That wildfowling and conservation are intrinsically linked, as entwined as a Celtic knot, there can be no doubt.
Wildfowling, arguably the wildest and definitely the oldest of shooting sports in the British Isles, is also the most conservation-minded. One need only look at the roster of famous wildfowlers, both past and present, and their wealth of conservation credentials to be convinced of this simple but profound truth.
Thumbing through my copy of The New Wildfowler in the 1970s, a book written over half a century ago, I see that the preface was written by Sir Peter Scott.
Sir Peter was one of the keenest of all wildfowlers and an inspired conservationist. He was director of the Wildfowl Trust, chairman of the British section of the World Wildlife Fund and chairman of the Wildfowl Conservation Committee of the Nature Conservancy.
The introduction was written by the Earl of Mansfield, president of WAGBI (the precursor of BASC), who was also a Trustee of The Wildfowl Trust and past president of the British Trust for Ornithology.
The previous edition of the book, published in 1961 and entitled The New Wildfowler contained contributions from both the director general of the Nature Conservancy and the secretary of the RSPB.
Much has changed since these books were written, both in wildfowling itself and the regulations which cover it. Change has taken place too across the precious wild habitats where the sport is carried out.
This change has resulted from the increasing pressures put on foreshore areas from all quarters, whether industrial or agricultural development as well as a range of growing recreational activities. Each of these has their own an impact on our ever-decreasing wild coastal areas, which represent one of the very few truly natural landscapes in Britain.
However, one element which remains reassuringly constant in the sport of wildfowling is the fact that it has conservation at its core.
It is, perhaps, pertinent to quote from Sir Peter Scott’s preface, written in 1970 about the urgent need, appreciated even then, to conserve essential wildfowl habitat and create a network of natural refuges.
Commenting on the work which was at that time being undertaken by The Wildfowl Trust with the help and advice of wildfowlers, Sir Peter said: “WAGBI, The Nature Conservancy Council and The Wildfowl Trust have come together to plan constructively for the future; and let us be clear about it, the main object of these refuges is to increase the stocks, thereby improving the wildfowler’s sport rather than curtailing it.
“As a natural resource wildfowl should be regarded as a legitimate crop, and wildfowling is the traditional way of harvesting it. We must only be sure that the harvest is there to gather.”
I have to wonder what today’s management at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust would have to say about such a statement!
As a conservationist and wildfowler, I was actually a keen young birdwatcher for a number of years before picking up a gun.
I’m delighted to be a part of this rich tradition and to be a member of two local wildfowling clubs in my native north Wales. Both clubs undertake a range of conservation activities thanks to many hours of voluntary work put in by their members.
The Traeth Bach Wildfowlers Association was established 38 years ago, based around the Glaslyn, Dwyryd and Artro estuaries in north-west Wales, sitting within sight of Yr Wyddfa and the spectacular mountainscape of Eryri.
The club has not engaged in any purchases of land surrounding the estuaries but has been instrumental in undertaking a range of vital environmental and conservation-based activities for many years.
One of the main exercises the club has been involved in over the years is litter-picking along the many miles of coastline around the club’s estuaries.
Control of pest species, such as carrion crows and mink, has also been carried out by the club’s members, working closely with Natural Resources Wales. This work is particularly important from a conservation viewpoint as the club’s shooting grounds border the Morfa Harlech National Nature Reserve. The reserve is a designated SSSI where redshank, lapwing, skylark and stonechat as well as a number of other rare bird species nest.
Y Foryd Wildfowling and Conservation Association, established in the late 1980s and which has held a lease on Y Foryd Bay since 1992, has been very active on all fronts since the club’s inception.
The club bought a parcel of land adjacent to the foreshore with a Habitat Trusts grant in 1989 and, with the assistance of local council grants, has been actively managing the habitat for the benefit of wildlife ever since.
Work has mainly involved maintaining areas of reed beds, which are occasionally damaged by a combination of high tides and river flooding, as well as creating open areas of water which benefit waders and wildfowl all year round.
As well as work to benefit waterfowl, the club embarked on a barn owl nest box project, with 14 owl nest boxes put up in 2004 and several more since. The owl boxes come flat-packed and the club has worked with a number of local schools to expand the reach of the project outside the immediate managed area.
Similar work putting up bird and bat boxes followed, all of which are readily taken up by several species of birds and bats.
The club’s latest endeavours have included erecting duck nesting tubes around the wetlands and reed beds.
Y Foryd enjoys an excellent working relationship with the local council and has carried out repair work on the latter’s bird hide; the council provided the materials and the club contributed the labour. Win win.
The club is also very proud to have been awarded a Stanley Duncan Award for its conservation work. It was decided to let the latest parcel of land acquired by the club revert from what was cattle-grazed land to a more natural scrub – a genuine case of rewilding!
Wildfowling is of significant conservation benefit
These are just two examples of wildfowling clubs working to benefit the natural surroundings in which their sport takes place.
This sort of work and more is replicated all over Britain by wildfowling clubs. Together, they clearly demonstrate wildfowling is of significant conservation benefit wherever its traditions are allowed to continue.
In my research for this piece, it was very refreshing to hear Emrys Heard, ex-Chairman of Y Foryd Wildfowlers, told me about the time when a group of visitors to the council’s hide noticed the club members working on repairing the structure.
The visitors, all bird watchers, assumed that Emrys and the other volunteers were from the council.
Typically for Emrys, he took great delight in informing them that the ‘council workers’ they could see were all wildfowlers and they would be just as likely to see them out on the foreshore with dog and gun as carrying out conservation and other work on the club’s grounds.
The visiting birders were somewhat taken aback but were also pleasantly surprised by this and came around to the idea that wildfowlers were actually good guys.
Wildfowling has a wealth of positive conservation stories to tell. Perhaps we wildfowlers should all consider how we might get these good news stories to a wider audience.
Have a good wildfowling season, everyone!