Talking to Shooters, by Graham Appleton

Some of my bird watching friends don’t understand why I write for Shooting Times. I explain that, although there is a difference of views on some issues, the bird watching and shooting communities have two key things in common – they value the countryside and the diversity of life it contains. Isn’t it the people who think that fields and woodland are only there to be built upon, fracked under and driven through that birdwatchers should be most concerned about?

The fact that I write for Shooting Times is an accident. When I was the Director of Communications of the British Trust for Ornithology I wrote two articles to promote Bird Atlas 2007-11. After I took early retirement at the end of 2013, I asked the editor if he would like anymore. He asked me to suggest some topics and I have written a monthly article ever since. I don’t often write about species that are on the quarry list but I always try to set my articles in the environments that are managed by wildfowlers, gamekeepers and estate owners. A piece on Tawny Owls was published this month and I am working on an article on the buntings that might be seen in-game cover crops for December.

I enjoy writing about ornithology and Shooting Times provides a knowledgeable and receptive audience. I am assured that gamekeepers, shooters and land-owners want to understand more about bird surveys (undertaken by strange birdwatchers who ask for access to land), bird trends (the winners and losers in the countryside), the effects of introduced species (from muntjac to Canada geese) and some of the quirky things that birds do. The articles can also act as a shop-window for science that makes a difference – whether that be Reading University research into the consequences of providing winter food for Red Kites or how RSPB, SNH and Edinburgh University got together to suggest ways to use agricultural subsidies that can help Corn Buntings.

The UK is small and heavily-populated. There’s no true wilderness. There is not space for single-usage. I want my garden to produce vegetables, lighten my mood and attract wildlife. The farmers around us have similarly mixed motivations, making most of their money from growing crops, receiving credit from the government for leaving space for birds and beetles, and supplementing their income (and the larder) with some Pheasant shooting. I don’t shoot but I enjoy seeing the Buzzards that nest in their woodland, the finches and buntings that explode from their game-cover strips and the Snipe in the rough field next to the river. When we undertake the Breeding Bird Survey on our Norfolk square, all the good birds, such as the Willow Warblers, Yellowhammers and Reed Buntings, are associated with pheasant release areas, game cover crops, thick hedges and the wet field that contains a pond that attracts winter duck and Snipe.

As time has gone on, I have had to ‘explain my actions’ to friends who wanted to try to understand why I am working with ‘the enemy’. So, why do I do it? This is a paid activity but it does not feel any different to be writing for Shooting Times than it does when I write for BBC Wildlife. If Shooting Times was ever to condone illegal activity – by supporting gamekeepers who persecute birds of prey, for instance, then I would stop. They do the opposite – criticising the people who not only break the law but also bring shooting into disrepute.

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In the same way that many birdwatchers are suspicious of shooters and gamekeepers, so gamekeepers are worried when they see birdwatchers on their patches. Some years ago, we were approached by a gamekeeper when we were cutting off the corner between a permissive path and a public footpath.  Had we been walking a dog, I don’t think he would have said anything – he almost told us as much. He keyed in on the binoculars and was concerned that we might be about to tamper with his legally-set crow trap. I wonder how other birdwatchers, who don’t understand what is and is not legal, would have reacted to the decoy Magpie that he was transporting in the back of his truck?

It is so easy to see things in black-and-white, especially on social media but, when you actually look at what is going on in the countryside, you’ll see that practical considerations blur preconceived divisions between birdwatching and shooting. For instance, control measures are used to protect grouse on the moors and nesting waders on nature reserves, with 412 foxes being shot on RSPB reserves in 2014/15. See this link to a blog about this from Martin Harper of RSPB.  Gamekeepers have played an important part in the recovery of the Stone Curlew, many of which nest on arable land that is also used for shooting, and there is an increasing acceptance that, if we are to save Curlews in the uplands, then gamekeepers are best placed to control predators. Foxes may not be the only – or even main – reason for decades of Curlew losses but numbers are not going to recover without intervention. I have written a WaderTales blog about Curlew losses

Conservation is best served when birdwatchers and the shooting community work together – which is already happening at local levels throughout the country. The inflammatory statements on social media, from people who seem to ignore this, threaten this cooperation and species recovery plans. I hope that my articles in Shooting Times, which often focus on the work of RSPB, BTO, WWT and GWCT are helping to mend some fences and counterbalance some of the negativity on Twitter and elsewhere. There are discussions to be had – about the impact of shooting on our dwindling population of breeding Woodcock, for instance – but shouting at each other is unlikely to help. In this particular case, have a look at how GWCT are using science to ask questions about the length of the shooting season and even whether the species should continue to be shot. There’s a WaderTales blog about this issue.

Conservation starts with conversation and the birdwatching and shooting communities have a lot that they can usefully talk about. Anyone who makes derogatory comments that imply that a person who carries a gun just has to be evil is alienating a group of people who care about what is happening to the countryside. Many of these gamekeepers, land-owners and sportsmen are people that we, as birdwatchers, can work with and even influence. I’m just trying to keep the conversation going.

You can follow Graham on Twitter @grahamfappleton and read his WaderTales blogs at

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  1. George Murdoch says:

    I’m afraid that I have heard it all before and am continually hearing it up where I live while illegal activities by these people continue unabated. Hostility is shown to ordinary people and birdwatchers alike. Asymmetrical power has a habit of becoming corrupted on one side and what it takes to equalise that power and resume normal relationships is legislation by Government.
    Here is a typical example of what keen amateur birdwatchers face regardless of the various Moorland Associations begging for people to “work with them.”

    “Earlier this year a peer-reviewed scientific paper was published in the journal British Birds, documenting the long-term decline of merlins on four driven grouse moors in the Lammermuirs, south east Scotland.
    In that paper the authors, all members of the Lothian & Borders Raptor Study Group, detailed the results of their 30-year study of merlins, brought to an abrupt halt at the end of the 2014 breeding season after several estate owners refused vehicular access for nest site monitoring”.

    All that is said here is fine on paper but this approach has been tried on numerous occasions over the years with the same result … illegal persecution continues by the same people regardless of what they say in public.
    Statistics compiled by the RSPB illustrate that between 1994 and 2014 86 per cent of those convicted for crimes against birds of prey were gamekeepers.
    One cannot simply keep turning the other cheek. It might also be helpful to check the relationship between the number of pheasants being released annually and the increasing incidence of Lyme’s Disease, which is costly not only to those infected but to the economy of the NHS too. Pheasants are also known to decimate the food supply for other creatures when released in such large numbers.
    If gamekeepers will not take concrete steps on the ground to rectify these and other issues then legislation, and an effective system with which to enforce it, is the logical outcome.

  2. Excellent piece from Graham that chimes with a narrative I seek to set in framing how we find that common ground (may not be the same as middle ground!). There are others out there – Tom Finch and Patrick Laurie @gallowaygrouse – who are freethinkers seeking a way forward.

    Land use all too often has to contend with unpalatable, illegal and poor practices – from soil erosion in farming, forestry felling during bird nesting, dog walking in wader sites, to high density pheasants release without habitat, mountain bike recreation, raptor persecution by pigeon fanciers – some garnering media attention more than others. Throwing rocks at them tends not to solve the problem, whereas seeking to understand why, meeting face to face does, from my experience, make a difference.
    Some took umbrage with my saying, in my Shooting Times piece earlier this year, that you can’t argue with those that wish to ban shooting (irrespective of its conservation value) – that is because they hold their valid views with no interest in common ground – where as Graham’s point is that many do share conservation aims and want to work together without being ‘called out as working with the enemy’. A number of young naturalists have told me of their fear of retweeting something that may be perceived ‘badly’ and when faceless social media threatens to close down curious, open minds, that is not healthy.
    Time to be braver, less tribal, fearless of being curious and more willing to meet – for both wildlife’s and our sake!
    best, Rob

  3. Keith Cowieson says:

    Excellent piece from Graham Appleton, as usual. We need more of this sort of innate common sense to percolate through to individuals and organisations across the complete conservation spectrum.

  4. Michael Watson says:

    What about the article in the said magazine, the author was blaming magpies for the sole reason for the decline in songbirds.

  5. A.C. Stark says:

    This style of conservation (the sort that requires the culling of foxes in order to preserve vulnerable bird species) perpetuate the issues that even legitimate landowners are apparently concerned with.

    Imagine what could be done with the moors (which the public subside to the tune of ~£35M a year) if, rather than being managed for the primary purpose of supplementing their incomes (to paraphrase), the state supplemented the creation of nature reserves. An advantage to this would be the creation of nature tourism and long-term jobs.

    Similarly, what if the land of unproductive or economically nonviable farms were freed up to the state? There’d be room for new town, new homes and alongside them vast areas of biologically diverse and rich areas of dense nature (rather than the barren landscape we currently have).

    The very reason the culling of foxes and like is considered as ‘conservation’ is because the habitats upon which our birds rely are becoming ever more sparse. This, along with various agricultural practices, is a key reason for the vast drop in bird populations in recent years. Some species of birds are so vulnerable to local extinction, that the presence of foxes (I would say in *very* few areas) could present a real risk to their existence. However, if our land provided large and more suitable habitats for them to nest, their numbers would increase and predation from foxes would become less of an issue.

    So, free up the moors (perhaps free up some sheep farms), en mass, and there is a solution to the problem which doesn’t involve mass genocide.

  6. glennart says:

    Could you tell me how many estate owners have been prosecuted in the last five years when illegal traps and poisoning of protected raptors has taken place on their land? If the figure is low [-and laughably, it is] then I guess the blame is being placed upon their servile lackeys and underlings, whose fines are then covered by their employer. QED

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