The mys­tique and mu­sic of the salt marshes

For a wild­fowler, dawn sig­nals a time of un­be­liev­able beauty as the mist rises and skeins of geese lift from the es­tu­ar­ies as they have done for mil­lenia

The Field - - Contents - writ­ten BY sir johnny scott

Sir Johnny Scott goes wild­fowl­ing

Thou­sands of geese stir­ring out on their shore roosts, as dawn breaks over a storm-swept es­tu­ary on a freez­ing win­ter’s morn­ing, is mu­sic of the gods to a wild­fowler crouch­ing with his dog among the reeds of a tidal creek. Gulls are al­ways the first to start the dawn cho­rus on the marsh edge, wheel­ing and shriek­ing even be­fore the lights start twin­kling in the lonely farm­house on the other side of the es­tu­ary. As the dark­ness turns to the grey start of a new day, ev­ery con­ceiv­able species of wild­fowl and wader – golden, ringed and grey plover, green­shank and red­shank, oys­ter­catcher, bar-tailed god­wit, curlew and pee­wit – start mov­ing along the wa­ter’s edge, whistling, yap­ping, tit­ter­ing or yo­delling. As the splin­ter of light length­ens, herds of ghostly, cres­cent-shaped curlew fly past, trips of dun­lin, flocks of moth-like lap­wings and, pe­ri­od­i­cally, with a strange, vi­brat­ing noise, gag­gles of pale-fronted brents, fly­ing al­most nose to tail in low, wa­ver­ing lines. Then there is a dis­tant roar as geese lift, an eerie, swelling sound grow­ing in vol­ume, fol­lowed by the ju­bi­lant and ever-in­creas­ing ang-ang-wink­ing-wink­ing as skein af­ter skein of pink­feet pour up the es­tu­ary to­wards their in­land graz­ing.

The old labrador starts trem­bling and wim­per­ing softly as the great ar­mada of geese swing to­wards them – will this be the mo­ment when all his master’s care­ful study­ing of moon cy­cles, tides, flight paths and the weather prove to be cor­rect, and will the wind and cloud cover bring them in range? Maybe. There is noth­ing con­trived, pre­dictable or ar­ti­fi­cial about ‘fowl­ing and this, as much as the mys­tique of the lonely salt marshes, stark win­ter beauty of mud­flats and fore­shore, io­dine scent of the sea and the cries of wild­fowl, is what at­tracts peo­ple to the sport. To lie un­ob­served as na­ture wakes up and starts mov­ing around you is the most won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence and ev­ery wild­fowler knows, that dur­ing the course of a sea­son, there will prob­a­bly be only a hand­ful of oc­ca­sions when ev­ery­thing – moon, tides, wind, weather and la­bo­ri­ous study­ing of flight paths, com­bine to pro­duce the shot one re­mem­bers for the rest of one’s life.

My love of wild­fowl­ing goes back to my child­hood, when a pe­riod of hard frost put a stop to hunt­ing and there was a flurry of ac­tiv­ity as my fa­ther packed his wild­fowl­ing gear to go north, ’fowl­ing on the Tay: the oiled wool sea­man’s socks; long johns with but­tons at the an­kle; vests of real string; leather jerkin; cor­duroy breeches; and the hooded para­trooper’s smock with a strap that buck­led be­tween the legs. Black rub­ber

hob­nailed thigh waders, can­vas game bag, com­pass, ot­ter-hunt­ing pole and, best of all, the mas­sive, dou­ble-bar­relled eight­bore and boxes of long, dark-red car­tridges. For a small boy, prepa­ra­tions for the trip to Perthshire were al­most as ex­cit­ing as his re­turn and the vivid im­agery he cre­ated of the snow-cov­ered fields of the Carse of Gowrie run­ning down to the vast reed beds be­side the Tay, so tall and dense in places that peo­ple had been known to get lost in their depths look­ing for shot birds. Crouch­ing on the edge of them with Pi­lot, his black labrador, in the dark­ness of a freez­ing early morn­ing, lis­ten­ing to the reeds rustling in the wind and mur­mur­ing of geese out on their roosts, as he waited for the dawn. The first glint of day­light re­flected on the black sur­face of the mighty river and the sud­den ‘whoosh’ of wings as geese lifted to fly in­land against a lapis lazuli sky. The heart­pump­ing an­tic­i­pa­tion of a skein com­ing into range to­wards him and the boom and kick of the big gun.


I re­mem­ber vividly much later, just af­ter I left school, shar­ing a sec­tion of bro­ken stone wall with him on the Northum­brian coast one warm, wind­less, early Oc­to­ber af­ter­noon, as we waited for the tide flight. We could see a big raft of wigeon out on the bay and, oc­ca­sion­ally, trips of teal zipped along the wa­ter’s edge. It was peace­ful watch­ing ei­der duck and white-fronted brent fly by, knots and dun­lin per­form­ing their syn­chro­nised aer­o­bat­ics, and lis­ten­ing to the silly laugh of shel­duck or hoarse cackle of mal­lard. It would be some time be­fore the tide pushed birds closer and the wigeon started mov­ing about, and puff­ing con­tent­edly on his pipe my fa­ther be­gan rem­i­nisc­ing about the his­tory of wild­fowl­ing. Tak­ing me back to a time when a quar­ter of Bri­tain and most of East An­glia was wet­lands, teem­ing with ev­ery con­ceiv­able va­ri­ety of fowl that mi­grated south in Septem­ber to es­cape the win­ter in Ice­land, Green­land and north­ern Europe, re­turn­ing at the ap­proach of spring.

For cen­turies, marsh dwellers sup­plied in­land com­mu­ni­ties with reeds for thatch­ing and floor­ing, salt for win­ter sur­vival, bas­kets of eels, pike and perch, and wild­fowl, net­ted as they flighted in to marsh ponds. Recla­ma­tion of the marshes by the Ro­mans, Nor­mans and through suc­ces­sive monar­chies dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages made lit­tle im­pact on the vast acreage of wet­lands or the wildlife pop­u­la­tions. The first real pres­sure came in 1626, when Charles I com­mis­sioned Dutch en­gi­neer Cor­nelius Ver­muy­den to drain 40,000 acres of the Isle of Ax­holme in Lin­colnshire, to the fury of the lo­cal marsh dwellers. This was noth­ing com­pared to the 750,000 acres of fens drained in Nor­folk, Lin­colnshire and Cam­bridgeshire be­tween 1632 and 1657, de­spite the de­ter­mined ef­forts of the ‘Fen Tigers’, who sab­o­taged the en­gi­neer­ing works when­ever they could.

As more wet­lands and wild­fowl habi­tat was re­claimed dur­ing the Agri­cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, the pro­fes­sional ’fowlers, now known as ‘mar­ket gun­ners’, dressed in seal­skin skin caps and leather waders, stink­ing of the goose fat they smeared over them­selves as a pro­tec­tion against the bit­ter cold, strug­gled to make a liv­ing with prim­i­tive shot­guns, us­ing their unique knowl­edge of the be­hav­iour of marsh bird life. With a rapidly spread­ing ur­ban pop­u­la­tion and ever-in­creas­ing de­mands for more birds, the mar­ket gun­ners were driven to risk­ing their lives by stalk­ing duck sit­ting on open wa­ter or ex­posed mud­banks with big-bore guns – ef­fec­tively a small can­non – mounted on flimsy ‘gun­ning punts’ in the hope of mak­ing a big bag with one shot. The skill in­volved in ap­proach­ing a ‘sit­ting’ across sea wa­ter in day­light and un­pre­dictable weather, ly­ing prone in a ca­noe-shaped boat with a can­non mounted in the bow and a free­board of only inches, at­tracted the at­ten­tion of the cel­e­brated sports­man, di­arist and au­thor, Colonel Peter Hawker (1786-1853). Hawker’s sport­ing di­aries from 1802 to 1853 were avidly read and he was fol­lowed by a host of Vic­to­rian and Ed­war­dian gen­tle­man gun­ners, nat­u­ral­ists, au­thors and artists, such as Lewis Cle­ments, John Guille Mil­lais, Sir Ralph Payne-gall­wey, Archibald Thor­burn, Frank South­gate and Abel Chap­man. They were only a few of those who dis­cov­ered kin­dred spir­its among the long­shore ’fowlers and punts­men, find­ing the in­spi­ra­tion to paint or write from the ir­re­sistible lure of re­mote salt marshes, the haunt­ing cry of water­fowl, mur­mur­ing of geese out on their roosts and the dis­tant rum­ble of surf.

As the rail­way net­work ex­panded in the 19th cen­tury, these iso­lated ar­eas be­came eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble and the rights that per­mit­ted any­one to shoot on the Crown fore­shore be­tween high and low tide, in­creas­ingly abused. Ev­ery­thing that flew was quarry in those days and con­tin­u­ing wild­fowl habi­tat ero­sion through land recla­ma­tion, the Vic­to­rian craze for egg col­lect­ing and taxi­dermy, com­mer­cial duck de­coys – one on the Ouse near St Ives was send­ing 3,000 cou­ple a week to Lon­don’s Lead­en­hall Mar­ket – had al­ready caused sev­eral rare geese and

Best of all was the dou­ble-bar­relled 8-bore and the long, red car­tridges

wild­fowl species to be­come ex­tinct. By the end of the cen­tury, pro­fes­sional wild­fowlers and ex­pe­ri­enced devo­tees had be­come des­per­ately con­cerned at the lack of con­trol and in­dis­crim­i­nate shoot­ing on the fore­shore. One of these, Stan­ley Dun­can, an en­gi­neer, nat­u­ral­ist and ex­pe­ri­enced wild­fowler who ’fowled on the marshes round Sunk is­land on the Hum­ber Es­tu­ary, founded the Wild­fowlers’ As­so­ci­a­tion of Great Bri­tain and Ire­land (WAGBI) in 1908, with the sup­port of Sir Ralph Payne-gall­wey, the as­so­ci­a­tion’s first pres­i­dent. Their aim was to en­cour­age wild­fowlers to form them­selves into clubs and ac­quire the shoot­ing rights on Crown fore­shore and the con­ter­mi­nous marshes, bring­ing them un­der the con­trol of re­spon­si­ble peo­ple whose love of wildlife would en­sure its con­ser­va­tion, whilst en­abling a tra­di­tional pot-hunt­ing pas­time to con­tinue. From small be­gin­nings, WAGBI grew into an or­gan­i­sa­tion that set stan­dards for wet­land con­ser­va­tion in Europe, Amer­ica, Canada, Aus­tralia and New Zealand. In 1981, WAGBI ex­panded to en­com­pass all shoot­ing and con­ser­va­tion is­sues, chang­ing its name to the Bri­tish As­so­ci­a­tion of Shoot­ing and Con­ser­va­tion (BASC).

a pro­fes­sion no more

There are no pro­fes­sional wild­fowlers left, the sale of wild geese is il­le­gal and wild­fowl­ing clubs im­pose bag lim­its on the num­ber of birds that may be shot on any day dur­ing the sea­son (1 Septem­ber to 31 Jan­uary 31st in­land; be­low the high­wa­ter mark on the fore­shore 1 Septem­ber to 20 Fe­bru­ary). Un­der the Wildlife and Coun­try­side Act 1981, le­gal wild­fowl quarry is re­stricted to Canada, grey­lag and pink­feet geese, with white-fronted geese only in Eng­land and Wales; com­mon pochard, gad­wall, gold­en­eye, mal­lard, pin­tail, shov­eller, teal, wigeon and tufted duck. Some, such as teal, wigeon and young pink­feet geese – which gen­er­ally fly at the back of a skein – are bet­ter eat­ing than grey­lag or pochard, but each has gas­tro­nomic qual­i­ties of its own and none finds its way into a bag without a great deal of hard work and ded­i­ca­tion.

The ef­forts of WAGBI and BASC have pre­served a his­toric part of our sport­ing her­itage. Through them, my­self and many oth­ers have game­books of trea­sured mem­o­ries of salt marshes, fore­shore and mud­flats; but­ter­fly weather and bit­ter, howl­ing wind; fail­ure and oc­ca­sional suc­cess. More im­por­tantly, they have en­abled his­tory to re­peat it­self in the days I have spent pass­ing it on to the next gen­er­a­tion: kneel­ing be­hind a hedge on the side of Ward­law hill­fort as skein af­ter skein of pinks flighted up the Nith es­tu­ary to­wards us; be­ing cov­ered in snow as we crouched in the reeds be­side the River Kent where it flows into More­cambe Bay, wait­ing for the dawn; look­ing across to Holy Is­land and lis­ten­ing to wigeon whistling as the tide crept in; watch­ing with fa­therly anx­i­ety the progress of a punt inch­ing its way down the Tay; or sim­ply stand­ing to­gether in the farm­yard on a moon­lit Novem­ber night, lis­ten­ing to Gabriel’s hounds call­ing to each other as they flight in­land to feed.

Wild­fowl­ing for mal­lard on the River Med­way (far left) and the River Sev­ern (above)

Above: Stan­ley Dun­can, founder of WAGBI. Left: an old­time punt-gun­ner

Above: skeins of pink­feet ris­ing at dawn. Left: a bag of wigeon, the re­ward for field­craft and ac­cu­racy Be­low: a suc­cess­ful morn­ing on the Med­way

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