A Lady Wildfowler
Getting up at 3 or 4am and stomping across a cold, wet, muddy marsh in pitch black is not everyone’s idea of fun but for the Wildfowler this is just the start. After negotiating creeks and splashes you come to the area that you believe is going to be the right place for the mornings flight, usually decided prior to this trip after many hours of watching where birds are feeding and resting inland and the flight lines they are taking to these spots. Finding a good position where you can see well all around but you are covered from the birds sight is sometimes tricky, I usually get myself between some swader bushes or tucked in a small creek if the tide is out. Then it’s a case of waiting for that first inch of light to appear, before the sun even shows itself and listening and watching hard for the first glimpse of duck or the whistling sound of its wing beat. This is no place for ear defenders I’m afraid, good hearing and eyes are needed in this sport.
That first inch of light is the most exciting when the duck start to move – mainly Mallard, Widgeon and Teal in my area. Teal, I find are very exciting to shoot and I often think of them as little Spitfires – they are so fast and erratic! After that first light and as the sun starts to rise, the temperature drops and then the geese start to move, making a lot of noise before doing so to let you know they’re ready, giving you the most magical feeling of excitement and anticipation. They create an almost earth moving tremor with their calling to each other and their powerful wing beats. A sight after all these years of seeing them, I’m still in awe of.
The best flights are when the wind is strong and going in the right direction that you know the quarry will have trouble gaining height against. With the geese, you really need to rely on the wind to keep them from climbing so high and being out of range. Beyond the marsh where I shoot, lies the sands, which is roost to the Pink-footed Goose, year on year they return to this spot in their thousands. I think this year we had about 40,000 plus which is lower than some years, we have had up to 76,000. Their roost on the sands is strictly a no shooting area. All wildfowling takes place below the sea wall and up to the mean high water mark and from 1st September – 20th February. The Pink-footed geese are a spectacle that attracts a lot of visitors to our area of coast. Thousands upon thousands of pink-footed geese in their skeins leaving in the morning or returning in the evening to their roost is an amazing sight and sound and something that I feel thankful that I can watch sitting alone on the marsh closer to them than any visitor will probably ever venture out to. They really are an amazing bird and although I shoot them to eat, I have a huge love for them along with everything I shoot, I think you have to have a certain respect for the bird and getting a clean kill each time is the main objective and if that isn’t achieved then my dog is straight on the bird to bring it to my hand for quick dispatch. A wildfowling dog is very different to a Game Shooters peg dog, ours are taught to run in as soon as they see the bird drop. This is mainly due to there being water everywhere and a dead bird on a tide can soon disappear and also because if the bird is wounded they soon hide and its not right to leave a wounded bird on the marsh to starve.
Wildfowling also gives you the chance to be so close to nature, Marsh Harriers, Buzzards, Kestrels, Hawks and Owls are an everyday sighting when out and because you are well camouflaged its amazing how close they get to you along with all other marsh wildlife and sea birds. If the birds are out of range or nothing comes my way, then I still go home happy from just being out there.
The marsh is a beautiful and truly wild place which can also be very dangerous if you don’t know the area well and are not aware of the tide times – as they say ‘tide and time waits for no man (or woman!), to shoot there you must have respect for Mother Natures ways. A Wildfowler needs to check the tide times before every visit to the marsh.
Unfortunately Wildfowling clothing is not something to get excited about as with other shooters wardrobes and especially as nearly all wildfowling clothing is made for men! A good waterproof and windproof warm camouflage jacket and the same with trousers, warm hat, waders or good water boots (neoprene lined are the best for keeping your feet warm and any water that may go over the top of your boot!) and a headover to keep neck and chin warm and face concealed are the main essentials along with a gunslip that you don’t mind getting muddy because you DO get muddy, very muddy and a wading stick marked at knee and waist height is handy for checking depths of water that you cross and for sinking sand! The Wildfowler spends most of his/her time sitting or kneeling in a lot of mud and/or water and a lot of the shooting is done from a kneeling or sitting position.
Wildfowling is an exciting way of shooting and there are different flight times that a Wildfowler gets excited about, the morning flight as spoken about earlier, evening flight which is going out on the marsh before last light falls which is when the ducks and geese flight back to roost, tidal flights which depending on what time and what height the tide might be as a high tide will push any wildfowl out on the marsh to different spots and one of my favourite flights, Moon-flighting. Moon-flighting is under a full moon, most wildfowlers will be seen sticking their heads outside every so many minutes to see if there is just the right amount of cloud to highlight the birds against. Too much or too little cloud and you won’t be able to see the birds, its got to be just right. Geese and ducks tend to stay out off the roost or spend time going back and forth from the roost on moonlit nights to feed. It is very exciting shooting and there is something quite special about being out on the marsh at this time.
I am a member of The Wells and District Wildfowling Club which covers Wells and Warham marshes, Wells beach and Holkham beach. My husband, Robin is also a Wildfowler and in the same club as me but he is also lucky enough to be a member of another wildfowling club next to Wells which I am unable to get into due to birth rights, so sometimes he will buy me a day pass to shoot on his other patch too. In fact our last outing this year was to his club area and we took his boat which gained us access to better parts of the marsh as it was a high tide, unfortunately this was not a successful evening for me and I missed all 5 shots that I had! Dismal! But that is the thing with Wildfowling, there are no beaters to drive birds to you, it really is one man (woman) and his/her dog and the seeking out of where quarry is flighting for you to be able to get a shot and a shot is not always guaranteed.
To be a wildfowler you must be able to identify all quarries that you are able to shoot. In the half light of flight times you need to be able to identify a bird not just by colour markings but by its silhouette, wing beat and call and you need to know your shooting area. Our quarry list is:- Duck, being Mallard, Widgeon, Teal, Pintail, Tufted Duck, Goldeneye, Pochard, Shoveler and Gadwall, Geese being Pink Foot, Canada’s, Greylag and White Front and then the waders, Common Snipe and Golden Plover. Different shot loads are used for different birds so I generally have half a cartridge belt for goose cartridges and half for duck. My personal preferences being a 3” BB load for geese and 4’s for duck. My main gun for the marsh is a Magnum 12 bore over and under but if I’m going out especially for geese then I take my beast, the 10 bore over and under! All cartridges used must be non-toxic, which can sometimes be quite expensive but really it’s not for the wonderful organic meat that you obtain! If you’ve never had wild duck or wild goose you really are missing out. My husband and I have a rule in our house – whoever shoots it, plucks and guts it!
Wildfowling is a different type of sport from any other and I could easily talk about it all day from learning to call duck and decoying to learning about the best spots to shoot and the Wildfowl’s haunts and habits. I think to be a Wildfowler you also need to be a conservationist, its not all about the kill, it’s a part of coastal history and doing what our forefathers done to survive – a true hunter gatherer way of life, a love and a passion!
Me and my dog Snipe in ‘Marsh Pig’ my husbands boat on our last trip of the season.
Snipe on the bow of ‘Marsh Pig’