(This article first appeared in the September 2014 edition of Birdwatching)
I enjoy watching boxing. I feel that brute force and athleticism combine, creating choreography no less fascinating than the ‘beautiful’ game we English get so over in a World Cup year. However, I think boxing is barbaric and should be banned. It damages the pugilists and makes me see beauty where I should see only blood and pain. There is a chasm twixt head and heart.
I supported the hunting ban. The debate pitches pest control and country tradition against cruelty to wild animals. One of my objections to hunting with horses, beside the distress or worse for fox or deer, is that it brutalises the participants and onlookers. The forces that ‘enclosed’ common land to make it private property are the same as think they own wild creatures.
Where am I going with this apart from having a justified dig at those who set out to kill wildlife?
Now here’s the thing. I went fishing a while ago for the first time in about five years. I cannot justify the practice of hooking a fish as it must cause pain. Of course fish are returned to the water and evidence shows that some carp have been caught repeatedly over decades without long-term harm. Anglers do try to do as little harm as possible.
There are more of us who participate in this pastime than almost any other. I was talking a fellow birder the other day whose only reason for not voting ‘green’ was that he was afraid they would ban fishing for pleasure. With five million people regularly fishing and a huge tackle and bait industry that seems unlikely.
I enjoy pitting my considerable human wit against the small brain of a cold-blooded creature and mostly coming off worse! But the enjoyment has little to do with the fish. Golf may be ‘a good walk spoiled’, but it is a focus for exercise. By the same token angling is a way to enjoy nature occasionally interrupted by a fish outwitting you. My late father-in-law fished for nearly ninety years and was unbothered if he caught nothing because he loved angling’s tranquility.
So I sat by a lake occasionally catching small fish. It helped that only a bank separated the lake from a nature reserve. During my seven hours of virtual mindlessness I watched a dozen Marsh Harriers and a party of Willow Warblers appropriately in a willow ten feet from me. A stentorian Cetti’s Warbler burst into song three feet from my ear amid Rosebay Willow Herb popping out to look at me. I watched a beautiful grass snake swim right passed my fishing float. A cuckoo called and flew into a dead tree to make sure I had noticed and a Green Woodpecker looped across the lake yaffling the while. In the afternoon Swifts gathered overhead then Swallows dipped beaks into the lake to skim a drink. A Beautiful Demoiselle thought about landing on my fishing rod then fluttered away. The sun shone in a clear blue sky and the world’s heartbeat seemed to slow while I lost count of the number of ‘bites’ I missed distracted by quiet, unhurried nature.
When a childhood accident prevented boisterous play for many months Dad decided to teach me to fish. He parted reeds for me to see a Sedge Warbler nest full of chicks and pointed out Greater Crested Grebes’ mating dances. If ever near water now I think of powerful Tench pulling my float through the Lilly pads while Spotted Flycatchers feed from a bough and Woodpigeons call in the quiet time before dusk.
I’ve rarely met anglers immune to bird song or a butterfly’s beauty, and most are convinced conservationists. Angling made many of us birders by introducing us to the beauty of the countryside. Fishing may have the hunting instinct at its centre, but at its heart is a love of nature.
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