I sit at my desk this morning having been tasked by my masters from the editorial hierarchy at Sporting Rifle with penning an extra article for the magazine. Now I would normally write about a particularly memorable stalk, or where something of relevance has occurred during an outing, or it might be about the dog with a notable event in her CPD, or in old money her ‘Continued Professional Development’ – she might have had a difficult track for example.
This follows hot on the heels of my attendance at the Northern Shooting Show, which is an event I had not been to before; usually work commitments get in the way of me attending the shows, and I generally restrict my presence to events where I may be providing trophy measuring services as part of the BASC/BDS/SR trophy measuring team. However, this year I had been invited down to the inaugural DNA Film Festival, which took place on the Friday evening before the show started. This is the brainchild of the Pace brothers, with Darryl and Byron putting together an event to recognise the work of filmmakers in promoting all the good things we do as part of the sport that we love. They had managed to get some sponsorship from the sporting community including Blaser Sporting and MOTV, and I was there as a film we made with Eagle Review, Chasing Roebucks, had been shortlisted in the Professional category.
Back to now. I am at my desk after an early morning stalk with rifle and dog looking out across a fantastic sunrise; my office at Garryloop looks out over the farmland and woods and I can see Arran catching the early morning sun. It will still be some hours before anyone else in the house rises – there is a B&B guest upstairs above the office oblivious to me on the laptop below, being mindful not to bash the keys too hard. My morning outing was memorable; during my meanderings along the hedgerows I was contemplating many of the messages and contributors at the aforementioned film festival. I did not shoot a deer; there is no tale of roebuck or young stag to be recovered to the larder. In fact I only saw one deer during the morning: a young roe doe who was browsing contently among what were obviously some very tasty morsels growing alongside a recently dug-out land drain. The drain feeds a rather nice flight pond, on which we will shortly be putting feeders to encourage the wild mallard and teal, who this morning were on the pond in abundance, with broods of young duckling flitting in and out of the rushes.
We sat, Zosia and I, and watched. I was mindful that a fox may make an appearance in the quiet of the morning and I never tire of watching deer. The little doe had no idea we were there; she was close to a cock pheasant who was strutting his stuff in full colour, she was a yearling and neither pheasant or deer heeded the other, but were in touching distance. At one point the doe went on the alert, head up, staring intently out to her side, legs stiff. But nothing appeared from the reeds or cover. They settled a few minutes later and continued to feed. I sat for an hour then slowly moved off, retracing my steps so as not to disturb the doe or the scene in front of me, and went along a hedgerow out of sight of the pair. To actually discharge the rifle this morning would have seemed wrong somehow.
I returned to the truck and made the short drive home. Before feeding the hound I walked around our smallholding; fed the chickens, looked to see if the bees were flying, check the donkey’s water, the polytunnel and the vegetable garden. Again, I was mindful of the DNA Film Festival. The event was well attended and has been covered extensively in the sporting press, but for me there were some very thought-provoking messages coming from the various guest speakers, all with the overriding theme that we really do have to start taking individual responsibility to promote and protect the sport that we love.
I am not even sure I like to refer to this as a sport – it’s more a way of life for me. I make a living and have done for some time from doing something that I love. I am passionate about deer and sustainability and I do not shy away from promoting this. We are pretty much self-sufficient at Garryloop. Our guests this morning will be up in an hour or so, and then they will dine on our own free-range eggs, my homemade venison sausages, and partake most likely of honey from the bees or preserves made by Anne from our fruit trees. When asked what we do, as we invariably will be then, I explain that we are involved in stalking and cover the ethics and sustainability of what we do and the training of stalkers and the like. In all the time we have been here I have always done the same. I do not feel there is anything wrong and to me it’s important to get this message across. I have seen many occasions when other stalkers, who frequently dine alongside B&B visitors on one of Anne’s legendary Garryloop breakfasts, visibly squirm when engaged in innocent conversation as to why they are visiting Ayrshire. There should be no need for this. It’s time to start to explain – stop allowing the Chris Packhams of this world to be the only people with a voice. We have a message and it’s a positive one.
I have worried for a long time where we are going on these islands and if my grandchildren will be allowed the privilege to be involved in the countryside and harvest wild food as I do. There are other challenges: the landscape in Scotland seems to be changing on a political level. We are faced with some crazy legislation, which I see as a real threat to all of us. So we all must do more, each and every one of us, to take responsibility in some form or another to change things and educate.
It has been done successfully in Europe, as I learned at the festival, simply by changing the attitudes of non-hunters. Politicians are voted into office by large numbers of people, and it’s these people, who are largely apathetic about what we do, who need to be made to understand.
I did wonder when we first started to run the business how many times there might be ‘issues’ with our B&B guests sitting down at the table, and we end up with a group of stalkers from Barnsley next to a family from Epping walking the Barr trails. It has only ever been an issue one time, with a strict and very serious young French lady who was vegan, and this is in well over a decade of living here.
So, do something. I am in a position where I can make a point of doing so, and I think if you take that small step you may well be surprised. Even if it’s a providing some game or venison at a friend’s BBQ, it is at least going in the right direction. No guest at that party has any right to throw abuse at you, having arrived with parts of a frozen chicken from the supermarket or a pack of shrink- wrapped sausages.
For my part I will try and do more. Many stalking trips do not end in success for a number of reasons, and so it is incumbent on me as a sporting scribe to reflect this more often. We do not always have to have a dead deer on each episode of The Shooting Show or example; it is often a mistake by stalker or guest that provides the interest instead. Yes, even I mess up the odd stalk!
There are other things we can stop doing. Do you really need to put that picture or comment out there on social media? And if you do, what are people going to see? If there is a positive message to posting, fine, but think twice before hitting the send button. I don’t like social media, but I accepted some time ago that it’s a tool we need to embrace, especially important in getting the message out there from a business perspective. Initially, I found myself posting photographs as we returned from a successful stalk with a client, posing proudly with their deer. But then I took a long, hard look at that and stopped. I will still do this occasionally for a particularly nice specimen, or, more usually now if there is something of note with the deer from a carcase examination perspective. I still post, but it’s more likely to be a scenic shot, or the dog, or maybe some subtle hint of the morning rather than the stereotypical post of hunter, rifle and deer.
We can no longer leave it to people like Darryl and Byron Pace to do all this work on our behalf. So I endorse the DNA Film Festival and the people who are supporting it along with the recognition of a new and younger group of country folk who are making films to spread the word and educate. The buck – excuse the pun – stops here. And yes, you can do something, so start now and don’t stop, it certainly made me have another long, hard look. Maybe we are starting a journey at last.