Steve Partner: The dark heart of twitching

It's a story that I guarantee will ignite fury in every angler from Exeter to Elgin. And if it doesn't you've neither a sense of justice nor fair play. For the sake of those who missed it, let me relate the facts. No conjecture, no spin, no bias. Just the cold, clear and precise detail.

Malcolm Rigby, under instruction from St Helens Angling Association, visited Carr Mill Dam to legally shoot a single cormorant in accordance with a licence the club had obtained from the government.

Having successfully completed the task, the 63-year-old was returning to his car via the public path that surrounds the venue. It was at this point he was challenged by a man, almost certainly a birdwatcher, who had been spying on him while he undertook the shoot. Malcolm was then verbally abused before being punched in the face. Unable to defend himself because he had his hands full with gun, dead cormorant and a dog lead, he turned away, only to be subjected to the epitome of cowardice: he was repeatedly punched in the back.

The attack, which some of the better informed are suggesting may have been committed by a 'heavy' paid for by the birdwatching fraternity that also use Carr Mill Dam, left him with a broken nose and cracked ribs. All this for simply helping a fishing club safeguard its stock. Sometimes, rarely, words fail me.

While this level of abuse might be mercifully rare, the assault once again highlights the very real animosity that exists between anglers and a body of people that I have grown to thoroughly dislike in my time as a fishing journalist.

It's not that I don't get birdwatching (although the idea of travelling hundreds of miles to sit in a hide hoping to catching a fleeting glimpse of a ferruginous duck or paddyfield warbler is a somewhat alien concept) because I actually quite enjoy seeing them in a their one-piece-of-the-jigsaw-that-make-up-the-countryside way. It's more that I find those that do it so unbearably sanctimonious about the creatures they choose to spy on.

It's as if birds, above everything else in the living kingdom, deserve some kind of higher, near-biblical status, and heaven forfend anyone who dares think otherwise. And, as anglers, we are barely rated above shooters in the eyes of these people. Despite most fishermen being nature lovers, it appears we are all tarred with the same brush of contempt. We leave litter. We discard hooks and line. We use poisonous lead. We kill birds.

This is, of course, utter nonsense. But it doesn't stop birdwatchers ­ and its representative body, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds ­ doing everything they can to make us out to be callous murderers. Be in no doubt, the vast majority of these people would have our sport banned tomorrow if they could.

Here's a thing. When I started putting this piece together I did some background research on the subject. And far from being the preserve of mild eccentrics like the nauseating Bill Oddie, I found a world populated by obsessives, a world full of jealousy, hate and skullduggery. I read stories of bitter rivalries, with men prepared to go to extreme lengths to out-do the other. If you thought birdwatching was largely restricted to gardens and parks, think again.

I learnt of mobile phone and pager-carrying armies, ready to mobilise at the moment a dark-eyed junco, Baird's sandpiper, desert wheatear or long-billed dowitcher is inadvertently blown off course into some remote outpost of the UK. I discovered how these fanatics think nothing of travelling upwards of 80,000 miles in a year, spending thousands of pounds chasing around the British Isles by road, air and sea in the desire to clock up as many different birds as possible.

The most fervent of what are more commonly known as twitchers ­ essentially  bird watching's paramilitary wing ­ can spot more than 350 species in 12 months.

Lee Evans was a name that cropped up more than any other. In the twitching  world, this man is, or was before his 'retirement', God. Not only is he in the Guinness Book of Records for seeing the most species of bird in a calendar year in Britain ­ 359 in 1990 ­ he's also a man who used to travel by private jet to beat his rivals to get a rare sighting. By his own admission, his obsession dominated his life.

How about this for a quote once attributed to him?

"It's like a drug. I can't control it. If someone rings me with news of a bird, I get jittery. I can't cope with not seeing it," he said.

Who would have guessed the Fellowship of Anorak, Binoculars and Flask could be so serious? Serious and sad.

But I digress. Everyone is, of course, entitled to pursue any hobby they wish and the point I'm making is that this often bizarre avian world has simply been the beneficiary of some extremely clever marketing.

In the RSPB (membership one million-plus), birdwatchers have a body with muscle, influence and, crucially, brains. In the Angling Trust (membership 11,000), anglers have a body bereft of all three. As such, the national and local media is routinely fed stories that first seek to portray those who watch birds as heaven-sent conservationists and second try to ensure that anyone or anything that threatens these creatures is depicted as the devil incarnate.

What especially bothers me is just what the outcome would have been if the boot had been on the other foot in this case. What if an angler had decided, for whatever reason, to physically assault a twitcher? Can you imagine the headlines? The angler would have been painted as a cruel Neanderthal bully, the birdwatcher some kind of symbolic martyr, and the sport of fishing forced to take another damaging blow to the stomach.

And if you think I'm exaggerating, there have been precedents. How many ill-informed tales have you read in local and national newspapers where fishermen have been depicted as bird killers? Plenty, I'd guess.

The best recent example was at Bewdley on the River Severn, where a woman called Jan Harrigan attempted to ban angling in the town centre. Despite lead shot having been outlawed since the 1980s, she still claimed very publicly that numerous resident swans had died directly from lead used by anglers. The local papers lapped it up without asking a single question.

Predictably, it turned out the cause of death had nothing to do with fishing at all ­ the blame lie instead with noxious sediment on the river bed. Yet had it not been for the campaigning efforts of local resident and AT
columnist, Des Taylor, the ban may well have been enforced and angling stopped for good.

This, sadly, is just one example. Birders don't like anglers. Full stop. Be under no illusion. The RSPB is a well-oiled, well-funded and totally self-interested body. Understandably in its eyes, the welfare of Britain's birds comes first. Any perceived threat, however unfounded and however spurious, is therefore swatted like a fly.

On the contrary, we ­ despite having what should be vast strength given our numbers ­ always seem to be undermined by those that represent us. Just look at cormorants.

Although the sport collated clear evidence that these birds, having seen their natural food source dwindle, were moving from the coast to unnatural feeding grounds inland and devastating coarse fish stocks, it took one hell of a battle for fishery owners to secure the right to cull them simply in order to safeguard their businesses.

Even now, as more and more of these hideous creatures continue to rape both natural and man-made venues, it takes far too long for the necessary paperwork ­ if it is ever granted ­ to be procured. 

Look, I know there are many anglers who relish the chance of seeing a bird or two when they're on the bank and many would indeed see themselves as bird lovers.

But the fact remains that the dedicated watchers and their representative body are largely anti-angling.

These people may appear innocent, bedecked as they are in woolly hats, anoraks and binoculars, but be warned: they are no friends of ours. Malcolm Rigby is still bearing the proof of that on his battered face.