It seems to me that there used to be much more overlap between those who hunt, shoot or fish and those who might call themselves birdwatchers. Nowadays it is difficult to imagine the person running the RSPB going on to edit Shooting Times as did Philip Brown in the Sixties. And it is also difficult to imagine a wildfowler becoming a leading light in international nature conservation as did Peter Scott, who founded not only the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust but also the World Wildlife Fund. If things have changed, and I believe they have, then why?
It’s not true, lest anyone think so, that the ranks of the staff of conservation organisations are full of vegetarian animal rights activists whose aims are to close down each and every fieldsport. In my time working at the RSPB, and knowing the staff of many other nature conservation organisations, there were few huntsmen, a smattering of wildfowlers but a lot of fishermen (not all of them coarse, in any sense of the word).
My friend Alistair Gammell, formerly the international director of the RSPB, told me that he had never had any problems with being a keen fishermen and working at the RSPB. Just as Alistair used to feign incomprehension as to why I would take my RSPB salary to the bookies at Cheltenham in pursuit of a big win, I would tease him about wasting his hard-earned cash on whipping the water in pursuit of a big salmon.
Quite a few staff of nature conservation organisations shoot. Peter Mayhew, the RSPB‘s reserve manager in North Scotland, who worked for BASC (eventually as its head of conservation) for six years before starting his RSPB career 20 years ago, told me that the fact that he still does a bit of driven pheasant-shooting, deerstalking and wildfowling has helped him in his RSPB job, particularly in a place like the Highlands, where sport takes place on so much of the land.
On the other hand, I know very few staff of conservation organisations who hunt, and those who do keep it quiet for fear that they might be ostracised. One man, not in the RSPB, told me that he had never mentioned to any of his workmates that he hunted for fear of being cold-shouldered – although, frankly, I think he worried too much.
These people all fall into the category of “sporting naturalist” and what motivates their pursuit of fieldsports is a love of the countryside and nature mixed up with the thrill of the chase and the satisfaction that is derived from doing something difficult well, whether it be jumping a fence, shooting a high pheasant or dropping the apposite fly in exactly the right place to catch a fish.
The same motives must have inspired the participants in that outlawed fieldsport – though you might blench at the use of that term here – egg-collecting. The skills and incentives must, surely, have been similar: being out in the countryside on a beautiful day, knowing your quarry, and the satisfaction of putting your hands on an exquisitely marked egg. These attractions are quite close to those of fly-fishing or wildfowling.
Many of the older generation of naturalists were egg-collectors in a small way as children but gave up later on. One of the most knowledgeable and inspiring naturalists of our time, Desmond Nethersole-Thompson, was an egg-collector into adulthood before turning his skills of observation and nest-finding to the study of Highland birds such as the dotterel and greenshank and writing about them in both popular and learned publications. Some of his writing is of the highest quality and demonstrates a deep knowledge of the natural history of the species and places that he loved. Do I really care how much of that knowledge and love came from the time when he was taking bird eggs and how much from later, when he was measuring them and putting them back in the nest? Not too much.
But egg-collecting illustrates some of the concerns that many naturalists have about fieldsports. I can travel with the egg-collector in terms of enjoyment of the thrill of the chase and delight in his skill right up until the mo-ment when he picks the egg out of the nest and blows its contents. It becomes difficult for the egg-collector to persuade me that he loves nature when his actions harm wildlife.
Perhaps before going any further and, I hope, taking you with me to the end of this article, I should make it clear here where I stand on fieldsports. I, personally, did not support the ban on foxhunting (and I was glad that the RSPB played no part in the debate whatsoever), largely because I think that it is a matter of relatively little importance in the scheme of things. I would not seek to see fieldsports banned outright.
I hope I can be classed as a tolerant, live-and-let-live naturalist who can’t completely understand why people want to kill nature but the closer that killing comes to harvesting a natural resource and the further it goes from slaughter for the sake of big bags then the more relaxed I am. I can’t quite imagine that I will ever shoot a pheasant or a grouse but I wouldn’t rule it out completely, and I caught a few fish in my boyhood days.
For me – and I think it would be true of many of my former colleagues working in nature conservation – fly-fishing for wild salmon and trout and wildfowling on estuaries or wetlands are the types of fieldsport with which it is easiest to empathise. The more industrial the sport becomes (big pheasant days and driven grouse-shooting), the less connection I feel with it, but that doesn’t mean I would like to see it banned any more than I want jazz (which I can’t stand) or train-spotting (which I don’t understand) outlawed.
But, these days, birdwatchers have developed their own fieldsports, which hardly existed or were in their infancy in Peter Scott’s time – twitching and ringing.
Bird-ringing is a wildlife fieldsport that has grown in popularity through the decades. It is about knowing your quarry and catching it. Ringers use a variety of equipment to catch their birds, from fine nets to a variety of traps. Bird-ringing has uncovered huge amounts of information about the survival of birds and their migration routes but don’t be fooled if a ringer tells you he is doing it for the science – it’s actually for the thrill of the chase, the intellectual puzzle of working out how to catch your bird and the delight of seeing a beautiful bird in your hand at the end of a successful morning’s “sport”. I wonder how many of the 2,700 ringers might otherwise have ended up as rough-shooters or fishermen.
And so to twitching. Let’s be clear what twitching is – it’s the pursuit of sightings of rare birds to assemble a large list of such species through your lifetime in a particular geographical area. Twitching can be a year-round activity but it peaks at migration time in May and September/October, when the number of wind-blown bird vagrants arriving on our shores from as far away as eastern Asia or America is highest. Many birdwatchers go through the twitcher stage as adolescents – I can remember demanding to be driven down to Cornwall in October to see some rare birds and back to Norfolk overnight to see some more there. When we arrived they had all gone. Most people grow out of this habit as they age (despite the occasional relapse) but a few keep the habit throughout life.
And twitching is a fieldsport. It depends on good technique and knowledge of the quarry – down to the colouring of its undertail coverts or eye ring – and it certainly involves the thrill of the chase as many a cross-country dash ends in disappointment if the bird has died or disappeared, and those disappointments help fuel the thrill when the bird is “nailed”. And, of course, apart from the greenhouse gas emissions of all those planes, trains and automobiles, it is pretty harmless fun. There is no official record of how many twitchers exist but they may be numbered in the high hundreds or, more probably, low thousands.
There is more in common between the City banker who wants to shoot 100 pheasants in a day and the urban birder who wants to get a red-flanked bluetail on his list than either might want to concede. Each is after numbers, neither may live and breathe in the area where he practises his sport, both are more likely to be male than female (and there’s a whole other story to tell there) and the danger is that neither has a great knowledge of the countryside on which his sport depends. Personally, I don’t feel very close to either of them. I’m about as likely to restart twitching as I am to take up pheasant-shooting.
There is always likely to be tension between those who love nature and those who love nature but go out and kill it, too. The overlap between the readership of The Field and that of, say, Birdwatch magazine is, I am sure, small. Many who subscribe to one would find the other incomprehensible; I invite you to buy Birdwatch and then tell me I’m wrong. The two audiences have drifted apart somewhat but there is common ground in a love of nature and the countryside, and that’s where bridges can best be built. And there is more common ground than many would wish to admit in the thrill of the chase and outwitting your quarry – birders have their “big-bird” days too.