Campaign group Animal Aid has called for a ban on sales of shooting magazines to under 18s. Pro-shooting groups are outraged. Philip Bowern assesses the strength of the argument.
Ever since man has been chasing and killing animals, which is pretty much as long as man has been on this earth, youngsters have been clamouring to be initiated into the hunt. In many cultures joining in the pursuit and dispatch of prey animals is part of becoming an adult.
Shooting may be a relatively recent development in this age-old human endeavour but the allure of joining the adults on a day in the field, with or without a gun, is a major draw to many young people. Fathers who enjoy shooting often want their offspring to take up the sport they love. And for many sons and daughters going out with a parent for a day's shooting is both exciting and an important rite of passage.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that shooting organisations have caught onto the fact there is a ready-made group of new recruits itching to take up the sports they promote. And in the past few years it has become a priority for the British Association of Shooting and Conservation and the Countryside Alliance, to devote time and energy to encouraging young shots to become involved in country sports.
Of course in some quarters there is revulsion at seeing children involved in any way at all with guns. One or two MPs periodically take up the cause of the animal rights lobby and seek to have the age at which young people can hold shotgun licences raised. But with the most recent attempt to do just that rejected by ministers, the shooting lobby is pressing home its advantage with a concerted effort to recruit more youngsters. Promotion via magazines and websites, is part of that campaign.
It is not surprising that Animal Aid, a vegan group at the extreme end of the animal welfare lobby, should want to hit back. Having lost the argument over young people legally owning and using weapons under supervision, they are now seeking other ways of attempting to restrict the growth of the young guns.
They want to turn long-established and well-respected magazines like Shooting Times into top shelf titles available only to the over-18s. In the eyes of many it is a tactic that smacks of desperation.
The evidence that such publications in any way corrupt youngsters, encourage them to be violent or risk twisting young, impressionable minds seem fanciful, particularly given the many more alarming influences to which youngsters today are exposed.
Statistics tell us more than half of all teenagers have accessed hardcore pornography online, a significant proportion have tried illegal drugs, larger numbers regularly smoke and the unsupervised drinking of alcohol, even among pre-teens, is at levels which most people would find frightening.
Legal pastimes for the young, like playing computer games, watching television and over-eating fast food, are all at levels among 21st century British children that most adults find worrying.
It is well-documented that children no longer get out and about in the countryside as they once did and know less than ever about the plants and animals – wild and domestic – that make up our rural acres.
Those who become involved with shooting sports do, at the very least, get exercise in the open air, take responsibility for their own safety and that of others, develop social skills and start to gain an understanding of the countryside.
Together with important lessons about the control of vermin – a concept not supported by Animal Aid but acknowledged by the majority as essential in the food-producing countryside – and you have yet another reason for encouraging young people into shooting sports.
Add the provision of food, in the shape of game meat, and for most people, the case for introducing youngsters to shooting becomes even harder to oppose.
Going out with a gun is not, of course, the only way to get exercise, learn about the countryside or put food on the table. But, as has been clearly shown over many centuries, it has a place. If the regulated shooting of live quarry is an acceptable part of country life in Britain today – and for the vast majority it is – then youngsters should be able to take part and read about it in magazines.
In their campaign material Animal Aid blank out or pixilate the faces of the youngsters proudly holding up the first rabbit they have shot or the brace of pheasants they have bagged. It gives the pictures a sinister and secretive tone that simply does not exist in the magazines it targets.
Most youngsters are justifiably proud of learning skills with the gun. What they are doing is legal and widely acknowledged as a part of looking after the countryside. Should they be demonised for it or made to believe it is wrong just because Animal Aid says so?