On one of the gloomy and damp days that we've had recently I was looking through some old diaries for the date of a particular event when I came across the entry that recorded my start as a Volunteer Warden at The Swale National Nature Reserve. Next year it will be thirty years since my involvement with the Swale reserve began. Not a momentous event for anybody other than myself, I'm no one of any importance, but the place very quickly became a major part of my life. Somewhere to escape to, a place to de-stress and to level out all the ups and downs that twenty nine years of life contains and there were many, especially personal ones. But throughout that time there were always my constant and most reliable companions, the ones that never failed me, unlike some humans, my dogs. Together we sat and baked in the sun on summer's days, disturbed by nothing but the whispering in the reeds, or shivered to the bone in winter as snowflakes blew horizontally across the marsh, straight off the sea.
In 1986 and for several years after, there was always the daily presence of a permanent reserve manager but by the late 1990's they had left and not been replaced and the reserve's management, under their various titles, currently the Elmley Conservation Trust, left the place to three of us Vol. Wardens to oversee. These days the Voluntary Warden titles have been dropped but I still have complete access to the reserve to act as it's eyes and ears and hope to for many more years. As I've always mostly been a very early in the morning user of the reserve it has always meant that I have been in the blissful situation whereby I have nearly always had the place to myself, an empty nature reserve as my patch, it's been bliss. Normally, only the very occasional birdwatcher and the winter-time wildfowlers have disturbed this general solitude.
That's not to say that there hasn't been problems, which I've found myself as a lone agent out there, not always wisely, getting involved with in the reserve's defence. There have been the people who ignore the signs and walk through the Little Tern nesting area at Shellness beach and argue that it's their right, and rarely now, but once a regular problem, the unsavoury men that would illegally run their lurcher dogs across the marsh after hare and rabbit. Quite often these men were of an aggressive nature and if I took it upon myself to go and ask them to leave I always tried to keep a ditch between us for safety's sake. I even found a dead lurcher laying along a ditch bank out there one morning. We also had problems for a while with a particular group of neighbouring farmland shooters who would insist on shooting, over the boundary fence, at wildfowl that were inside the reserve. That problem luckily went away when the area that they leased and shot was sold by the farmer owner and eventually ended up being owned by the RSPB. Fortunately, in recent years, most of those incidents have gone away, the reserve has no current problems and only the Kent Wildfowlers remain as constant winter-time visitors that I see on a regular basis.
My relationship with the active KWCA members alongside the reserve needs mentioning here because for over twenty years I took the same stance against them as many people involved with conservation still do, they killed birds and therefore they were the enemy. When I began life on the reserve in 1986 as a Vol. Warden, I chose to ignore my own credentials as someone who had been involved in catching and killing rabbits over a long period of time, trapping eels, (often by trespassing on farmland), in huge quantities and even for just two winters, doing some wildfowling. No, despite that fact and despite the fact that the wildfowlers had been legally shooting the saltings in front of the reserve for many years before the reserve even existed, I immediately positioned myself as a one-man anti-wildfowler campaigner. Ignoring the fact that they were there first, I simply could not accept the fact that they could happily use the reserve's Flood field as a constant supplier of wildfowl for them to shoot as they flew over the sea wall and out to the tide.
However, despite the letters written about my behaviour towards them, one thing that I never did, which formed the basis of a couple of complaints, was to run to and fro on top of the sea wall waving my arms about to divert the wildfowl. The only consistent course of action that I carried out over all those years was to walk along the top of the sea wall (a public footpath) whenever possible, at dawn. Clearly, from the abuse that I had spat at me as they later walked past (and one assault), many of them strongly felt that my being along the sea wall at dawn affected their shooting prospects and some went as far as to demand that I didn't arrive at the reserve until they had left. That of course was never going to happen and Natural England supported me in that stance and I also tried explaining to the wildfowlers that, being an early riser, I was there just as early after their shooting season had ended.
And so that's how it continued for twenty odd years, I fought my lone, early morning and sometimes evenings, battles with them, getting absolutely no where and suffering a lot of stress in doing so. In later years as blogging became fashionable I began this one and at regular intervals used it to berate the wildfowlers and their actions but that eventually, was responsible for daylight coming into my prejudiced world. After one particular stroppy rant about the shooting, a long time wildfowler and senior member of the KWCA E-Mailed me objecting to some of my criticism and explaining why. We swapped E-Mailed arguments for a while and it gradually became clear to me that he was making some valid points about the KWCA and their conservation credentials that I could only agree with. I invited him to the reserve and we spent a couple of hours walking round it and not only did he respect and enjoy what the reserve was trying to achieve but I also began to see that my no compromise approach to wildfowling, based purely on what occurred at The Swale NNR, was wrong. That meeting was in some ways a kind of crossroads event for both of us and since then we have become firm friends. Not only that, he shoots very little these days and has gone on to become a very good photographer, regularly visiting nature reserves to increase his portfolio of wildlife images. I at the same time, have realised the great value in the KWCA owning and managing large areas of our local countryside that other conservation bodies couldn't afford or obtain. Sure they still shoot most of those areas but it is controlled and without that shooting interest neither the organisation or much of the habitat they manage for all wildlife, would exist. As a result, as well as being a member of the Kent Ornithological Society, the RSPB and the Kent Wildlife Trust, I am also an Associate member of the KWCA and spend many pleasant chats with the members along the sea wall.
Clearly a lot of people will see that as a bit of a perverse change of attitude from me but I'm certainly never going to take up shooting and still find it difficult to see wildfowl being shot, but it has taught me that you can become too entrenched with your own opinions. The countryside is becoming ever smaller and the opportunity for people to carry out their chosen pursuits where they will not be seen or affect other people are also decreasing. Regularly now birdwatchers and photographers complain constantly about dog walkers, joggers, cyclists, invading and disturbing their space. However by the same token there was a time when wildfowlers were probably rarely seen or heard of. They crept about in remote and muddy places that many of us didn't even know existed, or would want to go to, and often in the dark. These days few places are remote anymore and we're pushed towards them by the tsunami of development that is engulfing the countryside and wildfowlers increasingly find that their space is now being invaded by birdwatchers armed with telescopes.
Therefore, if nothing else, the last twenty-nine years involvement as part of a nature reserve management team has taught me an awful lot about wildlife and in the last few years, that true conservation management takes many forms and by a diverse range of people.
"It's a restless hungry feeling
That don't mean no one no good
When ev'thing I'm a-saying
You can say it just as good
You're right from your side
I'm right from mine
We're both just one too many mornings
An a thousand miles behind".............Bob Dylan