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Get to know your (local) tides when wildfowling

Remember Friday, 9 November, 2007? I’ll bet you do if you live along the East Anglian coast. You could easily have been evacuated for fear of a North Sea surge flooding your home. Another question. If you are an east-coast wildfowler, do you know the combination of circumstances that caused that tidal surge? Judging by a report in the East Kent Mercury on the following Monday, at least one party of north Kent wildfowlers did not. Tide Cuts-Off Three Wildfowlers was the headline. It was followed by a report that on the Sunday, the Sheerness lifeboat had put to sea to rescue three wildfowlers who were stranded on a Medway island. The report went on to say that they were part of a group of seven, and that the lifeboat dropped them off with their four mates to carry on shooting.

Lots of questions come to mind, especially if you know that particular coast, as I do. What were their mates doing not coming to the rescue? Why did they not move before they were cut off? Most significant of all, however, why were they out there in the first place? This could sound like a smug remark from one who cancelled a trip to a neighbouring island the previous day for fear of a “funny” tide, but I do not mean it that way. As a wildfowler, I count myself lucky that I have never been in serious enough trouble that I have been unable to unravel it myself. The worst that ever happened was parking the car where it ended up 18in deep in seawater at high tide. It took a while to find the drain plugs, the seats were pretty damp and uncomfortable, and with the wiring loom having been drowned we had a spectacular light show on the road home, but no-one was at any risk.

Father told a tale of rescuing a “fowler”, too. He was boating home on the flood after morning flight with a chum, and spotted a moving object where there should have been only water. Closer investigation revealed a wildfowler up to his chest, waving his coat to attract attention and fighting off the advances of his swimming spaniel as it tried to climb on his shoulders. Dad and partner picked him up and asked where he had come from. “Me bike’s parked on Wallop Stone point,” he said. So, they took him there and unloaded him, pointing out that he had been trespassing on private marshland. “Never worry, guv’nor,” was his reply, “I’ve had enough of wildfowling. I won’t be back.”

This tale brings me to my first basic rule. That lad had walked out on to less than familiar ground before dawn, and had crossed a low point. By the time he realised, there was deep water behind him. The conclusion is obvious; never go out on to unfamiliar ground when the tide is flooding. Once you know the place, follow a second basic rule; do not let the tide cut you off, unless you know that you will be able to retreat to some part of the marsh that will not be covered. Please also remember that the basic form of the tide is a sine curve, with the rate of change much quicker at half-tide than at high or low water. This means that at half-flood, there may be only a matter of minutes between water first arriving and a creek being waist-deep.

The second rule is clearly where the East Kent Mercury wildfowlers went wrong. The island they were on has old sea walls that stand well above even a big spring, and they relied on that without thinking about what the weather would do to the tide. The Friday surge was caused by a deep depression and south-westerly gales pushing Atlantic water into the North Sea, followed by a north-westerly gale on the back of the depression, which piled the water up into the ever-narrowing southern end of the North Sea. With the wind staying in that quarter for several days, the tide probably held high throughout the weekend. However, another little local quirk could easily have cut in. After a surge, when the wind eases, the piled up water rushes off to the north, but just as a pendulum swings, so the water swings, coming back nearly as high two days later, perfect timing from Friday 9 November to Sunday 11 November.

Another interesting thing about this north Kent situation is that a glance at the map might suggest that a north-easterly would be more serious, but it is not. This kind of detail is where local knowledge is so important and why it is so vital to study the local weather effects on your particular tides. To give another example, I would choose a different estuary that I know quite well, the Loughor estuary in South Wales. Older readers of Shooting Times will remember the great tragedy when the Penlee lifeboat went down just before Christmas in 1981, with the loss of the entire crew.

The storm which caused that tragedy, and the loss of all hands of the Union Star, which she was trying to rescue, caused extensive flooding in South Wales, and particularly in the Loughor. Why? First, it was a very deep depression, and low pressure means high sea levels; second, a roaring southerly gale piled the Bristol Channel water against the Welsh side; and third, as the wind turned south-westerly, the Carmarthen Bay water was shoved into the estuary. As misfortune would have it, two other factors added to this particular flood. The first was heavy rain bringing floodwater down the river, and the second was that a previous cold snap meant the frozen ground could not soak up the rain and extra meltwater from snow in the hills.

I go into these details to try to show just how many variables should be taken into account when you are wondering what the weather will do to the tide. It also pays to know for a second reason because at the other end of the spectrum, high pressure and an offshore wind could hold the tide back and mean that the waters (and therefore the birds) will never reach your proposed hiding place, so giving a blank flight. In closing I am reminded of two remarks from my old friend Jonathan Young in his days as ST Editor. As we stood on the sea wall and decided to abandon a trip in rough weather, his first remark was, “I don’t want my drowning to be a news report in my own magazine.” The second remark was far more profound, “Novices don’t get killed on the marsh because they are too scared of the place to take chances it’s reasonably experienced wildfowlers who’ve never been in trouble before who push their luck.”