Wildfowling, shooting and conservation

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Chapter 11

Tomorrow's World

The sport of wildfowling has a long and noble past, having captured the enthusiasm and imagination of mankind since earliest times. Long before the invention of firearms, the value of duck and geese as both food source and sporting quarry was recognised throughout the world. Chinese, Egyptian and Roman artefacts dating back to 1300BC bear witness to the ingenuity which our predecessors brought to the pursuit, utilising throwing sticks, bows, clap nets and decoys to cull a harvest of fowl from the marshes. Early in the 17th century the development of relatively reliable flintlock guns made wing shooting a practicable proposition and, by the time a further 100 years had passed, the origins of fowling as we know it today were well established. Each improvement in shotgun design increased the efficiency with which the wildfowler could pursue his quarry until, with the advent of the hammerless breech-loader and modern nitro powders, the optimum weaponry became available to the longshore gunner.

As the year 2000AD* draws nigh wildfowling is in good heart but exponents of the craft cannot afford the luxury of being complacent about the future. Wildfowl populations and habitats require to be conserved, political threats to traditional countryside activities have to be tackled and fowlers must constantly reappraise the manner in which the essential freedoms of their sport can be accommodated within a society which is subject to ever-increasing regulation.

* Fowler in the Wild was first published in 1987

CONSERVATION AND RESEARCH

In the vanishing landscape of the British countryside the twin pressures of intensive agricultural and industrial development have eaten up vast tracts of marsh and fen which once harboured great hordes of wildfowl. In other countries, also, prime duck and goose habitat has disappeared or been threatened in a similar manner. Wildfowlers were not slow to recognise the dangers nor hesitant to meet the challenges presented by the changing rural scene. Led by WAGBI (now the British Association for Shooting & Conservation), many fowling clubs and dedicated individual sportsmen readily accepted the need to co-operate with other conservationists and the value of such joint initiatives was acknowledged in a booklet entitled Wildfowl Conservation in Great Britain - The Story of a Triumvirate published by WAGBI, the Nature Conservancy and the Wildfowl Trust in 1970.

Wildfowl Refuges and Nature Reserves

Conservation implies the management of limited or vulnerable resources in a way which will ensure their maintenance and increase. From the point of view of the wildfowler it makes a great deal of sense to offer sufficient protection to the wild populations of geese and duck to ensure that their numbers are maintained despite the many adverse factors, such as habitat erosion, which are at work. To this end, a national network of wildfowl refuges was welcomed, many wildfowling clubs established their own wildfowl sanctuary zones and fowling interests became represented on the management committees of important nature reserves.

In the years ahead it will become increasingly necessary for wildfowlers to demonstrate their commitment to reserve areas. Only when sanctuary zones are managed, directly or indirectly, by wildfowling clubs and organisations can we be confident that the future of the sport is secure. The alternative is an escalation of land purchase and reserve creation by protectionist bodies which may not always be sympathetic to shooting. Already there are tragic examples of marshes which, for many years, were exceedingly well managed by wildfowling clubs being bought by protectionist organisations and all shooting proscribed. In some parts of the country well-organised fowling clubs have countered this threat by purchasing the freehold of the areas which traditionally they have shot but much greater financial resources will be required if this trend is to continue. The BASC's Wildlife Habitat Trust Fund has a very important part to play in this process.

Research

There is still a great deal which is not fully understood about the behaviour of wildfowl, the effects of habitat changes upon their distribution, the manner in which breeding success influences long-term population levels and many similar matters. In order that wildfowlers may contribute to the overall stock of knowledge concerning their quarry and, more particularly, that scientifically derived evidence may be available to repulse any threat to the sport, it is highly desirable that the BASC's research programme continues to expand.

Already much sterling work has been undertaken by the research staff at Marford Mill, with many clubs and individual wildfowlers playing a crucial role by collecting and supplying data to the research projects. The National Shooting Survey, BASC's duck wing study, an exercise to assess the effect of hard weather upon wildfowl condition and collaboration with other bodies in an attempt to evaluate the detrimental effects which may follow the ingestion of lead shot by wildfowl are but a few examples of the type of projects which have been mounted.

It would be a tragedy if research of this nature was curtailed due to lack of support by wildfowlers. In the absence of properly conducted investigations there would be a great deal of additional scope for opponents of shooting sports to present fallacies and half-truths in support of their arguments.

POLITICAL THREATS

One of the most important functions of the BASC is to monitor political activity at local authority, government and European levels. In many parts of the country the designation of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) posed a threat to wildfowling which had to be countered. Any draft legislation affecting land use, wildlife conservation or firearms must be carefully studied and the appropriate representations made.

It is likely that, in future years, governments will come under increasing pressure from protectionist organisations, the law and order lobby and European directives to introduce or amend statutes in ways which would be detrimental to shooting sports. The only effective safeguard which wildfowlers have is a strong and influential parent body and it is not too severe to suggest that, in Britain today, no person deserves to carry a shotgun unless he also carries a BASC membership card in his pocket.

Much of the political antipathy to country sports is founded upon ignorance and an absence of rational thought. A very high proportion of the population lives in urban conurbations and has little knowledge or understanding of the ways of the countryside. Nurtured on the "cuddly bunny" syndrome, many people see the world of nature through rose-coloured spectacles which are often tinted to the point of opacity. They do not appreciate that there are only four ways in which a duck or goose can die - by predation, starvation, disease or shooting and that, in anybody's terms, shooting is the least unpleasant of those. To a countryman it may seem strange that the city dweller who decries fieldsports can quite happily go into a supermarket and buy a plastic-wrapped battery fowl for their family dinner but few of the people who oppose shooting stop to think in those terms.

Despite the irrationality of their arguments and actions, the animal liberation fanatics cannot be ignored. The fact that over five million people in Britain engage in fieldsports may convince all of the major political parties that it would be electoral suicide to legislate for the total abolition of shooting or fishing but there remains a danger that our sports will be eroded at the edges by restricting the quarry species or by imposing further regulations upon the possession and use of firearms. It is up to each and every wildfowler to maintain public relations of the highest standard in order to counteract the pressures of our opponents.

SELF DISCIPLINE

One of the most effective ways of avoiding unnecessary statutory restrictions upon wildfowling is to voluntarily accept sensible and moderate codes of conduct. Many of the traditions of fowling are founded upon the great sense of freedom which the estuarine gunner experiences when he is out on the saltings long before dawn. It is, therefore, understandably an anathema to many fowlers to suggest that they should accept a degree of regulation which would never have been dreamed of by their forefathers. The rise of wildfowling clubs was not universally popular nor, until recently, was the BASC accepted by many shooters. Nevertheless, there can be few wildfowlers who do not now recognise that the state of their sport would be very much poorer today had it not been for the efforts of the BASC and its affiliated clubs during recent decades.

In some coastal areas the introduction of wildfowling permit schemes is still resented and any mention of bag limits is sure to arouse strong emotions where fowlers gather together. Compared to our contemporaries in the USA or in most European countries we still have a much-envied degree of freedom and there are aspects of this which we should cherish and carefully nurture. On the other hand, where a slight restriction on our practices can be shown to be to the long-term benefit of our sport or where a little modification to our traditional behaviour might secure a better future for our quarry, we should not automatically throw up our hands in horror. By being seen to be responsible, logical, well-informed and caring in our attitudes to the duck and geese of the marsh, we will ensure that our sons and grandsons may also enjoy that unique combination of solitude, tranquility, excitement and fulfillment which is the heritage of every true wildfowler in Britain today.


This file is an extract from "Fowler in the Wild" by Eric Begbie. It may be reproduced, in whole or in part, by magazines or other publications with the prior permission of the author.


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