The flock of knot held its mudflat stance as the incoming tide lapped the birds? feet. The geese, the fowlers? quarry, flew noisily overhead from roost to grazing marsh and a southwesterly wind against a September spring tide kept the wave line below the salt-tolerant marsh vegetation.

Under the waxing and waning of the moon, the landscape of the marsh is energised along the hinterland of intensely productive arable farmland. The lush grazing marsh, freshwater creeks, lagoons enjoying an endless supply of spring water, brackish scrapes and marsh vegetation all thrive in an equilibrium of subtle but constant change. Storm and tidal currents erode fragile cliffs and shoreline, while longshore drift and eternal wave action deposit material on spit, head and ness. In response to these processes, land is being given up to the ebb and flow of tide, replaced for the sake of species and habitat conservation elsewhere, slowly eroding the wildfowlers? reign for quarry over the marsh landscape.

The coastal marshes of Britain extend to about 45,500ha (112,433 acres), with more than 32,000ha (79,074 acres) attributable to the English coast ? of which 80 per cent is designated as Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The global importance of this habitat means that a considerable area has many additional designations at a European and worldwide level. The fragile landscape is critical for birds such as dunlin, lapwing and black-tailed godwit, whose population numbers are in decline. Further species that benefit from this delicate ecosystem include oystercatcher, redshank, curlew, ringed plover, bean goose, pink-footed goose, greylag, barnacle goose and brent goose ? conservation of this habitat is therefore crucial. Long before the era of Ramsar sites, SAC, SPC, SSSI and European Union directives, the wildfowler plied his sport in free spirit and with free will; now it has to be in respect of these directives and under the close scrutiny of ?conservationists?.

Since the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?s Assessments of Climate Change, Government policy on coastal strategy has shifted, steering conservation activity and programmes towards pre-emptive action and offsetting projects. Whether or not this leaves wildfowling more secure for the long term depends on how much wildfowling groups and members desire to join the process of change.

Winter storms have always lashed our coastlines. In particular, the storm of January 1953 devastated 1,000 miles of coastline, wreaking havoc amid the coastal communities of East Anglia. The coastal areas of the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium and France all suffered, too. In the storm?s aftermath, a programme to construct sea defences was undertaken to realign, strengthen and build more effective protection against storms. Over the past 10 years, these defences have been deemed too expensive to maintain or repair in certain areas.

There has not been a concurrent sequence of high spring tide, deep low pressure and cyclonic wind-backed tide in the North Sea since 1953. Storm surges have breached neglected sea defences since then, however, inundating marshland and increasing salinity levels. Freshwater reed habitat is critical for the bittern population and increased salinity will force this rare and secretive bird to seek an alternative habitat, a scarce resource in its own right. Yet saline-loving plants will thrive, with greater feeding opportunities for some wading birds.

In 2007, seawater flooded Cley Marshes Nature Reserve, in Norfolk, during a November storm, altering the shingle bank and lagoon ecology. At the RSPB?s Titchwell Marsh Nature Reserve, also in Norfolk, erosion is lowering the beach profile, so the high-water tide level is gradually moving inland to the northern lagoon, resulting in higher salinity levels. Both reserve locations are fed from freshwater springs and rely in part on this freshwater ecology.

In response, Norfolk Wildlife Trust has established an offset programme designed to replace the lost reed habitat at a location further inland. At Titchwell, the RSPB has strengthened the east and west sea defences and created a man-made breach in the northern sea defence, allowing for managed inundation at peak tides. In addition, it is running offset programmes elsewhere. These actions constitute a common-sense approach, but action is also obligatory under the EU Habitats Directive, under which landowners have a duty to take appropriate steps to avoid deterioration of a designated habitat. These are examples of man-made change in response to natural coastal erosion and deposition. But how do they affect coastal wildfowling?

To answer this, consider several issues. Associating wildfowlers, their quarry and climate change would seem to be a huge step, but nowadays scarcely any government or conservation organisation fails to associate tidal and storm surge with global warming and sea-level rise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?s doomsday sea-level rise predictions have been computed from satellite altimetry and trend-line computer modelling. Yet decades of global field observations, historical record analysis and research published in Scandinavia paint a different picture. These observations, by concurring palaeophysicists, suggest a possible rise of 10cm (4in) in 100 years (subject to a 10cm margin of error).

Sea levels recorded over the past 40 years show that at Lowestoft, in Suffolk, there has been a small rise, but at Newlyn, in Cornwall, there has been a decline. This takes into account isostasy ? post-glacial rebound, which means that land levels continue to rise in the south-west while the south-east sinks. Coastal erosion continues as it has for centuries; in East Anglia it is taking place at Happisburgh, Dunwich and Sheringham, but is countered by significant deposition at Orford Ness, Scolt Head and Blakeney Point. Research undertaken on beaches in Holland points to vigorous erosion resulting from sea levels being in equilibrium or slightly falling, but not rising. The wildfowler is caught between EU conservation legislation, climate-change computer modelling and solid field observational research, government directives and selective abandonment of sea defences. Given the nature of these threatened, fragile habitats and the creation of offset programmes that could exclude shooting and you can see another form of erosion ? that of the wildfowlers? reign.

The solution for wildfowlers is the same as for conservation groups: optimise habitat already available; where possible, acquire new rights or consolidate existing ones; enable conservation practices with habitat and species management; and look to the successes of grouse shooting and moorland conservation. Without shooting, many associated moorland species would be in an even worse state. Above all, wildfowling should look behind all the research and make informed judgements rather than glibly accepting the global view.

  • Tom

    What an absolutely fabulous article! Fowling clubs nee dto switch onto this and start digging out the alternatives to wildfowling bans around offset and managed retreat programmes. There are many in existence and while difficult to swallow when loosing out on the fowling of the past, sometimes it is better to retail fowling on the few best tides than to push agencies into the corner where they have to say no.
    Well done Nigel, fantatsic read!