Peewit Revelations

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A sorry old mistake

It has been interesting to observe the fall-out of Chris Packham’s recent attempt to introduce a moratorium (but really a ban) on shooting waders. Many shooting friends consider this the next major battleground for fieldsports, and it has generated some intriguing PR and research materials from shooting organisations. Looking at comments from the general public, it has been surprising how few people already knew that snipe, woodcock and golden plover are legal quarry species, and many have signed the petition simply as a knee-jerk reaction to what they consider to be a nasty surprise.

The level of ignorance was ratcheted even higher by the recent suggestion online that lapwings should also be protected from the shooter’s greedy gun, despite the fact that they already have full legal protection. This vague notion was hardened into “truth” last night by social media output from Chris Packham (tweet pictured below – N.B. 210 retweets!) which explicitly stated that lapwings are being shot and called for signatures on a petition which also calls for a wider moratorium on shooting waders. At best this is absurd ignorance, but it feels much more likely that it is a deliberate attempt to mislead the general public, and it has since been (partially) withdrawn with an odd apology.

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Packham’s blunder has raised one useful point. The shooting community has been rightly appalled by the error, with many well-respected country folk coming out to declare that they deplore the very idea of killing the wondrous peewit – I absolutely share their disgust. But rewind less than a single Century and you soon find records of lapwings as a significant game species. I have some old diagrams of how to use live lapwing decoys to attract incautious birds to the gun, and the picture is not a pretty one.

English literature provides us with all kinds of evidence that man considered lapwings “fair game” throughout the ages, from the dark brutal sport of Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights to Evelyn Waugh’s simpering Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, who consumes lapwing eggs by the dozen during long, dewy-eyed picnics in the English countryside. Contemporary wildlife legislation is arbitrary and shaped by shifting human sensibilities and baselines – if an alien were to land in rural Britain, how easy would it be to explain why we consider it laudable to kill snipe and yet damnable to kill lapwings? – in fact this is an interesting exercise, and worth trying yourself. The facts stack up in favour of the current status quo, but it’s also worth remembering that my father’s generation hunted curlews, redshank and godwits, none of which we even consider as a sporting bird today – when baselines shift as they do, who can say how future generations will view the shooting of snipe?

As it happens, shooting woodcock, snipe and golden plover is ecologically sustainable in its current form, and the work that the shooting community puts in to conserving and creating habitat for these waders more than offsets the harm caused by their harvest. But we shouldn’t be complacent about our game species, and we should always be sure that conversations about quarry species are flexible and reactive. The shooting community has set an excellent standard for self-regulation, and voluntary moratoria are a defining feature of black grouse and grey partridge conservation. If the situation changes and shooting is shown to be hounding waders into further declines, change would unquestionably come from within our own community without the need for petitions. Unwelcome as this foolishness is, it has provided food for thought.

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2 thoughts on “Peewit Revelations

  1. rogerdowald

    Patrick,
    Some valuable reflections here which perhaps serve to underline that perception is often more influential than scientific understanding ( especially where the latter is complex and hard to establish).
    While the reading of, and reaction to the Twitter post to generate support for a Westminster petition understandably takes a UK perspective, it might be both instructive and constructive in terms of wise use conservation principles to take a broader European view in relation to migratory species. Can we be confident that hunting practices elsewhere in a species’ range as much as our own ones are based on sufficient understanding of productivity and survival rates ( and the factors that influence these) are not contributing to population level declines? Is the information on bags available at the right scale and used alongside that based on population counts and age ratios for waders (as it is for flyway management of goose populations ) to provide sufficient assurance, in the face of negative perceptions, that current hunting practice is in fact sustainable in its own right as well as for the secondary wider benefits it provides? Or is there a place for all concerned with shooting and conservation to work together much more closely in collecting and making fuller use of available information to provide that assurance?

  2. Fascinating reading especially for someone who lives in southern Ireland where large estates are very few and far between and the conservation measures, taken to preserve what are our chief quarry out here, Snipe and Woodcock, are more or less zero!
    The country is split up into Gun Clubs so no one may shoot in another Gun Club’s area unless invited by a member, and each club follows it’s own rules as to how many guests may join any particular group on any given day. Most Gun clubs try and follow some vague policy of magpie control with a Larsen trap or two, but other than that not a lot is done, and the sport is dying, no question about that. The young are seldom really encouraged to go out, unless by their fathers, and each little group of friends, within a club, jealously guards it’s own favourite shooting areas, to the exclusion of everyone else in the Club.
    So why, you might ask, do I bring all this to the discussion? Well, apart from a few dozen reared pheasants released here and there and generally taken by the grateful fox population with a few weeks of release, or the odd handful of Mallard thrown out onto a bit of open water, conservation is pretty much zero. The land is being ‘improved’ year on year, with the result that the pockets of suitable habitat for wildlife is diminishing at an alarming rate. Yet despite all this bad news, one regularly hears shooting folk say how many Snipe or Woodcock there are this year, or Teal or whatever. Typically one hears apocryphal tales of, ‘we found one patch this morning with at least twenty woodcock in it, ditto hundreds of Snipe, the river is heaving with Teal’ etc etc. What they are actually finding is that the birds migrate into a land more or less decimated of suitable cover and congregate in the ever diminishing bogs or rough ground left by the bulldozer. No wonder then that the Sportsman runs into large numbers now and again but the overall numbers are declining every year, as the habitat disappears.
    I have more or less given up shooting nowadays, except for decoying, and haven’t killed a Snipe in five years for exactly the same reasons that Patrick says one wouldn’t dream of killing a Lapwing! They are all going the way of the Corncrake and we are doing precious little to stop the decline of our wild game birds and wildfowl. The average farmer is the worst of all in this respect and sadly one cannot really blame him/her as he/she is required to make a living, and upland wild areas or bogs and wet bits do not generate much in the way of cash! For me, gluttony might just allow me to pull the trigger on a Woodcock once a year because I so love to eat them, but I do begin to think that is not a good enough excuse!!

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