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Who’s disturbing the UK’s wildlife?

Wherever we turn at the moment we are encouraged to get out into the wild and to do something with wildlife. The national press, the BBC, The Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB are all full of suggestions as to how to do this, but what about the disturbance to wildlife that it causes?

It is strange and rather contradictory that, in the clamour to get
the wider population involved with wildlife, one of the oldest, loneliest, most arduous but perhaps most romantic of shooting pursuits, wildfowling, should be the focus of attention from the RSPB and others for causing wildlife disturbance. An underlying hostility towards the shooting community and gamekeepers remains ever present. The facts are very different to the impression generated on the websites and in the publications of conservation bodies. Disturbance in the countryside takes many forms and affects all types of wildlife in one way or another.

To single out wildfowling is misleading and inaccurate. It’s an activity that requires stealth, careful movement, knowledge of tides, wind and currents, the pattern of creeks and the vagaries of the quarry. To operate below the highwater mark without disturbing your quarry is tricky and sometimes arduous. If the curlew does not cry first, a redshank will soon pipe its alarm and the oystercatcher will certainly alert anything within range of the gun. The geese, whether greylag or pinkfoot, have their sentries, ever watchful and dutiful on the periphery of the flock.

When a springing teal climbs in the air it warns the mallard
and wigeon, which immediately follow. In this land with no cover, a simple silhouette of man, gun or dog may be suffi cient to startle the quarry. The fowler must be certain of the shot before he fires his gun, for he knows that once he has fired the birds will take time to resettle and be edgy when they do. Disturbance beyond the shot is what the wildfowler strives to avoid at all costs. Fortunately, the marshes around the coastline of Britain have limited access, deep creeks, oozing mud and the changing course of fast-running tides limit the extent of safe passage. Inland fens, ponds and reedbeds are often just as inaccessible, but equally threatened by disturbance from adjoining paths and bridleways. The paths are populated by dog walkers whose animals run freerange regardless of the breeding season.

How many ramblers, walkers or dog lovers know that a lapwing feigns injury in order to distract an intruder from its nest?

It is not uncommon for Wildlife Trust and RSPB reserves to have paths that cut across grazing marsh, reedbeds and intertidal marshland en route to the beach beyond. The number of people using these paths is growing.

In May this year the RSPB published a press release titled ‘Here comes the sun’, in which it predicted that scorching temperatures combined with the economic downturn would help its reserves reach the two million visitors mark. The society planned to pop champagne corks in celebration if this happened. Such high numbers of visitors pose a serious threat of disturbance to our wildlife. Visitors invariably arrive by car, which is a disturbance in itself, and they are unable to act, move or talk quietly. Invariably they do not recognise the disturbance they are creating. True reserves should be sanctuaries where the wildlife and habitat are of paramount importance. For that to be the case, a reduction in visitors is required.

At the RSPB’s Titchwell reserve, in Norfolk, many visitors spend
more time watching the wildlife on the adjoining Thornham Wildfowlers’ marshes than the reserve’s own scrapes. Visitors with dogs unleash them where the path meets the beach near an area cordoned off by the RSPB in the forlorn hope of reducing disturbance to nesting ringed plovers and oystercatchers. From the end of February to September, which encompasses the crucially important breeding season, the marshes shot over by Thornham Wildfowlers’ is the only undisturbed habitat in this locality. Many areas shot over by wildfowling clubs are Ramsar designated, SSSIs, Special Protection Areas and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Over the past few decades it has been wildfowling clubs that have instigated surveys of the marshes, set-up wardening rotas, created wildfowl refuges where there is no human activity and provided constructive advice on conservation to those bodies that will listen.

Wildfowlers may rightly feel aggrieved at the attack on their sport. Nothing has been forthcoming from any of the conservation organisations regarding the disturbance created on their reserves at the height of the breeding season. Microlights, light aircraft, military jets and helicopters frequently swoop low over the coastal marshes, especially harmful during the breeding months from April to September. A geographical peculiarity exists with beach and marsh habitat. Where estuaries feed the marsh, the latter is often backed on the seaward side by miles of sandy beach. There the popularity of the sports of kite surfing and kite buggying have an enormous impact. Swathes of beach crossed by fast-moving kite buggies, the air full of brightly coloured kite fabric vibrating noisily makes foreshore feeding areas and shallows inaccessible to feeding birds, resulting in disrupted food flights to and from the nest site. The curlew, common and sandwich terns, ringed plover, redshank, oystercatcher and lapwing are all affected to varying degrees.

Chairman of the Wells and District Wildfowlers’ Club, Kevin
Thatcher, believes the level of disturbance has increased in recent decades, “From October onwards the marshes used to be the preserve of local people fishing and fowling, now it is year-round uncontrolled recreation driven by the huge rise in second home ownership and the media projection of wildlife for everyone.” It is fortunate that certain beach areas are inaccessible, leaving the adjoining marshland devoid of human activity. Worryingly, the Marine and Coastal Access Bill threatens this protection in a misguided desire to create pedestrian access around the whole of Britain’s clifftop, beach, foreshore, marsh and estuary. The Ramblers Association is lobbying for this. Once its members have the right to cross these areas it will be looking to build bridges and access paths to make them accessible.

Sadly, by their very nature, these routes will intrude and invade
hitherto inaccessible locations, especially estuary and marsh habitat. Disturbance will start during the surveying process, extend through the construction process and continue as the urban population seeks its “breathing space” and wildlife “experience” in an endless procession of year-round uncontrolled disturbance.

The terrain, quarry and nature of the sport give the wildfowler
a unique understanding of fens and marshland. Few know better how to move unseen according to the ebb and fl ow of tides among the ever-watchful waders and wildfowl. Fowlers are required to have consent for their activity, but we should all be concerned that walkers, ramblers, birdwatchers, kite boarders, wildlife organisation members et al may disturb at will, unlicensed, unhindered and seemingly oblivious to the implications for the indigenous wildlife.

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