One hundred years ago this October, Stanley Duncan, an engineer and passionate wildfowler on the Humber estuary, took the first steps towards the formation of an association to protect the sport he loved. He wrote to Arthur Bonsall, then Editor of Shooting Times, asking for the magazine’s backing for a plan.

The letter, which Bonsall naturally published, set in motion the formation of the Wildfowlers’ Association of Great Britain and Ireland (WAGBI) what we now know as BASC. In his letter, Duncan wrote, Every reasonable-thinking shooting man must admit that the time has arrived when the free shooter must make a stand for his rights, since, unless guarded, the day is most assuredly arrived not far distant when free shooting in our Isles will be a dead letter, if things go on as they have been doing lately. If all these free lands (the haunts of wildfowl) are taken from the free shooter, public wildfowling must cease. One hundred years later and today’s fowlers on the same estuary fear that their activities (and those of other sportsmen across the UK) may indeed soon be a “dead letter” if they fail to win an appeal to the secretary of state for the environment.

The appeal challenges a decision imposed on the Hull and East Riding Wildfowlers’ Association (HERWA) and the Holderness and Humber Wildfowlers’ Association (HHWA) by Natural England (NE) that inflicts compulsory “refuges” (areas off-limits to shooters) and compulsory time constraints on land the clubs have shot over for many decades. It is important to stress that the two clubs still hope mediation with NE on the subject can lead to a satisfactory solution, but their hand was forced in thedecision when, earlier this year, the deadline loomed for them to lodge the appeal or accept the restrictions.

The restrictions on the clubs’ activities apparently imposed arbitrarily with little regard to science, simply a general fear ofdisturbance of bird species and other wildlife even extend to land on which they own the freehold. The fear is that the precedent set by acceptance of the new consents (including compulsory review after a given time limit) would open the door for creeping restrictions on wildfowling in the area, all in the name of conservation. The real concern is that, apart from significantly reducing the places on the north bank of the Humber where the two clubs can shoot, this would be a precedent that could be visited on other clubs in their dealings with NE.

By law, clubs have to seek the consent of NE in order to shoot on designated conservation sites, typically Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). Back in 2000, NE’s predecessor, English Nature, consulted on proposals to extend four of 10 SSSIs in the Humber estuary. The proposals led to a complete review of all the conservation designations on the estuary, resulting in a redesignation, in 2004, of the SSSIs in the area and an obligation for the two clubs to seek consent for their activities where previously none had been required for shooting on the lower Humber estuary. At the time, it was regarded as an opportunity to regularise club shooting on the whole of the north bank of the estuary; the clubs believed everything was in order and acceptable terms for the consents would be granted by NE, yet in June last year, when the consents were finally issued, they appeared with the restrictions the clubs find completely unacceptable.

Under the terms of the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, the default position for the statutory body if it failed to respond within
four months when approached by a club with a consent request, was to agree without imposing restrictions. That situation changed upon the introduction of the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CROW) so that the default position now is to turn down a consent request if the statutory body fails to respond within the allocated time. In the case on the Humber, the two clubs had to make an extraordinary request to DEFRA to force an extension of NE’s four-month response time in the end to 10 months before the controversial decision on the consents was elicited from NE on the day of the revised deadline.

The issue has the potential to strike at the heart of fowling. Specialist consultant Simon Breasley, managing director of Thyme Consultants, who has assisted numerous fowlers in securing land purchases and favourable consents in the past, explained how the new procedure works since the introduction of the 2000 CROW Act. He said, “It is a reverse test that is applied in the decision-making process and the ‘precautionary’ principle can be invoked. Essentially, consents may only proceed if the relevant statutory nature conservation agency (NE) has ascertained that the activity will not adversely affect the integrity of the site. An adverse effect on integrity is likely to be one which prevents the site, or is likely to prevent the site, from making the same contribution to favourable conservation status for the relevant conservation feature as it did at the time of its designation.”

Simon, who is working on behalf of the two Humber clubs, outlined what others should be looking to do to smooth the waters in this area, “When working with the statutory nature conservation agencies on SSSI consents, it is important to provide detailed information about the activity proposed so that a proper assessment can be carried out good notices and consents cover full details of the activity and its level, location and timing.”

In order to spread the word about their experience and to highlight other issues affecting the future of the sport, this weekend the two Humber clubs are jointly hosting a discussion workshop and fund-raiser auction in Hull. It is hoped the event will see the largest gathering of wildfowlers from around the country in recent years, indeed several clubs booked minibuses for their members when the date was announced. The strength of feeling and degree of concern the situation has engendered can be seen in the support the two clubs have obtained both financially and morally from fellow wildfowlers from as far afield as Kent, Bridgwater Bay, Northumberland, and even from fowlers from Lough Foyle in Northern Ireland not to mention the generous support of individuals, including the sporting artists Simon Trinder, Julian Novorol and John Paley.

“The workshop we’ve organised is meant to be a positive thing. It’s intended to be of benefit to clubs that feel they may be in this situation in the future,” says Ken Arkley, honorary secretary of HERWA. The agenda focuses very much on the future of wildfowling in general, yet inevitably discussion will turn to the position the Humber clubs are in. Defending their actions, Ken explained how HHWA and HERWA have effectively been painted into a corner in order to defend their sport, “We are only following what the process allows us to do.

We get the impression from our critics that they think we’re going out of the way to push the issue to an appeal. If we hadn’t done what we have, we would have lost the opportunity to appeal and would have been forced to accept conditions that would effectively have made the clubs unviable. For example, half of the shooting on the HHWA’s land would have been curtailed. If we are made to accept the conditions, the future of the clubs would be in jeopardy. That’s not something we’d be prepared
to accept without a fight.”

One of the biggest factors behind the present situation is an apparent breakdown in communication between the statutory body and the clubs. However, as Ken notes, “We’ve given NE every opportunity and done everything in our power to keep the dialogue open, even to the extent that we are meeting with a third party mediator at their request this August. If we don’t get a satisfactory outcome, however, then we will have to consider the options left to us and evidently that may mean taking the appeal down to the final line. But we’re doing everything we can to avoid that. We want to resolve the issue we don’t want to win a case without solving the problem the clubs have. We need to maintain a good working relationship with NE in the future, too whatever happens, we’ll have to work with them.”

Will NE work with the clubs, however? Bernie Fleming, who heads up the agency’s maritime team in the Yorkshire area and has had close dealings with all parties in the case, is keen to foment better relations with the clubs. “We do want to work with them,” he commented, pointing out that there was no institutional bias against the clubs, “Wildfowlers have been on the estuary for a long time and their activity is perfectly legal. As I see it, there’s no benefit to anyone in going down the appeal route, so if we can resolve the problem before then that would be fantastic. That’s why we’re delighted to be meeting the clubs with an independent facilitator [Simon Breasley] he’s highly regarded and hopefully will be able to find a solution.”

How has the situation on the Humber managed to get to the extreme point where an appeal directly to the secretary of state is even an option? While the people on the ground all seem to be able to achieve a degree of consensus that wildfowling should be allowed to continue, the legislation introduced under the 2000 CROW Act and the EU Habitats Directive, which governs conservation legislation in the UK, means that NE’s hands are effectively tied. “The clubs had to be able to provide information to prove there wouldn’t be an adverse impact, and we were not satisfied in this instance that that was the case,” explained
Mr Fleming. “Indeed, the clubs were offered a conditioned consent to overcome the problems we faced but rejected it. NE is content that fowling is a reasonable pursuit on estuaries,but the details of this particular proposal have caused problems.”

What is clear is that fowlers’ eyes should be turned to the Humber, where the outcome of this case, whether through mediation or as a result of an appeal, will have repercussions on fowling in the future. Stanley Duncan couldn’t have imagined, when he wrote those words in 1907, that ironically it would be conservation of wildfowl that would put the sport on hisown stamping grounds right on the front line. Let’s hope the activity he fought for doesn’t become the “dead letter” he foretold.

The HHWA and HERWA workshop is on 21 July. For more details, contact Ken Arkley, tel (07754) 979334 .