Sir Barney White-Spunner
The head of the Countryside Alliance talks shooting, fishing and the future of the countryside.
Where is home?
Although I have lived in Dorset most of my life, I was born and brought up in Ireland in Tipperary.
Do you have your own shoot, are you a member of a shoot syndicate or do you take days?
We have a tiny affair at home which is just for a bit of fun so that we can do a walk-round every now and then. I don't belong to a syndicate at the moment but I do take the odd day as and when I can. Generally just locally – here at home in West Dorset.
What form of shooting do you most enjoy?
I enjoy all forms of shooting – I love shooting high pheasants, but perhaps my ideal day is a mixed bag day. As I was brought up in Ireland, I love nothing more than doing a bit of wildfowling and shooting the odd snipe. I still go to Ireland and get immense pleasure out of not actually knowing what the day is going to throw up – it's more like hunting and less predictable.
Do you have friends or family members that you regularly shoot and hunt with?
I have a group of friends who I shoot with every year – friends I was in the army with and a lot of family. I have three children (two daughters and a son) – my son shoots and both girls fish. Sadly, I haven't persuaded any of them to hunt – I think I have put them all off! And my wife has also packed it up because she damaged her back quite badly in an accident a few years ago with the Belvoir.
Over-under or side-by-side?
I shoot with a side-by-side from Somerton Guns. I did inherit some guns but if I used them now, they would probably fall to pieces! I have to say that I am very tempted by some of these new Italian and Spanish guns that are being imported these days – but I won't change from side-by-side to over-under.
Do you get your kit ready the night before?
Yes, I am very organised – that's the military side of me. I hate being disorganised and I have everything, including all the dog paraphernalia, ready the night before.
Are dogs an important part of your shooting day?
Yes, dogs are very important to me, and the most complete day's shooting is a day with our own dogs. We have far too many of them but we love them dearly. We have three fox red labradors – we've had the family for years, they came originally from our family home in Ireland. We use them for picking-up, although I have to admit that I have to pick the odd bird myself occasionally! They're great fun. We also have a fox terrier who isn't allowed anywhere near a shoot!
My wife (Amanda, known as Moo) loves the dogs – she won't come shooting unless she can bring the dogs. She says watching me shoot is far too boring!
Do you have a lucky shooting garment or ritual?
Being Irish by background, I am quite superstitious although I don't have any particular shooting rituals. I do take my hat off when the drive gets underway, but whether that is a superstition or because I feel it restricts my vision, I don't know. But I very much have my favourite things that I like to use. I have a pair of plus fours that I have had for years which have seen better days. I did finally have to get a new cap, because my last one was so old and disgusting that a friend of mine threw it into the air and shot it!
How did you get into shooting?
I have always shot really. My father was crippled – he had TB – although he did shoot quite a lot, he had to give it up when I was very young. I shot a bit with him before he gave it up, but growing up in Ireland, everyone shot, so there was no end to the number of people I could go out shooting with. I spent most of my early life snipe shooting, which I still love.
What aspect of a day's shooting do you most enjoy?
Seeing how the shoot itself fits into the countryside, into the pattern of rural life and the way that shoots bring together Guns, beaters, pickers-up, dog handlers and what all of these people bring to the community. I also derive great pleasure from seeing different parts of the country. And of course the shooting itself which is tremendously exciting – I still get a great thrill from shooting. I get less of a thrill if I am shooting badly though!
Do you have any shooting or fishing heroes?
The people who got me into shooting and fishing and introduced me to these great sports. There are certain people I look up to such as George Pulman, who developed fly fishing on the Axe which is my local river and where I do much of my trout fishing. He wrote a book called The Book of the Axe. I am also a great fan of Falkus's books.
As for impressive Shots... certainly my brother-in-law Rory Clarke and my nephews Hugo and Rufus. When they're in a line together, not a lot gets past them. They have a very good shoot in Sussex called Cinder Hill.
And are you a fishing man too?
Yes, very much so. I love fishing for salmon – I go up to the Spey every year to Delfour. I love sea trout fishing too. However my staple is dry fly fishing for trout on the Axe. I was a longtime member of Salisbury and District Angling Association and I have fished all of the chalk streams down there. Not forfgetting the Irish loughs which as a child I fished a lot – there is nothing more magical than an evening on an Irish lough during a mayfly hatch.
But then, I also love being out on a river, particularly at the moment – you can see a tremendous improvement in water quality on a lot of our rivers, particularly chalk streams. We've had an explosion of kingfishers and other aquatic life on the Axe and of course this is a great indication of water quality. The levels of our aquifers are a worry. Although they have now filled up, the question remains as to why and how they got so low in the first place.
And hunting – any particularly memorable hunts?
I don't hunt as much as I would like to these days as I am just so busy. I try to get out two or three times a month. My local pack is the Seavington, although I have hunted all over including some wonderful days with the Belvoir and Quorn. I have spent more days of my life hunting than I should probably admit to!
Some of my very best days were when I whipped in for the North Tipperary when I left school. And I was just very lucky to go and hunt in Limerick in their heyday. My nerve is partly gone now and I no longer get as much pleasure out of jumping big fences – I am quite happy to take the pottering approach these days and I get as much of a thrill from following the hounds now as I did from jumping big fences.
Will the Hunting Act be repealed?
Yes, I believe it will be. We need to judge our time though – obviously the parliamentary arithmetic needs to be right, but I think there is general realisation now amongst people of all political persuasions that the ban was a ludicrous piece of legislation. It is discriminatory and it does absolutely nothing for the well-being of any of our natural species.
I think that everyone accepts that we need a regulatory framework for hunting in some form. But it doesn't need to be government run – governments are not there to dictate how sports are run, they are there to do things like defend the country and manage the economy. Our role is very much to do the political campaigning for fieldsports and the countryside. The actual detailed management of the various hunts is more for the Masters Associations.
Your thoughts on the RSPCA and their recent lawsuits?
The RSPCA is a sad case – in its early life it was a very worthy and respectable organisation, founded by a master of foxhounds. What we really regret is the way that it has become a political animal rights organisation and that is not what its donors in the past intended for it to be spent on. I mean, why should you or I pay the bill for an organisation pursuing spurious, politically motivated prosecutions? And we won't let this go. We will continue to make it clear in the media that they are NOT fulfilling their charitable objectives.
And the RSPB?
We just hope that the RSPB aren't tempted to go the same way as the RSPCA. We still have huge respect for the RSPB – as long as they continue to focus on what they are funded to do. They have done some great work. But they must maintain a balance in their approach to bird species. We would like to see more emphasis on the return of the British songbird and less of what we see as a great war on keepers.
We would also like them to better acknowledge the positive effects and benefits to bird life in areas that are managed for shooting.
What prompted you to take up the CA role?
I have always had a huge interest in the countryside, country sports and indeed the Countryside Alliance. And so when they approached me, I didn't have to think about it. A big motivation has been the Hunting Act, which really annoys me. But having spent my whole life in the British countryside, I do believe in putting something back. And I passionately believe there is a whole range of issues on which rural Britain is disadvantaged.
Issues such as...
Whether it be focusing on people's attitudes to country sports, or on more prevailing things like affordable rural housing, the number of police officers in rural communities and of course the digital apartheid. Can you imagine not being able to use your mobile phone in the middle of London or Manchester?
We are very pleased with the 4G roll-out results because that is going to guarantee 98 per cent mobile phone coverage by population. But what we have discussed with Ofcom is 95 per cent coverage by area because, of course, 2 per cent of the population live in an awful lot of the landmass of the UK, so by 2017 there should be a marked improvement.
But there are a lot of issues we are facing at the moment – shooting in particular. And these are huge. For example, we need to do a lot more to increase the market for game, particularly for pheasants and grouse; we need to work more closely with the government on the future of the Wildlife Act (the law commission report has now been submitted); on lead shot – we need to make certain there is no change to the law without evidence; we need to keep an eye on continued parliamentary sniping regarding the age at which people can shoot; and there is a desire by some people to greatly tighten up on the licensing and ownership of shotguns.
Is CA membership growing?
Yes, it is. I would like it to grow more quickly though. We now have in the region of 100,000 members, but I would like it to be half a million. 400,000 people marched at the Countryside Alliance March and I would like to see them all become members of the Alliance. Obviously money matters, but it's numbers of members that is arguably more important. Numbers really matter politically because politicians listen to you if you've got numbers behind you. The RSPB has 1million members. There are nearly 700,000 people with shotgun certificates in this country: BASC has 120,000 members, we have 100,000 and between us that comes to 220,000. That leaves the best part of half a million who aren't a member of either organisation. So, where are they? For the sake of a very small outlay, they are jeopardising the sport's future.
Communication between the different organisations?
It's getting better. It's no secret that I would like us all to be much closer, even to the extent of being amalgamated into one body. I have just had a very positive meeting with Richard Ali, the new Chief Executive of BASC, and we have agreed to work very closely together. And we also work very closely with the CLA and the Moorland Association. But if you put us all together under one umbrella organisation we would be very powerful indeed and I would love to see that happening. Political lobbying in numbers is a lot more effective if it comes from one cohesive organisation.
Do you feel positive about the future of country sports in the UK?
Yes, I feel very positive, but just as long as people are willing and prepared to be pro-active. There is nothing inevitable about the rise of the animal rights lobby because the success of these organisations largely relies on people's ignorance. So, in actual fact, most of our opponents are not motivated by facts.
I always say, we need to do three things:
1) We have to prove the need for a balance in the management of our wildlife in the British Isles. We have to point out how ludicrous it is to have acts of parliament that favour just one species, such as the badger.
2) We have to get country people actively involved. It is no good assuming that things will just carry on as they are. I would like to see many more country people getting involved in local politics, in political parties and to become members of organisations such as ours.
3) People must get involved for the long-term. The idea that we have one or two issues to resolve and then we can get back to our lives is pie in the sky – we have got to remain engaged. The fact is, retaining our sports will require constant, logical and factual making of the argument for rural communities, for farming, for country sports. It has to be constant. If we can meet these three criteria, we will succeed.
I'm afraid that we are the sort of people who believe in ‘live and let live', but this just isn't the case, and that's why the arguments for fieldsports and the liberty of the individual get so intertwined. In a way we are exercising our right to freedom of choice all the time, but unfortunately, other people don't see it that way.
Our argument is always that in a society where animals are very obviously not equal to humans – I mean we swat flies, poison rats, eat honey, fish and any number of animals – then it has to be up to each individual, according to their own conscience, how they interpret that relationship. But the problem is, the majority live in urban areas where ignorance of these relationships is prevalent – and that is what we have got to overcome. However, there is absolutely nothing impossible about that – it's about education and constantly pointing out the reality of the situation.