Founded in 1908 by Stanley Duncan, the Wildfowlers? Association of Great Britain and Ireland (WAGBI) has a heritage that established the values and ethics which underpin live shooting today. It was not until a decade after World War I, however, that WAGBI really took off, with the appointment of John Anderton as secretary and first paid employee. John recognised that shooting needed a single organisation to look after its interests and represent the people involved, and he was determined that WAGBI should be that vehicle. John?s determination ensured that WAGBI became a major force in the shooting world.
In 1981, in line with its expansion to represent all forms of live shooting, WAGBI was renamed the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC). John retired in 1988 and was succeeded by John Swift, the present chief executive, who joined the staff of WAGBI in 1972.
Membership of BASC is growing steadily, if slowly, according to John. It currently stands at 125,000 paying memberships representing 122,000 voting members, the difference being taken up by duplicates. He said that BASC is the first point of call for people coming into the sport and hence there can be quite a high drop-out in the first year; after year one there is excellent retention, however ? some 92 per cent overall.
The breakdown of membership in relation to the various branches of shooting shows that 70 per cent of members are involved in driven gameshooting, 10 per cent are wildfowlers and 10 to 15 per cent are stalkers. John made the point that, over the past 15 years, a multi-disciplined approach to shooting has become widespread; today, one sees far fewer sportsmen who engage in only one branch of shooting, and many more enjoying several disciplines.
Nevertheless, as wildfowlers make up only 10 per cent of the membership, are they not over-represented in BASC? ?No, they are not,? John responded. ?I agree we do a huge amount for wildfowling, but one must remember that this sport, which involves the shooting of migratory birds, is especially sensitive. Wildfowlers shoot in areas that are of interest to public groups such as the RSPB, so we have to be alert to any possible conflict or pressures. In terms of the 105 staff employed by BASC to serve shooting sports, we have only one wildfowling and wetlands officer, though he has the benefit of being linked to all the other specialist teams.
?If you?re thinking about representation on the BASC council, however, the breakdown of the elected members shows that the majority, some 12 out of 17, are interested in gameshooting and gamekeeping, that nine members are active stalkers, eight go wildfowling and only one is concerned solely with fowling. We do, in fact, have a great deal of expertise in the senior management and from the home countries. The council is very well balanced.?
On the subject of gamekeeping, I asked whether, in light of the success and expansion of the National Gamekeepers? Organisation (NGO), there is any real point to BASC?s gamekeepers section? John smiled ? he was having none of it. He pointed out that BASC gamekeepers? membership remains at 5,000 or so and there has been no fall in numbers since the formation of the NGO. In fact, he said, a large number of keepers are members of both BASC and the NGO, as they see the latter as being a good network for keepers and BASC as being able to deliver on some of the larger issues.
I put it to John that BASC is now seen more as a campaigning group than a membership services organisation. ?Perhaps,? he said, ?but the important issue is the representation of shooting and exerting influence on the political process. Campaigning and members services are simply a means to that end. BASC is big enough to do both.?
This led me to investigate the wide-spread criticism that BASC has been cosying-up to New Labour, something that might affect its relationship with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. John rejected this claim as absurd, pointing out it would have been a dereliction of duty had BASC not engaged with a Government that has been in power since 1997. The proof, he emphasised, has been in the results achieved. Victories won and safeguards gained for shooting would, he claimed, not have happened had there not been a sensible engagement with the political party currently in power.
The ?cosying-up? image, he believes, comes from those who want fieldsports to remain politically partisan. ?As far as the other two major parties are concerned,? he went on, ?we have excellent relations with many Conservative MPs and the Tory Party has to engage with people in a more open way today. We also have to think about the possibility of Lib Dem influence and build lines of communication in constituencies where that party holds sway. We need to be prepared for every possible outcome. Who knows what the next General Election will bring??
I suggested that, having banned hunting, New Labour appears inconsistent in its apparent support of shooting. John retorted that, in his opinion, it was not New Labour that brought about the ban, but Old Labour, on ideological grounds. ?New Labour wanted to find a solution, but hunting has been an intractable problem for 200 years and the fact is that a lot of people do see a distinction between hunting in its traditional sense and shooting and fishing. That is the reality we have to deal with.?
How do you answer, I asked, the growing chorus of crtitics that believe it is high time BASC and the Countryside Alliance (CA) gave consideration to a merger to avoid the duplication of effort that seems to take place? ?During the 30 or so years I?ve been involved with WAGBI and BASC, a merger has been a continual topic, first with the BFSS and now with the CA, and I?ve been involved in all the discussions,? John replied. ?It would be a serious mistake to undervalue the quality of representation that we have in Britain today. We have many advantages over other countries and, frankly, the more this is discussed in public, the more people tend to be driven apart. These discussions need to go on behind closed doors and I?m convinced, if outside forces tried to force a merger at the moment, that the representation of fieldsports would be the poorer and less effective.?
John was also bullish about the future. ?Being unprepared is the principal threat to shooting. We plan with care for known opportunities and threats, but no-one knows what the future holds, so it is essential to have an organisation such as BASC, which has the professional expertise, planning and flexibility to respond to whatever fate throws at us. It?s being unprepared and caught by surprise that is unforgivable.
?Our continued growth and collaboration with others of like-mind is essential. BASC
must continue to spread the message to its instinctive allies, as it has done over the past
20 years. This will strengthen the recognition by decision-makers and the public of the importance of all forms of shooting as a part of the integral structure of the British countryside, while also preparing for the unknown.?