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
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