A rich and historic culture of hunting and conservation
Ever since people first inhabited the fringes of the North Sea, they were fascinated by the flocks of migratory wildfowl that would have arrived apparently from nowhere at the start of the winter. Locals would have tried every means to secure these wildfowl for food during the lean winter months. This would have tried the ingenuity of these people, as not only are wildfowl the wariest of all birds but they also inhabit the most dangerous of terrains, from the vast bottomless fens to the sand banks and mudflats of the coastal marshes.
The early wildfowlers would not have had guns or gun powder, so they would have used snares and nets to entrap the fowl. Indeed, nets were still being used on parts of the Norfolk and Lincolnshire coasts up to the 1930’s when a young Peter Scott bought live bean geese for his collection from a local flight netter on The Wash. These fowlers must have developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the marshes, as well as the effects of the moon, tides and weather upon the behaviour of the wildfowl.
By the early 1800’s many of the local fishing and fowling families were making a living from wildfowling during the winter. The birds were sold locally or transported down to Leadenhall market to supply the increasing demands of the cities. People were willing to pay good money for fresh meat in the winter. A brace of brent geese would fetch five shillings (25 pence) in the early 1800’s, which would be a labourers wage for a week (Mulhall’s calculation).
With the increasing Victorian interest in natural history, wealthy collectors were keen on building collections of stuffed birds. In 1866, two wildfowlers shot a Mediterranean gull and were paid five shillings for it by a dealer. The dealer subsequently refused to sell the gull to Lord Lilford for 300 pounds.
Inspired by the writings of Colonel Peter Hawker and Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey, wildfowling became a very fashionable pastime and large numbers of Victorian gentry took up the sport. This sparked a considerable interest in literature about wildfowling and monthly sporting magazines such as Country Life and The Field would be full of articles detailing how to shoot wildfowl successfully and where to go to do this.
At Wells-next-the-Sea the wildfowl were luckier. The ducks and geese were able to feed in the comparative safety of the Holkham Estate fields and marshes, which were closely protected, and the geese were able to roost far out on the vast sandbanks of the coast. These are difficult areas for people to get to. As a result, huge skeins of pink footed geese built up at Wells during the winter, and with them large numbers of visiting wildfowlers keen to try to shoot a goose.
Between 1890’s and through to the 1930’s, the visiting sportsman would often stay in Wells and other hotels along the coast who would then recommend a suitable guide. Considerable rivalry ensued between the different wildfowling guides as good money was to be earned during the winter, an otherwise lean time for local people.
Some guides would resort to almost any means to secure a goose for their client as this would entail a good tip. In fact, it was said you’d need a very special dog on the Norfolk coast. It needed to be one third retriever to retrieve the goose, one third grey hound to out run anyone else’s dog, and one third bulldog to fight off anyone else trying to pick up your goose.
Several of the well known wildfowling writers of the time visited the Norfolk coast and wrote about their exploits and their guides. Men like Sam Bone, Percy and Fed Barrett, Henry Aldridge and Pat Cringle soon became eagerly sought after celebrities by keen visitors. The guides would often swear their clients to secrecy over which part of the marsh they had been shooting. Needless to say, competition was intense and often the marshes were overshot.
Sir Peter Scott was a keen wildfowler in the 1930’s. His book ‘Morning Flight’ gives a marvellous account of his trip to Wells-next-the-Sea in the chapter untitled ‘The Pilgrimage the Mecca’ and indeed Mecca it was for many people.
“In darkness I had imagined that I was alone safe for my companion 200 hundred yards further on. I soliloquised on the solitude of this wonderful dawn but a moment later the silence was shattered by stentorian sneezing. Evidently the gunner 20 yards on my right was finding the morning chilly, and when the great skeins of geese came over there was an enormous roar as the gunner 40 yards on my left tried out his new 4 bore cartridges. Now as it got light I could see movements and shadows hidden in almost every hollow along the dunes but for all that the geese headed out to feed, far out of reach of any of them.”
Peter Scott enjoyed this stay for four days. “We shot no geese but did not begrudge our fowler his two pounds that he claimed from us.”
Wildfowl and wildfowling have always attracted artists and without doubt one of the greatest was Frank Southgate who lived in Wells for a few years leading up to his untimely death during the First World War. Sir Peter Scott admitted to being heavily influenced by Frank Southgate.
The First World War changed things. Many of the visiting fowlers whom before the war had enjoyed lying out on the sands and the muddy creaks of the marshes tragically ended their days in the mud filled holes and trenches of Flanders and the Somme. They were being replaced by a new breed of wildfowler who were seeing the sport in a different light. Many of these men had witnessed a lot of death during the First World War and it was no longer just the killing that mattered but rather they were attracted by the beauty of the wildfowl and the areas they inhabited.
By the 1930’s, the geese on the North Norfolk coast were changing their habits. They were being driven off their roosting sands by unsportsman-like behaviour and an artillery range firing shells directly across their sanctuary. Gradually they started to move further round into The Wash where they found fields of potatoes and less pressure. By the end of the war the huge skeins of pink footed geese that had once darkened the skies of Wells were gone. Furthermore, although a few men such as Pat Cringle still made a partial living out of guiding visitors, the huge loss of life during the war meant there were more agricultural jobs available and many guides had given up guiding and taken these jobs, enticed by the prospect of a more regular and reliable income.
That excellent Norfolk writer Alan Savory wrote “The glory of Wells had departed with the skeins of geese, and it was devoid of that thrill that the thousands of wild geese always give when their wild voices ring down the sunset skies. It was no longer a goose town but ghost town, peopled by shades of the old gunners.”
At the end of the Second World War, many wildfowlers returned to the sport as it offered them the excitement and adventure they had experience during their time fighting and was now missing from their lives in austere post war Britain. However, they found their marshes being poached by marsh cowboys, people who would shoot at any bird or indeed anything. In some areas coastal marshes were being used as dumps or being drained. And so, the wildfowlers came together to protect the wild places and the history and tradition of the sport.
With the support of the Wildfowlers Association of Great Britain and Ireland (WAGBI), now renamed the British Association of Shooting and Conservation (BASC), local wildfowlers set up local clubs with rules and regulations by renting or leasing the coastal foreshore. Not only to control illegal shooting but to become actively engaged in the conservation of wildfowl and the wild places they inhabit. In 1954, the enactment of the Protection of Birds Act restricted the type of quarry that could be shot and the length of the closed season, giving wildfowl far more protection. Further legislation in 1967 made it illegal to sell any wild goose, which is still the case today.
By the end of the 1980’s the age of the professional wildfowler had finished as the last two retired from guiding visitors on The Wash. One of the legendary guides was the late Kenzie Thorpe, who worked as a professional guide from the 1930’s until the 1970’s. He was an extraordinary character, renowned for his astonishing ability to call wildfowl and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the marshes of The Wash.
During the early 1980’s, the government introduced the Wildlife and Countryside Act giving considerable protection for wild areas, including most of the saltmarsh and foreshore. The wildfowling clubs negotiated licences and consents to continue wildfowling in these protected areas. The 1980’s also marked the return of the pink footed geese to the area. The geese were keen to feed on sugar beet that was becoming an important crop. This led to the wonderful spectacle of over 100,000 wintering on The Wash and North Norfolk coast by the year 2000.
Wildfowling nowadays is a heavily regulated sport with a strict closed season, bag limits, reserve areas and a complete ban on the use of lead shot. The modern wildfowler most often has served a probation period before being allowed to venture out alone and must be well acquainted with the law and local club regulations.
Wildfowlers are keen conservationists. Their clubs work actively with conservation organisations to help maintain a healthy wildfowl population and to preserve the foreshore.
Above all, wildfowling is about trying to pit yourself against the wariest of all quarry. To be a wildfowler you must have a passion for the sport. One needs to learn the effects of weather and tides and fully understand wildfowl. This is not easy. It appeals to the naturalist and the lover of wild lonely places. It requires a very long apprenticeship with no short cuts and is tinged with a hint of danger. It does not appeal to the shooter who wants to fire a lot of shots or to one who doesn’t like getting wet or cold.
Wildfowling is a part of coastal life that must not be lost. It is rich in history and tradition. Let us always hope that as long as we have wildfowl we will continue to have the wildfowler pitting his skill against them and the wonderful sight and smell of roasted bird on the table.
Cover image depicts Frank Harrison – Photo taken by Graham Wall
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