Is it time to end the shooting of our wading birds?

A week past, Chris Packham, no doubt feeling rather chipper following his exoneration by the BBC Trust over claims of bias put forth by the Countryside Alliance, launched a new petition. One calling for a moratorium on the shooting of critically declining species of wading birds, such Snipe, Golden Plover and Woodcock, in the UK. Stopping short of calling for an all-out ban, favouring instead a halt to the killing, during which proper research into the species declines can be undertaken. I hope, by a non-bias, independent body – not one that stands to benefit directly from the shooting industry. Naming no names of course.

Writing on the government petitions site, Chris highlights the woeful trends at the heart of the campaign: with Woodcock declining by 76% over the past 25 years and Snipe by 89% during a similar time frame. Going on to draw attention to the similar crash in Britain’s population of Golden Plover – which between 1993 and 2013 declined by 17% and 25% in England and Scotland respectively.

This petition has been widely welcomed on social media by conservationists, myself included, and has already gained over 2900 signatures during its first 24 hours. Though not all have welcomed it, with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) suggesting that a moratorium would result in the direct loss of suitable breeding habitat for Woodcock, with species-specific woodland management likely stalling with shooters unable to pursue their chosen quarry.

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Personally, and this is just my opinion, nothing more – I agree in full with logic behind the aforementioned petition. I have signed it, and will encourage anyone else I come across to do the same. This issue has long been horribly underreported – doubtless overlooked amid the clamour regarding driven grouse shooting and hen harriers. Though, to me, it is of paramount importance and ultimately comes down to the need to reassess what counts as “fair game” for shooters in Great Britain. And why, in our day and age, we are still shooting wading birds in the first place.

Chris has already pointed out the downward population trends associated with the three quarry species listed above. They are all suffering, due, no doubt to a range of factors, with habitat management likely at the heart of the issue. Shooting, however, can no be ruled out as a factor. And even the GWCT who are, as their name suggests, altogether pro-shooting, have published findings suggesting that 17% of the Woodcock shot during the open season are indeed British breeding birds. As opposed to migrants, thus at odds with the commonly peddled line put forth by shooters. Who are we then to say that this is not having a detrimental impact on the overall breeding population of Woodcock? If anything, the lack of knowledge on the subject justifies the need for further, impartial research – which is exactly what the petition calls for. We cannot afford to keep killing without knowledge of the consequences, with this situation baring an all too familiar resemblance to the tale of the Grey Partridge. A species which, despite a prolonged and worrying decline, was still shot on mass until fairly recently, before the shooting community rallied to its defense.

The research undertaken during the proposed moratorium could go two ways, it could suggest that shooting is indeed a factor in the decline of said species, and thus highlight the need for a ban. Something I would support. We did, after all, stop shooting Capercaillie when we realised they were in serious trouble, with the same currently happening with Black Grouse. Why then are we ignoring the woeful decline of our wading birds?

Of course, it would also go the other way, and suggest that shooting is not, in fact, detrimental to wader populations. It would not hurt to know either way, and personally, I find the GWCT’s opposition to the idea completely ludicrous. Especially seeing as such a study could work in their favour and prove their prior assumptions correct. A doubtful prospect, but a possibility…


And then we come to the argument in favour of shooting wading birds, if in fact there is one – I am yet to see a convincing argument put forth to justify the killing. With tradition the only possible explanation for the continued actions of the shooting fraternity. Though tradition itself is, in my opinion, not sufficient to justify slaughter absent thought of the wider implications. And if the hunting act has taught us anything, it is that traditions, however firmly rooted in British culture, can be broken. But anyways…

 I cannot help but believe that the economic argument put forward in defence of Grouse shooting is somewhat void in the the case of waders. Shooting itself is a rather niche hobby, and among shooters it is only a minority which actively hunt wading birds. Making the killing of Woodcock and so forth a niche hobby within a niche hobby. Few, I suspect, pay huge sums to take part in the act, and as these are entirely wild birds, unlike Pheasants which require yearlong care, few people are employed to facilitate the hobby. It is economically insignificant. And does not, in any way, shape or form, bring in “huge” sums of money to rural communities.

These species are also, unlike other game birds, not particularly famed for their culinary uses. Sure, a few hunters doubtless consume their catch out of principal, but you rarely see Snipe for sale in Supermarkets, or indeed your local butchers. The shooting for food argument is similarly obsolete in this case.

Can shooters then argue, as the GWCT does, that shooting such species benefits their conservation status? Well, not in my opinion. As despite the best efforts of hunters to maintain enough suitable habitat to benefit their crop, the birds continue to decline. And if a future ban ever came to fruition, some species-specific legislation could make management for these species compulsory. Thus rendering the “conserve to kill” argument obsolete.

There is, of course, also the argument that centres on the moral side of things. And many doubtless would rather see their Golden Plover or Snipe alive, as opposed to dead. I, however, will leave this argument for someone else to tackle.

I firmly believe it is time to reassess what hunters can, and cannot kill in the British Isles. But in the absence of a complete ban, would settle for a moratorium that would allow the effects of shooting on our declining waders to be properly assessed. As such, could I ask anyone who happens across this blog to please consider signing the petition below:

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/167410

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James Common
Amateur naturalist, nature writer, conservationist, blogger and aspiring author. James is currently studying an MSc in 'wildlife management' and writes regular posts for Wildlife Articles, Conservation Jobs and Environment South Africa. He has been published, in print, on a number of occasions and tweets regularly at: @CommonByNature
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