Preserving nature’s rhythm

Words by:
Matt Limb OBE
Featured in:
September 2023

Matt Limb OBE explores the origins of our shooting seasons and their part in modern day conservation.

With the onset of autumn and the nights starting to draw in, plus the occasional need for the fire and log burners to be lit, the shooting season gets underway across the British Isles. For many, however, the new season begins earlier, in the middle of August – the 12th of August to be precise, known as ‘The Glorious Twelfth’.

This date marks the start of the grouse shooting season – not that there are many grouse moors across Lincolnshire, not even on the county’s high Wolds. But the Glorious Twelfth is a true trigger day, some may even say a sacred date, as everyone with an interest in shooting readies for the start of the new season.

The two popular game birds across the British Isles on driven shoots are the pheasant and partridge. The partridge season starts on 1st September with the pheasant season following a month later, on 1st October. Both then run through until 1st February, unless you are in Northern Ireland, where you must call it a day on 31st January.

To further complicate things, you cannot shoot on a Sunday, even during the season; equally there is a no-shooting policy in place for Christmas Day, unless you are in Northern Ireland, where you can have a potter out after your Christmas lunch. Such dates define the seasons for both species, which along with many others in the British Isles have ‘open’ and ‘close’ seasons that are defined in law.

The open and close seasons apply not only to game shooting. Coarse fishermen must wait with bated breath for 15th June, when they can again go to the riverside and indulge in their passion. But not all species have a close season, one example being pigeons, which must be controlled as pests.

As we know, pigeons can cause considerable damage to farmland. In a recent report I saw that as much as £120 million a year of damage to a farmer’s crops can be caused by pigeons. I can easily believe this, having seen crops across fields stripped by flocks of pigeons. To help with pigeon control, and pest control in general, there is no close season when it comes to shooting pigeons, which essentially means that you can control them all year round, subject to permission from the landowner and any other regulation that might be in place locally.

If you think that the law of the land regarding open and close seasons can be complicated, then let’s look briefly at the law when it comes to deer stalking or deer management. For the six native species of deer found across the British Isles, again there is a closed and open season, but here they are far more confusing.

The seasons differ between Scotland and England, likewise they also vary by species – and then to further confound things, the seasons differ for male and female. For example, red deer have different open and close seasons in Scotland from the rest of the British Isles; then the red deer males and females have different open and close seasons. Only one of our deer species, the muntjac, has no close season. Like the pigeon it can be taken all year round – termed an invasive alien species, the muntjac has in recent years seen massive population growth and requires effective control and management. Hence no close season.

Many may think that the shooting seasons are born from tradition, but there is more to it than folklore and custom. In the simplest terms, there are shooting laws that put restrictions on when you can and can’t shoot game, or any other species. One classic example can be traced back to 1773, which saw the introduction of The Game Act.

The 1773 act, which was enacted on 24th June of that year, stated that no-one would be allowed to shoot, sell or buy grouse, at the time commonly called red game, or black game, between 10th December and 12th August. Importantly, the act was put in place for ‘the preservation of the moor and hill game’.

With The Game Act of 1773 becoming law, then, the 12th of August became the first day you were allowed to shoot, sell and buy grouse – and so the term ‘The Glorious Twelfth’ was born.

But let’s not lose sight of the reason for the act: the conservation of the species and the preservation of the moor. To enforce the act, a fine was set to not exceed £20 but be no less then £10. To highlight just how serious the act was regarded as an early conservation control method, that £20 would today equate to just short of £4,000.

Further legislation was brought in with the Game Act of 1831, which saw the further protection of game birds by establishing a close season, the dates of which still stand today. The act also established the need for game licences and interestingly the appointment of gamekeepers, to ensure the act was carried out. In principle, it has covered the protection of game birds to this day.

Over the coming weeks I know I will hear of people who enjoy their shooting, saying that the close seasons we have across the British Isles are old and outdated, in urgent need of change – normally adding that the seasons need to be extended. But if I am honest, I can’t see why.

The close seasons, which is what the law concerns, are there to protect the wildlife of our countryside – here I am referring to more than just the game birds – whilst allowing for the legal control of recognised pests, as with the pigeon and muntjac.

Little has changed since the close seasons were established back in 1831. Almost 200 years on, the seasons of this country have changed little, likewise the breeding seasons of wildlife and the deer rut have not changed. I can’t help but think that many who call for such changes simply want to extend the shooting season, failing to recognise that the law is in place for the conservation and protection of these individual species.

Photographs: Matt Limb OBE

Never miss a copy!

Big savings when you take out a subscription.