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Shooting into history at the Purdey Awards

This year, for the first time in its history, the Purdey Gold Award for Game and Conservation was split between two entries, Lochindorb Moor and the West Sussex Biodiversity Project. The two winners were presented with the Purdey trophy and cheques for £4,000 each at a ceremony last month, after, extraordinarily, they were awarded the same number of points by the judging panel.

Gold winner and owner of Lochindorb Moor Alasdair Laing OBE was delighted with the decision, “It illustrated the all-encompassing nature of the awards. When you have a relatively large-scale commercial grouse shoot winning jointly with a smaller not-for-profit co-operative venture such as the West Sussex Biodiversity Project, it goes to show how committed the organisers are to encouraging a broad spectrum of entries.”

The Lochindorb project took a 10,400-acre estate in severe decline and transformed it into a respected grouse shoot, which has enjoyed consistent bags of 70 to 120 brace from its 10 let days for the past seven years and now breaks even. The cause of the grouse decline was identified by the GWCT as the louping ill disease. The illness was being spread by tick on mountain hares, of which there had been a large increase in numbers. Success was achieved through considerable long-term investment on Alasdair’s part and the outstanding commitment of his two keepers in managing the hare population, predator control and catching the grouse at night in the spring to worm them. As well as the indigenous grouse population, the work has increased the numbers of wading birds and capercaillie on the estate and helped the public understand how grouse moors fit into the ecological balance through an education resource and walking routes. In his acceptance speech Alasdair paid tribute to his keepers, David Taylor and Kevin Begg, “I tried to persuade them to come to London for the awards ceremony but they said they had to make use of the precious days to get grit out and carry out heather burning.”

In contrast to Lochindorb, the West Sussex Biodiversity Project covers only 143 acres. It was started from scratch five years ago by four men who share a love of wildfowling and conservation. They secured a loan to buy a patch of land and began work on their dream to create freshwater marshes in the Arun valley, restoring traditional features and getting nature to do as much of the work as possible. They also benefited from invaluable advice from Simon Breasley, of Thyme Consultants, on SPA, SSSI and Ramsar designations.

The judges reported that as they approached the site, “the sky filled with wildfowl. We saw green plover, four gadwall, a handful of Canadas, a sprinkling of mallard and about 500 teal. Later in the season it holds thousands of wigeon, a fact of which the neighbouring RSPB reserve is jealous. As for snipe, well, how often do you see a wisp of snipe that’s 60 birds strong?” All the work is done and paid for by the four partners, including intensive pest control. They have about 14 flights per season altogether averaging 15 duck.

The judges also praised the efforts made by the entrants towards positive political engagement. Faced with intervention without consultation by Government agencies, they created a landowners’ association and now have far more control. In his acceptance speech Adrian Weller said, “This is a triumph for countrymen running the countryside rather than bureaucrats and scientists, testified to by the fact that Natural England and other landowners now look to us shooting men for advice on conservation.”

Like Alasdair Laing, the partners were keen to share what they’ve learned with other shooters. Adrian Waller said, “Any group of guys can find a plot of land and flood a ditch or two. It’s not too complicated provided you take advice, get cattle in, take fences down and return to some of the old ways of doing things. Shooting people aren’t always the best at monitoring their progress but good records are essential to make your case and improve your ground.”

Richard Purdey, who has been running the awards since 1999, is already turning to next year and was as keen as ever to encourage smaller projects to submit an entry. He said, “We approach the judging without fear or favour. Of course we do take scale into consideration. Last year, for example, the Duke of Northumberland was a deserving gold winner with a wonderful grey partridge conservation project on 5,000 acres of a 20,000-acre estate. But in 2001 we awarded bronze to a comprehensive school teacher who created a wildlife haven from a silted-up pond on an acre of land, which worked brilliantly bringing in wildfowl from the Severn.”

Announcing the results at this year’s awards ceremony, chairman of the judging committee Lord Douro pointed to the fact that the additional Purdey special awards aim to recognise the work of individuals on regular shoots as well as more unusual collaborative projects. He mentioned Roy Harris, of Herstmonceux shoot in East Sussex, in particular. “This is a classic example: an electrician and voluntary keeper in his spare time who has been quietly working away to improve a shoot and the wider habitat for more than a quarter of a century.”

The award ceremony is a special occasion. This year, as always, the great and the good of the shooting world gathered in the heart of Mayfair for a champagne reception in Purdey’s elegant Long Room, which is steeped in shooting heritage. There was great anticipation as the shortlisted entries have no idea who has won before the night and the pride and emotion among the winners was clear as the Duke of Wellington presented their prizes.

So if ST readers know an individual or group who has been hiding their light under a bushel it is well worth encouraging them to enter and to support an excellent opportunity to bring to the public’s attention the extraordinary, various and widespread conservation work that is part and parcel of our sport.

Details of how to enter the Purdey Awards in 2009 will appear in Shooting Times in the New Year.