Time to take wading birds off of the menu

This week, Chris Packham, no doubt feeling rather chipper following his exoneration by the BBC Trust over claims of bias put forth by the Countryside Alliance, launched a new petition. One calling for a moratorium on the shooting of critically declining species of wading birds, such Snipe, Golden Plover and Woodcock, in the UK. Stopping short of calling for an all-out ban, favouring instead a halt to the killing, during which proper research into the species declines can be undertaken. I hope, by a non-bias, independent body – not one that stands to benefit directly from the shooting industry. Naming no names of course.

Writing on the government petitions site, Chris highlights the woeful trends at the heart of the campaign: with Woodcock declining by 76% over the past 25 years and Snipe by 89% during a similar time frame. Going on to draw attention to the similar crash in Britain’s population of Golden Plover – which between 1993 and 2013 declined by 17% and 25% in England and Scotland respectively.

This petition has been widely welcomed on social media by conservationists, myself included, and has already gained over 2900 signatures during its first 24 hours. Though not all have welcomed it, with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) suggesting that a moratorium would result in the direct loss of suitable breeding habitat for Woodcock, with species-specific woodland management likely stalling with shooters unable to pursue their chosen quarry.


Personally, and this is just my opinion, nothing more – I agree in full with logic behind the aforementioned petition. I have signed it, and will encourage anyone else I come across to do the same. This issue has long been horribly underreported – doubtless overlooked amid the clamour regarding driven grouse shooting and hen harriers. Though, to me, it is of paramount importance and ultimately comes down to the need to reassess what counts as “fair game” for shooters in Great Britain. And why, in our day and age, we are still shooting wading birds in the first place.

Chris has already pointed out the downward population trends associated with the three quarry species listed above. They are all suffering, due, no doubt to a range of factors, with habitat management likely at the heart of the issue. Shooting, however, can no be ruled out as a factor. And even the GWCT who are, as their name suggests, altogether pro-shooting, have published findings suggesting that 17% of the Woodcock shot during the open season are indeed British breeding birds. As opposed to migrants, thus at odds with the commonly peddled line put forth by shooters. Who are we then to say that this is not having a detrimental impact on the overall breeding population of Woodcock? If anything, the lack of knowledge on the subject justifies the need for further, impartial research – which is exactly what the petition calls for. We cannot afford to keep killing without knowledge of the consequences, with this situation baring an all too familiar resemblance to the tale of the Grey Partridge. A species which, despite a prolonged and worrying decline, was still shot on mass until fairly recently.

The research undertaken during the proposed moratorium could go two ways, it could suggest that shooting is indeed a factor in the decline of said species, and thus highlight the need for a ban. Something I would support. We did, after all, stop shooting Capercaillie when we realised they were in serious trouble, with the same currently happening with Black Grouse. Why then are we ignoring the woeful decline of our wading birds?

Of course, it would also go the other way, and suggest that shooting is not, in fact, detrimental to wader populations. It would not hurt to know either way, and personally, I find the GWCT’s opposition to the idea completely ludicrous. Especially seeing as such a study could work in their favour and prove their prior assumptions correct. A doubtful prospect, but a possibility…

And then we come to the argument in favour of shooting wading birds, if in fact there is one – I am yet to see a convincing argument put forth to justify the killing. With tradition the only possible explanation for the continued actions of the shooting fraternity. Though tradition itself is, in my opinion, not sufficient to justify slaughter absent thought of the wider implications. And if the hunting act has taught us anything, it is that traditions, however firmly rooted in British culture, can be broken. But anyways…

 I cannot help but believe that the economic argument put forward in defence of Grouse shooting is somewhat void in the the case of waders. Shooting itself is a rather niche hobby, and among shooters it is only a minority which actively hunt wading birds. Making the killing of Woodcock and so forth a niche hobby within a niche hobby. Few, I suspect, pay huge sums to take part in the act, and as these are entirely wild birds, unlike Pheasants which require yearlong care, few people are employed to facilitate the hobby. It is economically insignificant. And does not, in any way, shape or form, bring in “huge” sums of money to rural communities.

These species are also, unlike other game birds, not particularly famed for their culinary uses. Sure, a few hunters doubtless consume their catch out of principal, but you rarely see Snipe for sale in Supermarkets, or indeed your local butchers. The shooting for food argument is similarly obsolete in this case.

Can shooters then argue, as the GWCT does, that shooting such species benefits there conservation status? Well, not in my opinion. As despite the best efforts of hunters to maintain enough suitable habitat to benefit their crop, the birds continue to decline. And if a future ban ever came to fruition, some species-specific legislation could make management for these species compulsory. Thus rendering the “conserve to kill” argument obsolete.

There is, of course, also the argument that centres on the moral side of things. And many doubtless would rather see their Golden Plover or Snipe alive, as opposed to dead. I, however, will leave this argument for someone else to tackle.

I firmly believe it is time to reassess what hunters can, and cannot kill in the British Isles. But in the absence of a complete ban, would settle for a moratorium that would allow the effects of shooting on our declining waders to be properly assessed. As such, could I ask anyone who happens across this blog to please consider signing the petition below:



  1. Tony says:

    Hi James,

    The term middle ground springs to my mind here again. Possessing some insight as to why the hunters shoot, how they manage the conservation ethics around dwindling wader numbers and the limits they set on their bags, is a good place for CP and others to start researching. Name dropping here, but two guys who know more than we’ll ever know about woodcock (a GWCT iconic study species) go by the initials AH and CH, a quick search should reveal their identities. Concerning the bigger issue, at face value, it does seem an odd balancing act between conservation and shooting, but it’s one complex issue which will never be solved or understood by those unwilling to listen to both sides and one which takes a number of years to untangle. Knee-jerk conservation ideals are rearing their head again I feel, never a good sign for the State of our Nature.

    Best Wishes


    1. James Common says:

      I shall enquire as to the names Tony, thanks! This is a difficult one for me – clearly management for Woodcock etc will benefit them, and I am not an “anti” by a long shot, but I do not see the point in it? Yes it is tradition but unlike Pheasant/Grouse shoots it doesn’t seem overly significant. If shooting were found to be an issue, I’d hope some hard decisions would be made. But equally it may not be an issue. I think a pause in shooting could work to the advantage of both! If, of course, people get off their metaphorical high horses and engage pragmatically. Will looks doubtful! Best Wishes, James.

      1. Tony says:

        Yes, thanks James. They will be looking into the morals and ethics of this themselves, I’m sure. I would say they’re asking for support and advice from others as they always have done and continue to do so. Even to the degree that they might start implementing bans on specific estates, although I can’t say I’m privy to such activities and it’s not for me to pass judgement on. I stand with you in your main conclusions and concerns, however. The bags will scrutinised this season as they have been throughout time. The scientific community are seriously good at engagement whilst others are better at self-promotion and scientists are often restricted in what they can and cannot say. A many-sided debate and one which can lead people to only hear the views of those they want to hear. Sad but true.

  2. Oh James, so, so much more to this matter. It’s nothing about estates and big bags. Have a read of this – note ref to grey partridge – http://www.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/archive/2013/07/18/guest-blog-from-rob-yorke-rural-commentator-and-hunter-naturalist.aspx and then, if you really want to get to the bottom of issues around this, email me via my website.

    1. James Common says:

      Thanks for this Rob – I’ve had a read. Coupled with the GWCT statement I read earlier today, it is clear that there is much more to the situation than meets the eye. Mainly the stats previously published by those in the anti-camp. There’s a lesson in here somewhere with regards to jumping to conclusions absent hearing both sides of the story… Will do. Cheers.

  3. Iain Gibson says:

    Perhaps someone from the shooting community can explain why it is necessary to shoot any wildlife at all. We all have to make compromises and sacrifices in our short lives, so why can’t shooters and hunters accept that their so-called leisure activities upset so many people, that they should be prepared to give it up to stop causing offence? It would also give us a more peaceful countryside to enjoy without causing any harm. That would be the compassionate solution and end all the arguments and bad feeling. To insist otherwise would simply be to show lack of consideration for the feelings of others. It would also demonstrate a respect for nature, and the rejection of violence, which is the curse of being human.

    1. Tony says:

      Hi Iain,

      You quite rightly ask why shoot wildlife at all? Maybe it’s to help keep the balance between a productive environment benefitting a host of wildlife aside from a few unfortunate mammals and perhaps a corvid or two and that of an imbalanced environment. On your second point, who gives you or I the right to say we should all stop fishing, rambling in the countryside, playing golf or whatever, if they enjoy participating in the pastime then let them be. Like you, though, of course, I feel it’s the illegal activities are where their faults will run deepest. As for a peaceful countryside, the most peaceful lands are those which are managed by private individuals for their vested interests. As discussed at length elsewhere, this results in the breeding season (March through September) for our wild bird and other wildlife communities being the quietest, most peaceful and productive of all.

      Best Wishes

      Tony Powell and naturestimeline

      1. Iain Gibson says:

        Tony, I must admit I find your argument a bit on the woolly side. That is neither an empty insult nor an angry reaction. I would particularly take issue with your comment “…who gives you or I the right to say we should all stop fishing, rambling in the countryside, playing golf or whatever, if they enjoy participating in the pastime then let them be.” I’ve read this several times and it makes no sense. You must realise that in a democratic society we all have the right to express an opinion. Where this involves criticising an objectionable activity like callously killing wildlife because “we enjoy it”, I would say any call for that activity to be deemed illegal is legitimate. To compare it with rambling is like comparing it to yawning with intent, just preposterous. Unless you’re some sort of libertarian anarchist who objects to such hideous activities as grouse shooting or fox hunting being illegal, then I don’t find your argument at all rational. We live in a society that is still in the process of abolishing modern slavery, so I’d say it’s within reason to consider seriously doing the same regarding cruelty to wildlife. If you feel that would create an imbalanced environment, then I would seriously question your understanding of nature and basic ecology.

      2. Tony says:

        No worries Iain, we clearly will never agree on all points, which is kind of what I’m stating. When we simply ask somebody to stop doing something because we don’t agree with it is a nonsensical act in itself. Moreover, I think you should aim the question at the participants themselves, as to why they choose to part in such field sports. The answers will be varied, and oddly for a good few outside of their industry, a good number when questioned have been known to reply because of its role in the conservation of the countryside. I don’t shoot myself, but I have a love for the countryside in its current state, aside from where and when the illegal activities bring down the good guys and where balanced ecosystems can thrive. Oh, just realised I’ve gone full circle back to the debate on just where the quietest and most productive landscapes are, yes those managed country estates, mixed farming enterprises with local shoots and those locally well-managed nature reserves.

      3. Iain Gibson says:

        Cheers Tony. I must admit to remaining a bit puzzled by your logic, but don’t know if that’s my fault or yours. To respond to one of your points, I have frequently entered “the lion’s den” and submitted appeals and questions to blogs put out by shooting people. What I get generally in response is personal abuse, even the occasional threat of violence. However as you say, an alternative counter attack is for them to claim that their so-called sport plays an important role in conservation not only of the countryside, but of wildlife conservation too. During the recent debates on driven grouse shooting, proponents of shooting have often claimed that management of grouse moors creates greater biodiversity, largely due to the elimination of predators. How can that be considered logical? All it does is lead to an even more unnatural imbalance which harms the entire ecosystem. Time and again it has been proven that the grouse shooting industry generates lots of what is currently termed “faked news” about conservation benefits, but I prefer just to call them downright lies. An example is the frequent claim that breeding waders like Lapwings and Curlews thrive on grouse moors, citing scientific papers that have never been published, and the results of which remain confidential for some unspecified reason. At one point the British Trust for Ornithology issued a press release disclaiming the claims being made that these “facts” were the results of BTO research. That was simply not true. At the Westminster Hall debate on the future of driven grouse shooting, supporters of the shooting claimed repeatedly that the Hen Harrier was “thriving on English grouse moors”, completely ignoring the fact that habitat which had been assessed as being capable of supporting 300 pairs, was currently holding only three breeding pairs! Grouse moor management, mainly through burning of heather, effectively leads to widespread deaths and even local extinctions of heather moorland wildlife, including moths and butterflies, small mammals, and reptiles such as Common Lizard and Adder. Vast numbers of Mountain hares are slaughtered, allegedly to control ticks, but in reality in Scotland mainly to reduce available prey which attracts Golden Eagles (which also take a few grouse). As a form of management it is unsustainable, causing continuous degeneration of peatland habitat, carbon release, and requiring the input of dangerous chemicals to counter disease in the overly dense nurtured populations of Red Grouse.

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