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The dynamics of estuary life

On 1 September, Gloucestershire Wildfowlers’ Association (GWA) vehicles lined the road to the marsh. Haydn Jones, chairman of the GWA, advocated an especially early start to ensure a spot on the “Noose”, a section of the eastern side of the Severn estuary at Frampton on Severn. The tide was on its way out and our walk to the end of the pill easy. “This is the carpet slipper area for us and a great place to go on the First,” Haydn said, as we climbed a gate. “This is about as strenuous as it gets.”

Crossing a pasture, we came to a bank and the edge of the tidal pill. There, dropping down on to the very edge of the mudflats, we found our spot. Haydn put his gamebag 50 yards inland, so that Trevor Bailey, the GWA’s secretary, who was following us, would know where we were. The weather was mild and it was light enough to make out the landscape. A tawny owl hooted from the direction of the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust’s Slimbridge Wetland Centre, which lies just to the south of the Noose. The GWA enjoys a mutually beneficial relationship with Slimbridge. “The centre understands that wildfowlers make zero impression on wildfowl numbers and do much for conservation,” Haydn explained. While Slimbridge provides examiners and facilities for prospective members each aspiring member of the GWA must complete a two-hour recognition test ? the fowlers have reciprocated in practical ways. Richard Chapell, a former chairman of the GWA, used to ring duck for Slimbridge and as far back as 1979, the association restored part of the Berkely Decoy, the centre’s pipe for catching duck to ring.

Past and progress

With a healthy 160 members, the association is a highly active one, as witnessed by the number of people out on the First. It began life 51 years ago, in 1956. Young wildfowlers are encouraged and, for the price of their BASC membership, can be junior members of the GWA until they are 18 years old, when they can become full members.

“Of course many of them don’t want to pay then, especially if they are going off to college,” Haydn commented, though he believes a good grounding and passion for the sport will bring them back into the fold eventually. A day held recently was a huge success: 19 youngsters came along to be shown a puntgun by Ginger Blayney and given instruction in bird recognition. To demonstrate the dangers of the waters in the area they were also taken on to the foreshore at low tide, and again when the tide was turning.

The GWA also started the Frampton Country Fair in 1986. It now attracts more than 10,000 visitors and, says Haydn, has maintained its integrity. The GWA is still heavily involved, with Haydn and Ginger demonstrating their punt-gun on the lake and the association organising a hugely popular pigeon plucking stall. A watery world Water is one of the main issues affecting this area. After the floods at Tewkesbury, 20 or so miles north of Frampton, and the constantly changing shoreline, local inhabitants are understandably nervous about the encroaching water. At the point of the pill, Haydn showed me where a spit of land had been only last year. “That has completely disappeared now. There is also an island that has formed off the reserve’s area. It started with a patch of sea asters not being washed away during the winter tides and then it grew the next summer. Now it is a proper island. It is amazing how much this stretch has changed since I got here 18 years ago.”

The Government’s policy for water management is confused. While the Environment Agency (EA) is not restoring the sea wall that prevents Frampton from flooding, it has built a brand new one not 100 yards further south. The latter, however, may now be breached as part of a revised water management policy. From where we stood, we could see the silt that had built up over the summer. “You can’t stand out on that mud,” said Haydn. “You’d completely disappear ? but during the winter months all of that will be washed away, leaving just the sandy riverbed.”

Exploring the estuary

The GWA owns 50 acres of land, bought four years ago at Poulton Court, which lies on the western shore of the Severn. There is ¾mile
of foreshore, some copses and 10 acres of low-lying grassland, where the association is working with the Environment Agency to try
to improve habitat. The other areas that the GWA leases (private and Crown) covers 26 or so miles between the old Severn Bridge and
just south of Gloucester. The Noose lies just north of Slimbridge and south-west of some splashes, in theory putting us in the perfect
spot for some sport. “I saw geese flying over this way yesterday,” said Haydn, “and the Wetlands Centre is a real honey pot for them.”

The area is famous for its Elver fishing, which is becoming more controversial as the eel population dwindles. The fishing is keenly fought over and though there is much talk of a ban, Haydn has doubts as to whether it would or could be enforced. “It used to be just locals who fished here,” he said, “but now there are far more people who think there is a penny to be made. Whether the Severn elver fishers really encroach on the numbers is debatable anyway.”

The land the GWA bought at Poulton Court came with a putcher rank. Putchers are funnel-shaped fishing baskets set to catch fish as the tide turns. This year, the putcher produced some unusual catches. “Even carp but those were only there because of the floods. You’d
see all sorts of fish stranded near the estuary, including goldfish, as ponds were flooded and the fish went with the water.”

Plenty of choice

What of wildfowl? While we were talking, a few shots were heard to the north and east of us, and though we had heard the beating of wings above us and the single, low call of the gadwall in the distance, until now, the light had prevented any sightings. The light was beginning to change, however, and we started to pay more attention to the horizon. “As far as duck are concerned, we’re likely to see wigeon, mallard, teal, pintail mostly, but also gadwall, shovellers, pochard and tufties,” advised Haydn. “You’ll encounter any of the nine except goldeneye. The whitefronted goose is the speciality here, though. That is what this area is most famous for. There used to be a driven whitefronted goose shoot on the Berkely estate ? Peter Scott asked them to stop that in the 1980s.” The whitefronted goose is unusual in that it feeds and roosts on the same ground, hence there being a driven shoot.

The area used to hold between 6,000 and 7,000, but numbers have fallen dramatically, despite an increase in the worldwide population. With mild winters, the whitefronts no longer need to migrate as far west and far greater numbers now remain on the Continent. “I suspect this place will still be famous for them in 50 years, though,” said Haydn. “Those legends don’t die and a good, hard winter could concentrate them. Greylags and Canadas are also high in numbers, and populations have remained steady. Pinkfoots don’t appear here and the whitefronted geese usually don’t make an appearance until mid- to late-October. Last year brought some rare visitors to Frampton, too ? there were 17 glossy ibis on our land.”

A merlin appeared above us, occasionally swooping away when a shot was fired, but the hunter was not deterred and kept returning. Shelduck were out in force over the estuary, their odd, slightly hesitant flight and black-and-white colouring making them easily recognisable. There were more shots and, booming out across the water, what sounded like a big-bore gun firing at Poulton Court. While we spotted plenty of duck, none headed our way. Saffron, Haydn’s old Labrador, produced an occasional grunt of frustration at not working. Ginger and three others who had picked a spot north of us cheerfully informed us of a nice mixture of quarry. At seven o’clock, we spotted Trevor and some of the other members climbing out of the pill. As they approachd, we saw that they had chosen the better spot ? Trevor had a mallard, a pintail, a teal and a shoveller. Not bad for the opening of the season. “You’d better go out with Trevor or Ginger next time,” Haydn said ruefully.