An exciting new sport is becoming popular in America. Enterprising safari owners have realised that there is good money to be made from the internet and are bringing the joys of hunting animals into the home. A variety of mammals – antelope, wild pig, deer and others – roam in an enclosed safari park where there are a number of rigs with webcams and remote-control .22 rifles. Online hunters can, at a click of the mouse, shoot an animal and, for a fee, be sent its mounted head. It is now possible to be a successful sportsman, with a wall covered in trophies, without actually leaving the house.
There are social benefits to the new sport, according to its supporters. By keeping a distance from his prey, man is becoming more evolved and civilised as a hunter, moving from bare hands, to a blade, to a gun and to a computer. It is a marvellous opportunity for the disabled. Shots deemed to be unethical or likely to wound can be over-ruled by an online assistant.
Although there seems little likelihood that computerised hunting will reach these islands, it does point up why the new popularity of shooting here is cause for niggling concern. Last month we heard that ambitious, fun-loving business folk were increasingly becoming part of shooting syndicates, unwinding and networking with one another while they blast pheasants and partridges out of the sky. Now it is deer-stalking that is said to be all the rage. There is an industry that surrounds the tracking and shooting of stags and it is now worth £200m. Some 86,000 people have licences to shoot deer.
It is all about the countryside, apparently. Those who shoot stags are essentially enjoying life in the wild. “The reasons people do it,” a recent convert has explained, “is to see nature and understand it”.
Does anyone seriously believe that? Was David Cameron, recently revealed to have been a deer-stalker in his time, doing no more than adding a bit of fun to a walk in the countryside? Common sense suggests that, when it comes to the hunting of a large mammal, the killing of it – a socially accepted form of extreme violence – is an essential part of the thrill.
There are the online hunters in America who experience not so much as a sniff of the outside air as they enjoy their sport. A man who runs a big-game hunting agency in Africa once told me that he was startled by the type of people who wanted to shoot game. Many of them were not remotely interested in wildlife but were middle-aged men, showing off to younger girlfriends.
It is not so far from the kind of inadequates who yearn for trophies from the “big five” species in Africa to David Cameron and his other stalking enthusiasts in this country. The sport is all about the joy of killing a large, magnificent animal.
Clearly, in the case of deer, there is a practical problem of landscape management to be addressed – their numbers are increasing at an unhealthy rate, causing damage to trees and the rest of the environment. But the culling of them should not be an excuse for encouraging rifle-toting stalkers to “see nature and understand it”.
I should confess a personal bias – I have shot a stag and disliked the experience. At a time when we fret about violence and animal welfare, it seems perverse to accept the shooting of deer as an acceptable even desirable recreation. It is a blood-drenched sport which brings out the worst in its participants.
When little men ruled the earth
It is time to rethink those lazy generalities about short men. Scientists have discovered that, in our formative years, it was not the lumbering, lantern-jawed hulkswho were dominant, but the little chaps. Better climbers, small men were also tougher opponents when it came to fighting over females. It was a time when prehistoric versions of Ronnie Corbett and Martin Amis ruled the earth.
By a stroke of unfortunate timing, Sylvester Stallone has just been charged in Australia for possession of a growth hormone. Clearly an absurd claim – why would he want to look different? – it nonetheless points up how size-obsessed mankind has become. Sly should walk tall in memory of his little forbears.
* With spring suddenly bursting upon us, there is a temptation to mark the progress of the year by various red-letter days in the ornithological calendar: the first song of the skylark, the first call of the cuckoo, the arrival swallows and house martins.
But in our new age of anxiety, each new herald of spring is more likely to cause a spasm of anguish than a quickening of the pulse. On Monday, I was thrilled, and then alarmed, to hear the unmistakeable sound of the first chiff-chaff of the year. It was a good two weeks early, normally expected in the last week of March.
Increasingly, it becomes difficult to take pleasure in any developments in the natural world. Even when a species makes a surprising recovery, some ecological price-tag is attached: its success is at the expense of something else, or is yet another indicator or global warming. The chiff-chaff outside my window seems to care nothing about this, and has been singing away all week – as if there’s no tomorrow.