A wildfowler builds a bag with knowledge and fieldcraft; for the owner of a flightpond, it only takes a bit of barley argues Richard Negus
I like ducks. While geese are masterly and waders noble, the duck is affable. My warm feelings for them may sound incongruous. Much of my spare time is spent trying to place myself on the foreshore and marsh so that I can shoot one, preferably two. That being said, the duck is a bird of beauty and wonderment, a worthy target for any Gun. Its meat is one of the finest treats nature’s larder can provide — barring shovelers, which taste of muddy fish.
For many the idea of wildfowling, with its rising in the dark to venture miles out on to treacherous estuarine mud in hopeful pursuit of duck, is akin to masochism. However, those less hardy souls still yearn to test their shooting skills and digestive system on wildfowl and they can do so thanks to the flightpond.
Anyone who claims they are wildfowling when they are sitting by a flightpond should be treated with wholehearted derision; they are duck shooters. There is nothing wrong with being a duck shooter, but there is a gulf of difference between them and wildfowlers. A flightpond is an inland piece of water. It is either man-made or an existing lake, scrape, pool, pond or agricultural reservoir.
New species attracted by flightpond
The introduction of water to any piece of land is of amazing benefit to a multitude of flora and fauna. On one flightpond I have created, the sheer diversity of new species to the area since its construction is marked.
I have detailed notes on all
species spotted there and, to name but a few, snipe now sip in the muddy margins, hobby falcons stoop on the dragonflies, grey partridges drink from the edges and mallard, coot and teal call it home. This pond is sited 20 miles in land from the coast and is an invaluable habitat.
I do, however, have a major concern with the rise in popularity of flightponds being constructed or fed up and commercially shot in areas that abut estuaries and foreshore. These ponds quickly become magnets to coastal ducks, which will understandably shun a hard-won wild feed on the saltings in favour of a plentiful supply of barley that the pond owner provides.
Some owners of these coastal flightponds take a considered and sparing harvest of the wild ducks they have encouraged to fly to their own tame waters. But there are first-hand reports of large numbers of teal, wigeon, mallard and pintail being shot on some coastal ponds. It appears little or no regard is paid that these are wild ducks, not reared. I believe this is greed, unsustainable and goes against all that wildfowlers and conservationists hold dear.
Fowlers complete a bag return at the season’s end. It gives a good indicator to the health of species, migratory patterns and a multitude of other data for ornithologists and conservationists. I am certain that the keepers of coastal flightponds do not provide this information.
Low numbers of duck
I wonder if these flightponds, along with an exceptionally mild winter, could be partly responsible for the marked low numbers of duck that we have seen on much of the East Anglian foreshore this season? To court controversy, I would be in favour of coastal flightponds having an American-style bag limit imposed.
If a wildfowler achieves a sizeable bag, it is due to his fieldcraft, in- depth knowledge and hefty chunk of luck and perseverance. The coastal flightpond’s big bag is solely thanks to a few tons of barley.
Ultimately shooting is about filling the pot, whether you are fowling, walking-up a rough hedge with your spaniel or standing on a peg on a 300-bird driven pheasant day. The sporting element of shooting — or, more to the point, the skill-testing component — should not be the main factor, but a pleasant addition to hunting your own dinner.
Therefore ethically flightponds should be managed in such a way that they provide clear opportunities to shoot a bird cleanly on the wing. If the surrounding flora is so ill-managed that only sky-high or fleeting snap shots bring a bird to the hand, you merely own a pond, not a flightpond. If you are truly hunting for the pot, it is completely ethical to shoot a bird on the water. I cannot see why blazing away at a duck in the twilight 60 yards up is considered sporting, yet the sure-fire bag-filling waiting until it lands on the water is considered tantamount to sitting down during the national anthem.
We have to accept that on occasion our skills may be slightly off and winged birds are an unfortunate result. It is far better to put the odds firmly in your favour of a clean kill. How unsporting, some may say, but surely this is the ethical thing to do?
Another issue I have with some flightponds is with the releasing of reared ducks. I am repelled by the sight of beaters armed with flags, surrounding a pond and sounding like French revolutionaries in a bid to get reluctant early-season flyers into the air. If you have invested time and money in creating a biodiverse habitat, wild ducks will find you.
Doubtless a few reared birds on your pond will encourage more wild ducks to use it; after all, the humble call duck was bred for this very purpose. However, if reared ducks are to be part of your day’s shooting — be it a duck drive or the Guns walking-up the pond — surely it is unethical to attempt it until the depths of the season? While mallard may well be in feather in the early season, they are mentally immature and almost as tame as those on the village pond.
I visited a number of driven shoots last season and all of those who had ducks in their day presented extremely challenging, sporting birds. Little surprise, then, that all of these shoots put habitat creation and management as their lead driver, not simply putting down a few hundred reared mallard and stuffing food into them. The result is that the ponds were filled with wild birds and are only shot over twice a season at most.
Shooting wild ducks from a pond is a sporting challenge; shooting reared ducks off the end of your barrel as they circle to come back to their home pond definitely isn’t.
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I am not decrying flightponds in one broad brush stroke. Well designed, well managed and sparingly shot, they can be true oases. However, for those who lure wild ducks to their coastal firing ranges or fill ponds with a multitude of reared pets, I ask you to look at the ethics and reconsider whether shooting really is the sport for you.