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UK Wildfowlers - A Model for Europe
Dr Conor O’Gorman, BASC’s conservation officer


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Conflict over shooting on sites designated for nature conservation  has sharpened in Europe, but  wildfowlers could be setting an example of best practice.   

Wildfowlers in the UK are setting an example for the whole of Europe on how to integrate shooting with the conservation needs of internationally important wildlife havens. Almost uniquely, we seem to have overcome the protectionist misconception that hunting is a threat to the conservation of these areas.  Recently a European delegation visited the UK to see how we do it.  

In September last year representatives from members of the Federation of Associations for Hunting and Conservation of the EU (FACE) descended on BASC headquarters in North Wales to discuss wildfowling.  This workshop and subsequent fieldtrip to the Dee Estuary was the culmination of several months of organisation by Conor O’Gorman, BASC’s Conservation Officer. 

This event was the fourth of five workshops to discuss the regulation of hunting in Natura 2000 sites – a network of protected areas which have been designated by the EU for their importance to particular species or types of habitat.  Conor and Mark Cokayne, BASC Wildfowl & Wetlands Officer, represented BASC throughout these discussions. 

In the UK, BASC has a long history of working with organisations like English Nature (now Natural England) and the Crown Estate to ensure the continuation of wildfowling on Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and similar areas.  But in much of Europe this kind of co-operation is rare and hunters have been at loggerheads with protectionist organisations.  Foremost among these is BirdLife International, which represents the various national associations concerned with bird protection – the RSPB is a major player. 

In several countries some national BirdLife partners have argued – sometimes successfully – that hunting should not be allowed on Natura 2000 sites, and there has been some confusion at government level about how the conservation legislation should be applied. Some governments have, quite wrongly, used Natura 2000 designations to ban traditional hunting based on prejudice rather than science. 

On the hunters’ side there have often been misconceptions that Natura 2000 status would automatically lead to a shooting ban, and this was sometimes reinforced by poor consultation during the designation process. 

To tackle the problem the FACE launched the Natura 2000 Project, which involved workshops in Belgium, France, Latvia, Spain and the UK.   This brought together delegates from the various countries, representing mostly hunting organisations, to exchange first-hand experiences of how their governments were interpreting the Birds and Habitats Directives, which govern Natura 2000 sites.  

An essential component of the project is making hunters aware that Natura 2000 does not necessarily represent a threat to their sport, and it shows ways in which they can participate in decision making and management of the sites.  

The key message from the project was that the intention of Natura 2000 is to protect areas but allow activities such as hunting to continue there, provided they are regulated to ensure they are sustainable.   Indeed BirdLife International and FACE have agreed that the Birds Directive should be interpreted in the light of an EU guidance document on hunting.  This states: “The Birds Directive fully recognises the legitimacy of hunting of wild birds as a form of sustainable use. Hunting is an activity that provides significant social, cultural, economic and environmental benefits in different regions of the European Union.” 

During their visit to the UK  delegates took part in two workshops, the first, organised by BASC, involved a visit to the Dee estuary, hosted by John Graham of the Dee Wildfowlers and Wetlands Management Association.  Here, the flourishing wildfowl population gave dramatic proof of the compatibility of shooting with the conservation features of a Natura 2000 site.  The very positive contribution of Julian Hughes from the RSPB added to the impression that the UK provides a model of best practice for managing protected sites. 

As a result of the five workshops it became clear that hunting interests have been at the forefront in protecting the habitats and species of many Natura 2000 sites from unsustainable agricultural or industrial development.   

The threat to the continuation of hunting in Natura 2000 sites most often stems from public lobbying by protectionist organisations which leads to misinterpretation of the intentions of Natura 2000 by governments, stakeholders and the public.  This lobbying is only successful where hunting organisations do not have the resources to fight back with relevant information.   

It was evident from the discussions that BirdLife Partners were totally at odds with FACE members in some countries, and could not accept hunting as a positive influence on Natura 2000 sites.  This seemed to arise from a lack of dialogue between such organisations whose views became polarised as total protection versus absolute freedom. This became particularly acute during consultations on new laws and the designation of sites 

So what does this all mean for wildfowling in Natura 2000 sites in the UK?  The consensus amongst participants, especially following the UK wildfowling workshop, was that we are in a strong position regarding the continuation of wildfowling in Natura 2000 sites. Given the protracted consent negotiations some wildfowling clubs have experienced on a number of Natura 2000 sites in 2005 and 2006, this came as something of a surprise.   However, placed in the context of restrictions and bans on hunting within Natura 2000 sites in mainland Europe, our issues seemed less onerous.  More a case of lengthy paperwork and discussions resulting in agreement rather than a direct threat to wildfowling itself. 

For Europe as a whole the FACE initiative has provided the tools to ensure that where a country attempts to unfairly restrict or ban hunting in Natura 2000 sites -  through ignorance or intentional misinformation - there is now a European network of informed hunting contacts to discuss situations as they arise and to help, as a group, to remedy these.  The focus of this is a website, www.facenatura2000.net  Financed by the European Union, the project site is run by FACE in partnership with the European Landowners’ Organisation and with the participation of BirdLife International.