Leading nature conservation charities routinely allow game shooters to hunt ducks and geese on their wildlife reserves and bird sanctuaries, an Independent on Sunday investigation has found.
Organised duck shooting is even licensed on scores of internationally designated conservation sites by English Nature, the Government's main wildlife protection agency, to the consternation of animal rights groups.
In many cases, hunters are allowed to kill waterbirds such as wigeon, greylag goose and shoveler duck even though they are on the official "amber list" of endangered species. These birds are among those at risk on the award-winning Nosterfield nature reserve near Northallerton, North Yorkshire, whose own trustees run shooting expeditions for up to 12 "guns" at a time.
The sport - which affects famous reserves on the Ouse in Cambridgeshire, the Medway Marshes in Kent, and the Wash in Norfolk - is defended by major charities such as the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and the Wildlife Trusts, and by English Nature. They insist bird-shooting enthusiasts, known as "wildfowlers", help conservationists by actively protecting valuable marshes and wetlands.
However, the practice has been condemned by the League Against Cruel Sports as "management by death". Douglas Batchelor, the league's chief executive, said: "You really don't manage wildlife by devoting yourself to killing it. When people give money to a conservation charity, I very much doubt that they realise in some cases they will be facilitating a duck shoot of the very animals they're seeking to conserve."
The controversy has deeply divided ornithologists. "It's clearly bonkers to have shooting going on on a nature reserve," said one senior conservationist. "These two activities are incompatible, but it is a fact of life in the world we live in."
Several organisations, including English Nature, admitted that in some parts of Britain, such as the Fylde coast in north-west England, wildfowling is causing serious concern. And, they conceded, rare or protected birds could be shot accidentally.
Mr Batchelor claimed the sport was inherently risky, since most shooting happened at dusk and dawn. "The notion that in that half-light this can be a carefully managed and discriminatory process is just pure nonsense," he said.
English Nature said that shooting takes place - with its authority and blessing - on numerous legally protected sites of special scientific interest and special protection areas.
Ian Carter, a senior English Nature ornithologist, insisted wildfowling was carried out by trained sportsmen and did not threaten the survival of protected species. "It's relatively common for it to take place on special protection areas. It's not something we would see as incompatible with their status," he said.
Simon Clark, of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, claimed wildfowling clubs were often the best guardians of a nature reserve: "They will have managed their stretches of marsh for 40 or 50 years, and will be the first to know if something is going wrong."Reuse content