Derek Jones takes a close look at punt gunning
Pros and cons of punt gunning
At first sight, the connection between punt gunning and waterfowl conservation would seem remote. However some of the noted advocates of waterfowl conservation, and notably Sir Peter Scott, were enthusiastic wildfowlers and punt gunners in their earlier years.
Sir Peter Scott is quoted as saying: “A punting expedition required organisation, generalship and seamanship. It was difficult and arduous, usually disappointing and sometimes dangerous.”
Punt gunning had two separate threads. First were the professionals among the marsh men of the estuaries and Norfolk Broads. Because of the limitations imposed by wind, weather, tides and light, this could not be a full time occupation, fortunately for the wildfowl. The other thread was amateur wildfowlers who were drawn to this difficult stalking sport, more akin to deer stalking in the Highlands than the mass slaughter of driven game.
So what was a gun punt and what was involved? It originated in the early 19th century and was used for fishing and wildfowling. It was a double ended, flat bottomed wooden boat about 16ft long with a freeboard of only a few inches and painted a light grey colour for camouflage in half light. Initially in open water, poles of varying length depending on depth were used, or it was rowed. When stalking the waterfowl, the gunner lay flat and used a
pair of hand paddles which were feathered through the water, not lifted. The aim was to approach the birds in the half light when the mudflats were almost covered by the tide and the flocks concentrated. Shooting birds on the water was considered unprofitable.
The gun was a monstrous 7ft to 9ft long smoothbore of one to one and three quarter inches bore, loaded with black powder and up to 28 oz. of usually BB shot. The recoil from this fearsome piece was taken by a rope breeching to the bows. Extreme patience and endurance was required to position the punt unobserved and avoid putting up the birds prematurely. It must be remembered that the gunner had only one shot, and chasing the birds after they scattered was a waste of time.
Research suggests that an average bag was about 20 birds. Because of the large size of the shot, wounded birds were less common than on other wildfowling shoots, and the gunner carried a shotgun to dispatch wounded birds. Complete disappointment was common as any tiny movement was likely to spook the flock. For these reasons it was a very minority sport after professional punt gunning declined in the 1930s.
However, the knowledge of waterfowl habits and habitats, combined with the skills of boat handling led to an interest in conservation and the sailing sports for several people. Sir Peter Scott set up the Severn Wildlife Trust (now the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) and became a successful sail racing helmsman, writer, artist and broadcaster.
The second paradox of the gun punt was its evolution from from a simple open workboat to something far different. At some time, someone realised that setting a small sail and fitting a centreboard and rudder would make the trip to and from the mudflats easier. Inevitably, of course, this led to racing, and the first official Norfolk Punt race was held in 1923. Now the humble punt has evolved into one of the most spectacular and fastest monohull inshore racing sailboat classes in the country. It is still double ended with low freeboard and between 16ft to 22 ft long. The sail area is enormous and in anything greater than a moderate wind, both crew would be out on trapezes to keep this light and challenging boat upright.
So there you have it. Punt gunners have become conservationists and bred some of the most successful racing helmsmen of the post war period. It may be thought that they have also contributed to the drastic reduction in the waterfowl populations, but books speak of the large flocks in the 1930s when punt gunning declined. It is more likely that loss of habitat and disturbance from the huge rise in the number of powered holiday craft has had a greater effect.
A punting expedition... was difficult and arduous, usually disappointing and sometimes dangerous
Low freeboard and a prone position - designed for stealth
The punt built for Sir Peter Scott by Mathie of Cambridge
Hand paddling was quiet and stealthy
Recoil from firing 35 ounces of shot is spectacular