Fair Game by Jo Sinclair

Continuing her series on wildlife-friendly sustainable food, writer Jo Sinclair asks if eating game is sustainable.

The carnivores among us can find it difficult to choose a sustainable and ethical source of meat. With game sometimes referred to as the ultimate ‘free-range’ choice I took a look at the implications. Grouse, pheasant, woodpigeon, squirrel, deer and hare are all on the menu. Are they fair game?

Photograph: James Whitesmith

August, 2015. ‘We’re Missing Our Hen Harriers – We Want Them Back!’ reached over 5 million people via a Twitter thunderclap. The annual Perseid meteors rained comets from the night sky. Due to bad weather the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ (the traditional start of the grouse-shooting season) was a bit of a damp squib. In East Anglia we’re a long way from the upland grouse moors but these political fireworks pose questions about the environmental and ethical impacts of hunting and shooting.

Hen Harrier Day, a campaign and annual gathering highlighting the plight of the endangered bird of prey is fronted by TV celebrity Chris Packham, conservationist Mark Avery and Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller. On 5 August Natural England, the government’s advisor for the natural environment, announced good news. ‘Hen harrier breeding season set to be most successful for 5 years’, they proclaimed. The hen harrier is one of our most threatened birds of prey; by good they mean six nests had produced eighteen chicks.

The bird is a victim of persistent persecution on grouse moors says the RSPB. Healthy birds go missing and are found illegally poisoned or trapped. A highly privileged and lucrative tradition, driven grouse shooting involves flocks of red grouse being chased from cover by lines of beaters so they fly over lines of guns. One of the things that makes it such an expensive pastime is the effort that goes into producing and protecting the grouse to ensure there are enough to pursue. Heathland is burnt to provide ideal conditions for the birds: unsustainable, say the conservationists, as precious peat is destroyed, water run-off impacts on flooding and water sources are polluted. Another declining animal, the mountain hare, is being exterminated because of a perceived risk of spreading parasitic disease among the grouse. But The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust argues that moorland managed for grouse supports other rare species rather than destroys them.

Photograph: Mark Seton

What we may perceive as a wild landscape or wild animal may be anything but. Game is in many ways just another way of farming – and it’s worth £1.6 billion a year. I was surprised to find, in a Welsh pub, a glossy brochure advertising a  pheasant farm, proudly presenting rows of battery units. Game Farming In The UK says 83% of shoots rely on hand-reared game. They are released into the wild in stages (hatched in battery farms, reared on, then transferred to outdoor pens and released a few weeks before shooting season). This raises questions about whether a bird shot in the countryside is wild or even organic; although there is a population of wild birds that escaped the season’s guns you may be eating meat that has been produced using commercial feed and medication.

Photograph: Jo Sinclair

Of the truly wild animals that are marketed as game some are pests whose populations need controlling for the benefit of other species or habitats. Rabbits and grey squirrels are incredibly resilient and successful mammals. There are now more deer in the UK than at any time since the last Ice Age. But some declining species are not hunted as pests but because they are a tradition and a challenge. A hunter once told me he was waiting for the woodcock ‘when they arrive at full moon’. He meant the ‘hunter’s moon’, in the month of October. Woodcock are resident in Britain but migrants arrive in autumn too. They are fast-flying birds and the hunter chatting to me was proud of his skills.

A local game company is advertising in a shop near me for workers to process ‘game birds and lagomorphs’ – ‘Rabbits and hares’ the job ad explains. Though classed as a game animal and hunted partially to control damage to crops, the brown hare is yet another declining British mammal. This local game company claims: ‘Wild, natural and free-range, game has a distinctive flavour of its own and is fast becoming an alternative to chicken, pork, lamb and beef. Wild game gives you the flavour that mass produced food doesn’t have, with the added benefit of lower fat and no chemicals pumped into it’. What about lead shot? Known for its impact on the food chain in the wild lead shot regulations ban its use ‘over all foreshore, over specified SSSIs, and for the shooting of all ducks and geese, coot and moorhen – wherever they occur’. That’s because these water birds are dabblers and are poisoned after ingesting lead.

Whatever you want to believe, the sustainable way to eat meat is to know what you’re eating, what its status is if a wild animal, and what the repercussions might be. If you want an alternative to farmed meat it looks as though you might have to look Bambi in the eye.