Respect the tree-huggers and birders, writes Richard Donkin
IT’S DIFFICULT, WHEN STANDING ON a riverbank intent on fishing your favourite pool, to see things as others see them. Imagine – well you don’t have to imagine on lower beats – looking down the pool at a bobbing bewhiskered head, its moon-eyes returning your gaze. For a large swathe of people, the bulbous form of a seal is the embodiment of cute. Basking on the bladder-wrack at low tide, the seal may not impress as a hunting machine. But to my prejudiced eyes, the animal I’m looking at is a barely-disguised sack of reconstituted fish. I’m not imagining cod, crab or any other sea-living species dissolving in its digestive juices, but silvery slabs of salmon and sea-trout, snatched from their migratory path. That might explain how I could so dispassionately witness the clinical shooting of a seal, when minutes earlier I had seen it chomping on a spring salmon that could have been mine. The seal was only doing what seals do, though here it was well above the estuary, having decided there were rich pickings further upstream. And we, in turn, were doing what we do, the shooter with his gun, the fishers competing with every other predator to catch a returning fish. Unlike the other river predators, for us it’s not about survival. Our critics, nevertheless, should acknowledge that thousands of livelihoods depend on our presence. On a broader front we might consider all the other related fieldsports – the game-shooting, fox-hunting and falconry that have enriched, or despoiled the countryside, depending on your perspective. I belong to that bloc of game-fishers – I’ve no idea how big it is – that also engages in shooting. I don’t shoot with the same intensity as some, nor do I condone all that happens in shooting. Some practices, such as burying shot game, disgust me. The shooter who can’t be bothered to mark and pick his kill or who takes no interest in bird welfare or their culinary use, is not worthy of the name. Too many estates are pandering to wallet-driven shooters who buy their space in the butts while remaining unapologetically ignorant of their surroundings. Once, established estates were underpinned by a strong sense of stewardship – preserving the land for the enjoyment of future generations. Today, new money turns up in “Chelsea tractors”, sporting the latest tassled finery, then returns to the city, having gained no more understanding of the countryside than a cow herd has for a collatoralised debt obligation. There’s far more of this nonsense in shooting than in fly-fishing, for the simple reason that flyfishing involves a deeper understanding of the quarry and takes some commitment in time for uncertain returns. We have not yet, and I hope we never do, reached the stage when a fish can be guaranteed. Yes, there are spates that deliver good heads of not-too-fussy taking fish, but, even then, the fish must be brought to the net and landed and either swiftly dispatched or returned with care. Technical shoots have emerged presenting high birds that require a skilled shot. But anyone can hit a bird when the sky is thick with them, at varying heights. Does any of this matter? Well, yes it does, because if we don’t take care to build understanding of what we do and how it relates to the greater environment, there can be no future in gamefishing or shooting. Fishing is a great and honourable past-time with a fascinating history and deep traditions, but those of us who partake cannot allow ourselves to get out of step with the concerns of the wider community, nor can we dismiss other lovers of wildlife as lightweights. We must accept that thousands of people who are passionate about wildlife arm themselves with nothing more deadly than a camera and do not share that almost primeval desire to connect with the wild in ways explored by our ancestors. Before the Victorian era, most people would have been puzzled by the notion of “live and let live”. Preservation for the first collectors of butterflies and birds involved traps and formaldehyde. Charles Darwin, one of the fathers of environmentalism, described shooting as “bliss on Earth”. Today we live in different times. We put back most of what we catch, while qualifying our attitudes to other species. There’s almost a hierarchy of animosity directed at river predators. Otters, hunted indiscriminately in the past, are a source of joy and affection today. We’ll overlook the odd fish carcass or shrug if they’ve ransacked our pool. Seals we view differently, particularly if they have the audacity to swim upriver. Meanwhile, we revere the sight of a circling osprey, yet the marauding cormorant we eye rather as Edgar Allan Poe wrote in The Raven, as a “ghastly, gaunt and ominous … thing of evil”. If game-fishing is to enjoy a reputation as the most enlightened fieldsport, it can only do so through a desire to learn how the cycle of life and predation relates to the often-rubbery concept of sustainability. We shouldn’t shoot now and learn later, and nor should we cloak ourselves in clubbable prejudice. Each of us needs to appreciate fishing in a way that squares with how we view the world, and that view cannot be blinkered to environmental change – it’s happening and it matters. Fishing has to be a broad church for individuals of an independent mind. Let’s leave the pack mentality to other pursuits.
“…nor should we cloak ourselves in clubbable prejudice”