest standards and members are required to abide by a strict code with regular audits to check compliance and advise on improvements. Shoots and other interested parties are invited to become members to benefit from the assurance scheme and to demonstrate that they can apply the standards.
One common complaint in the media is that pheasants and partridges are buried or burnt because a market cannot be found. One of the BGA standards insists that birds should not be released or shoot days sold unless there is a guaranteed market for the produce. Some West Country shoots had difficulty finding a local home in the food chain for birds during the season and the BGA arranged for them to be collected and taken further afield to a game dealer with spare capacity. The BGA sales team is working hard to expand the market for game both here and abroad using the fact that the meat is assured to help promotion.
There was a recent story in the press of two sisters in Dorset. The elder sister runs the shoot on their estate whilst the younger is an animal rights activist. The latter complained that dead pheasants were burnt on a bonfire and police were called. As a member of the BGA, the incident was investigated immediately and no breaches of the code of standards were found. It appears to be just a long-running family feud.
Rather more serious was the release of a video showing pheasant carcasses being dumped by a JCB in a pit in Leicestershire. That shoot as also a member of the BGA but the owner has refused to allow any investigation so is likely to forfeit his membership. It appears that the breasts had been removed from the pheasants and sold into the food chain. This raises two important points.
All meat from the game should enter the human food chain but there will always be waste, the head, feet and feathers for example. There will also be birds that, for one reason or another, are not in a fit state to enter the food chain. This applies to all food, even fruit and vegetables. That waste has to be disposed of in an approved manner, usually in an incinerator or anaerobic digestion plant.
What is totally unacceptable is for any waste to be disposed of in an unsafe or illegal way. Whoever was dumping the pheasants on the shoot in question was breaking the law and is being investigated by the local authority and the Environment Agency.
As mentioned earlier, it is encouraging that an increasing number of people wish to come into the countryside and participate in sport. But standards must be upheld and the shooting community must demonstrate that this is the case. We must work to ensure that the initial success of the BGA is maintained, that it shows that self-regulation is effective and that the market for game meat continues to expand.