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Wildfowling on the Medway in Kent

When Alan Jarrett phoned to tell me there wasn’t much point in going out on Saturday, I was disappointed ? I had been looking forward to fowling on the Medway. Instead, we arranged to meet at one of the Kent Wildfowling and Conservation Association’s (KWCA) many sites, so that Alan could show me one of the marshes. We met at the Stoke Saltings, on the northern side of the Medway estuary, just south of the Isle of Grain. With the saltings spread out before the estuary, framed on either side by power stations, the estuary glittered in the early morning sun. These saltings are an impressive size but are by no means the extent of the land owned by the KWCA. There was a note of justifiable pride in Alan’s voice when he told me about the land bought by the KWCA. “We started buying land in the 1970s, with a 50-acre site at Yantlet Creek. However, it was from 1985 onwards that the association really started to invest in land. We now own more than 2,000 acres freehold and manage 8,000 acres in total.”

The site at Yantlet Creek was never shot by the club, but developed into a nature reserve, which has become a mainstay of the KWCA’s conservation strategies. The association created islands to encourage nesting wildfowl such as mallard and greylag geese, as well as releasing mallard on the site. This gave the KWCA a much better understanding of the conditions needed to support a thriving wildfowl population and has guided conservation policies since. The land purchases have become increasingly important as the industrial development of the area grows, though of course there is less available. “It is getting harder to buy pieces,” Alan explained. “Everyone knows we want to buy land. While in the 1980s land was reasonably priced, particularly in areas such as these saltings, which weren’t agriculturally valuable, now there is a premium on it.”

Sizing up the membership

Wondering how the KWCA funded all of the land purchases, Alan told me, “We have a huge membership. The membership funds a large proportion, though once you own land, that brings in a fair amount itself. Some of the inland areas of land the association rents to syndicates and wise investments have also helped. Shares in an oyster company bring in good dividends, too.”

The membership is indeed impressive ? currently it stands at 460, making it the largest association in the UK. “We have members from all over the country: Devon, Dorset, London, Sussex, you name it. Nearly 20 per cent of our membership is from outside Kent. We even have a French couple who are members ? they come over a few times a year for pigeon shooting and fowling. At the moment we are extending our land purchases outside the Kent heartland, in places such as the Stour Valley, to encourage our members there.” I could well see the attraction for Londoners ? it took me just over an hour to reach the saltings, making it the perfect place for a morning flight from the inner city.

I asked what else the KWCA did to encourage new members or young members. Surprisingly, not much. “We don’t seem to need to do very much. Last year we had 46 young members ? but we didn’t organise any activities. We focus most of our energy on fund-raising. People know that we have amazing opportunities for fowling. That is what attracts them.”

A system of permits

Of course a club of this size requires extensive organisation. The KWCA operates with a system of permits. No member may go out on to the marshes without a permit. Part of the system comprises site record cards, which provide invaluable information on the areas and enable the association to develop its conservation strategy. “With so many members there could be the risk of overcrowding ? the permits ensure there are never too many fowlers on any area during a flight,” Alan explained. “It means that KWCA maintains a sustainable level of shooting.” There are other benefits, too. With shooting continually under scrutiny, it is all too easy to point the finger at the sport. Alan gave an example, “Last year, Natural England (NE) ? who we have a very good relationship with ? mentioned that the number of hen harriers on one of the marshes was lower in February. One of the suggestions was that this was due to increased activity at the beginning of that month. Thanks to our permits, however, we could prove that the level of activity had been the same throughout the year.”

I asked about NE and the KWCA. “The relationship has become symbiotic,” Alan said. “NE needs landowners, so it needs the KWCA in this area, as we own so much of the best land for conservation.” Conservation is certainly high on the association’s agenda and that part of its name was added in 1981. It was then that the permit scheme came into being and the emphasis of the club moved towards protecting the threatened habitat on the estuary. Today, it is largely thanks to the KWCA that this area has remained attractive to wildfowl and wildlife in general. “On the Stoke Saltings you’ll see plenty of redshank and grey plover as well as teal, wigeon, pintail, mallard, greylag, Canadas and a few whitefronts, though those are mostly on Sheppey. These saltings contain plenty of invertebrates, so they are prime feeding areas.”

I asked about the flora ? while we walked along the path towards the Grain power station, I had seen plenty of marsh samphire and sea beet, and the saltings looked very green for the time of year. “There is a problem with the spartina here ? it is encroaching on the mudflats and destroys them for feeding waders. It smothers the samphire, too, which is bad for fowling,” Alan said. Teal and wigeon particularly like eating the samphire seed at high tide, when it is released and floats, providing great feeding from October until Christmas. Is there anything that can be done about it? “Not here, unfortunately ? we can’t drive across these mudflats. There is an upside to it, however ? it firms up the mudflats and prevents too much erosion,” Alan replied. The other positive is that the spartina can’t survive unchecked forever ? once it gets too high, it dies right back, allowing the dormant seed of, among other things, samphire, to flourish once again.

Oozing history

The Stoke ooze, as it was called by the old wildfowling writers, wasn’t naturally formed. “This is where blue clay was harvested for building. The ‘muddies’ who collected the clay would take the top few inches off the land and throw them on tallow banks, which is how all these high parts built up. Some of them are perfect for building hides on ? and, luckily, high enough to stay dry,” Alan informed me. Many of the members of the club own boats ? it is often the only way to get about in these parts. “The liability is too high for the club to own a boat, though we used to. Clubs are well-advised to mitigate everything. We don’t even have bridges on these saltings ? it makes it trickier to get about, but we cannot be sued.”

I asked Alan about pollution. With the two power stations, I imagined it might feature. “Actually, it is becoming less of a problem. The waters seem to be cleaner. Certainly the shellfish has become more saleable.” The power stations do affect the club in other ways, though, as do other plans for alternative energy. Just to the west, on the Isle of Grain, there is a plan for a windfarm. “They claimed it wouldn’t impact on our sport or the wildfowl, but of course it will. We have been negotiating the loss of land and under Section 106 of the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act, we have managed to get more funding for conservation as part of the planning conditions for the windfarm,” said Alan.

The KWCA is clearly switched on when it comes to funding projects, be it land purchase or conservation. The most recent land purchase, which consists of 48 acres of reedbeds on the south shore of the Medway, was funded by a loan of 40 per cent of the purchase price by the Wildlife Habitat Trust, while NE has been aiding the club with a conservation project focusing on bitterns near Canterbury. I asked Alan what his favourite spots were. “On the 1st, I was out for 26 hours,” he replied. “I had to get to a high spot at low tide, I built a small hide, took a little stove with me and camped out. It was a great start to the season. Nothing compares to the salt marshes. It is the tidal areas that truly have the magic.”