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Meet the Little Oakley and District Wildfowlers’ Association

Julian had sounded optimistic when I called him to make our final plans. “We probably won’t see many geese, but there should be some duck about. I’ve had some fairly good evening flights this year.” I hardly dared hope that my luck might change, but the darkening sky as I drove towards Little Oakley did encourage optimism. “If you get here at three or so, we can look at a map and I can show you where the club keeps its boats before the evening flight,” Julian instructed.

Surrounded by dozens of beautiful paintings, framed and ready for acclaimed artist Julian Novorol’s exhibition, we looked at the map of the Hamford Water. I could see that Little Oakley and District Wildfowlers’ Association might have a very good spot for its sport. The place was a maze of islands, creeks, pools and ponds. Julian explained that three associations shared the area, the Tendring and Halstead Wildfowlers’ Association and the Walton-on-Naze District Wildfowlers’ Association joining Little Oakley in its enjoyment of the waters. As well as being geographically linked, the three clubs present a united voice to Natural England (NE) and any other organisation that they regularly have dealings with, such as the Wildlife Habitat Trust. “I thought it might help to show you the map before we go out,” Julian commented. “It will give you a better understanding of the geography. We will be going out on Garnham’s Island. It is only accessible by boat to most people, though I’ve asked the farmer, Roger Pile, one of the club’s vice-presidents, if we can go over his land for tonight.”

While poring over the map of the area, Julian told me a little about the history of Little Oakley. Founded in 1952, the club had a forerunner, The Shoreman’s Association. This was formed in 1917 and was made up of people who kept boats, fishing and fowling from Bull’s Ooze. In 1960, Little Oakley had as many as 100 members, but that has dropped off somewhat in size. “Now there are 70 or so members. Our membership isn’t solely made up of wildfowlers ? there is a balance of clay, game, pigeon shooters and wildfowlers,” Julian explained, adding that the club presents several game and pigeon shooting opportunities for its members.

The Little Oakley first bought 180 acres in 1989, and now has roughly 1,000 acres under its control. According to Julian, local wildfowlers’ relationships with NE are pretty good. “The clubs get money for predator control and wardening on Hamford Water from Natural England. There are nesting turn colonies, so the magpie and crow numbers need keeping down in the summer. Walton has quite a problem with lesser black-backed gulls, too, so the eggs are pricked in order to control their numbers.”

The club was also able to claim Peewit Island by default, as it owned the strip of land that connected the marsh to the mainland. English Nature, as it was then, accepted the claim and the land was entered into a nature reserve. Natural control. The philosophy of the club is one of a natural way of fowling. As Julian puts it, “There is no permit scheme at Little Oakley, but we are a small club. I think that if you are only allowed to shoot so many birds, it encourages you to shoot the full amount this way, if you have a good flight, you don’t feel the need to fill your bag. It is all a question of balance, and we expect wildfowlers to respect that.” We headed out to the club’s marsh access point at Little Oakley, where members keep their boats. “They are essential around here,” Julian explained, as we made our way along a wobbly wooden walkway to the boats.

Here I saw a punt, which Julian told me was a traditional Essex punt, “To be precise, a Manningtree punt. Each sort is distinctive and every area has a different style of punt. This one is fairly slab-sided, and was built in the 1940s. Though its foremost use was as a single-handed gunning punt, it was probably used to catch eel and flounder, too.” The club members own 20 or so boats in total and recently a length of chain was bought from Trinity House, in Harwich, and laid down the centre of the creek for members to moor their boats to. As we headed back toward the car, the harsh cry of egrets, which sound much like crows, arose from the pine trees. “Apparently there are 81 in there now,” Julian commented.

An inspiration

We made a quick stop at Julian’s house, where he keeps a large flock of varied fowl in his back garden, giving him convenient access to live models for his art. I took the opportunity to quiz him on what fowl we might see that evening. “We should see some teal, wigeon and pintail. Mallard are the least frequent of those. As far as geese are concerned, the most frequent visitors are greylag and Canadas. Whitefronts are getting rarer, as we don’t get the cold so much and they seem to be staying in the Netherlands. Pinkfeet don’t venture as far south as this so often, either. You’ll see them up in Norfolk much more often they like the shallow water and sugarbeet up there. If there is a cold snap they make the journey or, nearer Christmas time, when there is more shooting, they come down here. It is only about an hour’s flight for them. Geese are very loyal to familiar sights, though, so the times we see them are few and far between,” Julian explained. Once in our wellies, we headed out with Sam, Julian’s young golden retriever in tow. “Don’t bother with waders, we won’t need them tonight. And I never wear camouflage clothing I prefer to use the natural surroundings. The main thing is to sit still.”

On arriving at Garnham’s island, we stood admiring the scene. The inspiration behind the magical light of Julian’s paintings was clear the meeting of sky, land and water made for a stunning vision. In the distance on the other side of the main waterway, was a cloud of golden plover, wheeling and uttering their high, haunting cries. The sky had cleared and I was prepared for another fruitless outing, but with this view, that wouldn’t matter. After settling me within calling distance, Julian pulled on his hat and I sunk down beside some clumps of flowering sea purslane. Apart from the occasional hollow plop of a crab hole letting out its air, a stillness descended. It didn’t last for long after 20 or so minutes, Julian pointed out a canoeist paddling about 200 yards away. The sound of geese clattering up, presumably alarmed by the vessel’s foreign presence, sparked a change on the horizon. Before long I found it very hard to follow Julian’s instructions of staying as still as possible he had pointed towards the setting sun before moving off: “That is where they are most likely to come from.” The whole sky was alive with action. Three duck flew over, too high for us, followed by several small groups of wigeon and teal.

To the south west, a group of geese was making a steady path towards our creek. They were too high, but in their wake a lone pinkfoot sailed along. It started to head out towards the east but, with a practised call, Julian lured it towards us. I waited as long as I dared, allowing the goose to come closer and squirming into position. I took my shot as the goose started heading out again. It folded and fell into the channel. Shaking with excitement and barely trusting my eyes, I got to my feet and Julian sent Sam out to retrieve the bird. A small pinkfoot, a bird of the year, as Julian told me later, a rare sight on these waters he only knew of two that had been shot here.

My evening was made, but we still hoped for a duck, so we settled back into our spots. Occasionally the swift whsssh of wigeon would be upon us before we could move, and the golden plover did not seem to have been disturbed by my shot, though they came no closer. A vast skein of greylag flew over, with their raucous conversation, heading towards the setting sun. I had never seen so many. What a sight the slow, elegant wing beat defied the speed at which the birds were travelling. All were too high, but the sight of them was enough. A moment later, Julian honked, calling over a small skein of greylag, travelling the same invisible line as my pinkfoot. Again I waited and again took my shot, at the second in the skein. It fell and I had my second goose. Stunned at the turn in my fowling fortunes, I waited for Sam to fetch the bird from the opposite side of the creek.

We waited until dark, but besides the contented quabbling of duck frustratingly close, nothing came our way. The vast skein that we had seen made its way back to its original feeding site as we called it an evening and headed back to Julian’s for a celebratory drink for my first geese.

For more information on Little Oakley and District Wildfowlers’ Association, contact Peter Avery, tel (01255) 880210.

Tendring and Halstead Wildfowlers’ Association, contact Bill Offord, tel (01255) 850521.

Walton-on-Naze District Wildfowlers’ Association, contact Bill Wilkinson, (01255) 674140.