James Marchington talks to a time served fowler keen to encourage sportsmen with an inherent hankering for the foreshore
There’s something about wildfowling that breeds some of the real characters in shooting. Or perhaps it’s that the oddballs of the shooting world find themselves drawn to the marsh.
Not for them a 9.30am start and the comfort of a gun bus, with the promise of a break after the second drive for sloe gin and sausage rolls. The wildfowler’s life, like that of his quarry, is ruled by the elements.
If the tide dictates that the geese will flight over the sea wall at 5am, that’s where the dedicated fowler will be, notwithstanding a freezing wind that leaves his clothing encrusted with ice like a Russian trawler.
It takes dedication bordering on insanity to get up before dawn and battle out across treacherous mud, deep creeks and slippery rocks, squat down in a soggy hole and wait for birds that will quite likely decide to fly another route today, or not come at all.
The history of wildfowling is full of stories of larger-than-life characters, men like Kenzie Thorpe, the ‘Wild Goose Man’ of the Wash, famed as much for poaching as he was for his skill at calling ducks and geese. Then there is Sir Peter Scott, the naval officer, painter, glider pilot and conservationist whose voracious appetite for shooting geese led to him founding the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.
It’s easy to say ‘they don’t make them like that any more’, but even today there are some remarkable characters among the ranks of wildfowlers. A few years ago I was privileged to go out for a dawn flight with one such chap.
Richard Shelton is one of Britain’s leading fish scientists, with a CV that includes head of the Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory at Pitlochry, research director of the Atlantic Salmon Trust, and honorary senior lecturer in environmental and evolutionary biology at St Andrews. An educated, well-spoken man, he writes for the Times Literary Supplement and has produced two excellent books: an autobiography, The Longshoreman, and To Sea and Back: The Heroic Life of the Atlantic Salmon.
He is no stuffed-shirt academic, however. During his years at sea he picked up a turn of phrase that would make a sailor blush. He will punctuate a serious discussion with some foul sexual reference so profane that you can’t quite believe your ears, until you notice the twinkle in his eye and realise he is taking a mischievous delight in your surprise.
He once let fly with a side-lever Grant at a woodpigeon from his university office window. It caused quite a stir. “The director of the laboratory at that time – being of urban origin – didn’t understand these things, poor fellow,” says Richard with a twinkle. “He thought a piece of apparatus had exploded.” Richard got the pigeon, however, and like everything he shoots, it was cooked with great care and eaten.
Richard’s interest in fowling began with his father, who used to shoot pinks before and after World War Two at Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk. “We used to get taken to Wells for holidays, and we’d meet some of the old fowlers. Later my father took my brother and I to the Wash. We didn’t get a shot but we were all there armed to the teeth,” he recalls.
“When the time came I was very keen to go to a Scottish university, because I knew from my father’s library that was the best place to be for wildfowling and shooting generally. I got in touch with the lodgings officer at the university and they’d found me a lodging in the town. I asked if they couldn’t they find me a lodging with a farmer or a fisherman.
“They managed to find me a place with the director of the marine laboratory who lived down the coast and was a very keen wildfowler. My dad sent up a Harrington & Richardson 3” magnum and a lot of home-loaded 3” cartridges – in the post! You could do that in those days.”
That was the beginning of a wildfowling career that saw Richard hunting ducks and geese from the Eden Estuary near St Andrews to the Blackwater in Essex, as well as farther afield. Work took him to Aberdeen and he pursued his interest on the Ythan, by this point with a 10-bore.
One day at a pheasant shoot he heard of an ancient 8-bore that the owner wanted to dispose of. Richard snapped it up. It was a lovely old double hammer gun by J&W Tolley. It needed much work, but Richard lavished on it all the care and attention needed. “It’s superb now,” he says, and indeed it is – a beautiful example of a wildfowling classic, preserved in marvellous condition and still doing the task it was built for.
Well before dawn on that morning in Cellardyke, Richard took the 8-bore Tolley from the cabinet, rubbed it over with an oiled cloth, slipped it into a worn old canvas gun-sleeve, and we set off for a stretch of foreshore a couple of miles down the road.
The gun looked almost as big as him, but he shouldered it easily and stepped lightly across the rocks and mud, his old labrador Dolly close at heel. We made our way to a rocky outcrop and hunkered down as the sky began to lighten.
Just before the first rays of the sun broke the horizon, a single cock wigeon came low over the waves, following the line of the shore. Its flight would bring it past our hiding place in the rocks.
I heard the double click of the hammers being pulled back to full cock. The great barrels swung and there was a tremendous boom. The water seemed to boil around the unfortunate duck, which, caught in the middle of a pattern that would fell a grey goose, dropped like a stone into the water. Dolly swam out with a strength that belied her years, and returned with the dripping duck.
By now the sun was up and the tide was threatening to cut us off, so we made our way back across the slippery rocks to Richard’s Land Rover and headed back for a massive fried breakfast. The Tolley was lovingly cleaned and oiled, and Richard described how he would prepare the duck, soaking it in full-fat milk to remove the sulphurous, marshy taste. He explained that the unpleasant taste comes from dimethyl sulphide, which is fat-soluble.
I lost touch with Richard when he moved away from Cellardyke, so I was delighted to track him down at his new home not far from the Montrose Basin near Aberdeen and discover that, now into his 70s, he is still getting out after the geese. “Most of the geese I get these days, rather unsportingly, are inland,” he told me.
One of his regular haunts is a farm near a marsh where the pinkfoot geese roost. “The boundary is an old disused railway line like a sea bank, it’s lovely, just like being back on the Wash, waiting on the sea wall. Sadly the farmers have now drained the marsh, so the geese aren’t using it so much, although there is a little bit of water at the end of the season sometimes.”
He is also a member of a local syndicate, which gives him the chance to intercept the geese on their way from the Montrose Basin to feed inland. The old Tolley 8-bore is still his weapon of choice for the geese, and when shooting inland in Scotland he can load it with the lead shot it was designed for. “I do have some 8-bore cartridges loaded up with ITM though, for when I go out in the Montrose Basin,” he says.
It was good to hear that the 8-bore was still being used for its original purpose, rather than languishing as a wall ornament. With all this talk of fowling, I found myself feeling quite nostalgic. Richard and I agree on many things, but above all we would encourage any roving sportsman who feels drawn to the foreshore in pursuit of ducks and geese to give it go. BASC offers a great wildfowling permit scheme for members who want to try wildfowling and those already experienced to try sport in different areas.
This booklet is designed for both the novice and experienced wildfowler and includes details of where you can get wildfowling permits in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Permits are offered by many BASC wildfowling clubs, various countryside organisations and local authorities. In most cases you will be accompanied to the foreshore by a member of the permit-issuing club.
If you would like to try wildfowling for the first time, or just visit new parts of the country, the BASC wildfowling permit scheme will help you find shooting.
Read and download the BASC booklet at basc.org.uk/wildfowling.