Sport in the UK

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Killing birds with guns is known as 'shooting' in Britain. It is a minority pastime confined largely to the higher social classes; there are more than three times as many licensed guns for this purpose in France as there are in Britain. The birds which people try to shoot (such as grouse) may only be shot during certain specified times of the year. The upper classes often organize 'shooting parties' during the 'season'. The British do not shoot small animals or birds for sport, though some farmers who shoot rabbits or pigeons may enjoy doing so. But 'game birds', mainly pheasant, grouse and partridge, have traditionally provided sport for the landowning gentry. Until Labour's election victory of 1964 many of the prime ministers of the past two hundred years, along with members of their cabinets, had gone to the grouse moors of Scotland or the Pennines for the opening of the shooting season on 12 August. Since 1964 all that has changed. Now there are not many leading British politicians carrying guns in the shooting parties, though there may be foreign millionaires, not all of them from America. Some of the beaters, whose job is to disturb the grouse so that they fly up to be shot, are students earning money to pay for trips abroad. But there is still a race to send the first shot grouse to London restaurants, where there are people happy to pay huge amounts of money for the privilege of eating them.

The only kind of hunting which is associated with the working class is hare-coursing, in which greyhound dogs chase hares. However, because the vast majority of people in Britain are urban dwellers, this too is a minority activity.

The one kind of hunting which is popular among all social classes is fishing. In fact, this is the most popular participatory sport of all in Britain. Between four and five million people go fishing regularly. When fishing is done competitively, it is called angling. The most popular of all outdoor sports is fishing, from the banks of lakes or rivers or in the sea, from jetties, rocks or beaches. Some British lakes and rivers are famous for their trout or salmon, and attract enthusiasts from all over the world.

Apart from being hunted, another way in which animals are used in sport is when they race. Horse-racing is a long-established and popular sport in Britain, both flat racing and national hunt racing (where there are jumps for the horses), sometimes known as steeplechase. The former became known as 'the sport of kings' in the seventeenth century, and modern British royalty has close connections with sport involving horses. Some members of the royal family own racehorses and attend certain annual race meetings (Ascot, for example); some are also active participants in the sports of polo and show-jumping (both of which involve riding a horse). The steeplechase (crosscountry running) is very popular in most European countries. The first known organized crosscountry race in 1837 was the Crick Run at Rugby School. Originally, crosscountry running took place over open country where the hazards were the natural ones to be found in the country. These included hedges, ditches, streams and the like. Schools and some clubs still run over open country. Sometimes, however, the competitors run off the course as, on one occasion, happened to all the runners in a race. Because of this, the organization of these races has to be very strict. Nowadays, crosscountry races (or steeplechases) are often run in an enclosed area where the hazards are artificial. This makes organization easier.

The chief attraction of horse-racing for most people is the opportunity it provides for gambling (see below). Greyhound racing, although declining, is still popular for the same reason. In this sport, the dogs chase a mechanical hare round a racetrack. It is easier to organize than horse-racing and the dogs has the reputation of being the poor man's racing. Greyhound racing has had a remarkable revival in the 1980s, and by 1988 it accounted for about a quarter of all gambling. Its stadiums are near town centres, small enough to be floodlit in the evenings. Until recently the spectators were mostly male and poor, the surroundings shabby. The 1980s have changed all this, with the growth of commercial sponsorship for advertising. There are fewer stadiums and fewer spectators than in 1970, but the old cloth cap image has become much less appropriate. But one thing has not changed. The elite of Britain's dogs, and their trainers, mostly come from Ireland.

: 27/06/2007