I was up early the other day because I was keen to write about the Britannia Hotels group’s incredible achievement of being voted the UK’s worst chain for the seventh year running. Imagine. You’re told you’re rubbish once and then you keep on being rubbish for six straight years. I wanted to comment about such an extraordinary level of commitment to slack-jawed slovenliness.
But then I noticed that the survey had been done by Which?, an organisation that is really only interested in reaching adenoidal people in action trousers and sandals who contribute to TripAdvisor and run the neighbourhood watch scheme. As a general rule, I’ve always reckoned that if something does badly in Which?, it’s probably pretty good.
As I sat, deciding which side to take in the great hotel debate, I was distracted by an annoying man on Radio 4’s Farming Today show. He was from the airborne wing of the Labour Party — also known as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Birds — and he was talking about how he thought shooting game birds might be a bad thing.
The RSPB has always been prevented by its royal charter from campaigning against the shooting industry — Mrs Queen likes to strangle a pheasant or two at Christmas time, as we know — but it has worked out that it can comment if it reckons shooting is done by rich bastards in Range Rovers.
Now, the columnist Charles Moore said recently that the actress Olivia Colman had a “left-wing face”. I won’t comment on that, but I will say that Martin Harper, the man the RSPB sent to Radio 4, had a left-wing voice. Chris Packham has both a left-wing voice and a left-wing face, and he wants us all to stop using fly spray.
Anyway, Martin reckoned that if you release 50m non-native game birds into the British countryside every year, it’s bound to have an effect. When pressed by the interviewer for a specific effect, he said: “Er, climate change.” That was lucky for the Britannia Hotels chain, because I immediately abandoned my original plan and decided to write about shooting instead.
The first thing I did when I started a small shoot was plant several acres of so-called cover crops. Maize, sunflowers and something called kale, which can be eaten by humans if they are very deranged. These crops provide warmth, food and a place to hide from Johnny Fox, not just for my pheasants but a whole squadron of other birds too.
We keep reading about how endangered the yellowhammer is these days; well, not on my farm it isn’t. Since I started my shoot, the skies are black with them. And goldcrests. And wrens. And skylarks. The dawn chorus used to be nothing but the occasional squawk of a murderous crow, whereas now it’s positively philharmonic.
Research has shown that if you run through a field of crops planted by a shootist, you are 340 times more likely to encounter a songbird than if you do a Theresa May and run through a field of grass.
So, Martin, if the RSPB does manage to ban shooting, then, yes, you will be championed as a class hero throughout the vegan strongholds of Islington and Shoreditch, but you will also be responsible for the deaths of a million linnets. Which, as far as I know, isn’t why the RSPB was founded.
And then there are the woods, where the pheasants are held until they are old enough to forage on their own. Woods are beautiful and still. They’re places to shelter from the endless drone of light-aircraft enthusiasts. Mine are full of roe deer and muntjac and squirrels and badgers, and at this time of year there are many mushrooms too. I love to spend an evening down there as the leaves turn golden, giggling. Everyone likes woods, except if you are in a horror film.
But they generate no income. So if shooting were banned, I’d have to get Brazilian on their arses and turn them into farmland. Is that what you want, Martin? Because I fear that would create a damn sight more climate change than my Range Rover.
Of course, I’m well aware that some people might bridle at the sight and sound of eight hedge-fund managers in tweed shorts, braying their way through a pint of sloe gin while brandishing a pair of £20,000 shotguns, but what good comes from making them take up golf instead?
There are many hobbies that inflict far more pain and misery on others: light aircraft — I’m not giving up on that — the violin, motorcycling, strimming, morris dancing and so on, so why pick on one that’s good for nature and good for the way the countryside looks?
Pointedly, it’s good for birds too. Not just songbirds, but the kind of stuff that makes kids point at the sky and squeak with joy. Birds of prey. Since I started a shoot, I have seen a huge increase in the number of kestrels and buzzards over my farm. I even think I spotted a peregrine falcon the other day, and that made my heart soar.
Was it here because it likes eating my pheasants and partridges? There’s some debate about that, but the truth is I don’t really care if it does take a few. Because I like having it around.
So stop persecuting me, Martin, and concentrate instead on the people who do real damage to these magnificent creatures. Seriously. If you put down your Jeremy Corbyn picture book for a moment and do some actual work, you’ll learn that peregrines like to hang out on top of churches and cathedrals. Because the height gives them the ability to reach the speed they need in an attack dive.
But, because of bell-ringers, it’s noisy and scary up there. So if you really want to help these birds, don’t target the shooting community, which is doing its bit already. Target the real villains: the nation’s campanologists. That’s what I want to see — the RSPB and the country’s bell-ringers at war.