Countryside uprising

I just returned from a conference on civilian firearms ownership and regulation held in the Tower of London, which, some might say, is an appropriate place for a group of pro-gun scholars to gather.

Shooting sports in the United States have their problems, but having the chance to converse with some fellow shooters from England, I came away thankful for what we've got in the good ol' USA.

"Hunting" in Great Britain means tracking with hounds by horseback for fox or deer. Hunting has recently been banned in Scotland, despite the fact that more than a million people are involved with fox hunting in the UK.

One indication of its popularity is that there are over 300 packs of hounds in England, Scotland and Wales. Hunting expenditures equate to a boost to the economy of £14.07 million per year, about 40 percent of which is direct employment. (A British pound is equal to 1.61 U.S. dollars.)

"Sport shooting" is what the Brits call what we here call hunting. Varieties of UK sport shooting include, "stalking" (hunting deer — there are six species — on foot), "rough shooting" (walking up small game), "driven hunts" (people driving game to stationary hunters), "pigeon shoots" (pigeons are agricultural pests) and "wildfowling" (waterfowl hunting), in addition to shooting clay pigeons and targets.

There also are: "pest control," where dogs chase foxes, rabbits and hares to shooters; "ferreting," where ferrets are used to drive rabbits out of their burrows so they can be shot or caught with a net; and "coursing," where dogs to chase hare, but do not necessarily kill them.

Regardless what you call it, 1.4 million Britons have at some point taken part in shooting at live targets.

Pheasant shooting with released birds and stalking deer are growing in popularity, despite a vehement anti-hunting movement, which began in England about 150 years ago.

U.S. public-opinion polls show nearly 80 percent of the public supports some kind of hunting.

A recent UK public opinion poll found 69 percent of people thought game shooting should be banned, 78 percent thought that rough shooting should be banned and 23 percent thought that target and clay pigeon shooting should be banned.

These figures are found despite the fact that sport shooting and hunting support more 39,000 jobs and generate more than £500 million a year.

British hunters also have to put up with draconian gun-control laws. Pistols are forbidden and one must obtain a certificate granted by the police to possess a shotgun or rifle.

Such certificates are not easily obtained. Applicants are subject to police checks, and gun owners must store their guns securely. Only small-caliber air guns, like BB guns, are exempt. Members of the British Olympic pistol shooting team must practice abroad.

There are more than 4 million bowhunters in the U.S. In England, land of the legend of Robin Hood, bowhunting is prohibited.

"It is an offense under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to use any bow or crossbow to kill or take any wild animal," said David Bredin of the Countryside Alliance.

"I am not aware of the reason for such prohibition other than it is 'generally' thought in UK that a 'penetrative missile' other than that delivered from a firearm is regarded as inhumane."

Target archery, however, remains popular in England, and bowhunters in Europe are beginning to organize.

In addition to countryside stalking, exploding deer populations in their urban areas could be culled by archers, as is presently being done in several American cities.

Hunters are an endangered species in the UK; but they are only part of a whole rural culture that has fallen on hard times.

Fewer than 370,000 people are now in the active farm force, which is falling at 4 percent a year.

Preventive measures to combat recent outbreaks of hoof and mouth disease and mad cow disease have resulted in the killing of millions of livestock, hitting farmers' pocketbooks hard.

In short, the rural English way of life, with a rich heritage going back for centuries, is threatened.

The conflict between those who cherish rural lifestyles versus the urban animal rightists and their sympathizers jumped into the spotlight last Sept. 22, when the Countryside Alliance organized more than 400,000 supporters of rural traditions for the Liberty and Livelihood March.

The largest peacetime demonstration in British history passed through the streets of London to the sounds of Scottish pipes and the hunting horns to protest the politically correct New Labor members of Parliament who seem intent on banning hunting.

Organizers assert that protecting the right to hunt was the "touchstone" of marchers' demands.

Only 2 percent of Britain is preserved by nature reserves. Farmers and landowners manage the vast majority, some 88 percent — and half of this sustains some form of shooting.

Reserves ensure the survival of not only the huntable pheasants, partridges and wildfowl, but also many other species of wildlife. They also preserve the character of the English countryside, which is priceless, both for the Britons, and for tourists.

More than 700,000 Britons continue to be active in sport shooting, including the Royal Family, Madonna and her husband, Guy Ritchie, all of whom have openly defended hunting in the British press, which can be brutal.

The combined economies of sport shooting and hunting generate over £750 million a year and represent a major social and economic force in rural Great Britain.

These economies are important for Great Britain, for the countryside and the UK in general. Economic growth is slowing, and unemployment is rising.

Walking London's streets on my time off from the conference (which was sponsored by the World Forum On The Future of Sports Shooting Activities), I was shocked by the number of vacant shops with signs announcing, "To Let."

When I travel abroad, I do not seek the familiar signs of McDonald's and Starbucks, which seem to be on nearly every block in London.

I am interested in the unique culture and heritage of that land, and hunting and sport shooting are a fundamental part of the heritage of England.

On my next visit to the UK, I would love to put on tweeds and join up with an outfitter like Michael Roberts to go grouse shooting on the moors.

Many other American sportsmen might like to hunt and fish in the UK. The current airfares make it cheaper than hunting in many parts of the U.S.

Rural sports provide a boost to the British economy. Those politically correct urbanites in Parliament who probably have never gotten their hands dirty or bloody to put food on their plate should realize that by taking life for nourishment, we learn to revere it from the heart.

Now should be a time for reconciliation between rural and urban England, but this does not seem likely.

Cheered on by a recently released British study that claims proof that fish feel pain (which contradicts an American researcher who claims the opposite), animal rights groups say their next goal is a ban on fishing.

Nearly 4 million Brits enjoy fishing. If anti-fishing legislation starts to make its way through Parliament, I think the next march on London on behalf of the countryside will be even bigger than the last.

I will be cheering them on, for as I learned in a most enjoyable lunch at the Ye Old Cheshire Cheese pub in London, one thing England still does very well is to make fabulous fish and chips.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click here to purchase a copy.

To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.