When is it wrong for a child to be taught discipline, responsibility and a love and understanding of the traditional ways of British country life?
When that lesson involves guns and game fowl, apparently.
Hence the story in today’s Daily Mail in which we are invited to be shocked by the fact that author and TV presenter Susannah Constantine has put up photographs on Instagram of her ten-year old daughter Cece beaming proudly, her face smeared in the blood of the first mallard duck she has shot and is pictured holding round its neck.
“Depressing”, “irresponsible” and “dangerous” claim the various animal rights campaign groups quoted in the article.
But for me – and, I would hope, the vast majority of Breitbart readers – the messages sent out by that charming photograph are the exact opposite of the ones that the animal rights fascists would like to impose on it.
How uplifting to see a ten-year old enjoying the outdoors rather than being hunched, as most of her contemporaries are so much of the time, over a computer!
How very responsible of this lucky girl’s wonderful parents to teach her such skills as fieldcraft, camouflage and markmanship, as well as imbuing her with an understanding of issues like conservation and the intimate relationship between meat and killing, and enabling her to operate on equal terms in a world traditionally dominated by men.
And how very safety-conscious to train her up from such a young age as to how to handle a deadly weapon responsibly.
“Never, never let your gun/Pointed be at anyone,” says the rhyme that all British children are taught when they learn to shoot. It’s drummed into them like times tables used to be – I’m sure it was the same with Cece – and what it means is that when you finally go out shooting game for the first time, you don’t make fatal mistakes in the heat and excitement of the moment.
When climbing over a fence, for example, you “break” your shotgun so that your neighbours can see it’s safe and so that you don’t trip and accidentally shoot yourself. When shooting driven game, you never endanger your fellow shooters by “following across the line.” As the rhyme sagely notes: “All the pheasants ever bred/Won’t repay for one man dead.”
In earlier times, when childhood was considered something to be got over with as quickly as possible, such lessons would have seemed eminently practical and sensible. Today, however, in a culture which seeks to keep children as infantilised as long as possible, it seems almost dangerously radical. Teaching a child to act like a grown-up: imagine!
This, I’ve noticed, since moving to the country, is one of the key differences between children reared in the sticks and ones who are raised in the big city. The city kids are superficially much more sophisticated – often savvy with sex and drugs much earlier, and also much more streetwise in vital skills like how to avoid being mugged – but what’s missing from their lives is a dimension that only country sports like hunting, shooting, stalking and fishing can really provide.
And a key part of this dimension is exposure to danger. With fishing, you can lose an eye or drown in your waders. When you ride to hounds you can very easily break your neck. With guns, obviously, you can blow your head off. Being a cute child is no defence against any of these threats. If you don’t learn to think like an adult then there’s a very real possibility that you will never live to see adulthood.
So yes, country sports are a risky thing for children to pursue but that’s the point. If the danger weren’t real, there would be no need to take such precautions. It’s like the difference in the military between live firing exercises and ones involving blanks: real bullets concentrate your mind and encourage you to keep you head down in a way that blank ammunition just doesn’t.
That’s why I can’t wait to “blood” my own children – just like Cece has been in that delightful photograph – with the blood of their first salmon, their first fox, their first grouse (yeah right: we can really afford that…) or whatever.
For me, there is nothing barbaric about such rites of passage. They’re a sign of approaching adulthood and a mark of civilisation.