As a boy of 11, Prince Charles wrote breathlessly to his much-loved ‘honorary grandfather’, Earl Mountbatten, of his growing love for blood sports.
‘I have been having great fun shooting lately,’ he said. ‘Yesterday I got 23 pheasants and today I got ten and a partridge, a moorhen and a hare.’
He was, by then, already something of an old hand. From the age of eight, he had been allowed to accompany ‘the guns’ on shooting parties, walking with the beaters, listening to their conversations and learning the ways of the countryside.
While timid and withdrawn in many other areas, the young Charles was at home in the outdoors. He did not recoil from the sound of gunfire, nor from the death throes of a downed stag. As for Balmoral, where life for the Royal Family revolves around guns, stalking and fishing, there was nowhere else he would rather be.
So when it emerged this week that the Prince’s grandson, five-year-old Prince George, had attended his first grouse shoot on the heather-clad hills above the Queen’s Scottish summer retreat, it was the clearest sign of the passing of a royal tradition from one generation to another.
It was, after all, how George’s father Prince William had been introduced to the sport. William was just four when Charles and Princess Diana took him to his first shoot on the muddy fields of the Queen’s Sandringham estate in Norfolk.
Prince Harry has been shooting from a young age but questions are being asked over whether he has given up the sport for his new wife
While George was seen clutching a toy rabbit as he was driven by his mother to watch the action, the young William joined in the fun back then, taking pretend potshots at the pheasants with a toy gun. Thirty-two years separated these royal rites of passage, but the offstage noise was remarkably similar. In 1986, the animal rights lobby launched into outrage at the Prince being ‘indoctrinated into slaughter’.
For George, the outcry came from social media, complete with teary-eyed emojis about the boy who is ‘going to grow up without any empathy for animals’.
If this seems hard on George, who surely is blameless, wait until he shoots a stag. As a teenager, William was deluged with complaints from anti-fieldsports campaigners after he brought down his first stag with a single shot, prompting the late Labour MP Tony Banks to brand it ‘disgusting’ that a 14-year-old boy was indulging in ‘blood lust’.
The incident, he said, demonstrated how out of touch the Royal Family was with public opinion and was the worst kind of example to set the country and a ‘throwback to the 19th century’.
But, even allowing for such hyperbole, shooting has, for years, polarised opinion in Britain.
Prince Philip — who, in his younger days, was dubbed the ‘trigger happy prince’ — has never been allowed to escape the furore after he shot a tiger on an official visit to India, even though it was at a time when big-game shooting was both legal and an important part of fraternal diplomacy.
For the royals, of course, shooting is rooted in understanding the countryside and the delicate balance that is best protected by active management of the land. That means culling deer and hunting game. Without that, a lot of our countryside would fall into decay and disuse. In time, Prince George, a king-in-waiting, will come to learn about that balance, as both his father and grandfather did as young men.
When a short-trousered Prince of Wales took to the landscape around Balmoral, the gamekeepers and ghillies discovered in the young Charles not only a willing student, but a shared enthusiasm. It was also the one place where he got to spend time with his parents, riding out with his mother and accompanying his father on his shoots.
At nine, Charles shot his first grouse. A year later, Philip had taken him on his first duck- hunting expedition to Hickling on the Norfolk Broads. He was already a promising shot, having downed an elusive woodcock, when, aged 13, he bagged his first stag. It provoked uproar — as William’s did 35 years later — with letters in the Press attacking the royals.
While still a boy, Charles became adept at ‘bleeding’ and cleaning the carcass of a deer, before dragging it to a pony that would carry it down from the hillside.
William got his shooting eye potting rabbits on the Highgrove estate, before graduating to a 20-bore shotgun to shoot pheasants. To celebrate his admission to the University of St Andrews, Charles purchased a handmade sporting rifle for his son. The .243 calibre weapon was designed for a skilled shot. Left-handed William had already proved his ability with his first stalking kill on the Spittal at the western end of Loch Muick during a stay with the Queen Mother at her Birkhall home.
At the time, it was reported that the young prince had been ‘blooded’ by the estate’s head stalker — a rite of passage in which the blood of the kill was smeared onto his face.
The episode happened at the height of the bitter separation of his parents and it was inaccurately claimed the shooting had provoked a rift between Diana and her son.
In fact, there was no such dispute. Diana, who herself once shot a stag at Balmoral, did not object to either of her sons shooting. She used to refer to them jokingly as the ‘killer Wales’.
Only once did she voice concern and that was after learning they were shooting rabbits from a moving Land Rover at night, using the vehicle’s lights to illuminate their shots. ‘That struck me as a little dangerous,’ she said.
Prince William at a shoot on the Sandringham Estate. This week it was revealed Prince George joined his first shoot
When Prince Charles briefly stopped shooting during the mid-Eighties, it was claimed to be because Diana was against it.
The Princess always maintained that her so-called hatred of Balmoral was a myth. ‘I loved being out all day, I loved the stalking,’ she said.
What she couldn’t tolerate was the ‘atmosphere’ with the Royal Family. ‘It drains me.’
These days, that atmosphere is said to be much lighter. Nevertheless, it is not without its foibles. When William and Kate arrived with their three children for last weekend’s stay, it meant some right royal comings and goings. Prince Edward, who was staying with wife Sophie and their two children, had to leave the castle and move into the Garden Cottage.
This, in turn, meant the Queen’s deputy private secretary, Tom Laing-Baker, who had been staying there, had to decamp to one of the lodges that are normally rented out to members of the public. When the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge left two days later, the process was reversed, with Edward and Sophie moving back into the castle.
‘They didn’t complain at all. They are a very easy-going couple,’ says a source.
With George’s appearance at a shoot, one royal first was achieved, but there is another even more eagerly anticipated: the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex for Meghan’s first Balmoral excursion. Despite reports that they have accepted an invitation from the Queen, they still have not visited.
Courtiers are wondering if this might be deliberate, in order to delay their arrival until after the stalking parties the royals host have ended.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge both attend grouse shoots. However, it is not clear whether Harry and Meghan will join them in the future
This, says one old hand, could be a neat way for Meghan, who is thought not to approve of sports shooting, to ‘avoid the shooting trap’.
There is an added element of intrigue: has Prince Harry given up shooting because of Meghan? If true, this could prove to be as significant as Charles’s temporary hiatus 30 years ago.
Today, despite the critics in the animal lobby, the royals’ shooting traditions have mellowed. One estimate in 1996 reckoned that, in the previous 30 years, Philip had shot one tiger, two crocodiles, countless wild boar and stags, rabbits, ducks and at least 30,000 pheasants.
Yet even this is dwarfed by the wholesale slaughter brought about by an earlier generation of royals, who showed no quarter in their bid to blast game wherever and whenever they could.
In 1868, the future King Edward VII provoked consternation when he chased a deer on horseback from Harrow in North West London, through Wormwood Scrubs, to the goods yard at Paddington Station — where he shot it in front of astonished railway guards and porters.
Though Paddington isn’t very far from Prince George’s Kensington Palace home, it’s probably best if the young royal doesn’t get any such outlandish ideas into his head.
Prince Edward on a shoot. The Royal family traditionally take part in annual shooting events