After a comfortable few hours’ sleep at The Bridge, at Sutton Bridge, a classic wildfowlers’ hotel, we roused ourselves and headed toward the marshes between the Nene and the Great Ouse. The darkness made for excellent stargazing in between the broken cloud as we headed out along the sea wall with Nathan Reed, a member of the Fenland Wildfowlers’ Association (FWA). For fowling it was not the best of weather mild and dead calm, not a breath of wind.
On the other side of the Nene we spotted a set of headlights heading for the point. “Probably one of the Gedney Drove End boys,” Nathan said. From beyond its gates, we all were fooled by the round window of Sir Peter Scott’s lighthouse until we saw the real moon. A beacon for wildfowl Sir Peter Scott, son of the famous Scott of the Antarctic, lived at the Sutton Bridge lighthouse before World War II. A passionate conservationist, with a particular leaning towards wildfowl, he founded not only the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) in 1946, but was also one of the founders of the World Wildlife Fund.
I had spoken to FWA chairman Paul Evans earlier in the week to set up the morning’s outing and he told me of the relationship between the FWA and WWT. “The FWA was the first club in the UK to buy land jointly with a conservation body. The WWT and the Fenland have worked hard to develop a good relationship in this area, and the WWT has always understood how vital it is that we work together.” The joint land was bought in 1969, and the FWA was founded in 1952.
The club owns 140 acres of freehold land in partnership with the WWT at Salter’s Lode, of which 100 acres is shot by members. There is
also 164 acres of shooting over flood meadows and arable land next to the Great Ouse, near Huntingdon, though flights on inland washes
are shot by permit only. There is a small fee and day tickets are available for members’ guests. All in all, the FWA manages some 6,000 hectares
of foreshore and farmland, giving an impressive and varied choice of fowling sites. The FWA has the rights to all the marshes between the Nene and the Great Ouse, some nine miles, and the extensive mudflats beyond. There is no Sunday shooting on these marshes, though it is allowed on the club’s land in neighbouring Lincolnshire. In addition to the evocative scenery of coastal fowling, there is also extensive fresh marsh shooting.
All this is funded by the FWA’s impressively strong membership, with more than 400 members and an active social calendar. On the first Friday of every month during the season there are general meetings ? every meeting has some form of entertainment. Guest speakers are frequent and have included ST contributor Robin Page and artist Simon Trinder. There is also a walk-and-stand gameshooting syndicate within the association. The syndicate shoots over about 1,000 acres of farmland next to the Wash at Terrington, and the DIY shoot provides the perfect introduction to formal shooting for members, who can also join individual days (for a reasonable price) if they do not want to subscribe to the syndicate.
The FWA has raised its profile and funds with The First Fifty Years, a DVD documenting the history of the club. “There is no actual shooting on the film. We wanted something that could and would be shown at local schools and clubs. There is plenty of scenery and history. I interviewed Frank Harrison, a local fowling legend for it. I feel very proud of that film,” Paul concluded.
Volunteering to warden
The FWA also enjoys an excellent relationship with Natural England (NE). Paul explained, “We know NE has a job to do and we are very lucky to have a good local representative.” The FWA also works hard at the relationship, “All the local voluntary wardens are wildfowlers, including Nathan. You’ll be in excellent hands for a morning’s flight with him. That lad’s got salt water for blood.” Paul’s words were comforting as we followed the sea wall which, in the mist, seemed to go on indefinitely. We arrived at the start of the marshes and the wall turned right at 90 degrees. Here Nathan stopped and we stood still, listening for any signs of fowl. Now neither lighthouse nor water were in sight. With the wall stretching into the distance on either side it was an unnerving feeling and I was glad we were with someone who knew the marshes so well.
Off to the east, in the direction of the shore, we heard duck. “They sound close, but they could be miles away,” said Nathan. “Out here, sound carries huge distances, particularly on such a still morning.” It was a promising sign, however, and we followed him down the bank of the sea wall and on to the marshes. There he warned us of the numerous creeks and cracks, “I once had to carry a friend off the marsh when he broke his ankle in one of the creeks.” It was not the most reassuring story, but with his stick Nathan was able to prod at any shadows on the ground and guide us without mishap to the main creek where we were to wait. Once there, we found a perfect spot, with a ledge for us to perch on. Nathan settled his father’s gundog, Bliss, on the edge of the creek and we clambered down into position.
As the light began to increase, our hopes of a shot faded. There was plenty to look at, however, and Bliss was quite happy munching on the occasional crab. The edges of the creek were rich with flora and the banks held sea purslane, sea asters which were at the end of their season and samphire which was also near the end of its peak. “One big tide can change this area completely,” Nathan said, explaining that it was all too easy to get lost on these marshes, especially when a proper mist rolled in. “My father once got lost in a mist. He took a bearing south-west and eventually found the sea wall. When he got there, he heard someone else wandering about. He called to them, thinking they may also be lost. The fowler followed my father’s voice and also found the sea wall. It was then that he realised he had been holding his compass right beside his gun barrels he was lucky my father was there.” It was a good lesson and, though it was nearly light by now, the mist that was stealing along the creek bed and over the marshes was disconcerting. I could imagine you’d get lost here pretty quickly if you didn’t know your way around.
As I wondered aloud about the looming shapes of cattle at the lighthouse, Nathan said “Some parts are grazed, which has a mixed effect. While the cattle poach the ground, making it much harder to negotiate the already tricky surface, there is less height in the vegetation, which is good for the wigeon.” Time to turn in “It is just not the weather for it,” Nathan commented, as we climbed out of our creek and the surrounding landscape was finally revealed to us in the morning light. We had heard duck nearby and three mallard had passed to the north, but unfortunately nothing had headed our way, with the exception of the barnacles from the collection at the lighthouse, maintained by its inhabitant Commander Joel.
“There is one pinkfoot among them, but we don’t touch the lighthouse birds. Give it a few big tides to wash all of the summer buildup away, and there will be plenty to shoot,” Nathan told me. “Wigeon, mallard, teal. There aren’t so many shovelers or gadwall and no goldeneye, but we see the occasional eider. There are lots of Brent, too.” We packed up our kit and followed Nathan back towards the sea wall. There is a more unusual quarry Nathan used to shoot here, too. “When I was young, my father used to take me out to wait for the first big tide. You’d get hundreds of rats swimming in off that, and we used to shoot them as they came in.”
By the time we had reached the lighthouse, the sun was up, throwing rainbow-coloured haloes over our shadows. We passed through the cattle and a tractor headed out towards the fields just inside the sea wall. Down in the lighthouse enclosure were some of the geese we had heard passing over us. “That’s the closest you’ll get on a day like today,” Nathan said. “It’s all about the weather you need a good nor’wester to have any chance.”
For more information on The Bridge Hotel, at Sutton Bridge, visit www.bridge-hotel.net or tel (01406) 359332.