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Wildfowling is a carefully regulated activity. There is a strictly defined season when the activity of wildfowling may take place (1st September to 20th February below mean high water), clearly defined areas where it can be carried out, and restrictions on who can carry out wildfowling within those areas and the types of firearms and shot that may be used.

The law clearly sets out which species may be taken by wildfowlers. The full list covers geese – Canada, greylag, white-fronted and pink-footed; ducks - mallard, wigeon, teal, shoveler, pintail, gadwall, pochard, goldeneye and tufted duck; freshwater wildfowl - coot and moorhen; and wading birds - common snipe, golden plover and woodcock. Wildfowlers killing or injuring any species not listed above would be committing a serious offence, as all other birds are protected by law.

The Devon Wildfowlers' and Conservation Association (DWCA) requires its members to complete records about each visit to the estuary, detailing the location and timing of the visit, the number of people involved, how many shots were fired and, if any birds were taken, how many and of which species. At the end of each season, the DWCA is able to compile these figures as wildfowling returns and assess them – for example, were there too many visits to a particular location on the estuary or how many of its members were active in a particular season. The returns are also supplied to authorities such as Natural England for annual assessment and periodic reviews – which are often built into the lease of shooting rights from the owner of the foreshore.

According to these returns, four species – Canada goose, wigeon, teal and mallard – account for over 90% of the birds taken on the estuary in any one year. The returns are compared against counts and distributions of these species in the estuary collected as part of the monthly Wetland Bird Surveys carried out by volunteers, and against trends in national populations.

These comparisons are necessary to make sure that wildfowling is not taking an unsustainable proportion of the estuary bird populations, creating too much disturbance in a particular area of the estuary or putting a species that is declining under unnecessary pressure. Fortunately, most of the species involved have populations that are either increasing or remaining stable when viewed over the longer term.

Most of the wildfowling activity on the estuary takes place during the winter. This is when the area is at its most important for tens of thousands of birds, mainly geese, ducks and wading birds, which depend upon being able to feed and rest successfully over the winter period. The international importance of these huge numbers of birds led to the estuary being designated a Special Protection Area and a Ramsar Wetland Site.

Wildfowling can, like many other legitimate activities carried out on and beside the river, cause considerable disturbance to feeding and roosting birds. The amount and duration of the disturbance can depend upon all sorts of factors such as weather, daylight, tide and location. Accurately assessing the importance of such disturbance in the light of its long-term impact on birds can be problematic. However, repetitive disturbance in the same location can deter birds from using their preferred roosting and feeding areas. This is why the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (the RSPB) has been working and continues to work with DWCA to ensure that there are sufficient sanctuary areas for estuary birds, where they can feed and rest without disturbance.

The majority of wildfowling takes place at dawn or dusk (duck often move between the river and the shore at these times) and in some cases, in relatively inaccessible areas of the estuary. Wildfowling also occurs less frequently than it used to, and its participants are more aware of the regulations and the need to take account of public reaction to it than ever before.

However, more people are encountering wildfowling activity, partly due to the built up surroundings of the river coupled with larger numbers of visitors and locals out enjoying the estuary. The number of people beside the estuary is likely to increase substantially when the proposed National Cycle Network route is being used. Changing public attitudes to shooting and common misconceptions about the whole estuary being a sanctuary area, have led to unfortunate confrontations and an increasing number of complaints.

The future of wildfowling on the Exe Estuary, like many other controversial activities, will depend partly upon the ability of its participants to adapt their practices and codes of conduct to suit the changing nature of the estuary environment, and those who enjoy it. There may also have to be an increased level of tolerance and understanding by residents and visitors towards this traditional estuary activity.