Watching the marsh come to life

Featured in:
November 2020

Matt Limb OBE experiences wildfowling for the first time on the marshlands of Lincolnshire.
Like so many country sports, shooting has its various styles. At one time or another, I have participated in them all, except for one, which I have only admired from afar, reading about it in books and magazines: wildfowling.

I have nothing against wildfowling, nothing at all. In fact, as a stranger looking inwards, it has always seemed one of the more earthy and traditional forms of shooting; man against time and tide out on the foreshore or the marsh. But I feel I am not the only one to believe that wildfowling was taken on by a rather strange group of people.

I say this as every picture I have seen, and every image that comes to mind of wildfowling looks more akin to World War One and the Western Front; with men wading through trenches waist-deep in mud, with a gun in their hand. So, for whatever reason, wildfowling remained on the to-do list and if I am honest, I have made extraordinarily little effort to get it ticked off. That is until recently.

During a charity evening I met up with a small team from the South Lincolnshire Wildfowling Club. Strangely they all nodded in agreement when I described wildfowling as looking like something from The Great War. Then, after trying to convince me to be a member, the conversation came to an end with: “Come and have a day with us.”

I soon realised I could not get out of that offer and feared I was doomed to join that lost generation of over 100 years ago. But one thing I quickly learned that evening was the average wildfowler was both a welcoming and warming individual, as proud of his sport as any champion clay shooter or talented game gun. To cut what could be a long discussion to the bone, I was introduced to two club members, both highly experienced wildfowlers, who said they would be more than happy to take me out to the marsh on an early morning tide to, as they both described it, “watch the marsh come to life”. With a few telephone calls, the plan was in place: meet near Kirton at four in the morning.

I quick mental check resulted in setting the alarm clock for about two. I would have preferred to watch the marsh come to life a little later in the morning, preferably after a good breakfast. But a quick brew of tea and off I went to a point where the road finished and with the hope I was in the right place. Within a couple of minutes, a set of approaching headlights confirmed the correct location; it was Darren, a wildfowler for almost three decades who had followed in his grandfather’s footsteps. As we sat chatting about the morning, Dewayne arrived and the trio was assembled.

Into chest waders and a warm jacket on top, accompanied by the dogs, we were soon walking along the sea bank above the marsh. As we made our way through the near darkness, Dewayne pointed to a remote light and farm explaining that he spent much of his childhood there and was a regular with a .410 on the fields. Turning down the bank and onto the marsh, we paused a moment as a distant red light was pointed out: it was one of the shipping navigation lights on the distant River Welland and our marker and guide as we walked out across the marsh.

It was at this point, with my night-sight almost established, that I realised just how much you could see, the near-full moon helped and the clouds blowing across it cast some uncanny shadows on the ground; this light helped as we walked around several creeks and a couple we waded through or simply jumped over, making my stout thumb-stick an essential wading pole. It seemed like it only took a few minutes, but I was assured it was some five or six hundred yards when we reached Sand Creek, the selected spot for the morning.

It was about 04:45 as we settled. The tide was fully out, in fact still running out as I made myself comfortable in some long grass between Darren and Dewayne. The predicted high tide was over eight metres and due in about five hours; apparently a higher than average tide for The Wash and one that would flood the entire marsh, including the spot we were now settled on. So, my wildfowling adventure had at last begun, a morning tide pushing flight, to use the technical term.

I could see the shotgun of choice was a semi-auto with a synthetic stock, even if Darren admitted he preferred the simple plain black stock rather than the camouflage pattern he pulled out of his gun-slip. One thing both Dewayne and Darren agreed on was the favoured cartridge: steel shot with a 36-gram load and number three shot for a duck, but heavier for geese. As we settled, I had a good view looking up the main creek to my front, which was about 25 yards wide, as I listened to the steady trickle of the tide still running away from us. The dogs were old hands at the game as they lay at the side of their owners. A drink from my Thermos and it was time to sit, get comfortable, watch and wait.

With the dappled light from the wind moving the clouds across the moon, I was surprised at just how much you could see, but more importantly what you could hear; the steady noise of birds and the wind blowing across the marsh along with that fresh smell I always associated with the seaside as a young child. Soon the light started to brighten as the very first flickers of the sunrise started, despite sunrise still being over an hour away.

“Shell duck,” whispered Dewayne, as he looked up to about a dozen or more ducks flying high above us to the left. Then suddenly, “To your front,” called Darren. I looked up to see a brace of ducks flying fast along the creek, just below the level of the marsh and hugging the contours of the muddy banks, coming towards us fast. Two loud bangs from Dewayne’s semi-auto, the barrel flash lighting the area momentarily, then a splash of a duck landing in the creek, followed by his dog Mowgli scrambling down the bank. First two in the bag, good shooting from Dewayne, a left and right – if you can get a left and right from a single-barrelled, semi-auto shotgun?

In the next hour, we had a steady flight of ducks come past us, mallard and teal were pulled toward us as Darren blew on his duck-call. Then I unexpectedly got it and understood what they had both told me: the marsh was coming to life. Over the next 20 minutes, I watched murmuration after murmuration of waders flying in perfect formation in the pale sky, chasing away the dark, plus the noise of the ducks calling in the early sunrise. Then I realised that the gentle trickle of the water in the creek in front of me had stopped. The tide was turning.

More widgeon over the top of us and this time a shot for Darren; not as lucky as Dewayne as they flew past. A blow on the duck-call and they returned in a big arch – sadly not close enough for a second chance. With the dark fast dissolving and the grey morning light moving across the marsh, a flight of waders came flying up the creek to our front. The noise as they flew past was unbelievable, and something akin to a train passing you as you stand in a station. Then in an instant they had gone, just leaving the glugging sound of the fast-rising water in the creek.

All too quickly Dewayne said for safety it was about time to make a move. We gathered on the bank of the creek, which was now over half full, for a final drink from the Thermos flasks. As we did, Darren tipped the very final drops of his flask onto the marsh. “I always give the marsh a drink of tea or coffee, my way of thanking her and as a sign of respect.” The inevitable back slapping started, who had the best shot, in what is the true fowler’s tradition. But I think a comment from Dewayne summed the morning up. “Something for the bag and the pot is just a bonus.” He admitted to keeping a diary for many years and learned much from reading back over his notes. As Darren added, “In the hectic life we live, to sit here before dawn, giving your dog a hug, can clear your mind and put so much into perspective.”

The walk back to the sea bank highlighted the advancing tide. The small creeks we stepped over in the dark were now something you had to think about as you jumped over and their depth was emphasised by my thumb-stick disappearing in the murky depths. Back onto the sea bank we paused and looked back over the marsh, but even from here, on the very edge of the marsh, you could not experience the sights, smells and sounds. We may not have made the bag limit of ten head, but then wildfowlers rarely do, which reminded me of an earlier conversation, when told you only need a few heavy cartridges in your pocket – this is not like pheasant shooting, you know.

In the greatest of traditions, we soon found ourselves in a local café eating one of the largest cooked fat-boy breakfasts you will ever see, as we chatted over the morning. My days as a fowling virgin were over and as much as I hated the thought, I did enjoy the experience. Darren said: “A morning or evening can be excellent and bring out all that is good in shooting, but you do need to take care, the ever-changing light, tide and marsh are not for the novice; get someone with local knowledge and experience,” before adding that many clubs insist you are accompanied for your first few outings, which I thought both rational and good common sense.

A couple of mugs of tea later and it was time to head back home; as I did I could still smell the marsh in my nostrils, but it may have been the damp chest waders in the back of the truck. Had I enjoyed myself? Absolutely. Like so many things in life it was about the people and the experience. I certainly felt that I was in the hands of a couple of guys who were at the top of their trade and knew what they were doing. But was it like a remake of a First World War battle scene? In some ways, yes, but unlike the poor soldiers of a century ago modern textiles now generate clothing that made the adventure dry, comfortable and warm.

Would I do it again? Yes, without a doubt. Wildfowling is as traditional as you will get in our modern society in terms of challenging yourself when out shooting. No fashionable tweeds or gun bus to drop you and your dog on your peg, or a 4×4 delivering your kit as you build a pigeon hide on the edge of a wood. What you need you must carry across the marsh as you wade through the creeks; it needs to be practical, serviceable and above all essential. The challenge is you against the tide, time and the prevailing weather as much as the test of being able to shoot a goose or duck, which can travel at speed close to the ground – just like the king of game birds, the grouse!

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