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The Future of Wildfowling in Britain
Food for thought from Eric Begbie

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Once upon a time wildfowling held pride of place at the pinnacle of all shooting sports. Pursued by gentleman gunner, professional fowler and artisan sportsman alike, the ducks and geese of the estuaries and coastal marshes captured the imaginations of generations of British hunters.

Lewis Clement, when he was editor of Shooting Times, adopted the pseudonym “Wildfowler”. BASC started life as the Wildfowlers Association. Many of the country’s most eminent naturalists were also wildfowlers, their interest and expertise in the study of wildlife deriving from hours spent with dog and gun below the sea wall. The literature of our sport abounds with emotive and evocative accounts of the romance and challenge of coastal fowling.

But times change. The question facing us today is whether wildfowling can have a future to match its illustrious past? Can we carry forward the heritage of the longshore gunner of the 19th and 20th centuries much further into the 21st? The signs appear to be somewhat mixed and the stoic confidence of some contemporary fowlers is balanced by the grim pessimism of others.

Certainly wildfowling has taken far more knocks in the past 25 years than any other branch of shooting. Legislation has removed important quarry species from the fowler’s list and placed a plethora of senseless restrictions on his guns and ammunition. WAGBI, which was essentially and primarily a wildfowling organisation has been replaced by BASC, within which wildfowling is no longer the undisputed top priority. With a few notable exceptions, wildfowling clubs throughout the nation have seen dramatic reductions in membership numbers and a general waning of enthusiasm. Tracts of prime wildfowling foreshore have been purchased by protectionist organisations and turned into no-shooting reserves.

At the same time, access to other forms of shooting has become easier and less expensive. Roughshooting, small driven days and even pigeon shooting can all be purchased from commercial agencies. It seems that fewer enthusiasts are willing to rise from their beds at ungodly hours in midwinter and face howling gales and stormy foreshores in their search for sport. Young people not only have the competing attractions of high technology entertainments and round-the-clock television, they are also subjected to an insidious flood of poisonous anti-fieldsports propaganda in their schools.

Some of those developments are probably irreversible. It is unlikely that we will ever get lead shot back into general use throughout the UK. Only the eternal optimist genuinely hopes to see the scaup, curlew or Greenland whitefront back on the shooting list. The rabid protectionists won’t crawl back into their pits and leave us in peace.

But we simply cannot wallow in self pity and give up our sport. No-one who has experienced the magic of watching teal flip over the reed beds of a dawning estuary or who has marvelled at pinkfooted geese battling inshore against the wrath of a January storm can seriously contemplate depriving future generations of similar privileges. The challenges and rewards of wildfowling far surpass those of other forms of shooting; the inner peace to be found in the tranquillity of a lonely foreshore simply cannot be found anywhere else on our crowded islands; the romance and excitement known only by the fowler are surely worth preserving. We have a rich wildfowling heritage and we must fight to keep it alive.

I believe that the tide is turning and that much of the ground that has been lost can be regained if wildfowlers throughout Britain show determination and imagination.

Against the general decline in wildfowling clubs, there have been some notable examples of successes and changes in attitude. Aided by the Wildlife Habitat Trust, several clubs have made significant purchases of foreshore and marsh and, in so doing, laid down an asset base for the future. Clubs which were previously exclusive organisations now advertise openly for members in the Shooting Times classified ads.

On internet discussion forums small, but rapidly growing, numbers of fowlers are debating the future of their sport and networking for mutual benefit. Information about guns and cartridges, home loading, wildfowl conservation and political threats is rapidly and effectively exchanged. Indeed the concept of a “virtual” wildfowling community may soon compensate for the decline of traditional fowling clubs.

Although it is true that wildfowling has been relegated within the BASC to sit alongside gameshooting and deer stalking, wildfowlers are once more becoming positively disposed towards the Association and there is a growing awareness that the loss of lead shot or the restrictions on shotgun magazine capacity were not so much failures by the BASC as political imperatives emanating from Europe. I foresee a day when fowlers will once more feel sufficiently committed to the BASC to attempt to regain the ascendancy within the halls of power at Marford Mill. I also believe that such a move will also serve to re-establish the credibility of the BASC with other conservation and governmental organisations in the UK.

These things are happening already and, with the support of enthusiastic wildfowlers, can gather momentum and achieve success. There is, however, one other area that requires to be tackled urgently, an area upon which the future of fowling ultimately and crucially depends. We must do far, far more to facilitate the education and induction of young people. I do not wish to detract from the existing BASC Young Shots programme or from small local youth initiatives promoted by wildfowling clubs but, frankly, those efforts do not go nearly far enough.

My eyes were opened a number of years ago when I first visited the South Carolina Waterfowl Association in the USA. This organisation is only a tiny fraction of the size of the BASC yet it runs a comprehensive programme of residential summer camps for boys and girls at its own excellent Wildlife and Wetlands Centre every year. Those one-week long “Camp Woody” (the wood duck is the emblem of the SCWA) experiences educate and provide practical experience in shotgun shooting, wildfowl biology, ecology, conservation, water adventures, game preparation and cookery, safety, fishing and many other aspects of healthy outdoor pursuits. Above all else they are great fun for the 200 youngsters who attend every year.

On a proportional basis the BASC would need to run around sixty 30-place one week residential camps every summer. A tall order in the short term perhaps, but an objective well worth striving for. Only by devoting resources of that scale to the next generation will we secure the recruits our sport desperately needs.

I began by asking whether wildfowling in Britain has a future? Personally I cannot contemplate a negative response to that question. It must be acknowledged, however, that the wellbeing of the longshore gunner’s sport depends very heavily upon individual wildfowlers, their local clubs and their national organisation taking up the challenge now and pursuing their objectives with vigour, commitment and imagination.

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