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Warnings from the past of the dangers of wildfowling

Updated: Jan 31, 2022

1st September saw the start of the wildfowling season. It is possibly one of the purest and most challenging forms of field sport still available to the shooting man. It is not without its hazards, whether it be the tide, mud, or the lack of light. My first experience of wildfowling resulted in me being stuck in a muddy hole on Kirton Marsh totally messed up with a mud covered gun. Fortunately I was with my experienced and much brighter brother-in-law who guided me out of my mess. The picture above is of Gerald Wilson, a wildfowler on Holbeach bombing range in 1961. The following illustrate some of the various dangers.

The Marsh is a dangerous place and key to keeping safe as well as being successful in the sport of wildfowling is an understanding of the tide and wind. The importance of this was described by Tony Creasey in April 1967:

“One of the predominant factors that governs ‘fowling is the wind, and it is also one of the dangers. If we take a 23 foot tide (Just covering the stalk edge and filling all the creeks) with a force 7 blowing from the North East a rise of one and a half feet above the predicted tide can be obtained and at this rate will bring water to the bottom of the sea wall, it will also hold the water up for three quarters of an hour.

Now should the wind be blowing from South West it will tend to hold back the water, but only to the extent of 6 to 9 inches below the predicted tide.

Now I will come to the most important factors. The moon as you will all know governs the tide, if we take the nights of the New and Full moon it will be almost certain the tide will be full between 18.10 hours and 19.00 hours. With the quarter moon the tides will be around 22.4hours to 24.00 hours, this of course Greenwich Mean Time. Also, the tides following the quarter moon will decrease in height for three days and then increase until they reach peak around the Full moon.

Always remember treat your tides with respect.”

It is very easy for modern man to have a false sense of security on tidal marshes as he is used to having a mobile phone – but basic information like telling people where you are going, what time you will be back can be invaluable. I found this out personally once when I was taken out onto the mudflats as a young man by a highly experienced wildfowler, only to spy my brother in law heading off to the marsh to search for me as I had panicked my parents by taking longer than they had expected, although not longer than the time I had told them, when going down the marsh.

Some wildfowlers have lucky escapes as illustrated in this account of a Frieston resident in February 1893:

“ Lost on the Marshes – A most uncomfortable predicament was the lot of Sergt. Sharp, an army pensioner of Frieston, whilst returning home after being out shooting during the day on the marshes when a thick fog came on, and he was entirely lost, experiencing a most remarkable escape. The tide was also making, and, in his endeavor to find his way, he fell into a deep creek, but managed to get to the top, although he was completely submerged for some time. On gaining better ground he called for help. Meanwhile, the tide rose, and reached beyond his waist, when his cries were heard by the skipper of a trawler, who called the attention of Mr Stevens. The latter went with his smack to the rescue, and brought Sharp to the cut end, where he was put ashore, and made his way to the Jolly Sailor Inn, and subsequently to Frieston.”

It is not often that wildfowlers get a second chance when making a mistake with water, the elements, dogs and guns all providing their own hazards . Tommy Lineham, a fisherman and punt gunner from Fosdyke gave the following account referring to both his and Harry’s separate narrow escapes when accidentally discharging punt guns:

“I was pulling the punt gun up and I got one in the head, one in the cheek, and several in the body. A chain caught the trigger and only half cocked the gun, if it had cocked it fully I would have been alright, but it went off when I was four or five yards in front of it peppering some houses some way away. It was a miracle. It should have been fatal. One went in my head, hit the bone and came out again so that was rather lucky, but Harry, if I can remember right, he had 12 or 14 shot through his hat, but it cut his nose in half. I can always remember seeing his nose flopping about.”

In January 1846 The Guardian recorded this fowling accident on Cowbit Wash:

“A MAN SHOT IN MISTAKE FOR A WILD DUCK – On the night of Tuesday last, a person named Gooderson, while in his fowling skiff in Cowbit Wash, fired at what he considered to be a group of birds; but was horror-struck when he immediately afterwards discovered the object of his aim was his old comrade Jackson, who like himself was in pursuit of birds; but faint hopes are entertained of poor Jackson’s recovery.”

Bad visibility in low light requires extra care as illustrated by this Spalding Wildfowler in 1963:

“One early September night my friend and I decided to try our luck at decoying ducks in a nearby drain. On both sides of the drain were fairly thick reeds, so my mate and I spaced ourselves out, I should say roughly about 200 yards apart. We soon got our decoys set out and retired to the reeds to watch and wait. As we waited we had quite a few false alarms, such as plovers whipping over the bank, little knowing they had put a tense body to put a gun to its shoulder then dissapointedly put it down again., the dog turning its face towards you wondering why you hadn’t fired. Then the rats in the reeds started moving, the odd water hen gives a little cry and everything is peaceful. It is getting dusk now and its impossible to see my friend. I was beginning to think we were out of luck when suddenly two shots rang out up river, followed by a loud splash. I knew my friend had got one down. I just happened to glance to my left to see two mallard dropping into my decoys. Whether it was due to excitement I do not know but I completely missed with my first shot then connected with my second, bringing down a nice mallard drake which was nicely retrieved by my dog. It was then getting dark so I started to fetch my decoys in when, “swish”, a duck landed in the river directly in front of me, in the same instant it had seen me and with a loud note of protest started to depart into the dusk. With a quick snapshot, much to my surprise, it dropped into the river, my dog was onto it immediately. As he got near to it the duck started flapping and dived making for the reeds, the dog after working the reeds for a few minutes had still not located it so I made my way to the waters edge to see if I could make out what was going on. Looking downriver I saw a ripple and a flat dark object making for my side of the river, thinking it would be easier to shoot a winged bird rather than try and catch it I put my gun to my shoulder and fired. The dark object continued towards the bank, got out and came towards me. It was my dog. I felt with nervous fingers to see if I had hit him, at least I expected him to be blinded or seriously injured. As he turned his head up toward me, I knew I had learnt a lesson, which I, as an experienced wildfowler, should have known better, that is, always be sure before squeezing the trigger.”

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