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History of gamekeeping – how have our quarry species changed?

Lindsay Waddell examines the effect that changing attitudes, tastes and legislation have had on our quarry species over the decades

We are pretty good at frowning on others regarding their sporting practices and culinary habits, but what exactly were we doing on this island of ours not that long ago?

These things are always set in their time and we must remember that it was a different time, if not place, and that is the crux of the matter when it comes to criticising others. We are rather better off now than our ancestors were and, more to the point, rather better off than many of those we now criticise. Nevertheless, it must be said that even in many cases today, people do not have to do what they are doing.

I am, of course, referring to the numerous parts of the world where large numbers of very small birds and other species are being killed for food, or simply for fun. The sort of birds, animals and so on that we now look on with a great deal of pleasure, not with the eye of a predator.

However, it’s not long ago that we, or at least our forefathers, ate some of these species here — and not only the birds and mammals, but countless thousands of their eggs as well.

We killed and consumed thousands upon thousands of larks, wheatears, sparrows, starlings and many more. All because they were protein in an era when even human life itself was not considered a very valuable thing, except for the individual concerned.

The shepherds on the downs trapped huge numbers of wheatears as the birds made their way north and south, all for consumption, and a gamekeeper I know, now approaching his century, told me starling pie was not uncommon on the dining table when he was a boy. He assures me that it was very good.

People netted, clubbed, shot and collected food from almost every source on the planet until, in some cases, they almost exterminated it. In fact, they did exterminate some around the world — the passenger pigeon and the great auk to name but two. Much of what occurred here ceased relatively recently. Legislation in the 1950s brought to an end a raft of practices that had become rural traditions, giving protection to numerous species as well as outlawing a number of techniques used for harvesting birds and eggs.

It is no longer legal to use nets to catch birds (above) or to use duck decoys (top) in the UK


End of the road

One such practice banned was the netting of birds, except for ringing or scientific purposes, and that marked the end of grouse being caught in standing nets on the periphery of a number of moors, intended purely for sale into the game market.

Duck decoys met the same fate and these had accounted for vast numbers of wildfowl every year. It was not only the staple mallard, wigeon and teal that were culled when the decoy was closed off. The practitioners employed the system of ‘dead men tell no tales’ and killed everything that went down the funnel. To release it may have meant the bird spoiling the next catch as it knew what was in store and would retreat out of the net, taking many others with it.

The great coot and moorhen shoots are now more or less history, but the spoils of those, along with hundreds of thousands of head of wildfowl shot by the professional wildfowlers, made their way to the London markets. It was not only the duck that were sold, but redshank, curlew, lapwing and numerous other wading birds, too.

The wildfowler’s life was harsh and bad weather, during which he could not put the punt to sea, or conditions that forced birds away from his area, meant hard times indeed as there was no Government help to ask for then. I fear the answer would have been a blunt “help yourself”.

It is difficult to imagine the hardships faced by wildfowlers whose livelihoods were on a knife-edge

On the coast in the spring, the local population reaped a good harvest of gull eggs, to the point that some gull species that we now look on as common were far from it. Some of the larger species were numbered in hundreds, not hundreds of thousands as they are now.

Inland, many a traveller or rural worker would pick up a clutch of pheasant eggs in a trice if they thought they would not be caught, as they made a good meal. Lapwing eggs were also considered quite a delicacy, alongside the smaller gull, the black-headed. Today, if you are lucky, you might get a licence to pick a few black-headed gull eggs, but there is not a chance of getting one to collect lapwing eggs.

There are still some hardy — some would say foolhardy — souls who collect young gannets on the west coast of Scotland before smoking or brining them for a winter’s day.

I must say that, without having tasted one, I have a feeling they would be rather like some of the Scandinavian delicacies — best left for those who collected them. The curlew is another matter, though, as I can speak from experience on this one.

Many years ago — 50 or so — on a black, blustery night, I was waiting by a small pool on the moor for a mallard for dinner when, as I was about to pull stumps empty-handed, in swooped such a bird, or so I thought. It dropped to the shot, but when my dog brought it to me I was aghast to find a curlew in the guise of a mallard. The swooping shape was very duck-like and I had been found out.

We had not had a curlew on the moor for months, so quite where this bird had been going to or coming from, I have no idea. Waste not, want not, I thought. Plucked, cooked and eaten, it was delicious.

Harvesting of eggs is blamed for a decline in gull numbers in the mid-20th century

I recall it had a very fine web of pure white fat over quite dark flesh, but it was superb eating. I recall reading that many a fowler would rather have a curlew than a mallard in his bag. I must admit, it would have been hard to disagree.

However, the curlew has been removed from our sporting list, along with the capercaillie and more, yet what has the benefit been? Many seem to be in terminal decline, with the barnacle goose being an exception, but this is through no fault of shooting. One could argue that it is more through intervention in the management of the land.

It is, and always will be, a fact that those who harvest anything should have the long-term survival of the species as the prime aim in what they do. Without that, both are doomed. The herring fishermen did not adhere to that. Further afield, it is the hunters who could still save the African big game, if they are allowed to.


Dangerous journey

The passerines, seals, whales and dolphins may be safe around our coasts as our tastes and attitudes have changed, but what of smaller summer visitors that must travel thousands of miles to warmer countries for the winter in order to survive?

They journey through some lands where human life is still very cheap. Any hope for us to have an influence there is sadly slim. All we can do is try to persuade those with miles of nets that there are better things to eat, or to do with their time.