Wildfowling, shooting and conservation

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Chapter 6

Wildfowling Today

The literature of wildfowling abounds with evocative descriptions of the coastal marshes of bygone years and the hardy men who pursued wild duck and geese with punt gun or long shoulder weapon. The works of Colonel Peter Hawker, John Guille Millais, Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey, Abel Chapman and Stanley Duncan are typical of the books which paint such beautiful and compelling pictures of the sport during the 19th century and the early years of the 20th. Virtually unrestricted in his pursuit of wild birds, the fowler of that era was a romantic individual although, in reality, many suffered privations which few modern exponents of the craft would contemplate. On the one hand was the sportsman-naturalist for whom an expedition to the wild remote estuaries was an adventure to be relished and later recounted in his gentlemen's club while, at the opposite end of the social spectrum, poor market gunners endured considerable hardship in their efforts to cull from the marshes a harvest of wildfowl.

Those days are gone forever. Industrial development and intensive agriculture have seriously eroded the habitats of the fowl, the spread of motor transport has opened the sport to many more people, wildlife legislation has imposed constraints upon the activities of the sportsman and a sense of self-restraint has evolved in the practices of wildfowlers. The writings of wildfowling authors such as James Wentworth Day, "B.B." and Arthur Cadman belong to the period when the sport as we know it today was developing. Those worthies recognised the changes which were taking place and, in their different ways, reflected the reactions of the fowling fraternity to the challenges of their age. Some seriously regretted the changing scene while others, notably Cadman, were able to rise to meet the new responsibilities which had been placed upon the wildfowler's shoulders.

The personal exploits which have been recalled in the preceding chapters are of a later vintage. They occurred during the 1960s, 70s and 80s yet, in those few recent decades, many significant alterations have occurred in the fowler's world. Clubs and societies have proliferated, many new nature reserves have been created, the distribution of wildfowl populations has not remained static, modern technology has had an impact on the fowler's guns, ammunition, equipment and clothing and, perhaps most importantly, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 curtailed the species which might legitimately be shot.

It follows that the newcomer entering the sport today has much to learn. He has at his disposal, however, a wealth of advice and information and, once he has sampled the excitement and fulfilment of a successful outing to the marshes, his thirst for knowledge will lead him to study the habits and habitat of his quarry, to experiment with different types of guns and cartridges and to explore new foreshores. Despite the regulations which impinge upon his pursuit, his approach to the sport will become just as individualistic as were those of Hawker or Millais.


There are three principal categories of legislation and case law which affect the wildfowler. They deal respectively with the ownership and use of shotguns, the definition of foreshore and the protection of wild birds. Also of interest to fowlers are those aspects of the law relating to the sale of wildfowl and the use of boats.

Firearms Legislation

Any person who wishes to own or use a shotgun in Britain must comply with the provisions of the Firearms Act 1968. Under this statute a shotgun is defined as a smooth-bore gun, not being an airgun, having a barrel length of not less than 24 inches. To purchase, acquire or possess such a weapon, a person must hold a current Shotgun Certificate issued by the Chief Constable of the area within which he normally resides. Intending applicants should carefully complete the requisite form and submit it, together with the appropriate fee, to their local police station. There is no requirement to satisfy the police that the applicant has access to a place where he may shoot, nor is it obligatory to possess a secure cupboard in which the shotgun will be kept. The Chief Constable does have a right to refuse to grant a Shotgun Certificate to a person who has been convicted of certain types of criminal offence or who has a history of mental illness. The Firearms Act 1968 also makes provision for the use of shotguns by temporary visitors to Britain and lays restrictions upon the ownership and use of guns by young people under the age of 17 years.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 imposes a restriction on the use of repeating shotguns. When employed against wildfowl or game birds, a gun of this type must have its magazine plugged so that it will not accept more than two cartridges. With most designs of semi-automatic shotgun, this effectively reduces the capacity of the gun to three cartridges; one in the chamber and two in the magazine. Of interest to puntgunners only, the maximum barrel bore which is allowed is an internal diameter of 1 inches at the muzzle.

Shooting on the Foreshore

The case of Beckett v Lyons (1967) 1 AER 833 finally dispelled the popular myth that, in England and Wales, there was a public right to shoot on the foreshore. It follows from this case that any person who takes a shotgun on to the foreshore without proper authorisation not only renders himself liable to a civil action for trespass but, under the Firearms Act 1968 may be prosecuted for the criminal offence of armed trespass. Members of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) are in a somewhat privileged position as much of the area below high water mark is owned by the Crown or by the Duchy of Lancaster and, except where the sporting rights have been leased to a third party, the BASC has negotiated a right for its members to resort to such foreshore for the purpose of wildfowling. That having been said, the reality of the situation is that the most worthwhile areas of fowling marsh have been leased by wildfowling clubs, are in private ownership or have been designated as nature reserves. In consequence, there are few areas of England and Wales where an itinerant gunner can simply cross the sea wall and obtain good quality sport without the need to acquire a permit.

In England and Wales the foreshore is defined as that area which is more often than not covered by the flux and reflux of the four ordinary tides occurring midway between springs and neaps. In effect, therefore, much of the prime wildfowling land which is flooded by only the highest spring tides does not fall within that area which is classified as foreshore and the fowler will be committing an offence if he shoots from such salt marsh without specific permission from the owner.

In Scotland the situation is somewhat different from that in England and Wales. Although the Firearms Act 1968 applies equally in Scotland, there is considered to be a public right to carry a gun on the foreshore for the purpose of wildfowling and, hence, the offence of armed trespass is not committed by the fowler who enters such an area without express permission. This situation arises because in Scotland, irrespective of ownership, the Crown has retained certain rights in respect of the foreshore and holds those in trust for the public. Despite this general rule, many of the best areas of wildfowling foreshore in Scotland are now effectively controlled as a result of the creation of nature reserves with wildfowling permit schemes. On other parts of the Scottish coast there may remain a public right to shoot but access to the high water mark is restricted by the owners of adjacent land. Only where an established right of way exists does the fowler have a right to cross private land in order to gain access to the foreshore.

The definition of foreshore differs in Scotland and is considerably more favourable to the wildfowler. That area which lies between the high and low water marks of ordinary spring tides is classified as foreshore and consequently includes areas of saltings and merse which would be excluded by the definition pertaining in England and Wales.

Protection of Birds

The species of geese and duck which may legitimately be shot by the wildfowler during the open season are specified in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. They are:

Canada Goose Greylag Goose
Pinkfooted Goose Whitefronted Goose (England
and Wales only)

Common Pochard Gadwall
Goldeneye Mallard
Pintail Shoveler
Teal Tufted Duck

The open season for those birds is 1st September to 31st January (above high water mark) or 1st September to 20th February (below high water mark). Dead wild geese may not be sold at any time while dead wild duck may be sold only between 1st September and 27th February. Wildfowling is prohibited on Christmas Day and, in Scotland and certain areas of England and Wales, on Sundays. No game licence is required to shoot wild duck and geese.

During periods of exceptionally severe weather the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Secretary of State for Scotland may impose a ban on the shooting of wildfowl and certain other birds. Notice of such a ban is given in selected national newspapers and is broadcast by radio stations. The BASC always attempts to give advance warning of a hard weather ban to affiliated wildfowling clubs.

It is an offence to use any mechanically propelled vehicle for the pursuit of wild birds and this, in effect, means that wildfowlers must not shoot from a motor boat or a dinghy to which an outboard engine is fitted. It is generally accepted that no offence will be committed if the outboard engine is removed from the transom and stowed on the floor of the boat before a gun is taken from its cover.


Apart from legal constraints upon the sport, there is a code of conduct which is almost universally adopted by wildfowlers in Britain and which is designed to ensure that the quarry and fellow fowlers are afforded the respect which they deserve. To the man who participates in formal covert shooting it may seem strange that fowlers adhere, in the main, to a set of self-imposed regulations which allows many chances to pass them by. Only a person who has experienced the magic of a dawning estuary can fully appreciate that the size of the bag is unimportant to a true wildfowler. It is enough to simply be there when the fowl flight and to know that one's sport has not interfered with the pleasure of others or with the continued wellbeing of the wildfowl populations. The Wildfowler's Ten Commandments embody this spirit:

The Wildfowler's Ten Commandments

1. Never raise a gun to any bird which cannot be positively
identified as a legitimate quarry species.
2. Never shoot a duck or goose which will not subsequently be
enjoyed at the table.
3. Never shoot at any bird which is beyond the range of
either gun or marksmanship.
4. Never shoot at a bird which may fall in a place from
which it cannot be retrieved.
5. Do not discharge a shotgun within 400 yards of an occupied
house before dawn or after dusk.
6. When arriving for morning flight do not disturb anyone who
may be asleep.
7. Always arrive with time to spare so as to avoid disturbing
the marsh after a flight has begun.
8. On no account take up a position in front of another
fowler or within 150 yards to his side.
9. Do not leave your position until the flight is over.
10. If a goose flight is expected, do not disturb the marsh by
shooting at duck.

Range Judging

On the question of ethics, one of the most common "crimes" committed by inexperienced wildfowlers is that of shooting at birds which are well out of shotgun range. So few chances come the fowler's way that it is understandable that the novice is tempted to risk a shot at high duck or geese but this type of conduct not only brings the sport into disrepute, it also spoils the flight for other fowlers. A fully choked 12-bore used with a suitable 3 inch magnum cartridge may have a maximum range of 50 or 55 yards but very few sportsmen can shoot with the degree of accuracy necessary to achieve a clean kill at such a distance. It is much more reasonable to let any bird pass which is adjudged to be more than 40 yards high, a practice which will allow for a slight error in assessing range. When the possible price is a wounded goose, it is always better to err on the side of caution.

It is only with the benefit of considerable experience that the range of flighting fowl can be judged with accuracy. One trick is to pin a shot duck, with its wings outstretched, to a fence and then to view it from measured distances of 30, 40, and 50 yards. For goose shooters who use a side-by-side shotgun, a rough guide is that a greylag or whitefront will be within range if the wingspan of the goose appears longer than the width of both barrel muzzles. One occasionally meets wildfowlers who complain that they have heard the sound of their pellets striking a goose but that the bird did not drop from the sky. This is an almost certain indication that the goose was well out of killing range as, if the shot took so long to travel to the goose that the sound of it striking the bird's wing and tail coverts was not obliterated by the noise of the gunshot, the goose was likely to have been at least 65 yards high.

Bag Limits

Although some wildfowling clubs do impose bag limits upon their members, one of the basic freedoms of fowling in Britain is that there is no statutory limitation upon the number of duck or geese which may be shot. Nevertheless, there is a general acceptance that excessive bags should be avoided. This is rarely a problem for the shoreshooter but, every now and then, an opportunity may arise to kill more fowl than is considered decent. Despite the fact that many fowling trips will result in a completely empty bag, most experienced wildfowlers impose a fairly strict limit upon their shooting on the rare days when they find themselves in the right place at the right time. Three or four geese or perhaps a dozen duck are normally considered to be sufficient for any man on a single flight.

What has to be borne in mind is that the sport is concerned with harvesting the naturally produced surplus of wild populations and, consequently, the future wellbeing of wildfowling is dependent upon that harvest never exceeding the capacity of the fowl to reproduce themselves. Only by adhering to a responsible code of self-discipline can we hope to avoid the imposition of further statutory restrictions or a steady decline in the quality of our sport.


One of the prime paradoxes in the shooting world arises from the fact that while wildfowling is the most challenging and arduous branch of shotgun sport, it is frequently the first to be attempted by the novice gun owner. This is not entirely surprising as, of all types of wing shooting, the pursuit of wildfowl on the foreshore is probably the least expensive and the most readily accessible. Nevertheless, the tyro coming to the sport today does not have the total freedom of the estuaries which was enjoyed by his forbears and, to secure worthwhile shooting, the modern wildfowler must be prepared to co-operate with his fellows. Lucky is the youngster who begins his fowling career accompanying his father below the sea wall and perhaps shooting his first duck or goose while still in his early teens. Many more newcomers to the sport will require to seek the assistance of experienced fowlers if they hope to come to terms with the birds of the marsh.

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation

The first essential step for every novice is to enrol as a member of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation. This worthy organisation was until recently known as WAGBI (the universal acronym for the Wildfowlers' Association of Great Britain and Ireland) and was founded in 1908 by Stanley Duncan to promote and protect the interests of wildfowlers. With over 80,000 members and several hundred affiliated clubs, the BASC is represented on many important national and international committees and works very hard indeed for the British sportsman. Having outgrown offices in Liverpool and Chester, its activities are now based on a splendid centre at Marford Mill, Rossett, Clwyd, from where a dedicated staff offers a full range of advice and assistance covering all aspects of shooting and practical conservation.

Although the large number of newish motor cars which continue to display the old WAGBI logo suggests that the change of name was not universally welcomed, there can be no doubt whatsoever that the broader base has been to the ultimate benefit of wildfowlers as the sphere of influence of the BASC has continued to grow. Despite what the cynics might think, the Association's antecedents remain firmly rooted below the sea wall.

Wildfowling Clubs

Local wildfowling clubs also have an important role to play in the life of a newcomer to wildfowling. The best clubs frequently have lengthy waiting lists and may impose an entrance test or a period of probationary membership. It is, however, well worth the wait simply in terms of the introductions to experienced fowlers which club activities can provide. Finding somewhere to shoot is rarely easy these days. Shooting rights on good private wildfowling foreshore are hard to come by and even knowledge about club land may not be readily imparted until the novice has established his credentials. It is incumbent upon the tyro, therefore, to gain the respect and trust of the veterans he meets and this is most readily achieved by a combination of a humble approach and a willingness to volunteer for any work which the club requires to be undertaken. Time spent felling trees, planting verges, excavating ponds or even addressing envelopes may be rewarded with a scrap of information or an invitation to accompany an experienced wildfowler at morning flight.

Having joined the BASC, a list of wildfowling clubs in any geographic region may be obtained from the Association's headquarters and a polite, well-written letter to the club secretaries will bring details of membership conditions and subscriptions. In addition to wildfowling activities, some clubs organise gundog training sessions, occasional clay pigeon shoots, social meetings and educational evenings with films or guest speakers. Even when a probationer is not permitted to venture unaccompanied on to club foreshore, he will be welcomed at those supplementary events and will learn much from active participation.

Where to Shoot

As mentioned earlier, it is rare nowadays for a wildfowler to be able to simply take his gun down to any convenient section of foreshore and begin shooting. The maps on pages XXX - XXX show the principal areas of coastal wildfowl habitat in Britain but it must be stressed that the inclusion of an entry on the maps does not indicate that wildfowling is permitted. In some cases the foreshore may be in private ownership, in others it may be regulated by wildfowling clubs and, especially in prime habitats, there may be a nature reserve in operation. Members of the BASC may obtain from headquarters a list of those clubs and nature reserve authorities which issue permits to wildfowlers.

If a wildfowling trip entails a journey to a distant estuary, the novice must establish contacts in his chosen hunting ground which will help him to obtain news of the fowling prospects and local conditions. Hoteliers and publicans are a useful source of information but the real gems of assistance are likely to come from local fowlers who have become genuine friends over a period of years. Once again, the tyro is in the position of having to earn the trust and respect of hitherto strangers but there is no better way of gaining the necessary knowledge. It is also important to obtain any access permission in advance of an outing as authority to cross private land is unlikely to be forthcoming at 5 o'clock on a winter's morning. Nor should it be assumed that permission granted in a previous year will still be valid. Ownership of land can change and the new proprietor may be less sympathetic to fowlers than was his predecessor.

Wherever one is wildfowling, the value of very thorough reconnaissance cannot be overstated. A survey of the area in daylight prior to the flight will alert the fowler to any hazards which might cause difficulty in the darkness and will also provide the opportunity to check out other little practical points such as the parking places which will not inconvenience farm workers when they start to go about their daily toil. With experience, it is also possible to examine a marsh at mid-day and decide upon the likely flightlines of the fowl. Careful preparations of this kind can help to avoid a great deal of frustration at flightime.


Basically, shooting duck and geese on the foreshore is a solitary sport although, due to the increasing popularity of the pursuit, it is rare for a fowler to enjoy a total absence of other sportsmen when he sets out beyond the tideline. Nevertheless, the skills upon which his accomplishments - or lack of them - will depend are intrinsically those of the lone gunner who is at one with the wind, weather and tides. Flightcraft, at its simplest, means being able to predict the behaviour of the quarry and then lying in wait for the chance of a shot when the fowl move between roost and feeding grounds. Duck normally roost during the daylight hours, flighting off the shore to feed inland at night, whereas geese reverse this pattern by roosting at night and feeding throughout the day. It is, therefore, at dawn and dusk that the wildfowler expects to encounter his quarry and he must decide where they will pass on their daily journey between bedroom and dining room.

Observation and experience provide the keys to the wildfowl movements on any particular marsh and the novice who is sufficiently fortunate to live within easy striking distance of a wildfowling estuary will quickly build up a picture of the normal roosting sites and the manner in which feeding grounds change as each season runs its course. On top of this fundamental information he must then overlay the effects which a multitude of other factors will have upon the behaviour of the fowl. There are a few general rules but, for the rest, every locality has its own quirks and idiosyncrasies.

Moon, Tide and Weather

The natural phenomenon which has the most predictable influence is the monthly cycle of the moon. Whereas moonlight flighting is an art in its own right, most prudent shoreshooters will avoid the few days on either side of a full moon as far as normal flighting is concerned. When bright moonlight enables the birds to move throughout the full 24-hour period, their flighting times can become very erratic.

Weather affects wildfowl behaviour in many ways, some of which can be reliably predicted. Even the greenest recruit to the game will know that fowlers spend most of their idle hours hoping and praying for a sleet-ridden Force-10 hurricane to provide the flight of the season. Gales and storms are welcomed because wild conditions tend to keep the birds within shotgun range when, on most mornings, they habitually fly at a safe height. There are more subtle ways in which the sport is influenced by the wind and the experienced longshore gunner will calculate how the various effects may combine. Often he will also have to take into account the state of the tide before reaching any conclusions and picking his spot on the saltings.

For example, a low tide and a strong wind may well result in fowl roosting on mudbanks in preference to choppy open water. A flowing tide may push birds over the marsh for several hours before they elect to flight. Duck and geese normally take off into the wind and this factor may vary by up to half a mile the point at which they will cross the sea wall. On a calm night with little wind and no moon, geese may drift for several miles with the tide and start their morning journey a considerable distance from their normal haunt. Those factors are but a few of a long list of variables which serves to make coastal fowling a somewhat more difficult sport than shooting inland.


If a major component of flightcraft is selecting the place from which the optimum chance of a shot will be obtained, there is a second aspect to which careful attention must be paid. Whatever the quarry and irrespective of whether it is sought at dawn, mid-day or dusk, the novice wildfowler must learn how to conceal himself on the shore so as to remain unnoticed by the duck and geese until they are within range of his armament. The wariness of wildfowl is legendary and, especially in areas where shooting pressure is heavy, they become astonishingly adept at spotting a human ensconced on the marsh. The parts to be played by suitable clothing and hides are considered in Chapter 9 but, in the meantime, there are one or two rules which should be borne in mind.

It should become an immutable practice to select a position from which the shore can be surveyed with a minimum of movement. Nothing will spook oncoming duck or geese more surely than a white face rotating through 180 or a head bobbing up and down from behind a clump of weed. Care should be taken to avoid silhouetting oneself against the sky and, if a bank can be found from which to shoot, it is better to crouch in front of a dark backdrop than to peer over the top of it. It is vital to make use of the sense of hearing as well as sight and the value to be derived from the second pair of ears which a good gundog can provide should not be underestimated. At the end of the day, the successful wildfowler is often the man who can remain completely invisible until the birds are within gunshot.

This file is an extract from "Fowler in the Wild" by Eric Begbie. It may be reproduced, in whole or in part, by magazines or other publications with the prior permission of the author.