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Bring Back the Curlew
Phil Gray calls for a change in the Law

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The ebbing tide recedes from the shining mudflats and already the first of the waders are repossessing their feeding quarters. Clouds of knot join the redshank, the grey plover and the bar-tailed godwit. A haunting, bubbling whistling heralds the approach of a herd of curlew . They sweep in on set wings, pitch, shake out their plumage and begin, immediately, to probe the mud with those long, curved bills by which they are so readily identified. Who, upon hearing the call of the curlew, can fail to be moved? For older fowlers the sound will bring memories of exciting flights flooding back - like the very tide itself.

Regrettably, during the debate leading up to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, our MPs voted to remove the curlew from the list of quarry species. One justified his action by saying, "The curlew has such a lovely call." No one would disagree with that but it hardly seems a reason to give the bird full protection. Curlew were never in any danger from over-shooting. The main threat to the species, as to so many others, lies in the loss of habitat. Just why a fight was not put up at that time remains a mystery but the sad fact is that a valuable sporting bird was lost to the wildfowler.

A new generation of fowlers are entering the sport who will be unable to experience the magic of curlew shooting. In the autumn, many hours could be spent creeping around the saltings in the network of creeks. Two or more gunners, a quarter mile apart, could move the birds between them using all sorts of strategies. A dog, especially a light coloured one, could be used to decoy the inquisitive curlew and a hat, flapped for a second above the creek, could have the same effect.

When tide flighting, we would use part of the marsh with a few creeks so that we could move back safely ahead of the flood. Alternatively, on very high tides, we would hide in a creek under a known flightline, while the tide pushed the curlew over us as they moved to a higher part of the marsh. Eventually, hundreds of birds would foregather on the highest portion of saltings and when, at last, they were washed off, they would flight over the sea wall. In this way we could enjoy two flights at the same birds.

It was, very occasionally, possible to make large bags of curlew but we shot only what we wanted for ourselves and a few friends. On most outings the wariness of the fowl and the limitations of the fowler's skill combined to ensure that the species was under no great threat. Many wildfowlers did not shoot curlew at all or did so only if a random chance presented itself. Few even considered it to be good to eat - they don't know what they were missing. In September and October curlew are very good to eat, especially if hung. Later on they get less appetizing but, by then, fowlers are concentrating on ducks and geese.

The curlew was given protection on the basis of whim rather than on considered judgement. Isn't it time that we were asking for it to be re-instated on the list of quarry? We hear the cry, "Bring back the brent!" Why not the curlew? It is a worthy quarry indeed - elusive, sharp-eyed and well able to look after itself. A real wildfowler's bird and a traditional and valued part of the fowling scene.

Stanley Duncan would, I am sure, have been active on this matter long before now. Will, then, our representatives on the BASC Wildfowling Liaison Committee act upon this call to return to us the old longbill?

This article is reprinted as an abbreviated form of an article by Phil Gray originally published in the Wildfowling Magazine issue dated Winter 1994/95. At that time Phil was secretary of the Whittlesey Wildfowlers and Conservationists.

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