Every shooter should try duck flighting
Shooters who spurn duck flighting are missing out on marvellous sport, especially when it’s over a lake on lush land once ruled by Queen Boudicca
Ducks are the wallflowers of the bird world. I have met plenty of ornithologists who will write entire books dedicated to the glories of willow tits, hen harriers or curlew yet should a pintail fly by, it is treated to barely a glance. And I see all too many game shots display an unseemly nonchalance towards them; do they believe duck to be somehow second-rate when compared with pheasant or partridge? Incredibly, even in the wildfowling fraternity, a level of ‘duckism’ is evident.
I have asked fellow fowlers: “How did you get on this morning?” And they’ve replied: “The geese didn’t play ball,” followed by, with a down-turned mouth, the concession: “I only got a mallard and a wigeon.”
It is as if shooting a duck is somehow second-class compared with killing a goose. I wonder if I am, like a scaup, a rare breed, to be so utterly fascinated and enraptured by each and every one of the Anitadae family in all their dabbling or diving aquatic glory?
Whatever the case, I am an unabashed sucker for a wild duck, whether they are found on the foreshore, marsh or on inland wetlands. The sound of them, the sight of them and the sport they bring, along with the meat they provide, makes the not-so-humble duck a bird to bring out the poetry in me and raise the hairs on the back of my neck.
So when Robert Graves, headkeeper at Rivers Hall on the banks of the Stour, invited me to join him and a few other fortunate souls for a festival of duck, I accepted with great haste.
Rivers Hall is a special place. This is partly down to the people who own, manage and live here, generous spirits all. It is also due to the sheer variety of habitats within these acres. Sharp inclines — sharp for East Anglia anyway — produce ancient hanging broadleaf woods, which in turn provide particularly sporting driven pheasants, not to mention a remarkable number of woodcock.
The farmland that rolls away from these woods opens up, becoming arable country — and partridge country. The hedges are laid and block after block of seed and flower
are sown so the greys thrive and stay, happy to call this place home.
The closer you get to the river — the boundary between Essex and Suffolk — things take a turn for the moist. Water meadows have been mercifully left undrained and they flood with refreshing regularity. The linear marks, lumps and humps that rise from these lush pastures tell of ancient workings. It is believed to be the site where Queen Boudicca’s army ambushed and destroyed the Roman IX Legion; there is an intense feeling of timelessness here while you beat through the wet woods.
With all this river, wetland and bountiful arable, plus a large lake, it is little wonder that ducks find Rivers Hall attractive. One half retains the formality with which it started life when dug in Victoria’s reign. The other, like so much of this estate, has been managed with a light hand so that wildlife benefits. Reed beds have been formed, islands created, an old boat shed lies crumbling; it looks right here, but anywhere else would appear merely decrepit.
This is wetland to enrapture rewilders, yet it is the result of human forethought. It is here where the wildfowl flock. Resident mute swans patrol all year round, greylags and Canadas dabble and graze, mallard and gadwall flock in score after score, pintail scud and teal are so prolific that your eyes water with counting.
If you were seeking the words to describe the essence of Stour Valley wetland, you could simply present a photo of the Rivers Hall lake — it really is that perfect. The resident wildfowl are not only treated to an abundance of food and perfect habitat, they are notably unharried.
During the six driven game days each season a few might make it into the game larder, as a morning’s shooting here invariably starts with a duck drive. However, such is the height of the woods that surround the lake, and the wiliness of these birds, that they are either too challenging in their flight to be hit or too clever to bother flying over the Guns in the first place. So, once a season, Robert and a team flight the lake at dusk.
I crouched behind some bulrushes with 100m of open water before me, then a thick block of reed. Behind this wall, hidden from my view, waited Robert’s brother Andy, his nephew Mark and Mark’s daughter Maisie, each in the marginal vegetation of another expanse of clear water. Deep shadows spread their fingers across the lake, reflections from the woods that reared on my right. An island with sparse grass and yet more reed separated me from Sam Oxley, keeper on the neighbouring shoot, with his cockers Goose and Bear.
The first mallard appeared as early evening mallard do. One moment there was nothing, the next a duck and a drake had plopped on to the water. These early arrivals were swiftly joined by more. Now aware of the need for speed, I shot a paddles-down drake that landed with a soggy splat on the island. Bangs from Sam’s quarter came, then more from the other Guns. The sky seemed to be pockmarked with winged wine bottles. From every quarter they buzzed, at heights varying from stratospheric to ear level.
Robert’s labrador Clover began to pick up behind us, the old-fashioned bitch hunting with diligent and unhurried fluency. Unperturbed by the dog working below, teal flocked, first in twos and threes, then in multiples of 10. I shot one towering cock bird, silhouetted against the lowering sky. Giving myself an imaginary pat on the back at my prowess, I proceeded to miss bird after bird. I blamed my borrowed Browning — with its barrels placed inexplicably one on top of the other — for causing me to shoot like a duffer.
I knew I was shooting over the top yet struggled to rectify the error, then compounded all failings by trying too hard. Still the ducks came and the woods echoed with the reports of our 12-bores and Maisie’s 20-bore.
For a man more used to waiting on the foreshore, this flighting was a hectic affair. The speed and aerobatic capabilities of teal were simply too much for me. I cradled the Browning on my lap and watched Sam. He downed a cock teal high overhead, followed the line of a second and bagged that too.
“I doubt George Digweed would have got them,” I called to him. I don’t know if Sam heard, but I felt I had at least made an effort.
Dusk turned to twilight to dark in a blink. Unbidden by Robert, we knew our sport was over. Spaniels and labs scurried about picking up birds in the near blackness. In the light of my head torch, I picked up an embarrassing number of empty Eley cases, the brass glinting like gold despite my decidedly bronze-medal performance.
We laid out the bag on the tailgate of a pickup and Sam congratulated me on that high teal. Perhaps he had heard my Digweed compliment; probably not, they are simply like
that at Rivers Hall.
I took two brace of teal home. As I plucked them the following day I marvelled at the shards of green, the delightful head and the speckling on the breast plumage. I cooked them simply with orange peel and a flambéed splash of whisky that burned my eyebrows — they were ambrosia. (Read our archive of duck recipes here). How can anyone not love ducks, I wondered as I washed up.