Peewit Revelations

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-07-54-43
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feels much more likely that it is a deliberate attempt to mislead the general public, and it has since been (partially) withdrawn with an odd apology.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-07-40-41

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.

Greenshanks

screen-shot-2017-01-06-at-09-04-06

It was exciting to see good numbers of greenshank while flighting wigeon on Wednesday morning. These beautiful waders are much more often heard than seen, and finding several mixed in with a larger gang of redshank made me wonder how many times I have seen them without actually knowing it. In flight they were very distinctive – black wings over a white body, but subtle signs like a slightly up-curved bill are tricky to pick out in a group of standing waders. Perhaps they are longer and more elegant than the humble redshank, but a silhouette against a rising sun annihilates almost every other indicator. A party of greenshank wandered past me on the mud a few moments after sunrise, and I relished the chance to enjoy a close encounter with these extraordinarily dainty and beautiful little waders.

The encounter left me thinking what a shame it is that these birds should be named after their least conspicuous characteristic. Their shanks are certainly green, but the tone is washed out in a faded pastel which could be easily overlooked. Pondering the name while waiting for the wigeon, I began to wonder if they are called greenshanks simply by to set them apart from redshanks, which really are aptly named – those red stilts are the most notable characteristics of a charming but otherwise wholly nondescript bird, but leg colour is nothing like as important for the greenshank. I began to spitball ideas for new greenshank names just as one of the waders saw me and began to sound off his alarm call. This repetitive yell had all the maddening fury of a smoke alarm, and I finally reckoned that “shrieker” was as good a name as any.

I have a niggling discomfort with the idea of naming birds in relation to a single aspect of behaviour or anatomy; I can’t help thinking that the idea is somehow reductive. Sparrows occupy a complex and fascinating ecological niche – the idea of calling them “hawkfood” is absurd, and yet sparrowhawks are named on the basis of a single predator/prey relationship. I was thrilled to see Indian sparrowhawk (accipiter badius) while on safari in Rajasthan last year, and even more satisfied to hear its local name – shikra. I liked the word (even though it really is a version of the Hindi word “hunter”), and it’s never far from the back of my mind when I see a sparrowhawk in Scotland – it’s a much more evocative and appropriate name.

Some birds have lovely names which have evolved over Centuries to develop unique and fascinating back stories. As I type this on a wild, blustery morning, rooks pour noisily down over the house to probe the mud around the cattle feeders. Without our Old English roots, the phonetically perfect word “rook” might easily have been supplanted by “turd-pecker”.

Going Up in the World

IMG_4084.jpg
Casstrom No.10 – the business.

Anyone who has stalked or shot with me over the past five years will know that I have been muddling along with a very cheap (and very blunt) Buffalo River knife, the handle of which has been largely eaten away by mice. It gets the job done (kind of), and I have always grudged the idea of buying anything better because I have a habit of not looking after my things and worry that I would just lose a more valuable knife. Ironically, the knackered old Buffalo River has never been mislaid or damaged even once (aside from by the mice), but this fear has held me back from investing in all kinds of nice things, from fishing rods to lamping torches.

Perhaps (and it’s a big perhaps) I should aspire to be more careful. It is relatively bleak prospect to accept my forgetfulness as inevitable and thereby doom myself to work with broken tools for the rest of my life. Helping me along my way, my wife generously broke the Christmas budget and bought me a stunning Scandinavian knife made by Casstrom. This was an excessively kind move, but the blade feels beautiful in the hand and I love the weight and balance of it. The edge is wickedly sharp, but this is standard for a new blade – it’s impossible to give any reasonable review of a knife until you’ve had it long enough to blunt and resharpen it a few times, so suffice it to say for now that I am extremely pleased with it.

I christened the Casstrom on a roe doe when we returned from Cornwall and found the gralloching experience a real pleasure – far easier and more casual than my usual feast of hacking and cursing. The ribs fell apart down the sternum with a silky pop, and the pelvis cracked open with two firm strokes, even though it was an ancient yeld doe with thick bones.

Still glowing from my trip to Sweden at the start of last month, I am doubly pleased that this is a Swedish knife, and I have followed the instructions for maintenance with measured enthusiasm. The shiny blade will soon tarnish without care, but I am coming to terms with the idea that life doesn’t have to be as difficult or makeshift as it has been to date.