Wednesday, 14 August 2013
The above, really poor photo but it's the only one I have, shows me close to the old Ferry Bridge one late afternoon in November 1974, about to go along the seawall on to Elmley and try a bit of duck shooting. You can just make out the single-barrelled shotgun that I am holding. Since those shooting days (I was 27 at the time) I have yo-yo'd between supporting, loathing and now supporting, various forms of shooting, all a bit confusing really. At the time that this photo was taken I was into my second season of what was only really a half-hearted interest in duck shooting and beginning to realise that it just wasn't for me. Therefore it wasn't a lot longer before I had packed up shooting all together and have never wanted to shoot since, but why did I start in the first place?
As I have said many times, I had been interested in all things to do with outdoors and wildlife since my childhood and between 1966 and 1972 had worked for the Kent River Authority throughout the marshes of Sheppey. Most of the people that I worked with on there were all of a similar age to me and several were also active in countryside sports such as shooting, fishing and rabbiting. One was also related to the Gransden family who were farming on Elmley at the time and that therefore gave me the opportunity to get to know some of them as well.
To have the opportunity to work along the seawalls, watercourses and marshes throughout Sheppey was exciting enough but to do it alongside people who actively practised many of the things that I had simply read about, made it even better. During the winter months we would often spend our lunch breaks walking the marshes alongside our workplace looking for rabbits to catch and I soon learnt how to quickly gut and skin them. In the summertime if we were working along The Swale seawalls we put out baited trot-lines on the mudflats and caught flounders, or we looked for partridge nests so that one of the guys could put the eggs under his broody hen at home and rear the birds for game bird shooting. At weekends in the winter I sometimes acted as a beater on the all day farm shoots held at Elmley by the Gransdens and learnt not only what it was like to skin and gut many dozens of rabbits in one go but also how geese and game birds were left to hang in a barn for a week or so in order to end up better flavoured. Seeing the condition some of those birds were in after a week or so could never tempt me to eat them but that's how they did things then.
I loved every minute of it and at the same time learnt many countryside ways and skills that have never left me, and many of them did not involve simply killing things.
My best friend on the KRA at the time did quite a bit of duck shooting on his own and so it was only natural that I would ultimately have a go at that myself, let's face it, most guys do get some kind of thrill from holding and discharging a gun at some stage in their life. My problem with this at the time, was the fact that I hadn't long before re-read Peter Scott's excellent 1961 autobiography "The Eye of the Wind". In there he had described how his long involvement in wildfowling had begun to wane one winter when, after shooting and wounding two geese, he had captured them and then found himself hoping that they wouldn't die. (They didn't die and he kept them for many years at his lighthouse home).
So although I had joined WAGBI - the Wildfowling Association of Great Britain and Ireland, (now BASC the British Association for Shooting and Conservation), and enthusiastically thrown myself into shooting for a while, Peter Scott's words always haunted me in the background. But I was intent of doing it and so having joined WAGBI and read a few articles in the Shooting Times about the romance of being out on the marsh under the moonlight, pitting your wits against wild birds, I then needed a gun. I didn't have the money or the inclination to spend a lot on one and fortunately my uncle, Albert Williams, came up with the solution. He had an old, single barrelled 12-bore that he never used anymore and I could buy it from him for £10 - problem solved, or so I thought. The gun was in pretty good condition and I cleaned and oiled it after every session but it had no safety catch or anything and to fire it you had to cock the hammer back with your thumb before pulling the trigger. How I never blew my feet off I'll never know, twice, with the gun pointing downwards, my thumb slipped off the hammer as I was cocking it and it discharged into the ground alongside me.
So, the final problem to overcome was where to do this shooting - no problem my shooting mate said, anywhere on Sheppey after dark, no one'll catch us and fortunately they never did, in fact we got chased more times during daylight when trespassing on rabbiting expeditions, but that's another story. A few times, using our knowledge of where and where not that the Gransdens shot on Elmley, we found it was easy to drive along the remains of the old Ferry Road and park up alongside the seawall. From there we could walk along the sea wall to opposite Ridham Dock and there the Dray fleet ran back into Elmley, nice and wide and attractive to wildfowl and more importantly, we were very unlikely to be discovered there. After a couple of visits there at dusk and darkness I quickly found out that all the waffle that the experienced shooting types put out about first learning how to handle a gun, etc, does make sound sense, I couldn't of hit a duck if it was on the end of my barrel. Could of been the naff old gun I was using I suppose but I think it was more a case of me not having a 100% enthusiasm for what I was doing as much as anything, plus Peter Scott was haunting me, I desperately didn't want to wound a bird.
Another place that was popular with many duck shooters with no official place to go at the time, was Rushenden marshes between the old Coal Washer and the Ferry Bridge. During the 1960's the Westminster Dredging Company had pumped millions of tons of sandy dredgings onto these marshes until they were level with the top of the sea wall. This had created a huge area of dead flat, almost desert like conditions which were home to a large colony of nesting Little Terns in the summer and many duck shooters in the winter. There wasn't an enormous amount of open water out there, I think it was more a case of wildfowl flighting across it from The Swale to get to the wetter part of the marshes, that made it attractive to us shooting types who were limited to where we could go.
Once again my shooting skills were at best, pretty useless and my main recollection of several visits there is of sitting out there one night in one of the worst blizzards I've sat out in. The snowflakes were enormous and I could see bugger all even if anything was moving, which it wasn't and most of my time there was spent in wiping off an inch deep layer of snow that kept building up along my gun barrel. It was a long and cold trudge back to the car in knee deep snow and my shooting trips became very few and far between after that.
I think the very last outing came in the following September 1975. I had decided to try an evening flight out at Shellness, on the saltings in front of what is now The Swale NNR, once again probably without permission. I didn't have a car at the time and so had to catch a bus to Leysdown with my gun in a case and walk the 2-3 miles along the sea wall to where I intended to shoot. It was a hot and sunny early September evening and clearly I had arrived far too early for the light to start going. I sat on the seawall for an hour in the sun with no apparent change in the light, got totally fed up, walked all the way back to Leysdown, caught the bus home, eventually gave my gun away and have never shot again. I turned to rabbiting and eel netting and other minor things until in 1987 I became a Vol. Warden on the Swale NNR.
That opportunity saw my opinions on wildfowling change markedly. I was involved with the management and protection of a nature reserve and on the other side of the sea wall were Kent Wildfowlers trying their hardest to kill the very birds that we were attracting. I adopted the same blinkered and traditional attitude that many birdwatchers still do, anybody that shoots is the enemy of wildlife and must be treated as such and I spent the next twenty years entrenched in those beliefs. Unlike my brief shooting period, these guys were fully entitled to be where they were and what they were doing but I was having none of it and spent a lot of time making my presence as awkward as I legally could.
Throughout that period I could see a justification in supporting game shooting purely because of the habitat that it maintained for all wildlife but like most who still oppose it today, I hadn't taken the time to research what the Kent Wildfowlers also did for conservation by owning and managing huge tracts of wetlands in Kent and elsewhere. Finally, around three years ago, a local and lifelong Kent Wildfowler took me to task over my constant criticism of the wildfowlers and I for once took my hands away from my ears and listened to his side of things. Through many long conversations it has transpired that we had a lot of common interest in wildlife, in fact most wildfowlers do, because you enjoy shooting a few wildfowl each year it doesn't make you the cretin that some would believe, Peter Scott proved that.
The result has been a new friendship, a shared enthusiasm for the countryside and all things wildlife, I have returned to the same open-minded person that I always used to be in respect of countryside pursuits and my new friend, through no urging of mine, now spends most of his time shooting wildlife with a camera. Good results all round.