Wildfowling, shooting and conservation

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Chapter 9

Be Prepared

The acquisition of a shotgun is likely to the first item on a would-be wildfowler's shopping list but it is not the only purchase which will be required before he sets out to do business with the duck and geese of the estuary. A full kit can be built up over a number of seasons with priority being given to those items of clothing and equipment which positively contribute to comfort, concealment and safety. Many experienced fowlers find that all the basic necessities occupy the boots of their cars throughout the open season while their garages are cluttered with piles of discarded impedimenta. Accessories such as battery-operated illuminated fore-sights or electric welly-warmers certainly do not fall into the category of essential tackle.

CLOTHING AND FOOTWEAR

Although the professional fowlers and gentleman punters of bygone times endured terrible privations in their pursuit of duck and geese, there is no need for the modern longshore gunner to suffer the same discomforts. The perpetual wildness of the sport lies in the solitude of the marshes, the storm winds of winter and the very instincts of the fowl themselves. It is certainly no betrayal of the wildfowler's art to seek to remain warm and dry below the sea wall. The sport can take place in very wet, windy weather and, being a midwinter pursuit, the keen fowler will also find himself out in conditions of sharp frost. Fortunately our climate is such that heavy rain and extremely low temperatures rarely occur simultaneously so it is normally necessary to worry about only one problem at a time.

Good shooting depends upon the sportsman being able to move in an unrestricted manner and any garment which impedes his swing will have disastrous effects upon his standard of gun handling. Similarly, any article of clothing which fails to aid concealment will seriously reduce his chances of success. When choosing clothing, therefore, drab colours should be selected and attention paid to obtaining apparel which allows ample freedom of movement. Top quality shooting clothes do tend to be expensive but, as the wildfowler is not particularly concerned with matters of sartorial elegance, a visit to a government-surplus store may save some hard-earned cash.

Headwear

It is rare to meet a wildfowler who does not wear some form of hat when shooting and there are a number of very good reasons why this is so. Protecting the head from rain is an obvious purpose but it is not always appreciated that, in very cold weather, a great deal of body heat can be lost from the top of an uncovered cranium. Those of us whose natural thatch is wearing a bit thin will clearly suffer most in this respect although no-one should underestimate the degree to which headwear will contribute to preventing chilling in extreme conditions. Above all else, however, a hat with a good wide peak is essential to cast a shadow over the fowler's face. Especially at dawn and dusk, the white orb of a human physiog stands out like a glowing beacon amid the drab colours of the marsh and, if unshaded, will flash an early warning to the sharp eyes of approaching fowl.

Many diverse designs of hattery can be seen on the shore but not all are entirely suitable. The knitted balaclava helmet, for example, is supremely warm when an icy wind blasts from the north but it suffers from the disadvantage of restricting the fowler's sense of hearing and, in any case, is hardly waterproof. Traditional fore-and-aft tweed deerstalkers are worn by some sportsmen despite the tendency of the rear peak to catch on the coat collar when the wildfowler takes an overhead shot. Just as he is about to pull the trigger, his hat is inevitably pushed forward over his eyes. Tweed caps and soft hats each have their adherents and a camouflaged forage cap is useful in dry weather. In very rainy conditions the ultimate weather protection is given by a hat manufactured from the same waxed cotton material as is popular for shooting coats. Unfortunately, no commercial supplier of sporting clothing seems to have accepted the challenge of producing the ideal wildfowler's head-dress. Were such a hat to exist, it would be fashioned out of waterproof material dyed a matt mixture of brown, green and straw colour. A large front peak would be provided to shade the wearer's face and keep rain out of his eyes while a long soft flap at the rear would overlap his collar to stop water running down his neck. To prevent the hat being blown away by a sudden gust of wind or falling off when taking a high shot, a chinstrap might be fitted and the design would incorporate a face veil which could be tucked away inside the hat when not in use.

Outer Garments

In the mild evenings of early autumn, when waiting in the reed fringes of an estuary for a flight of native mallard, a camouflaged cotton jacket will provide all of the protection which is necessary. At such times there is little to be gained from overdressing but, as winter deepens and the wildfowler's thoughts turn to wigeon whistling under a frosty moon or grey geese battling against gale-driven sleet, a more substantial outfit will be required. There is a wide range of excellent shooting coats on the market and, as a well-made garment will last for many years, it is worth choosing with care. Firm favourites with many fowlers are the waxed cotton thornproof jackets bearing labels such as Barbour, Belstaff or Keeperwear. Some of the earlier synthetic fabrics suffered from a number of problems but more recent introductions like Goretex and Perflex are now beginning to challenge waxed cotton for supremacy in the field, albeit at a fairly high price.

When selecting a coat, the sportsman must decide upon the features he wishes to obtain and then shop around for a garment which meets his requirements. To some extent price will determine the weight of the fabric from which the jacket is tailored. Lightweight examples are fine for carrying in mild weather as insurance against an unexpected shower of rain but the serious fowler will look for a standard or heavyweight cloth to meet his needs on the foreshore. A fabric which is dry to the touch should be chosen and it should be supple when worn. There is nothing worse than a coat which is stiff or which restricts movement in any other way. In addition to the traditional browns and olives, waxproofs are now available in camouflage patterns but, so far, no manufacturer appears to have produced a waxed cotton or synthetic fibre shooting jacket in a light straw colour. For the man who wants to blend into the faded vegetation of a winter marsh, a pale colour would be perfect. For comfort in foul weather several points require attention. The lining should be warm without being unduly bulky and, as the longshore gunner is likely to alternate long spells of waiting with some strenuous walking, the coat should also be well ventilated.

After questions of fabric and fit, some smaller details are important. The collar should fasten snugly and storm cuffs will not only keep out the wind but also stop rainwater running up the fowler's arms every time he puts his gun to his shoulder. The standard provision of two large bellows pockets, two lined handwarmer pouches and a breast pocket will suit most requirements but check that they are waterproof and give ease of access. The main pockets should be large enough to carry cartridges, dog lead, whistle and any other odds and ends. Handwarming pockets are particularly welcome in frosty conditions but the entrances must be sufficiently wide to enable the hands to be withdrawn quickly when the chance of a shot presents itself. It is probable that more shooting coats are discarded because the zip fastener has broken than for any other reason. It therefore pays to choose one with a good heavy duty zip, preferably with the facility for opening from either top or bottom.

Waterproof overtrousers are available in the same range of materials as jackets but, for general wildfowling use, they must be sufficiently pliable to tuck inside thigh waders and wide enough to fit over wellington boots. A design which has side slits to allow access to the pockets of the trousers worn under them is desirable. After having examined every jacket and pair of overtrousers in the shop and finally made a selection, there are a number of rules to be followed to maximise the working life of the garments. At the conclusion of each outing any mud should be sponged off and they should be hung to dry in a warm. well ventilated room. Nothing will more rapidly cause them to lose their smart appearance and weatherproof qualities than being left bundled in the back of a car after a wet day on the marsh. Any tears should be mended immediately using one of the proprietary repair kits and, after one or two seasons of hard use, waxproof garments should be treated with the manufacturer's waterproofing compound, carefully following the instructions on the tin or aerosol. When performing this operation, better results will be obtained if the fabric is warmed by using a hair dryer.

There is an old fowlers' trick of dipping one's hands in the water at the start of each outing and then allowing them to dry in the wind. Such treatment does effectively inure fingers to the bitterest conditions but courage is required to give the ploy a fair trial. In the absence of such strength of character, gloves may be worn on the marsh in winter. Fingerless mitts are available, as are specialised shooting gloves which have a fold-back trigger finger. Users of single trigger guns will find that they can shoot successfully in ordinary gloves provided that they are not too bulky. The type sold for golfers, with thermal backs and very fine leather palms are ideal. When choosing any pair of gloves it is vital to ensure that they have long cuffs as the arteries which run close to the surface of the wrist allow heat to be lost from this region almost as quickly as from the top of the head.

(Author's Addendum: Since "Fowler in the Wild" was published, I have made many visits to the USA and Canada - see http://www.wildfowling.co.uk for details - and have become a firm convert to camouflage waterfowl clothing, especially the Mossy Oak "Shadow Grass" pattern)

Underwear

When the temperature plummets to far below freezing point it is tempting simply to don a couple of extra sweaters to compensate. In consequence, many fowlers have worried about their declining standard of marksmanship when, in reality, all that was wrong was too many layers of clothing beneath their shooting coat. Two thick pullovers and a quilted waistcoat have the same effect as adding almost half an inch to the length of the gunstock. Fortunately there is now available a range of excellent thermal underwear which can replace all those layers of wool. To splash out the type of vest and longjohns which was developed for Arctic explorers and Himalayan mountaineers is a sound investment and a pair of stockings in the same material will keep the feet cosy on the coldest morning. It is also worth noting that a woollen or cotton shirt will be warmer than one of nylon and, similarly, a jersey will provide more effective heat insulation if it is knitted from natural, rather than synthetic, fibre. Around the neck, a soft towelling cravat serves the dual purpose of reducing heat loss and absorbing rainwater.

Footwear

Many coastal wildfowlers wear thigh boots or fishing waders as a matter of course and there are undoubtedly occasions when they are useful. When crawling or kneeling in mud, for instance, waders will be invaluable. A pair with stout cleated soles should be chosen and they should be substantial enough to require no straps of buckles. Some very flimsy fishing waders are sold which have to be attached to a belt but footwear of that type could prove very dangerous on the marsh. The fowler plowtering through soft mud must be able to extricate himself from his boots quickly in an emergency. In most wildfowling situations ordinary wellington boots are probably a more suitable choice and, if worn in conjunction with waterproof overtrousers, will permit greater freedom of movement than waders.

EQUIPMENT

The general rule in relation to equipment is that as little as possible should be carried on to the marsh. There are a number of small items, directly related to safety, which will be mentioned in the next section. Those apart, it is wise to take on a fowling expedition only the few pieces of equipment which may be required in the particular situation.

Seats

Primarily an aid to comfort while waiting for a flight, a seat of some description is worth thinking about. On private or club foreshore, where permanent hides have been built, plastic milk crates are ideal but they are not convenient for carrying around the public saltings. Where sufficiently high natural cover exists or a temporary hide is to be erected, a lightweight folding stool of the type favoured by anglers is a useful accessory. Any bright metal parts should be camouflaged with matt paint and a sling might be fitted to enable it to be carried easily. When creekcrawling or where cover is sparse, a flat seat constructed from a pair of plywood squares and a shallow softwood frame will serve to raise the fowler's hindquarters a couple of inches above the wet mud and avoid uncomfortable rising damp.

Camouflage Netting

In certain situations it is helpful to be able to build a hide on the marsh and, if no suitable flotsam litters the shore, the common expedient is to carry two or three light alloy poles and a camouflage net. Careful thought requires to be given to colour as a green and brown net will be worse than useless when erected in a straw coloured January landscape. A man-made hide, whether of permanent or temporary nature, will be less obvious if constructed against some natural feature such as a large chunk of driftwood, an eroded banking or a stony scree. Irrespective of the materials from which the hide is built, the cardinal rule is that it must not be silhouetted against the skyline when seen from the direction from which the fowl will approach. Another important consideration is that the hide netting and poles must be sufficiently light to carry and easy to erect quickly in the darkness or when a gale is blowing. Leafscreen netting is particularly suitable as it folds up into a very small pack and is virtually tangleproof.

Decoys and Calls

Despite the best efforts of the gunshop salesman, the novice wildfowler should think twice before parting with his cash in exchange for a flotilla of plastic duck or geese. At morning and evening flight the fowl know where they are going and have no thoughts of gatecrashing another party. Only when tide flighting can a degree of advantage be gained from a set of judiciously placed decoys. When an incoming tide in the middle of the day is causing resting duck to move their position on the shore, then a battery of surrogate fowl placed on a carefully selected flash or pool might persuade them to drop in for a visit.

The quality of commercially produced decoys has improved a little in recent years and most now have the matt finish which is so essential. Any shiny examples should be avoided like the plague and, if possible, preference should be given to those which are a little larger than life size. Decoys must adopt a natural "swim" when placed in the water, movement and aspect being much more important than accurate colouring. The type with a weighted keel seem superior in this respect. In general terms, the greater the number of decoys which are employed, the more effective they will be. Avoid, however, a very regular pattern of rubber mallard in neatly regimented rows. While it is true that duck usually sit facing the wind, they rarely do so in tidy lines.

Related to the subject of decoying is that of calling wild duck and geese. Some professional guides have developed mouth-calling to the state of an art but most fowlers have to rely upon the wooden call whistles which have been tuned to imitate the quacking or honking of a particular species. Such accessories are virtually useless unless the wildfowler has carefully studied the natural sounds of his quarry. The laws of chance would suggest that the likelihood of producing the correct note is very small and it is more probable that a warning or alarm call will be emitted. There are now some excellent instructional audio cassettes available to assist the novice in this respect.

Bags

Whatever type of bag is carried, it must be sufficiently capacious to carry all the fowler's equipment and still have space for a duck or two. An ordinary game bag is likely to be too small for anything other than a quick sortie to the shore and many wildfowlers have discovered that discarded postmen's satchels provide a useful alternative. Although not favoured greatly by the fowling fraternity, there is much to commend a frame rucksack as both hands are left completely free and the even distribution of weight across the back means that balance is more easily maintained when squelching through mud and crossing gutters. Decoys and poles can be hung from the "D"-rings of a rucksack and it can be used as a stool in suitable circumstances.

Field Glasses

A good pair of binoculars is invaluable for surveying the marsh in daylight but they should not be left in the car when the time comes to set off across the sea wall. Wildfowling involves sitting quietly for many hours waiting for the infrequent chance of a shot. That time can be spent pleasantly and profitably if field glasses are used to examine the multitude of waders and other small birds which inhabit the saltings. There is no merit in choosing binoculars which are of greater power than 8x30 and, although expensive, a pair which is armoured with waterproof rubber will last for a very long time.

SAFETY ON THE MARSH

Gun Handling

At close range a shotgun is a particularly lethal weapon but that is not to say that the effect of a single pellet at over 100 yards should be ignored. Shotguns are designed to kill and every gunmaking refinement and improvement in cartridge performance is intended to increase that killing efficiency. It is of paramount importance that each person who handles a gun appreciates that he is holding a dangerous weapon. Gun safety is not only a case of being able to recite the rules; it is an attitude of mind coupled with the constant practice of applied knowledge.

Every year the toll of casualties from shotgun accidents emphasises the need for complete vigilance when handling firearms of any description. A constantly recurring feature is the number of mishaps which involve guns which were "thought to be unloaded"; a state of affairs which simply should not exist if the correct drill is followed at all times. The responsibility for gun safety must override all other considerations in the shooting field, even to the exclusion of normal etiquettes and niceties. On a formal covert shoot any transgression may result in the guilty party being sent home with the utmost despatch and with no right of appeal. Many young Shots have had the principles of safe practice indelibly engraved on their minds by the shame accruing from such a punishment. In wildfowling it may be that such sanctions are not always available but this factor does not relieve the fowler of the duty to draw any dangerous conduct to the attention of the miscreant.

For the sake of the peace of mind of your shooting companions it is important not only to be safe but to be seen to be safe. Make every safety check a deliberate, even exaggerated, action so that no-one is in any doubt about your conduct. The following basic rules of safety should be rigorously observed at all times:

1. Never point a gun at any person at any time in any
circumstances. Even if you are certain that a gun is
unloaded, do not point it at anything which you do not
wish to shoot.
2. Treat every gun with the respect due to a loaded gun.
3. Whenever possible, carry your gun in its sleeve. When in
the field, carry it unloaded with the breech open until
you are in a position to expect a shot.
4. Always unload your gun before crossing any fence, wall,
ditch or other obstruction.
5. Check that your gun is unloaded before handing it to
anyone, before putting it into a vehicle and before
entering a house or other building.
6. Always walk with the muzzles pointing at the ground or
high into the air. Grip the gun so that you can control
the direction of the barrels should you stumble or fall.
7. Never shoot where you cannot see. Long grass, reed beds
and bushes may conceal other people. Always know where
other fowlers are hidden and do not swing through their
positions.
8. Before loading, ensure that your barrels are free from
obstruction. Mud or snow can block barrels and may cause a
fatal burst.
9. Never use a cartridge which may generate a pressure higher
than that for which your gun is proof-marked.
10. Keep all guns and ammunition safely locked away from
children or inexperienced persons. Never leave a gun in
sight in a car.

Mud, Weather and Tides

Theoretically, it should be possible to avoid all risks arising from the simple use of guns. In wildfowling, on the other hand, there are a number of hazards which arise from the wild places in which the fowler pursues his quarry. The most vivid fowling memories seem to involve gale force winds and stormy seas because, quite simply, those are the conditions which produce the most successful and exciting sport. Couple foul weather with difficult terrain, oozing mud and racing tides and we are faced with an environment which presents a multitude of hazards to the unwary wildfowler. Conditions on the estuary can change suddenly and dramatically, each locality having its own particular quirks. This is one reason why newcomers to fowling should spend time during the close season reconnoitring their local marshes so that they might become familiar with every gully and creek. Experience cannot be built up overnight and each wildfowler must tread with the utmost caution until he has come to terms with his chosen fowling grounds.

The greatest danger comes from the threat of being cut off by the tide while far out on the marsh. Especially on expansive saltings there is a tendency to underestimate the speed of the tidal flow and it must constantly be borne in mind that the flatter the marsh, the greater the race of incoming water. Tide tables are therefore an essential part of any coastal fowler's equipment. What is equally important is to appreciate the conditions which will render the printed tables inaccurate. A gale from offshore can bring the time of high tide forward by a full hour and may raise its height by several feet. Wildfowlers must not only have their safe route back to firm ground charted in advance of an expedition but must also be prepared to take that route earlier than planned in the event of any abnormal circumstances arising.

Retreating in front of a freak tide is an alarming experience at the best of times but the situation is ten times worse when one is faced with a journey over glutinous mud. Plowtering through estuarine mud is an art in itself and many a novice has lost a boot (or worse) before finally acquiring the requisite skills. The secret is to develop a rhythm and keep up a deliberate momentum. Slide your feet forward rather than taking high steps and, if your feet do become stuck in the ooze, throw yourself on to your back rather than allowing yourself to tumble forwards.

Fog is yet another hazard which faces the longshore gunner. Suddenly, in otherwise pleasant weather, a rolling grey mantle may completely engulf the marsh in a matter of minutes. It is really quite frightening to have visibility reduced to a few yards on a featureless shore. In addition to reconnaissance and planning, equipment can play a vital part in promoting safety on the saltings. A compass is undoubtedly an essential part of the wildfowler's kit but it is of limited value unless one knows how to use it. The cardinal rule, especially on a strange estuary, is to take frequent compass bearings when walking out to the edge of the marsh. If a thick swirling fog suddenly descends, the magnetic needle will give no useful information if the fowler does not know the direction in which he must travel to reach the sanctuary of the sea wall.

Another useful tip is always to carry a wading stick. This need not add much weight to the fowler's load and a light aluminium or alloy pole, painted matt brown, will enable mud or water to be tested for depth without risking a bootful of icy brine. A stick also aids balance when traversing soft ground and, if you have the flight of a lifetime, a dozen duck can be tied to it for the return journey over the marsh.

Next to the risk of drowning, exposure is probably the greatest danger facing the coastal wildfowler. The chilling effect of low temperatures is greatly increased by strong winds and a man who has received a soaking will risk serious harm if he is forced to remain out in the open for even a few hours. Adequate clothing is clearly the best protection in those circumstances and that is one reason for not skimping when buying waterproof garments and thermal underwear. If a fowler does have to spend a long time in adverse conditions waiting for a tide to turn or for thick fog to lift, his comfort and his health will be greatly helped by a thermos flask of hot tea or coffee. It is tempting to travel as light as is possible but a hot drink could be a lifesaver on the estuary and it is well worth including a flask in the bag as a matter of course.

An immediate concern of the fowler who gets cut off by the tide or lost in fog is to attempt to summon help. Traditionally the accepted alarm signal was to fire three shots in quick succession but shooting pressure on some coasts is now so great that such a signal would go unnoticed on a busy Saturday morning. Nevertheless, a situation of potential disaster is no time to conserve cartridges so fire them off anyway and hope that someone takes notice. In any case, if you have to resort to swimming across a flooded creek, you will not be assisted by the weight of a full box of shells. In clear weather it may be possible to attract attention by tying a white cloth to the wading stick and using it as a flag while, if fog descends in fairly still conditions, a referee's whistle may be heard over a long distance. Finally, before departing for a sojourn below the sea wall, make sure that someone knows where you are going and when you intend to return. Then, if you do get into difficulties, the coastguard can be alerted and will know where to start looking.


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.