(Full unedited version of the article that appeared in the Observer)

To Be Lawyered

By Danny Penman

Animal rights activists will launch a campaign this week targeting the John Lewis Partnership, famed for its ethical approach to business, after discovering that the company organises pheasant shoots on one of its country estates.

To counteract the campaign, the Partnership, which also includes the Waitrose supermarket chain, has begun legal action against protesters for alleged libel. The legal action has been welcomed by the activists who hope to mimic the 32-month 'McLibel' court case between the McDonald's burger chain and two unemployed environmentalists.

Niel Hansen, an organiser of the National Anti-Hunt Campaign, which is targeting the company, claims that about 8,000 birds per year are shot on the John Lewis Partnership's Leckford Abbas Estate in Hampshire.

The company allows its partners, local businessmen and paying guests to shoot intensively reared pheasants for about two days per week throughout the October to February season.

One employee, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the parties go out twice on each shooting day and "come back with a Land Rover filled with ducks, pheasants and grouse".

Mr Hansen said: "There's no justification for it. It's done mainly for entertainment purposes."

"The John Lewis Partnership is very careful at presenting itself as an ethical caring company and we feel that their customers, who may be shopping with them for that reason, have a right to know what's being done on this estate with their money."

Greg Williams, spokesman for the company, said that pheasant shooting is an important part of the estate's management and they rigorously follow all codes of conduct on the rearing and shooting of game birds.

He said: "We go to great lengths to make sure that we are ethical in all areas of our business. While some people find shooting offensive its been a part of country life for centuries and we find ourselves as a steward of that part of Hampshire.

"To us being a steward involves preserving the countryside and its flora and fauna for the future."

The campaign will begin with activists handing out provocative leaflets, which are the subject of legal action, urging customers to boycott the company's stores.

Within a few weeks, the activists say they will begin a direct action campaign. Tactics believed to be under consideration are store and office occupations, during which, activists will chain themselves to entrance doors, checkouts and meat counters. Other activists will take over the company's offices and interfere with filing systems.

The activists hope that the company will swiftly accede to their demands rather than risk tarnishing its reputation as an "ethical business".

The company is famed for its policy of being "never knowingly undersold" and for its staff partnership scheme, with 36,000 members, each of which has say in the running of the business and a share of the profits.

Mr Williams said that the company's policy on game shooting is consistent with its claimed ethical approach to business.

Animal rights campaigners object to game shooting because they see it as unnecessary, cruel and pursued purely for pleasure, claims that are denied by game shooters.

According to the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, about 100 million pheasants are reared for shooting in Britain each year.

They are kept in intensive conditions akin to broiler hens. To restrict aggression induced by the cramped conditions, they may have their beaks sliced off with red-hot blades. Other ways of discouraging aggression include; fitting the birds with 'bits' that prevent them from closing their beaks or restricting their fields' of view with thick plastic spectacles.

After rearing, each year about fifty million birds are released into the countryside, of which, twenty million are shot for sport.

Lesley Ferguson, spokeswoman for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, claims that pheasant shooting is vital for the economic vitality of the countryside. It also encourages land owners to conserve the rural environment.

But John Bryant, Chief Officer of the League Against Cruel Sports, says that game shooting reduces biodiversity.

He said: "Our biggest worry is not so much the shooting, although there's clearly a lot of wounding and suffering, but the activities of gamekeepers who are employed to keep these birds alive long enough to be shot.

"The gamekeepers are snaring, trapping and shooting between five and ten million British wild animals and birds every year."

If fox-hunting is banned by an incoming Labour Government, which has pledged Parliamentary time to do so, game shooting is likely to be the next target of the animal rights movement.