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Are people shooting too many ducks?

The shortage of pheasants and partridges has prompted many shoots to put down more ducks, but Gethin Jones has some concerns

Duck drives can be an excellent addition to a shoot day as long as they are done ethically

I’ll lay my cards on the table. I’m a wildfowler and the concept of shooting driven duck sits uncomfortably with me. We must be able to defend all of what we do on the grounds of sporting ethics, welfare and sustainability, and if any branch of shooting doesn’t meet with the exacting standards we set ourselves, then perhaps we should consider some pruning. I’m also a rough shooter, so you may assume that I harbour the same reservations about driven pheasants or partridges as I do about driven ducks. But you’d be wrong.

Although I haven’t shot a driven day for years, I do attend a number of such days each season when pheasants, partridges as well as ducks make up the bag. I’m entirely supportive of driven shooting when birds are well presented to a team of competent Guns by a shoot that meets the standards set out in the codes of practice published by the GWCT and BASC. So what’s my beef with driven duck?

I’m not such a purist as to think that ducks should only be shot on the foreshore or flighting. It’s unrealistic to expect everyone who wishes to shoot a duck to join a wildfowling club, although more hunter-gathering together with habitat creation and hands-on conservation work could only be a good thing for shooting’s credentials. There is a place for driven duck shooting, with the proviso that it is conducted properly, and that both the shoot operator and the paying Guns understand what should, as well as what shouldn’t, be involved. 

There’s a lot of demand for driven shooting in the UK and duck drives cater for at least part of that demand. There is also a healthy demand for duck meat, with far more market outlets than for pheasant meat. However, boosting the bag on a mediocre day by shooting excessive numbers of low-flying ducks until the Guns run out of ammunition is an abomination.

Duck drives can be an excellent addition to a shoot day as long as they are done ethically

Driven duck shooting isn’t a 21st-century fad invented to generate another income stream for shoots. The shooting of driven ducks has been with us since the late 1800s when some estates, particularly those with natural water features as well as others based around the coast, experimented by rearing mallard using domestic hens, much in the same way as shoots at that time reared pheasants. Whole days were dedicated to driven duck, resulting in large bags, many of which exceeded the allegedly excessive bags made by some duck shoots today. 

Rearing and releasing ducks has been carried out by many over the years; landowners, shooting syndicates and even wildfowling clubs, whether for conservation reasons or to replenish wild stock. When I joined WAGBI, now BASC, in the 1970s, one of the organisation’s stated conservation achievements was that it had released upward of 250,000 mallard, all with leg rings so that their migration could be studied, into the wild since 1954 in order to augment the UK’s native mallard population.

Driven duck doesn’t enjoy the same kudos, nor does it command the same price tag per peg, as driven pheasant or partridge shooting. And rarely, if ever, have I sensed on the gun bus that same excitement when it’s whispered “we’re doing a duck drive next” as when the shoot captain proudly announces that we’re going to shoot one of his signature drives.

We’ve all heard the arguments against driven duck shooting, and Colin Willock put the case for the prosecution well, writing in 1962: “… hand-reared mallard show an awful reluctance to leave the home water and will usually fly round and round, getting higher and higher, as more and more guns go off. They certainly bear little resemblance to the real thing.”

both the shoot operator and the paying Guns must understand what should, and shouldn’t, be involved

A shooting friend recounted the time when she called to visit a gamekeeper one Sunday morning. The keeper’s wife answered the door and said that her husband wasn’t home and had taken the dogs and headed in the direction of the lake. When my friend caught up with the keeper, she was astonished to learn that he’d been picking-up dead and dying ducks, which had been shot during a duck drive the previous day. He’d collected 36 mallard.

This illustrates the inescapable welfare problem with driven duck shooting. Unlike pheasants, ducks have a thick layer of down underneath their outer feathers in order to keep warm. This physiological difference means ducks will need to be hit relatively harder than pheasants, despite being of a similar size, in order to effect a clean kill. Add to this fact that ducks must legally be shot with non-lead ammunition, and steel has less striking power than lead, which means that Guns have to re-evaluate the effective range of their guns and non-lead loads when shooting a duck drive on a mixed driven day. 

So what are driven duck shooting’s saving graces? As for being a sporting challenge, I’ve seen some excellent duck drives as part of mixed driven days. One drive in particular springs to mind, where the Guns are placed on a beach adjoining the estate and ducks are driven from inland ponds. The ducks are mainly mallard, reared and wild, mixed with a number of wigeon and teal. It’s impossible to discern which of the mallard are reared and which are wild when in flight. The setting is spectacular and the shooting is challenging as Guns have few opportunities to shoot as the ducks fly high and fast with, thankfully, no circling. Speaking with the Guns after the drive, all enjoy the challenge. As one Gun, usually more at home on a pheasant peg, put it, “You get one shot and they’re gone.” 

Another shoot I know uses a lake for duck flighting before a driven day, where guests may shoot a morning flight of wild ducks and geese before breakfast followed by a day’s driven pheasant and partridge. A Mid-Wales shoot uses natural hill lakes for evening flights after its driven days. The quarry is a mixture of released and wild mallard, together with teal, which flight into the ponds during the evenings. The experience for the Guns is far closer to hunting than anything a duck drive can create, particularly when shooting teal in fading light. Fieldcraft, skill, guile and luck are all involved in making the bag and numbers shot are never excessive.

When driven duck shooting is done properly, the birds can be incredibly challenging

Habitat creation, meaning the digging and maintaining of ponds for duck shooting, can be a significant conservation plus. Ponds can become year-round oases, providing valuable natural habitat for a whole range of wildlife. Matt Goodall of GWCT Cymru reckons that one of the best ways of creating ponds on farmland is to look at old maps and locate where ponds used for watering horses used to be located, and then dig them out.

The net ecological gain is dependent on the number of ducks released at such sites. A sustainable number will replenish the population and released mallard often ‘go native’ and join the local wild duck population. However, too many ducks put down, together with associated heavy feeding which may encourage rats, may negate any benefits, and there are fewer worse sights than a bare-looking muddy pond packed with hordes of tame ducks.

That there is a demand for driven duck shooting is clear and because of the problems of obtaining pheasants and partridges in the UK this year, due to the effects of avian influenza, that demand is certain to grow. Only a week into the season, it is apparent that shoot operators are organising more driven duck shooting this year, either supplementing pheasant and partridge drives with duck drives or putting on days entirely devoted to duck. When wildfowling on the foreshore, I always assume that I’m being observed and try to behave accordingly.

What impression does driven duck shooting create in the mind of the non-shooting public, particularly when big bags are made and, even worse, the results, including horrific photos, are posted online? 

We have to be more aware of the optics of shooting if our sport is to have a future. If done properly, with all due considerations made for sporting ethics as well as sustainability and the channelling of the resultant meat into the food chain, then those with an urge to shoot driven duck may have their wish granted. However, if some of the excesses of driven duck shooting are not curbed, and quickly, then it won’t only be the ducks facing an incoming barrage.

Duck meat is very popular with diners, with far more market outlets than pheasant meat