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On Probation with the Dee Wildfowlers
Orache takes his first steps on the marsh

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Of all the clubs I’ve been a member of, none has had more mystique than the Dee Wildfowlers: often heard of, but entirely elusive to anyone not living close to the Dee. I’d spent many years travelling around wild places including high plateaux, Antarctica, Alaska and various unpopulated desert areas around the world, but here, on my ‘doorstep’ was an equally interesting wilderness of which I knew very little. I wanted to find out more. 

 The ‘Wildfowlers’ were the only ones who dared to venture out onto the marsh amid all the perils of wind, tide and storm spelled out in the poem ”The Sands of Dee”. I knew less than ‘Mary’ of the poem, who is still out there beneath the cold waters of the estuary, still calling the cattle home. Solitary wildfowlers still hear her on the darkest nights! 

It was more than two years as an enthusiastic inland shooter before I met a real Dee Wildfowler.  I interrogated him mercilessly and only allowed him to depart once he’d given me the name and address of the membership secretary. There then followed a year or two on the waiting list without any contact whatsoever, then probationary membership and an invitation to go on the ‘marsh walks’. 

On the first walk I remember struggling across soggy marsh grassland[1] and endless ‘gutters’ trying to keep up with what appeared to be a group of chain smoking octogenarians who all knew how to walk on mud while I sank to the knees at every step. I lagged behind and was horrified when after standing in the middle of the marshes by the side of a lake they suddenly walked straight into that lake! – I didn’t even know that most ‘flashes’ were uniformly shallow. Chris, who led the walks, pointed to scores of identical features and posts, all with names but not marked on any of the maps I possessed. ‘Smith’s Post’ was typical – every time I went out onto the marshes it had been moved somewhere else! I even wrote “S P” on it with indelible felt tipped pen and fixed its position with a series of photographs and bearings. It still moved! 

After the walks I went out a few times by myself with the best GPS satellite system I could find. I made some maps and Chris corrected them!  Smith’s post still moved but everything else stayed put and my confidence grew. The first time out with a gun in the night changed all that……… 

Kneeling in the mud at Taylor’s[2] in the dark before dawn, various shadows, flashed past. (they all looked like bats to me!)  John made strange whistles[3] and encouraging remarks such as: -

“ SHOOT!”    “SHOOT!”     “SHOOT!”……. 



And eventually…


Out with Chris at Powalla[4], it was just as bad though not quite as muddy.  We went in the evening and some geese flew over in perfect range. Typically, my gun was in the slip! Chris seemed amused. 

I’ve now been out about 20 times and it’s getting easier. I’ve been soaked to the skin, covered in mud, dipped in sewage and learned how to walk miles with waders full of water. I’ve got chest waders, waist waders, thigh waders and wellies. There are six different marsh hats in the wardrobe; souvenirs of learning that even a hat needs to be ‘marsh-proof’. I’ve got four types of torch[5] and three different wading sticks.  I’ve diligently attended all the working parties[6]. I’ve suffered the indignity of being chased by highland cattle[7], and the deeper shame of admitting to Chris that the reason I didn’t fire was not because I thought the duck was out of range; but that I’d actually forgotten the safety catch was on! The same thing happened the following week.  I’m just not very good at lying about my failings.  The new system for training probationers[8] has worked for me and I will thankfully avoid the trial of the “test”[9] which was really a just proof of ability to memorise the rules and a few landmarks. All sensible probationers had prepared a list of the obvious questions and answers in advance of the test. Just how ridiculous this seemed to many of us I can’t tell, as we probationers have to mind our manners! 

 Now that there is a published list of members prepared to take out probationers onto the marsh; progression to full membership can be almost as fast as the probationer wishes. I wonder if the committee really knew how frustrating it was to be paying an annual membership for years, just to sit and look out from the quay at Fred’s Rocks because it was “inconvenient” for any full member to take you out shooting! How almost demeaning to be ringing up and begging the same few people over and over again for a trip. No wonder it took some people so long to learn. Also, we knew that it could well be the case that many a full membership had been achieved in the past without ever actually going out onto the marsh! This seemed ridiculous. 

 The club now seems to be in good heart to me, and this is vital, as there are interesting times to come!  Soon I’ll be a full member (one more lecture to do!) and as such it will always be with pride[10] that I will speak of the club, and fully share in the preservation of the marshland wilderness.  I will make sure that my name is on the list to help new members get out there and to answer (with due deference to senior members!) the hundreds of questions new members want to ask. I may even know a few answers!  Everyone I take out will be presented with a wigeon whistle made by me and we may even shoot a few ducks! 

And……last time I went out I found Smith’s Post straight away!

[1] The Dee Wildfowlers have unique local names for the salt-marsh vegetation. For example Spear Leaved Orache is familiary known as ‘Fat Hen’ throughout the UK and as ‘Red Leg’ amongst the wildfowlers! Some of these names may well have prehistoric origins.

[2] Taylor’s is one of the main tidal inlets on the south end of the Dee marshes.

[3] The wigeon whistle made from two back to back 12-bore shell case brasses I thought was just “an old wives tale” Until I actually saw one I didn’t believe they would work. I now know how to make them and do little else in my spare time!

[4] Powalla gutter – a tidal inlet at the outer edge of the marsh, not marked on any map and known only to the Dee Wildfowlers

[5] Conventional, ‘Krypton’ bulb, high power lithium and cold light LED.  We’ll all be using LED torches in a few years time  - they are the best.

[6] Working parties collect litter along the marsh edge, post boundaries, conserve and maintain the saltmarsh habitat. Shooting probably accounts for less than one percent of the time spent ‘wildfowling’.

[7] The club keeps 24 highland cattle to keep the grass down at the marshland edges.

[8] The new system includes guided walks, 10 shooting expeditions with a full member and three lectures on wildfowling. Training is now a shared club activity and new members can become full members in a matter of months if they so wish.  In the past, seconders who were already full  members were required to conduct the entire training of a probationer. (It was historically a “father and son” apprenticeship ) Some aspirant wildfowlers didn’t know any existing club members, so were either unable to join or if they did get some contact to propose them they were required to spend years on the waiting list followed by 2 years as a probationer, waiting to take the test for full membership. The joining time-scale was so extended that their seconders had sometimes left the area, become inactive or retired!

[9] The “Test” involved the probationer answering a series of questions on wildfowling and the club rules put by senior members of the club, without reference to the list of answers circulated amongst the probationers and derived from the questions asked at the last test! As all crib sheets, maps and information were confiscated from the applicant before the test, it was truly a test of memory not ability.

[10] There is a certain pride, an ‘esprit de corps’ engendered by the progression to and achievement of full membership, akin to 6 weeks basic training with the SAS, few of which I suspect could cross the Heswall Gutter without Brian’s help!


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