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A splashing time on the marshes

The marsh lies between high dunes and a steep wooded bank leading into low, green south Welsh hills. The part we shoot lies inside an old sea wall, which once marked the limit of the tide but now lies a few hundred yards from the estuary. The fields at the back are drier, with sparse rushes, and show the historic pattern of ridge-and-furrow farming. Those next to the old sea wall are flatter and wetter. In places, winding ditches reveal the course of pre-drainage saltmarsh creeks. Here, it seems the marsh is still not convinced it is of the land, not the sea, especially when the rains come and create the impression that it is at the top of a full tide.

A splash forms along the line of one of the drainage ditches running across one of these fields, which is a favourite resting place for duck. Several other smaller ponds dot the marsh. Snipe abound, though they can be difficult to approach, and big flocks of golden plover wheel across the winter sky searching for quiet feeding grounds.

My son Tom and I met Simon and Adam Hart at the bottom of the track that leads to the marsh in time for a walk after snipe and plover before a flight to end the short December day. Waders are an absolute necessity for getting around the marsh, so we pulled on rubber and neoprene before getting ourselves and a couple of excited Labradors over the ditch and fence into the first field. We lined out across the ridge and furrow with the stiff wind at our backs, and snipe soon started to jump, but mostly at extreme range or further.

I managed a long snipe in the first field but, despite a smattering of shots, nothing else had been added to the bag when we approached the southern boundary of our beat. Then, to my left, I saw a flock of 100 or so golden plover sweep low into the wind over the bank at the end of the field. At the sight of Simon and Adam, they stalled and started to climb, but the attempt at evasion came too late and two birds dropped from the wing at their four shots.

The second plover, shot by Adam, had dropped on the far side of the bank and I was just climbing over when I heard Simon shout. The shots had put up a bunch of duck from three small ponds at the back of the marsh and they were now steaming downwind towards us high and fast. Tom’s 20-bore went up, and a hen wigeon flying with half a dozen teal staggered and started a slow, angled descent at his single shot. I stayed glued to the duck’s progress as it separated from the teal and headed out across the neighbouring marsh towards the first sea wall. She was never going to make it on one wing, and disappeared into the rushes nearly half a mile off.

My mark was a low bridge across a ditch and a thin row of willow brush along a fence-line, which petered out 100 yards to the left of my line. Leaving my gun with Simon, I lifted the Labrador over the boundary fence and he picked Adam’s plover as I followed him down the bank. I had the willows to keep me in line as we headed out across the field. As we approached the drop area, I cast my dog Pod off and we pushed on into the next field towards the bridge. Reaching it, I turned and let him work back into the half-gale and he started to take a line, running along the deep ditch back towards the rushes. I followed, giving him plenty of room to work out the puzzle, and waited on the edge of the cover as he disappeared left-handed.

A minute or two passed, and then I heard the rushes in front parting and the nasal breathing of a dog with a mouthful of bird. There he was, as proud as punch, with a very lively wing-tipped wigeon. Tom was equally proud of his duck, and Adam of his plover.

We lined out again to sweep through the fields alongside the old sea wall, where the rushes were thicker and the ditches wider. There were not as many snipe as on the barer fields we had already walked, but they sat tighter and gave some good chances for the boys to let fly. Simon brought one down, and his bitch, Poppy, quickly brought it to hand.

Turning back towards the track, we crossed a last wet field with a few more shots but no addition to the bag. Decoys, torches, extra clothing and chocolate for sustenance were unloaded from the cars, and we headed out to the big splash for the evening flight. The water level was so high that this normally manageable flooded ditch was more of an inland sea spreading into the fields on either side. Decoys were going to be vital to bring duck within range, but even then there was a lot of water to cover.

Setting decoys

Simon waded out to set his decoys in the middle of the splash, leaving Tom and me the seaward end, where half a dozen teal decoys were soon bobbing on the ripple. Kneeling in the rushes in a stiff wind with the tide pushing up the estuary, I had that wonderful feeling of expectation that we were in the right place at the right time. A single teal flicked over the sea wall and Tom was straight on to it, dropping it well out on the far side of the splash. Two dots appeared in the grey sky in the direction of the estuary and soon a pair of wigeon were on us. Both dropped on the far edge of water among the rushes.

I was just considering whether to send Pod for the long swim when Tom hissed at me to keep down so he could take a shot. Soon afterwards, Simon and Adam did the same. Tom’s duck was down on our side of the splash, so I sent the dog for that and returned my focus to the sky.

Another pair of duck followed the invisible aerial railroad to our splash, but this time they revealed the long, elegant shape of pintail, offering a long chance for the 16-bore. The drake dropped messily in front of Simon, who knocked it over with another shot, and Poppy was soon in the water retrieving it.

From behind us came the unmistakable sound of greylags. The light was fading but a skein of about 40 was still clearly visible 100 yards up and coming straight for us. Despite our whispered prayers, they were passing rather than stopping, and the shots that had them calling in alarm were aimed at more duck that were coming for Simon and Adam.

Those were the last shots of the night, though there was still plenty of light to shoot and we stayed on for another half-hour. The flight had turned off for no apparent reason, leaving the marsh silent apart from the harsh cries of travelling snipe and the hooting of owls.

Simon and I waded the splash to collect those duck that had dropped on the far side. In all, we picked six wigeon, two teal, the pintail drake and a shoveller to add to our earlier duck, two plover and two snipe. The marsh had given us varied and plentiful bounty.