The shooting season for pheasants and partridges ends this Thursday, February 1st when the survivors no longer have to fly the gauntlet of "sportsmen" armed with shotguns. There are different seasons for different quarry species - that for grouse ended on December 10th, while ducks can breathe a sigh of relief after this Wednesday.

Curling and shooting used to be the preferred sports of farmers, although nowadays the latter is increasingly the preserve of the wealthy, as it has become a very expensive pastime.

At one time I enjoyed "rough" shooting with family and friends. That's where a group of up to eight shoot a mixed bag - ranging from humble rabbits, pigeons, mallard, teal and snipe to game birds like pheasant, partridge and woodcock. Most bags were relatively small so that the participants were often lucky to go home with something for the pot.

Loading article content

The real pleasure of a day's rough shooting was the camaraderie and banter between friends as they roamed over the host's farm and inspected his crops and livestock.

My father always shot for the pot and everything, from plump pheasants and mallard to humble rabbits and diminutive snipe, were cooked and eaten.

Larger, more prestigious shoots used to be the preserve of large estates, but over the years, those with farms that had the potential to offer quality shooting - that's where the cover and topography offer the chance for higher, "sporting" birds and bigger bags of game - were developed either by the farmer or a syndicate that rented the shooting from him.

Commercial shooting is now big business, with about 35m birds reared and released in the UK annually, of which about 15m are shot - double the number bagged back in 1990. There is now so much game available that shoots are finding it increasingly difficult to sell.

Although sales of game meat in the UK have risen by more than a third in the last seven years as a result of TV chefs promoting it, exports to the main markets in Europe are in decline due to changing tastes. There are now rumours of game dealers struggling financially.

Quality is one of the main problems encountered by game dealers. The best prices are paid for whole, oven-ready birds that sell entirely on appearance. Any visible shot-damage, blood, torn skin, missed feathers or unsightly yellow fat turns consumers off. Only the top fifth of a typical bag will be saleable in oven-ready form, and while that is where the best mark-up lies, it is also the sector most affected by the overseas market being in the doldrums.

Those birds that fail to make the oven-ready standards have to be filleted into diced game meat - a laborious and costly task. The greater the damage to the carcase, the more that has to be disposed of as catering waste.

While I am not too concerned about the economics of running a large, commercial shoot, I do care about the needless cruelty involved. Over the years I have become sickened by the wholesale slaughter of hand-reared birds in their thousands.

I have seen intensively reared pheasants and partridges with release pens and feeding points becoming so heavily contaminated with parasites and disease that a fair number either died prematurely or were too weak to fly properly.

It is horrible to watch sick birds feebly fly over waiting guns, and then injured by a bad shot, come fluttering down and seek a hiding place in the undergrowth where they presumably suffer a painful, lingering death. How on earth can anyone call that sport?

Ignoring the fact that many shooting parties have more than their fair share of bad shots, there is also an element that do not understand that sporting etiquette requires you not to shoot at low-flying, young or weak birds. They would find it much cheaper and just as challenging to shoot beer cans off a wall.

I gave up shooting more than 20 years ago and now get considerably more pleasure out of watching a proud cock pheasant strut his stuff in the sunshine than seeing his broken, crumpled body thrown in the back of a truck.

If I want to eat fowl I can go to the supermarket and buy from a wide selection of humanely reared and slaughtered species ranging from turkey, chicken, duck and goose to the more exotic like quail. That saves my conscience from contemplating the slow painful death that a game bird suffered after being wounded and then not retrieved by a gundog to be humanely despatched.