The Ouse Washes may be bewitchingly beautiful and a wildfowler’s dream spot but it isn’t the best place to spend a night alone, says Eric Walkden.
From the first moment I saw Cambridgeshire’s Ouse Washes, a bewitching spell was cast over me. I was enchanted by the wildfowl as I peeped over the bank, enthralled by the sight of those semi-flooded flat lands between the floodbanks, where all sorts of duck could be seen. To stand and stare down the ooded washes into the teeth of a rip-roaring gale, blowing dark stormy clouds across the sky, is a wildfowler’s dream.
That was in 1980 but it was some time until I was allowed to take a gun down there and try my skill at the duck. Even so, right from the start I could sense that this wetland was something more than just a little bit special. But I didn’t realise at the time that this place would eventually fulfil all of my wildfowling ambitions; both in the way of outstanding and spectacular shots, and for records broken.
All on my own in the middle of nowhere
In the meantime, during that spring and early summer of 1980, I set about discovering the whole 20-mile (or so) length of the washes, from north to south. Often I would be on foot, and occasionally on bike, always pausing to look at the birds. After many enquiries during my travels I managed to seek out some available shooting, and over the course of the next five years, sometimes with friends, enjoyed many wonderful days.
On only the third occasion, I found myself all alone there after an arrangement fell through. The thought of spending the night in a ramshackle hut 75 miles from home down a long muddy track, all on my own in the middle of nowhere, was not one I relished. But as it was already midnight I was left with no choice. It was far too late to go knocking on doors seeking hospitality, even if there were any to knock on. In truth, the weather conditions for morning flight were exceptional; there was a boisterous wind blowing and I could just make out flashes of floodwater glinting in the darkness. As I wrenched open the hut door and stepped inside, I was certain something scuttled across the floor but, by the time I’d fumbled for and found a torch in my rucksack, there was nothing there.
Little things scratching and scraping
I knew then that I wasn’t going to enjoy a good night’s sleep. To start with, there was no lock on the door and it kept on rattling in the wind as if someone were about to come in. It was really spooky as I slipped into my sleeping bag as far away from the door as possible and pulled it up over my head to cut out the noise; but it didn’t stop me from hearing little things scratching and scraping on the outside.
Afterwards I discovered that it had just been the undergrowth blowing about. But in the depth of night things can’t be dismissed so easily. No alarm clock was needed in the morning, but what a fabulous morning it turned out to be. The events of the night before were soon forgotten as I stepped outside. Though it was 13 December, it was quite mild but, most importantly, the south-westerly wind continued to blow relentlessly.
Mallard and wigeon could already be heard as I made my way in the darkness to an area of oodwater farther down the washes for morning flight. Duck were soon in the air, out and about and above me as dawn began to break in the eastern sky. Singletons and pairs, small parties and large parties, all tempting me to shoot. The spectacle of it all was so thrilling and exciting, and so much fun that I felt more than compensated at shooting only three wigeon. Just to have been there and witnessed such an extraordinary flight was, in itself, ample reward.
Later, I wandered about the washes with the gun under my arm and a few cartridges in my pocket, hoping to find an elusive marsh pheasant. I never even saw one, but I did manage to shoot a hare, a partridge and a woodcock.
However, the highlight of the whole outing occurred while I was leaning against an old post for the chance at a passing pigeon. I hadn’t been there long when a short-eared owl ew right up to me and hovered just above my head. It was joined by two others and the beauty of their inquisitive faces at such close range was a revelation. That still remains one of the most memorable events I ever had on the Ouse Washes.
By the time I’d selected a favourable spot for the evening, squally rain showers had set in, and though a gusty wind was still blowing I decided on only a brief flight. Even so, it was long enough for me to manage two cracking right-and-lefts at mallard as the washes once again became shrouded in darkness.
As I passed by the rickety hut on my way home, it was still being bashed by the wind and rain, and it made me think to myself that if I had wanted to, I could have arrived earlier, stayed in a hotel and maybe even had room service. But then again, I thought, the experience was one to be treasured. Something that could not be bought. Something that makes wildfowling what it is — unique.