Britain's animal rights campaigners swoop down on hunters of grouse and game


A shooting party on the moors in North Yorkshire, Britain. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire/dpa

A dog rushes across a heather moorland, driving a red grouse to flutter hastily into the air.A gunshot rings out and the bird falls dead to the ground. The dog trots back to the hunter, holding the prey in its mouth.

Britain's hunting season has just opened, though increasingly, campaigners are putting pressure on the practice.

The season starts with red grouse, seen as the "king of game", according to Country & Town House, a British publication which describes hunting as "a tradition rooted in history".

Grouse, valued by chefs for its earthy flavour, can be found on menus nationwide.

The Jugged Hare, a London restaurant, serves "red grouse from Eggleston Moor in Yorkshire, served traditionally garnished with Savoy cabbage, bacon, game chips, liver pate en croute, bread sauce and red wine jus".

Wiltons, another London eatery, meanwhile promises grouse served "old school, roasted and served with game crisps, bread sauce, breadcrumbs, grouse sauce, grouse liver pate and of course watercress".

Hunters defend the practice as essential for maintaining the land.Britain's hunting season is valued by many as an integral part of the country's history. Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Wire/dpaBritain's hunting season is valued by many as an integral part of the country's history. Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Wire/dpa

Red grouse may be widespread in Britain but activists say unchecked hunting of the large bird could be dangerous.

Each season, some 3,000 Scottish grouse are killed, according to animal rights group League Against Cruel Sports.

Scotland is now weighing regulating hunts more strictly, with lawmakers in Edinburgh discussing a bill to significantly alter wildlife management.

If passed, the bill would introduce licensing to address the ongoing problem of wildlife crime and in particular the hunting of birds of prey, the text says.

The step comes after several golden eagles captured by satellite disappeared in Scotland, thought to have been shot illegally.

But many Brits still value hunting, holding onto the image of the lonely shotgun bearer, clad in tweed, a dog at his angles. This is seen by some as a hallowed tradition and an essential part of country life, alongside red-coated horsemen hunting foxes and hares.

Scotland's legislative plans are outrageous, if you ask hunters and conservative politicians.

They claim the traditional New Year's Day hunt is not a profane leisure activity practised by a handful of wealthy landowners but is crucial for the health of the land and brings jobs and money to remote rural areas.

Grouse shooting helps protect valuable moorland landscapes and plays a "key role in the creation and maintenance of our hill landscapes", argues the Countryside Alliance, which supports hunting as a country sport.

"The economic and environmental impact affects thousands of people who would never shoot a grouse moor," according to Alliance chief Tim Bonner.

The group says hunters boost the local economy and that game is considered the most ethical and sustainable meat.

"Fox predation seems to be having a very significant effect on ground nesting birds such as the curlew, as well as lambs and other livestock," Bonner says in an article called "The cruelty of the Hunting Act".

But growing concern about animal rights is increasingly disrupting romantic notions about country life.

Protests against organised hunts gained intensity, especially ahead of this year's season, and supporters and opponents came to blows in cases in southern England.

Some laws have changed, and hunting live animals is now banned. That means dogs chase down scent trails, rather than foxes.

But critics say hunters abuse these "trail hunts" and are hunting real foxes and hares, under the guise of legality.

On the legal hunts, dogs become distracted by the scent of live animals then hound them to death, activists say.

Hunters reject these accusations, saying this only happens in isolated cases. But activists are gradually making gains, with a new law in Scotland making such "trail hunts" all but impossible.

So it is open season, for hunters and critics alike.

The grouse season opened in August, followed by most game in September. Woodcock and pheasants may be hunted from October, under current law.

Britain's hunting season ends on Dec 10, after it closes in Northern Ireland on Nov 30. But protests look set to continue throughout and beyond. – dpa

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