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Gamekeeper: Birdwatching

My father was a passionate wildfowler. He loved the north Kent marshes so much that he wanted his ashes scattered there. ?On the ebb,? he insisted, ?so I don?t get washed up with the flotsam and jetsam!? I think of him, out there on his favourite flounder fishing ground, every time I walk by on the ?strayway? to my favourite patch of marsh.

He knew his birds, too, and he insisted that I was properly schooled in bird identification long before I would ever take up a gun. One of his great friends had a collection of stuffed duck heads mounted on shields, rather like trophy deer heads. Whenever we visited, I would sit on my father?s shoulders for a closer view, and recite the names of each species before I could read the labels.

A lifetime?s hobby

This interest in birdwatching has remained with me all my life. I was a keen member of the college birdwatching club when at university, even rising to the dizzy heights of chairman. The club had a great diversity of people, but one in particular will always stick in my mind. Heather was anti-shooting, so I am pretty sure she will not read what I write about her here.

As well as weekend bus trips out on to the Gower Peninsula and other local sites, we would occasionally hire a minibus, and go farther afield. On one such trip, we stopped at a viewpoint overlooking the Tywi Valley for lunch. As I tucked into my wigeon sandwich, Heather piped up in amazement: ?You?ve got meat in your sandwich. How can you afford that?? There was a fair silence when I explained that I shot some of my own!

Having a rare old time

In common with most birdwatching groups, we were pretty keen to see the unusual or the new, and the odd ?twitching? run was much enjoyed. They gave me a good appreciation of birders, and what drives them. I still treasure the memories of the rarities, such as a wallcreeper in Cheddar Gorge, and a white- billed diver in Hartlepool fish dock.

For an apprentice wildfowler, separated from his dog and gun during term time, the hours spent watching and counting the waders and duck of the Burry inlet were the next best thing. At least I could expect an early September trip at the end of the summer holidays at home, and a few sessions over the long Christmas and New Year break (hence wigeon sandwiches on a January outing).

Heather was not the best or quickest birdwatcher in our group. However, she still knew her birds very well ? indeed, she was better at this than the average gameshooter. You do not need to be able to tell a willow warbler from a chiffchaff to make a good game Shot, but you do need to be able to identify your quarry reliably before you raise the gun. Also, as you stand at the peg, or hunt the hedgerow, it adds enormously to the interest of the day if you can identify the wildlife that is sharing it with you.

I wish more keepers and gameshooters would join their local wildlife society or birdwatching club. When you get there, you will discover that they are not all full of geeks and twitchers ? nor are they all anti-shooting. Surprising numbers are on side over the good that game management does in the countryside. That said, they are often pretty quiet about their belief in what we do, but given a little support, they can become good ambassadors.

Being prepared to say ?well actually I do that? to someone who criticises shooters is surprisingly disarming for them. It can also give the quietly supportive the confidence to speak up. This, in turn, can move the whole debate forward, and perhaps even change the general atmosphere in a group.

Stand up for our sport

Part of the reason why we all maintain our memberships of organisations such as BASC, the National Gamekeepers? Organisation and the Scottish Gamekeepers Association is that we want them to stand up for our sport. This is fine but grassroots support means carrying forward the message ourselves, too.

Just paying a subscription fee and expecting the job to be done is not really enough. We all need to be ambassadors in our own way. The other benefits of joining a club and going birdwatching are that you learn such interesting things along the way ? and it?s great fun.