Punt para­dox

Derek Jones takes a close look at punt gun­ning

Country Smallholding - - Inside This Month -

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

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