The shooting season in the UK is only a month old, and already the royal family are in hot water (yet again) over their deeply inconvenient habit of shooting feathered animals.
This time, it is Prince Charles who is on the ropes, having been photographed holding a gun on a shoot at Sandringham, the queen’s private estate in Norfolk.
The images are already fueling a wave of social media criticism against the prince, and open him up to charges of hypocrisy concerning his support for green and animal welfare causes.
Huntsmen argue that without shooting, many wild woodland and bog habitats would not be preserved, but ‘antis’ point out that many commercial, big game hunting safaris in Africa make the very same arguments.
As well as animal cruelty issues, there is also the environmental damage caused by the lead shot propelled from shotgun cartridges (some estimates say that across Europe, 8.7% of ducks and geese die as a result of lead poisoning every year) to consider.
The pictures of Prince Charles shooting come just weeks after Prince Edward was photographed appearing to take a shot directly over the head of his six-year-old James, Viscount Severn.
Buckingham Palace insisted at the time that that the ‘perspective [of the pictures] is very misleading. At no time during the shoot was Viscount Severn directly in front of the Earl of Wessex. As always during any sporting event on the estate, the highest safety standards were adhered to.”
Palace officials have long argued that the royals have a reasonable expectation of privacy while on the estate, but Sandringham is criss-crossed by public roads and public footpaths, from which the public can take pictures legally.
It appears that the new pictures of Charles, which show the prince wearing a flat cap, waxed jacket and tie and holding a shotgun, were taken from one of these public rights of way.
Charles, 66, apparently sent police to speak to the photographer - although they said the photographer was doing nothing wrong - and then got his officials to contact newspapers in an effort to stop details of the shooting party being published.
However, the Daily Express went ahead and published the pictures.
It is the first time Charles has been pictured with a gun on a pheasant shoot since December 2008.
Prince Harry was plunged into a shooting controversy after pictures of him crouched over the body of a water buffalo he had shot on a big game hunt were published in the British papers. He appeared to have been 'blooded' on the right cheek, a tradition where blood of a species shot for the first time by a hunter is smeared on their face.
The picture was taken when Harry was 20, and dating Zimbabwean Chelsy Davy. He joined a legal expedition to hunt big game, staying at a private lodge in the province of Entre Rios in Argentina on a 170,000-acre ranch stocked with game.
The shocking picture, which was taken in 2004, had circulated among anti-blood sports and anti-royal campaigners for several years before its publication.
Harry and William then came under pressure for participating in a wild boar hunt in Spain in 2012 the weekend before a new wildlife appeal was launched.
While some may balk at the emotive characterization of game shooting as "cruelty to animals," there is little doubt that there is a powerful tension between Charles, Harry and William's undoubted passion for conservation and their apparent willingness to mow down hundreds of birds, reared specially for the purpose of being shot, in the pheasant shooting season, which opened on the first of November.
William, an excellent shot, has been an enthusiastic participant in blood sports since his teenage years. On a trip to an estate in Spain last year, William’s party was said to have bagged—along with numerous wild boar and deer—740 partridge between them.
This an obscene number by anyone’s reckoning.
The public, by and large, simply doesn’t buy the line that game shooting supports biodiversity by protecting habitats that would otherwise be destroyed or overrun with vermin.
The killing of animals for fun never goes down well. David Cameron, the British prime minister, was forced to give up deer stalking when he became PM, however reports this weekend claimed that he missed shooting so much he secretly went pigeon shooting in some woodland near his home in 2012.
Access to the best shooting in the world is one of the perks of being a royal. Unfortunately for Prince Charles, if he wants to be a King who will be taken seriously as an ambassador for global conservation, he is going to have to forgo this pleasure.