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The Trading of Ruffs from Spalding

The Ruff is a wader that has suffered exploitation over the years by man, perhaps the worst example being horrendous taxidermy that constructed hats for ladies to wear made up of the stuffed male ruff. Such practises led to the initial formation of what was to become the RSPB. However, many years before this Ruffs were captured to eat and kept alive and then transported whilst alive in baskets across the country such was their high value as a delicacy.

Cassells Natural History of 1866 accounts for valuable birds being caught alive by nets around Spalding and being transported alive across the country:

“..the trade of catching ruffs is confined to few persons and scarcely repays the trouble and the expense of nets. These people live in obscure places on the verge of the fens, and are found out with difficulty; for few, if any, birds are bought by those who make a trade of fattening them for table. Mr Towns, the noted feeder at Spalding, assures us his family had been a hundred years in the trade; and they had supplied George the Second and many noble families in the kingdom. He undertook at the desire of the late Marquis od Townsend, when that nobleman was lord-lieutenant of Ireland, to take some ruffs to that country, and actually set of with twenty-seven dozen from Lincolnshire, left seven dozen at the Duke of Devonshire’s, at Chatsworth, continued his route across the kingdom to Holyhead, and delivered seventeen dozen alive in Dublin, having lost only three dozen in so long a journey, confined and generally crowded as they were in baskets which were carried upon two horses. During our stay at Spalding, we were shown into a room where there were about seven dozen males and a dozen females, and of the former there were no two alike. Our intrusion to choose some birds drove them from their stands, and compelling some to trespass upon the premises of others, produced many battles. It is a remarkable character of these birds that the feed most greedily the moment they are taken, a basin of bread and milk or boiled wheat, placed before them, is instantly contended for, and so pugnacious is their disposition that they would starve in the midst of plenty, if several dishes of food were not placed among them, at a distance from each other……. …..few ruffs, comparatively speaking, are taken in the spring, as the old birds frequently pine and will not readily fatten. The principal time is September, when the young birds are on the wing; these are infinitely more delicate for the table, more readily submit to confinement, and are less inclined to fight.” 49 Cassell noted that effectively the birds were being caught twice a year in two seasons, September and early in the nesting season . He proposed that the fen hunters should either voluntarily or by bye-law stop collecting at the beginning of the nesting season for each female bird captured was possibly at the cost of at least four young resulting in great depletion of the species. Besides nets the author also gave account of horse-hair snares being set on the ground near their nesting areas to trap their feet. I have also found accounts in old recipe books of ruffs caught in fenland being taken to midland areas such as Nottingham and Birmingham in large numbers to be fattened. They were highly expensive and were a delicacy of their age. They were typically cooked in a pan or roasted and served on toast with a rich sauce of orange, truffle sauces, or a rich sauce made of cream and eggs. Ruff puddings were made in a basin surrounded by suet crust, or a cold ruff pie filled out with hard boiled eggs was another alternative.

There is little wonder the ruff is such a rarity in the fens and has never recovered its numbers from its clearly common occurrence in the Fens of the nineteenth century.

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