Fair Chase – ethical and sporting principles for airgun hunters

Philip Siddell explores the origins of the concept of Fair Chase and what it means for the modern airgun hunter

Picture the scene: the 19th century is waning, there is little of the Frontier left to discover and settle for the European colonists. A devouring wave of humanity has broken upon that fertile and bountiful land, which had until then supported a minuscule population of humans.

For centuries mother nature had been in charge and a perfect balance prevailed. The decimation of the indigenous flora and fauna was devastatingly swift. Bison were driven to the edge of extinction by the end of the century, leaving the vast plains ominously empty. Observers would have noticed the change within their own lifetime. Fortunately there were those who realised the pressing need for a change of course. Among them the founding members of the Boone and Crockett Club, which included soon-to-be president and lifelong naturalist Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt.

The concept of Fair Chase was established in 1888 as the fifth article of the Boone and Crockett Club constitution. 

With this constitution, the club codified a set of principles that would guide the American hunter away from acts of unrestrained wholesale slaughter and toward a shared custodianship of the native wildlife. The European model of wildlife ownership and management had been deeply ritualised and legislatively controlled for centuries (think Forest Laws, hunting with hounds and later driven game bird shooting). Hunting in America by contrast was a free-for-all; a matter of getting food on the table by any means. Anybody could hunt anything, however they liked, at any time, with little or no legislative oversight. 

The Boone and Crockett code of ethics would then go on to help save North American wildlife and father a modern conservation movement.

Some pieces of technology give the airgun hunter a helping hand, but they also help to ensure a humane kill

As interesting as this little history lesson is, you may be wondering what it has to do with those of us hunting with our airguns over on this side of the pond. 

Well firstly as Europeans it was our ancestors who learned those lessons in the Americas (and not so many generations ago!), and secondly because the necessity for restraint applies to all hunters who are at all concerned about their legacy; no matter the quarry or the location. 

Hunting in the modern era is rarely about filling bellies that would go unsatiated. Today our hunting is a secondary activity that protects another resource from loss or damage. With the threat of starvation very low on our list of personal anxieties, we can afford to shun hunting practices that might be deemed unnecessarily cruel or that offer our quarry little or no chance of escape. 

In the 21st century, there is plenty of room for ethical considerations that will help to safeguard the long-term future of both our wildlife and our hunting.

So what exactly is Fair Chase? The Boone and Crockett Club defines Fair Chase as “The ethical sportsmanlike and lawful pursuit and taking of any free ranging wild, native … game animal in a manner that does not give improper advantage over the game animals.”

Fair Chase is about the philosophy of both why and how we hunt, whether it’s a rabbit or a rodent

While the term “sportsmanlike” is subjective, the part about lawful pursuit is not. I would wager that most prospective airgun hunters invest more time in researching kit than legislation. 

Furthermore, I suspect some with years of experience under their belt had never even heard of the General Licences before they hit the headlines recently thanks to a legal challenge by Wild Justice. I’ll confess to having been a little hazy on the topic myself. But as the saying goes: ignorance of the law excuses no one.

Do yourself a favour and bone up on what you are and aren’t allowed to do. This is more important now than it ever has been as a quick swipe of any social media platform will generally reveal at least a handful of accounts displaying breaches of one law or another; easy fodder for those opposed to shooting sports. It’s easy to meet the terms of this aspect of Fair Chase, simply read and understand the relevant legislation and live by it in the field.

The more subjective elements of Fair Chase are a little harder to pin down. The descriptor “sportsmanlike”, to me at least, resides in a category with others such as “gentlemanly” and “ladylike”. 

Terms that encompass agreed, but often unspoken standards of behaviour that are held in a state of flux by evolving societal expectations. However, I believe the basic principles of sportsmanship we’re all taught at our first sports day still stand. 

Compete in an honest way (don’t seek an improper advantage – no cheating!) and be gracious in both victory and defeat.

Each new innovation in the airgun world should prompt us to examine the advantage it gives us over our quarry. 

To my mind those that offer increased accuracy, better optics, rifles that deliver more consistent ballistic results, etc, these things allow us to make more humane kills, so what they offer is ethically beneficial. 

Thermal imaging gear, motorised decoys and electronic calls could be said to offer artificial assistance that denies the quarry a fair opportunity to escape detection. 

They arguably require less skill development from us, making the competition between us and the animals less evenly balanced.

Where ethical concerns are not regulated by law, for instance by the law forbidding us to inflict unnecessary suffering upon animals, we must create our own ethical framework.

Our own personal code may have been inherited from mentors (one of mine would never hunt rabbits in spring while they bred – not a restriction I feel wedded to), it may have evolved naturally over time as our experience grew, it may even be flexible to some degree dependent on circumstances (who hasn’t taken the occasional shot that is a few yards longer than we know to be a fait accompli when under pressure?). 

Some parts of our ethical code might seem anomalous given other aspects of it. For instance: I am comfortable using wire snares (even though they have largely fallen out of favour in our community), but dislike shooting very young rabbits not yet wary enough to fear humans. 

Whatever the individual tenets, these rules should be something we are proud to stand by and that mark us out as modern and enlightened hunters.

A final piece of the definition of Fair Chase that deserves our consideration is its reference to “native game animals”. Neither the European rabbit nor the grey squirrel are native to the UK where I do all my hunting, yet they would be said to have long been naturalised. Does their invasive species status mean they are less worthy of our respect than say the mountain hare or the red squirrel? 

I don’t believe so. I find it troubling when I witness people (including non-hunters) demonstrate a lack of regard for animals on the basis that they’re an “invasive” or “pest” species; our classification of any animal in these terms is a matter of perspective.

Beyond an invocation to obey the law, Fair Chase as a concept simply inspires us to see the way we hunt as a manifestation of our respect for the wild animals we pursue. 

It reminds us that the methods we employ must offer a reasonable chance of success (either for us to take the animal or for them to escape unscathed) with the odds weighted in favour of neither party. 

Because airgun hunting requires such a high level of marksmanship and fieldcraft I feel it embodies the principles of Fair Chase with ease. It is supremely human to be forever seeking to make our hunting easier and increase the chances of success. 

However, nowadays food acquisition is not the only reason we hunt, we do it because it feeds a less tangible need. 

Hunting helps us develop our sense of self and our desire to immerse ourselves in the natural world. If we adopt it as a code of practice, then Fair Chase will only ever nurture these aims.

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