The ebbing tide recedes from the shining
mudflats and already the first of the waders are repossessing their
feeding quarters. Clouds of knot join the redshank, the grey plover
and the bar-tailed godwit. A haunting, bubbling whistling heralds
the approach of a herd of curlew . They sweep in on set wings,
pitch, shake out their plumage and begin, immediately, to probe the
mud with those long, curved bills by which they are so readily
identified. Who, upon hearing the call of the curlew, can fail to be
moved? For older fowlers the sound will bring memories of exciting
flights flooding back - like the very tide itself.
Regrettably, during the debate leading
up to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, our MPs voted to
remove the curlew from the list of quarry species. One justified his
action by saying, "The curlew has such a lovely call." No one would
disagree with that but it hardly seems a reason to give the bird
full protection. Curlew were never in any danger from over-shooting.
The main threat to the species, as to so many others, lies in the
loss of habitat. Just why a fight was not put up at that time
remains a mystery but the sad fact is that a valuable sporting bird
was lost to the wildfowler.
A new generation of fowlers are
entering the sport who will be unable to experience the magic of
curlew shooting. In the autumn, many hours could be spent creeping
around the saltings in the network of creeks. Two or more gunners, a
quarter mile apart, could move the birds between them using all
sorts of strategies. A dog, especially a light coloured one, could
be used to decoy the inquisitive curlew and a hat, flapped for a
second above the creek, could have the same effect.
When tide flighting, we would use
part of the marsh with a few creeks so that we could move back
safely ahead of the flood. Alternatively, on very high tides, we
would hide in a creek under a known flightline, while the tide
pushed the curlew over us as they moved to a higher part of the
marsh. Eventually, hundreds of birds would foregather on the highest
portion of saltings and when, at last, they were washed off, they
would flight over the sea wall. In this way we could enjoy two
flights at the same birds.
It was, very occasionally, possible
to make large bags of curlew but we shot only what we wanted for
ourselves and a few friends. On most outings the wariness of the
fowl and the limitations of the fowler's skill combined to ensure
that the species was under no great threat. Many wildfowlers did not
shoot curlew at all or did so only if a random chance presented
itself. Few even considered it to be good to eat - they don't know
what they were missing. In September and October curlew are very
good to eat, especially if hung. Later on they get less appetizing
but, by then, fowlers are concentrating on ducks and geese.
The curlew was given protection on
the basis of whim rather than on considered judgement. Isn't it time
that we were asking for it to be re-instated on the list of quarry?
We hear the cry, "Bring back the brent!" Why not the curlew? It is a
worthy quarry indeed - elusive, sharp-eyed and well able to look
after itself. A real wildfowler's bird and a traditional and valued
part of the fowling scene.
Stanley Duncan would, I am sure, have
been active on this matter long before now. Will, then, our
representatives on the BASC Wildfowling Liaison Committee act upon
this call to return to us the old longbill?
This article is reprinted as an
abbreviated form of an article by Phil Gray originally published in
the Wildfowling Magazine issue dated Winter 1994/95. At that time
Phil was secretary of the Whittlesey Wildfowlers and
Gundog Training Broadsheets