Feathers fly in battle of the twitchers and the shooters

The prospect of an internationally important bird reserve lying next to a popular bird shoot was always going to try the patience of twitchers and shooters alike.

However, a dispute over the leasing of marshes near Topsham, on the Exe estuary, Devon, has grown into a conflict between those who like to gaze at their birds through binoculars and those who prefer to view them through a gun sight.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) wants to extend its reserve at Bowling Green Marshes by gaining access to a stretch of muddy foreshore and imposing a no- shooting policy.

The Devon Wildfowlers also want to negotiate a lease with the Crown Commissioners, owners of the foreshore, to offer a generous section of shootable waterfront to their members. A local nobleman and a magazine editor have joined the fray and the wildfowlers are receiving anonymous hate mail, although not from the RSPB.

The RSPB fears bird-watchers will get a bad deal if they do not win the lease. The charity's regional manager, John Waldon, said: "Wildfowling has always gone on but we would like to see it zoned in an area that will not spoil people's enjoyment of the reserve. It's not asking an awful lot to have a no-shooting zone around the reserve. "Most of the time wildfowlers are very good but there is always the risk that they will shoot a rare bird by accident. If they win, they win, and I'm sure they will police the site well but I'm also sure bird-watchers will be disappointed that their bird-watching will be disrupted."

Although Mr Waldon accepted that while wildfowling has increased in the area recently, according to an RSPB study in 1986 it then accounted for 1 per cent of all shooting on the Exe estuary. The Devon Wildfowlers insist their leasing of the land would protect it from untrained, rogue shooters. The club's secretary, Peter Young, said: "All our members have to pass a very stringent test. Unless they get a 100-per- cent test on bird recognition, they cannot shoot. At the moment, this is crown land and anyone can shoot on crown land, no matter how poor their bird recognition might be."

In a recent disturbing development Mr Young received an anonymous hate letter on the issue of who should get access to this stretch of foreshore. Lord Courtenay, eldest son of the 17th Earl of Devon, whose family owns other large stretches of the foreshore near his Powderham Castle seat on the western banks of the estuary, has got involved, pledging support for what he terms the "working-man's sport of wildfowling."

Last week the editor of Field magazine, Jonathan Young, Peter Young's son, joined forces in the campaign to prevent the RSPB getting the remaining available foreshore, saying it wanted "to stop local people enjoying their old sport." Now, in mid-spring, the debate is intensifying as migrating birds return to the marshes from winter sojourns abroad. Last week the first sand martins flew in, swooping low over the marshes, and little egrets, rare in Britain until a few years ago, were also seen along the water's edge. Later this year, when many species are preparing to leave again for their flights south, the Crown Commissioners will make their decision on who gets the foreshore.