Think of country sports, and what comes to mind? Middle-aged men in wax jackets and green wellies, driving battered Range Rovers with a couple of retrievers in the back?
Well that might all be changing. According to Cyril Brewster, shooting is a rapidly growing sport among young people from all backgrounds, on a scale unlike anything he has seen before.
“We have people from all backgrounds, all races and creeds, coming to shoots in a way you would never have had 30 years ago,” he says.
“I’ve been in this game for 40 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The number of firearms licences across England and Wales has shot to a record high, with 160,000 held in March this year, covering 597,000 guns.
Staffordshire has seen a 39 per cent increase in the number of legally held guns over the past 10 years, with 13,596 in force according to the latest figures. In West Mercia the figure is up 37 per cent, to 26,272, while in the West Midlands force area there has been a 29 per cent rise, taking the number of licensed firearms to 9,135. The Dyfed-Powys force area saw an 18 per cent increase, with 2,637 legally held firearms.
The figures do not include shotguns, which are subject to different licensing regulations.
Mr Brewster, of Millride Country Sports in Essington, says a growing number of people are turning out to events where people can try their hand at shooting for relatively little cost.
He says many people will come along to one of his weekend events, try a bit of clay-pigeon shooting, and if they enjoy it will then take it up as a more serious hobby, and maybe buy their own gun.
“We did a ‘try-shoot’ on a Saturday, where 75 people turned out,” he says.
“I think a lot of it is down to the internet,” he says.
“People are looking for a new hobby, and there is a lot more information now about what there is out there.”
This sentiment is echoed by Kristian Reilly, a partner in Shrewsbury-based Midland Gun Services. The business, set up four years ago by Mr Reilly and Mike Birch, makes, repairs and services guns from its base in Battlefield. He says he is not surprised by the increase in the number of gun licence holders, saying that there has seen a big growth in country sports in recent years.
“I would say that shooting is more popular than it has ever been,” he says.
“A lot of that is down to clay-pigeon shooting, it is popular in a way that it wasn’t 15 years ago.”
He says there is a growing number of children taking up the sport too.
“You have young lads or girls they can go with their parents,” says Mr Reilly. “Clay pigeon shooting has become massive over the past 15 years.
“You get older people too. It’s not a physical sport, it does not require strength. It is something you can do in a wheelchair, at the moment we are sponsoring a couple of disabled sports clubs.”
Dudley Rifle Club, which has a range in Lower Gornal, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. Secretary Ron Gough says demand is so high he that the club is having to turn members away.
“We have around 80 members, and we have a waiting list of seven,” he says.
“It has grown rapidly compared to five years ago, when we had less than 50 members.
Strict vetting procedure
“Our members tend to be either quite old or very young, we don’t have that many middle-aged members
But not everybody is accepted. Mr Gough says the club has a very strict vetting procedure.
“We don’t take anybody who’s got any form of mental illness, and if they go for a firearms licence the police automatically contact their GPs.”
But not everybody is happy about the rise in the number of licensed firearms.
Gill Marshall-Andrews, of the Gun Control Network, has described the steady increase in legally held firearms as “a problem for us all”.
She adds: “We know there is a strong correlation between the number of guns in circulation and the number of deaths and injuries caused by guns.
“For too long the myth has persisted that gun crime in the UK is committed with illegal guns.
“Shooters have successfully persuaded the general public that urban gangs with illegal guns are responsible for most of our gun homicides. But this is not true, especially for women.”
The Gun Control Network says four-fifths of female gun deaths occur in domestic incidents, most of which involve licensed weapons.
But the British Association for Shooting and Conservation said the number of legal guns used in crime is ‘miniscule’.
Firearms director Bill Harriman says: “The UK rightly has some of the strictest firearms laws in the world. We are proud of our legislation and work well with the Home Office to ensure public safety is the highest priority.”