Wildfowling: An evening in East London was an eye-opener for Ian Mason, who saw how Berwick Marshes has turned from wasteland to shooting wonderland

There is something magical about an evening duck flight. Proof, if it were needed, that it’s not the size of the bag that matters, but the pleasure of being out. As daylight fades, barrels flaming against the gloaming never fail to add a touch of drama.

In late September, I joined Gary Wilson and Steven Wallis for the inaugural shoot of their latest flightpond at Berwick Marshes in Rainham, Greater London. Gary excavated this new two-acre scrape earlier this year. The water table is close to the surface, so it filled within a week. Since then, the margins have softened with vegetation, easing the pond back into the landscape.

At first glance it could be an ancient lake.

Tucked into dense reed beds by the water’s edge, we scanned the twilight for incoming fowl. Alas, it was a windless evening, so the sound of our gunshot would travel far, which was not a good omen. On the plus side, there was also a uniform high-altitude cover of pale, fluffy clouds. Lit by the sun’s final rays and stray electric light from local roads and housing estates, these formed a diffuse illuminated backcloth.

Even my feeble eyes could spot rocketing teal against this obliging sky.
Earlier that afternoon, we had walked around the pond, putting up hundreds of mallard. Gary was concerned that the water may have become an established day-roost and that fowl would not return to feed at night.

However, as it turned out, he need not have worried. Dusk began to fall and mallard started to appear in twos and threes, coming from every direction. Over the course of an hour, four Guns shooting two ponds managed a bag of 17, including mallard, two brace of teal and a brace of greylag geese.

This was an ample number, given the stillness of the evening and the fact that my hosts had a policy of restrained shooting.

Another bonus was meeting and spending an afternoon with Gary and Steven, who are two of the nicest blokes I have ever met. In 2011, they won a well-deserved Purdey Award for their conservation work at Berwick Marshes, which was a once derelict industrial site. Their achievement was all the more remarkable, given the site’s location – inside the M25, less than a mile from a London Underground tube station and crowded on three sides by the suburbs of Rainham, Upminster and Hornchurch.

It was a wonderful outing, and for me a memorable way to start the season!

The ponds are only shot eight times a season and never more than once in two weeks.

The ponds are only shot eight times a season and never more than once in two weeks.

Fifteen years ago, Gary and Steven acquired 20-acres of exhausted gravel pits and landfill from Tarmac. It is now an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), which they have successfully transformed from wasteland into managed fen, woodland, open meadow and ponds.

Three years later, a further 20 acres were added. Earth was imported and mixed with seed to establish grassland on barren landfill. This peaceful sanctuary now harbours a rich biodiversity of plants and wildlife, including wild pheasants, skylarks, kingfishers, barn owls, bar-tailed godwits, meadow pipits, rare orchids and a thriving population of adders.

The Purdey Award prize money was used to buy rare-breed Red Poll cattle, which graze the pond margins and help to control the spread of invasive scrub.

Conservation at Berwick has not been without its challenges. The ponds are a calm oasis in a somewhat rough area. Information boards about wildlife have been vandalised and the car park is visited by fly-tippers. Groups of illegal immigrants have been found camping in the dense scrub, living by poaching both fish and fowl (if only they knew they had pitched their tents dead-centre in the adder colony!). They were encouraged to move on.

Gary and Steven have taken all this in their stride and they just get on with what they do best.

On the day of my visit, Gary had just finished cutting back hedges enclosing a path used by walkers, “Several ladies told us that they felt unsafe when they couldn’t see round the next corner, so we have given them a better field of view,” he said.

The pair make an effort to talk to locals about their conservation work and this seems to have paid dividends. Throughout the afternoon, there were cheery hellos from a score of dog walkers, as Steven and Gary did the rounds of their ponds.

They have also worked with various conservation organisations, including Natural England (NE). Initially, Gary was nervous about meeting the NE team, because all SSSIs need a licence from this organisation if they are to be shot, regardless of land ownership.

“At our first meeting I told NE that we had bought the site for shooting and that if we could not shoot, the site would be sold. Much to my surprise the NE team were very supportive and we have a brilliant working relationship with the local officer. We have a 10-year shooting agreement, plus a Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreement to help fund the work we are doing.”

There are five ponds, plus acres of river fen. The ponds have never been fed, but they still attract a wonderful selection of waterfowl, including geese, teal, wigeon, gadwall, pochard, tufted, shoveler, and mallard, as well as snipe and woodcock.

The ponds are only shot seven or eight times a year by Gary, Steven and a few friends – and last season they hardly got out. However, this year they are planning to do bigger and better.