The magic of the marshes

The magic of the marshes

Father and son Jeremy and Guy Westmoreland love all forms of game shooting, from August grouse to January pheasants, but, as they explained to Marcus Janssen, for them nothing can compare to the magic of a wildfowl flight on The Wash.

As soon as I stepped through the front door of Jeremy and Rosemary Westmoreland’s home in rural Rutland, I knew that I had come to the right place. Everywhere I looked were original paintings and prints of wildfowling scenes by some of our most celebrated sporting artists, from Julian Novorol, Peter Scott and Jonathan Yule to Simon Trinder, Hugh Monaghan and J. C. Harrison. “This is what I want to see every day,” said Jeremy, as he lead me into his sitting room, a veritable shrine to the wildfowling gods. “This is what I get up at 3:30am in the depths of winter for.”

For the previous year or so, I had been on the hunt for truly passionate wildfowlers as I wanted to try to capture and convey what it is about this particular form of our sport that seems to affect its proponents and stir emotions deep within them like nothing else on earth.

The magic of the marshes

(Painting by Julian Novorol)

“I have been shooting virtually all of my life,” explains Jeremy (69). “I first went out pigeon shooting with my father in the woods in Rutland when I was 4 or 5 years old, but he had spent a number of years with the Royal Artillery in the Orkney Islands during the war, and ever since then he had been truly in love with wildfowl and the incredible places they take you to. So, from about the age of 5, he used to take me and my brother to Eyebrook Reservoir on a Sunday evening where we would watch mallard lifting off the water at dusk and melting into the dying embers of the sun. Despite my age, I knew that I was seeing something special; it was an exquisite sight and I remember it as if it was only yesterday.

“But when I was a little older – probably 9 or 10 – he took me to The Wash for the very first time. I was absolutely sick with excitement and anticipation as we breasted the seawall at dusk. And there, in front of us, was this vast expanse of the wild, wild saltmarsh, one of the UK’s last great wildernesses. With the heightened and untainted senses of a child, I was immediately intoxicated by the salty tang, the incredible sights and indescribable sounds. I was too young to have a gun of my own, but that didn’t matter a jot.

“Kneeling at my father’s side in absolute rapt awe, I listened to the sibilance of pinions as huge numbers of wildfowl flighted in from the sea towards their inland feeding grounds. That soft wickering of wings as party after party of wildfowl passed overhead will stay with me forever. You would only catch the occasional glimpse of them in the evening sky, so I didn’t know what I was looking at, but I knew that these were special birds. I was utterly spellbound and realised right there and then that they were the true embodiment of wildness and a sense of adventure.

The magic of the marshes

(Painting by Julian Novorol)

“To have a gun under your arm and the chance of bringing one down was indescribably exciting. I believe we all have the hunting instinct in us – I know I always have – so all I wanted was for my father to shoot one so that I could examine it and grasp its beauty. But – and this probably deepened my fascination – we didn’t actually get a shot.

“And then, later, as we wandered our way across the marsh and back towards the car, I suddenly heard this wonderful, musical clamour in skies high above the marsh. I wondered what on earth it was, for it sounded like a pack of hounds at full cry somewhere out there over the Welland. I remember the hairs on the back of my neck standing up as my father crouched down and whispered in my ear: “Pink-footed geese, the wild hounds of the sky.” I was enraptured. Of course, in the low light of dusk your senses are heightened as you strain to hear anything that might help you to paint a more vivid picture in your mind’s eye of what is happening out there in the gloaming. My father used to open his mouth as he insisted that this helped him to capture the sounds more accurately. And of course this enthralled me as well.

“I remember thinking to myself at that very moment, ‘this is all I ever want to do with my life. Right here, right now, is surely as good as it gets’. And I have never changed in that view – it is a deep and lasting passion, and it fills me with great, great joy to know that it has passed from me on to my son, Guy.

Indeed Guy (25) becomes just as animated as his father when he talks about his forays to the coast in pursuit of wildfowl: “It is the uncertainty that keeps us going back,” he says. “Mother Nature is an unpredictable mistress, so you can go to the marsh one day and find it alive with thousands upon thousands of waders and wildfowl – everything from curlew, redshank, dunlin, golden and grey plover, knot and bar-tailed godwit, to mallard, shoveler, pintail, wigeon, teal and pink-footed, greylag and brent geese. And you can return the next day and find that they are almost all gone. Why and where to? No-one exactly knows.”

“That uncertainty is the spice that makes wildfowling so addictive,” agrees Jeremy. “On many occasions, you don’t get a shot at all. But are you bothered? Not in the slightest, for you have shared the marsh with these birds, you have watched the sun rise over the North Sea, been treated to a rich panoply of wildfowl and wader activity, seen the pattern of their wings etched against the ever-changing cloudscape, and you have breathed in the icy salt air. And by god do you feel alive! It lifts your spirits when you are feeling down, and that vast area of saltmarsh puts things into perspective and occupies your mind completely. You simply forget about work or any other worries you might have. You become a part of that environment, and you lose yourself in the hive of activity around you; it is all-encompassing.”

“We both love our pheasant and partridge shooting,” adds Guy as an afterthought, “and we wouldn’t dream of decrying it in any way, but it simply isn’t a patch on a mornng or evening flight on The Wash. There are many expert and highly-skilled wildfowlers who go flighting on the coast, and we certainly don’t fall into that category, but there is nobody who is more passionate about this sport than us. We would both rather shoot one duck or goose on the marsh than 30 pheasants or partridges on a shoot day. I guess that pretty much sums up how we feel about this sport.”

The magic of the marshes

(Painting by Julian Novorol)

In the lap of the weather Gods

A lot of planning and preparation goes into a wildfowling flight, the success of which will depend on a range of variables. And the coastal (below mean high water mark) wildfowling season is long (September 1 – February 20), so the timings of a foray will vary considerably as the season progresses. “Firstly you must decide whether you will be better off doing a morning or evening flight,” explains Jeremy. “As a very basic rule of thumb, duck feed at night and rest during the day, and geese feed during the day and return to their roosts at night. However, there are a large number of exceptions to this, caused mainly by tide, the moon and prevailing weather. But regardless of the conditions, you want to be in place and ready well before the birds start to move. For a morning flight, that means in the dark, well before first light.”

“Movement of the tide is key,” continues Guy. “Ideally, for a morning flight we look for a high tide about an hour to two hours after first light. If all goes well, the incoming tide will push the wildfowl off the marsh just as it starts to get light. But conversely, after a high spring tide, there will be pools on the marsh which the duck will often flight into, presenting you with a shot as they come in or lift off.

“A strong onshore wind is always an advantage as it will roughen the sea and push the birds towards the shore as they take to the air and flight along the tidal edge. If the sea is flat-calm, they may remain afloat out there. So wind is important. An overcast sky, particularly at dusk, makes seeing the birds a little easier; they stand out better against a grey sky than they do against a clear, dark one.”

Very cold wintry spells can be excellent, too, because when the inland ponds, dykes and ditches freeze over, a lot of wildfowl will move to the coastal marshes where the saltwater freezes at a much lower temperature.

“Stealth and fieldcraft are key as you do not want to disturb the birds,” says Guy. “So it’s important to remain quiet and not use a torch. Your eyes soon adjust to the low light. But no matter how careful you are, or meticulously planned a trip might be, there are no guarantees. That uncertainty makes it so incredibly exciting.”

“That is just it,” continues Jeremy. “That element of mystery, of true wildness, is what makes this sport of wildfowling incomparable to anything else. They are their own free spirits and it is that which really encapsulates these birds and the magically wild places they inhabit.”

The magic of the marshes

(Painting by Jonathan Yule)

Five wildfowling tips

1. Safety comes first

As with all forms of shooting, safety should be your number one priority. If you are an inexperienced wildfowler, or do not know the marsh you are heading to like the back of your hand, you must go with someone who does. Remember, you will be out there in a tidal zone, an inherently dangerous place, in the dark. You can easily find yourself in the wrong place on an incoming tide and, before you know it, you are stranded with no way of getting back to dry land. And each marsh will be crisscrossed with gulleys and deep channels, so make sure you take a wading stick and check the depth before attempting to cross any body of water. And always tell someone exactly where you are going – these marshes are vast, so if something does go wrong, someone will know where to look for you. And for the same reason, it is advisable to take a fully-charged mobile phone with you.

2. Fieldcraft is key

Fieldcraft is crucially important. Not only do you need to know how the marsh will be affected by both the changing tides and weather, but you need to know your quarry and how to identify it in low light conditions. For this reason, knowing their calls is crucial, as is being able to anticipate how each species is likely to react when you stand up to take a shot. Always remain crouched down and out of sight for as long as you possibly can – these are wild, wily birds and you don’t want to scupper a rare opportunity at the last second by giving yourself away when the birds are still out of range.

3. Do your research & reconnaissance

The success of an outing will come down to being in the right place at the right time, so leave as little to chance as possible. Visit the marsh during daylight hours and do your homework beforehand. Decide in advance when and where you are going to go by studying the tide charts and weather forecast, and thinking carefully about how the birds are likely to be affected by the tides and prevailing conditions.

4. Don’t leave the dog at home

You will be entirely dependent on your dog(s) to retrieve your birds which will often fall onto ground or water that you will not be able to reach, even in chest waders. A good wildfowling dog will have a good nose, lots of drive and a strong hunting instinct as it will often have to make long retrieves in low light (hand signals are no use to man nor beast in the dark!). They need to be fit, too, as saltmarshes are harsh, exposed environments that can be bitterly cold and windy. And a dog that is willing to dive for a wounded duck can be a huge asset.

5. Learn to judge range

A good wildfowler will be able to accurately judge range, even in low light conditions. This comes with experience, but it is a really important skill as it is very easy to underestimate the range of birds when you have no reference points like hills, trees or telephone poles, particularly with larger species like pink-footed or greylag geese.

The wildfowlers’ kitbag

  • Gun: Generally a 12 bore with 3 or 3½" chambers and proofed for steel or other non-lead ammunition. Bear in mind that your gun will get muddy and come into contact with saltwater, so you probably want to leave the Purdey at home

  • Cartridges: These must be steel or other non-lead alternative such as bismuth or tungsten (you must not have ANY lead ammunition on your possession when you are wildfowling). And bear in mind that you won’t need many cartridges as most wildfowling clubs stipulate a bag limit of 10 birds per person per flight

  • Binoculars: There is a lot to see on the marsh, so take it all in and savour it

  • Hide, poles and decoys: Ensure that your hide is of a colour that will blend in

  • Chest/thigh waders and wading stick

  • Clothing: Remaining warm and dry will be key to your enjoyment – you will be a long way from any respite from the cold, wind and rain – so thermal underwear, a thick, warm fleece and a good quality waterproof jacket (in a subdued colour) are all must-have items

  • Flask of tea or coffee

  • Head torch and mobile phone

  • Game bag: Remember, you will have to carry your birds back to the car

  • Gundog gear: a neoprene dog coat will keep your dog warm, and the added buoyancy will help with long swims and retrieves. And remember to keep a supply of fresh water and dog food in the car for afterwards – they’ll have earnt it!

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