I was brought up and have lived for most of my life in the part of England known as East Anglia. That’s the rounded bit towards the south east corner of the country which sticks out into the North Sea. It’s essentially a quiet, rural part of England, a place of wide skies, rich farmland and marshes, and it was amongst those marshes and secretive waterways of the Norfolk Broads that I first developed my love of shooting.
My father was a keen shooter and from the age of about twelve I used to accompany him on his trips very early in the morning and late in the evening to shoot ducks and geese on the marshes of the Broads. He also had the shooting rights on a small farm very close to the village where we lived, a wilderness of woods, meadows and reed beds through which ran a river. He and I would hunt the marsh for pheasants and then stand on the river bank until it was dark, in the hope of shooting a duck. That farm was where I shot my first rabbit – with an old double barrelled 20 bore – my first pheasant, duck and woodcock. By the time I was fifteen I had my own single barrelled AYA shotgun.
But by then I was also fascinated by the English tradition of hunting with hounds. My sister was a keen horsewoman and each Saturday we would go out as a family to follow the local pack of hounds, the North Norfolk Harriers. Because I was not so good with horses, my interest strayed to hunting with foot hounds such as beagles and otterhounds. This was in the late 1960s and 1970s when we still hunted the otter on the rivers of East Anglia. They were great times, and I learned so much about hounds, and the use of hounds to follow the scent of a quarry animal.
I had always loved wildfowling – the hunting of ducks and geese on the coastal salt marshes – and it was when the otter was protected in 1978 that I started to do a lot more of it. By then I had left university and was working close to the Essex coast, where there were opportunities for wildfowling all around me. One of my great interests has always been historic shotguns. I was lucky enough to inherit a collection of large bore wildfowling guns from my father and I soon developed a passion for punt gunning, using a 150 year old muzzle loading punt gun from my small punt on the Blackwater estuary. It is a gun which I still occasionally use today, along with some of my other historic guns, both breech- and muzzle-loaders. As I became more actively involved with wildfowling, it was only natural that I should apply for a job with the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, which in 1982 had only just changed its name from the Wildfowlers Association of Great Britain and Ireland. I worked for BASC for three years and later became a member of its governing Council for many years.
My interest in shooting of all sorts grew as I started writing for shooting magazines. I started game shooting more seriously, becoming involved with a small pheasant shoot; I hunted grouse in Scotland, still one of my favourite sports and of course I loved wildfowling, whether on the coast or on the inland marshes of the Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire, on a piece of land which my father had been sensible enough to buy, and of which I am still part-owner today.
Soon I was hunting overseas, in Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, France, Lithuania, Poland and South Africa. I had first stalked deer in Scotland in the early 1980s and my interest in woodland deer stalking grew as deer populations spread throughout the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. I regard deer stalking as one of the ‘true’ hunting sports in which the lone hunter has to pit his wits against a genuinely wild quarry which usually has the upper hand. In this regard, deer stalking is a bit like wildfowling or true rough shooting for wild birds such as snipe and woodcock. If you want to be good at stalking, then you have to study the craft of hunting until you can really think like a deer. I am fascinated by every bit of it, and probably about half of the days I am out hunting wild creatures these days I am carrying a rifle. I have several regular deer stalking areas and I particularly enjoy hunting muntjac, a species which many people here regard as a bit of a pest. In fact they are hugely challenging to hunt, and I have a very great respect for these small deer.
Of course I like the traditional British forms of game shooting, and I spend several days each autumn and winter shooting driven partridges or pheasants. August is also a very special month, when we go to Scotland for a week’s sport – walking-up grouse and stalking deer. If there is one week in the year that I really love, then it is our August week in the highlands. We usually go back to the Scottish highlands two or three times a year for red deer stag and hind stalking, and given the opportunity I think my wife would move there tomorrow.
Naturally, my family are hunters. My wife started shooting with a shotgun but now loves deer stalking and is very competent with a rifle. My son started coming out shooting with me when he was 8 years old. He got his shotgun certificate at the age of 11 and started wildfowling, a sport which he really explored while at university in Scotland. He is now a really passionate wildfowler. Perhaps one day he will also become interested in stalking deer.
For the past nine years I have been lucky enough to own a small farm in Suffolk on which we grow a few acres of cereals, raise a few sheep, grow most of our own vegetables and which I manage for wildlife. I love to see the wild flowers grow in spring on the new grass margins I have created, to see the clouded yellow butterflies on our meadow, to flush a woodcock from our hedges or watch the wild geese fly over our farmhouse. Occasionally we have roe deer here, and muntjac too. Very occasionally I will stalk and shoot one. When I do so, it is a very special moment which somehow closes the circle of creation which we have in the countryside, because I think that those who take life through hunting are very often the ones who have most reverence for our wild creatures.
To me, hunting connects us with so many things. It connects us with the countryside, the wild places and the landscape in which we live, and it connects us with the wild animals and birds which live there. When you are hunting, you are not just a visitor to the countryside, you are part of it. Hunting connects us with our culture and our history. In the ancient church close to where I stalk fallow deer there are carvings of fallow bucks on the ends of the pews, a reminder to me of the many hundreds of years that people and deer have been a part of that very landscape. And when I have killed a deer and I walk up to it, lying dead on the forest floor in front of me, I know the feelings of joy, satisfaction, wonder and sadness that must have gone through the minds of ancient hunters when they did the same thing, and I am connected to them too.
Graham Downing, Counsellor UK