I’m crawling through dense, damp undergrowth in pursuit of my quarry. I’m wearing army-surplus goggles that seem darker than category-4 sunglasses, and highly effective earplugs. My other senses are heightened to make up for my aural and ocular deprivation, meaning every nettle sting feels fierce. But I have to ignore it; I drag my thighs slowly across something prickly, and simply accept the pain. Slowly and silently my head comes up above the foliage. I aim and I loose my projectile at an unsuspecting animal.
In this case the target is Charlie Portlock, and missing him with my corked-tipped dart infuriates me.
"We do not have dominion over wild things. I actually see them as equals"
Charlie – the ‘Mindful Hunter’ as his website has it – is teaching me stalking techniques and my sensory handicaps serve to promote a little understanding of a rabbit’s worldview. They have relatively poor vision and their hearing is compromised whilst feeding, and 10 minutes in their world – playing Charlie’s childlike wargames – is enough to see where their twitchy paranoia comes from.
This seems to be Charlie’s main aim – not necessarily to teach hunting, but to promote a connection to the natural world. During our extensive conversations over the 24-hour course, he told me “If I had to focus on one benefit I hope people take from these courses, it’s just to remember how important it is to spend time quietly in woodland.
“Some feedback I had from a marketing agency was ‘you’re too zen’” says Charlie, “So they obviously thought that my market was men; maybe bushcrafter blokes. I really want hunter-philosophers to come on these courses.”
The hunting does seem almost secondary to the experience Charlie offers; the priorities are the simple pleasures of camping in the woods, cooking on a fire, tuning in to what’s around you. And conversation. Far from extolling the machismo of hunting, Charlie is almost shy about it to begin with, but then he is regularly paradoxical. The course notes suggest dairy products are banned, which I queried with him in advance; “Feel free to bring milk,” he replied, “I’m not a fundamentalist!”
It’s a rare thing in a polarised world to meet someone who will passionately and vociferously defend the middle ground, who will reject a black and white view, and will do it from a highly educated and considered position.
For me Charlie’s intellect was the highlight of the course, his ability to help me question my relationship with meat - without judgement - and with food in general, and to question every stereotype of hunters and vegans:
"Is it more or less ethical to shoot a rabbit 50 yards from your house than it is to import almonds from North Africa or to grow soya in the rainforest?"
“A lot of people that shoot have not faced up to the fact that animals have much higher levels of sentience and cognition than we’ve ever realised before” Charlie explains, “and we have to acknowledge that they’re not lesser creatures, here to serve us. We do not have dominion over wild things. I actually see them as equals, which has made shooting them even harder, and the only justification I can find for it is that’s the way of Gaia, it’s the way of nature. Nature feeds on itself.”
There is no virtue-signalling here. And there is no excuse-making either. Charlie accepts that eating meat entails killing sentient creatures with emotional worlds, who will be mourned, and it’s a view all meat-eaters ought to consider; to attempt to own the guilt rather than deny it, and perhaps even to own the process by way of hunting.
While Charlie diverges from much of the hunting community, the animal-rights camp comes in for criticism too:
“Most of the negative reaction [to ‘Mindful Hunter’] has been from vegans online” he says. “My Instagram feed might pop up in their feed because we actually share a lot of crossover interests, like rewilding, bio-diversity, wild food, foraging, and because I see veganism and what I do as closely related. And that upsets a few people online; ‘Go away with your horrible guns’ and ‘Get out of my feed with your disgusting photographs…’ And I understand.”
But Charlie has not chosen his path lightly; “I think what I’m doing is ethical not just from a moral perspective, but if we look at a value system that is based on damage to the planet. Is it more or less ethical to shoot a rabbit 50 yards from your house than it is to import almonds from North Africa or to grow soya in the rainforest, or even to plant lentils in the UK on land that could be turned over to deciduous woodland? I don’t know.”
While Charlie likes to raise questions, he also offers some strongly-held assertions, not least this one: “Animal death is implicit in our existence, it’s not possible to avoid it. Wherever we plant wheat in this country – we didn’t just cross the continent and suddenly go ‘look at this lovely green pasture’ – this was bio-diverse habitat and we cleared it of trees and we planted crops. Even when you mow your lawn, you’re killing insects. People want to live guilt-free because it makes you feel better and there’s a whole industry marketed on ‘guilt-free’ food. If you’re middle-class and you can afford it you can have guilt-free food.”
I immediately bought into the idea of owning the guilt. I’d never killed an animal before and I’d never considered giving up meat. But like many people, I suspect, I have long felt a need to be willing to kill for food and to get involved in the blood and guts, not least to avoid the hypocrisy of being squeamish.
"If you’re middle-class and you can afford it you can have guilt-free food"
I partly joined Charlie’s course to test my own hypocrisy. I sometimes feel guilty about killing flies – if I was affected by shooting a mammal, would I have to give up meat? For this reason the campfire philosophising and debate was an unexpected essential of the process. It’s Charlie’s belief that an increase in hunting would lead to a decrease in how much meat we consume. It is much easier – morally, aesthetically, and practically - to eat a pack of anonymous chicken nuggets, than to kill and dress a bird. The latter requires a connection that may or may not evoke many emotions, but can’t fail to create respect.
But beyond the intellectual there was extensive physical preparation too.
The key to hunting in as ethical a way as possible, is to eradicate suffering. Instant death is crucial so we spent a lot of time on the shape of a rabbit’s skull and the angles it will naturally present. The only shot to take is in full profile, just behind the eye. Stalking is of course of the utmost importance, in order to get as close as possible for the sake of accuracy; between 20 and 30 yards is good, using a PCP air rifle.
The accuracy of these rifles is phenomenal compared to a more traditional break-barrel rifle, which people might be familiar with. Within half a day’s practice – with expert tweaking of the sights, and coaching on my technique by Charlie – I was able to hit the size of a 10p piece at 30 yards, 15 times in a row, from a prone position.
As I was lying semi-concealed at the edge of a wheat field, carefully placing my pin-sharp crosshairs, a RAF Chinook flew slowly over the adjacent field, almost within my field of view. It was a perfectly timed reminder of how we view guns. Suddenly the adrenaline of a war film, and all the sniper clichés came to mind and polluted the well-rationalised process I was going through.
But regardless of the messages we’re fed about guns – one way or the other – it’s impossible to deny that propelling an object towards a target is a fun pastime. Or as Charlie puts it, “Everything up to the point that the bullet leaves the barrel and kills the animal, is fun. It’s hard to sell the playfulness, the challenge of out-foxing your quarry, and the simple pleasure of aiming at a target and hitting it.” We don’t need Hollywood’s baggage to enjoy that part.
Inevitably the real challenge came. Late in the day, as the sun was low and the rabbits more active, we were laying on a vehicle access track on the edge of beautiful farmland in Shropshire. Trees had us in shadow and the rise of the lane ahead of us caught the golden sunshine. We’d crawled 30 yards in silence, but the rabbits had gotten wind and disappeared. For the time being we were simply waiting.
"Everything up to the point that the bullet leaves the barrel and kills the animal, is fun"
And then an impossibly pretty fallow deer skipped into view, bounding down the sunny track towards us with enormous Disney eyes and the characteristic spots on its rump. It stopped 100 yards away, aware something wasn’t quite right. It was one of the most perfect moments I’ve witnessed, and some might have interpreted it as a sign. But how? Did it mean ‘don’t kill beautiful creatures’ or ‘everything is as it should be; carry on?’
Almost immediately a rabbit loped out of the undergrowth and sat directly in front of me, head in profile, and remained still for minutes on end. And I shot it perfectly through the head.
I hesitated very slightly before pulling the trigger. I felt a very slight pang of guilt – and no elation – as she fell. And I saw something vanish as I knelt above her and the shine faded in her eye.
But I felt gratitude. And I owned my guilt. Why should the crack of a skull cause more emotion than the beep of a supermarket checkout?
Charlie Portlock is lead instructor at The Mindful Hunter offering outdoor courses for the Conscious Carnivore and the interested non-meat eater. Indeed some of the courses don’t even involve hunting, such as the deer stalking morning.