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The 21st Century Wildfowler
Eric Begbie looks at the sport in Britain today

"Of all country sports, wildfowling is the pursuit which most relies upon the ability of the hunter to come to terms with his quarry in truly wild conditions. The marshes, saltings and mudflats below the sea wall constitute one of the last areas of true wilderness to be found in the British isles and it is to those remote places that the wildfowler repairs when wild duck and geese are in season.

"The wildfowler does not measure success by the size of his bag nor does he gauge his enjoyment according to the social intercourse which occurs over lunch or between drives. His pursuit is that of the lone gunner. With a faithful retriever as his sole companion, he relishes the peace and solitude of the coastal marshes. It is a world that he shares with the wildfowl and a world that he must learn to respect."

Those are the words with which I began my introduction to the last edition of The New Wildfowler, a book which was the BASCís bible of wildfowling for the second half of the 20th century.

As urban society increasingly erodes our countryside, the land below the sea wall is, to a greater extent than ever before, a sanctuary from the "modernisation" that gathers pace all around us. As the television news unremittingly assails us with each eveningís ration of contemporary madness, time spent savouring the solitude of the marshes becomes an even more essential buttress to our sanity. 

At the dawn of a new century, it is perhaps apposite for wildfowlers to pause and reflect upon the nature of their sport and upon the challenges that may lie ahead. While we may find respite in the traditions and enduring values of our pursuit, can we afford to ignore the pressures that are being exerted all around us?

Writing in Shooting Times about 25 years ago, I suggested that wildfowling was in good heart but that exponents of the craft could not afford the luxury of being complacent about the future. Wildfowl populations and habitats required to be conserved, political threats to traditional countryside activities had to be tackled and fowlers should constantly reappraise the manner in which the essential freedoms of their sport could be accommodated within a society which is subject to ever-increasing government regulation.

Looking back, some of the threats I identified at that time have become realities and others still loom just below the horizon.

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 most humane 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 should 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. In both those regards, wildfowling is particularly vulnerable.

Unlike game shooting, fowling does not support a vast economic structure. Because we "do for ourselves" and maintain a network of voluntarily run wildfowling clubs, there is little employment directly linked to the sport. No cartridge manufacturer would go out of business if that ammunition currently expended below the sea wall ceased to be required. Few hotels or pubs would notice much drop in custom.

Because much of the foreshore is governed by public authorities, our continued use of it for recreational shooting can never be taken for granted. Indeed, there have been recent cases where local authorities have attempted - not always unsuccessfully - to restrict fowling on public areas.

Also, because our sport takes place in remote areas, usually around dawn or dusk, we do not have a high profile, even amongst other country sportsmen. Despite never having been to a fox hunt, I was happy to join the Countryside March in London in support of our hunting brethren. But where were the foxhunters, beaglers, game shots and anglers when the government legislated against the use of lead shot over wetlands? Certainly not supporting us with a mass demonstration in the nationís capital.

It is for those reasons that I suggest that, to safeguard our future, we must look to our successes of the past. From the birth of WAGBI in 1908 until it changed its name and surrendered its wildfowling identity in 1981, wildfowlers were seen to be at the front of the conservation movement. We not only co-operated in many habitat improvement schemes; oftentimes we led them.

The book that I mentioned earlier, The New Wildfowler, was a testament to this spirit of co-operation and joint action. It contained contributions by almost as many naturalists as wildfowlers. Indeed, it was frequently impossible to tell them apart. A result of this was that the sport of wildfowling was highly respected in all serious wildlife conservation circles.

A second strength of wildfowling in the past was the growth of the club system. Because they are essentially local organisations, fowling clubs are able to maintain a public profile for our sport that would otherwise be lacking. Especially where clubs purchased their own coastal marshes, they made solid investments in the future of their sport.

Of course, those two features often overlapped, in that not all of the land taken into the ownership of wildfowling clubs was used for shooting. Much was also dedicated to conservation purposes or designated as voluntary sanctuary areas.

It is sad, therefore, that there appears to have been a serious decline in club activity during the past couple of decades. Whereas, previously, many clubs had lengthy waiting lists and probationary membership schemes, some have recently had to resort to advertising in an attempt to maintain membership levels. Maybe some newcomers to shooting have felt that it is easier to write a cheque to a sporting agent than to earn their sport by 

putting their backs into the hard work that is an essential element of club life. If so, they make a very grave error.

The third historical strength that wildfowling developed was its ability to regulate itself by voluntary codes of practice. Stemming from the deep respect that every fowler has for his quarry, we were able to ensure that abuses were dealt with internally rather than becoming matters for public concern. Almost every wildfowling book published during the past 100 years has stressed the need for self-restraint when harvesting a natural resource. The respect that we demonstrated towards our wild quarry was reflected in the respect shown to practitioners of the sport by informed observers - including some politicians!

I firmly believe that those lessons from the past hold the key to the future. Wildfowlers must revive their conservation activities and take their place, standing shoulder to shoulder with conservationists of other denominations. The habitats of wild geese and duck below the sea wall are under increasing pressure from a variety of factors and it is in the interests of our continuing sport that we take action to counteract those trends.

Allied to the process of turning the tide of habitat loss, we must renew our commitment to the welfare of our quarry by demonstrating quite clearly that we understand that our sport is totally dependent upon the harvesting of a naturally occurring surplus in wildfowl populations. By holding a torch for sporting conduct and high ethical standards, we can defuse much of the public misunderstanding and criticism that abounds in the year 2000.

And all of this, I propose, can be effectively achieved only by revitalising our network of wildfowling clubs. I call upon the BASC to double its 

investment in the club structure and to actively seek fresh ways of encouraging the formation of new wildfowling clubs and the regeneration of old ones. Appointing an additional development officer in each region with the sole remit of assisting clubs would be a start.

A more radical step would be to pass to wildfowling clubs a proportion of the BASC subscriptions paid by all BASC members in each clubís locality. This would ensure financial assistance from even those sportsmen who were unwilling to support their local club in more practical ways.

Wildfowling has a long and noble history and is one of the cornerstones upon which our entire sporting tradition is built. Let us take action now to ensure that, within the 21st century, it has an equally long and fulfilling future. The tragic implications of failing in this duty would extend far beyond the solitary world of the longshore gunner.

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