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From Antartica to Deeside
The Evolving Wildfowler explained by Orache

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Long before I discovered the Dee Marshes, I spent two years in Antarctica where our issue of cold weather clothing[1] underwent an evolution of modifications to combat the environment. Within weeks we’d sewn[2] windproof fabric onto our headbands to stop our ears freezing. We’d tied our gloves to a neck harness to stop losing them (and our fingers) and double sewn our anoraks to stop our bodies freezing (after seeing the result of a 70mph, 8day blizzard on the clothing ‘as issued’). Also the prime rule of keeping warm was tempered by the first rule of polar exploration: - ‘don’t sweat’ because sweat can later freeze and very unpleasant that is, at minus 50 Celsius! 

I have found the same evolutionary process at work since becoming a Wildfowler on the Dee. The bland requirements of equipment (listed by our club chairman) has scope for infinite variation to achieve the purpose of keeping warm when it’s cold, dry when it’s wet and on almost every walk to distant flashes; cool when it’s hot from the exertion. 

My waders are a prime example. At first I had some heavy rubber thigh waders which preferred clinging to the mud than to my thighs. I ditched them (used for marsh guests now!) and moved to chest waders. They became almost as wet on the inside as the outside due to perspiration. I modified them (out with the sewing machine again!) to waist waders but they’re almost as bad. I’ve now settled on some very lightweight thigh waders that are superb and probably the cheapest on the market. These are the best for the Dee. 

Apart from the environmental determinism that requires the maintenance of a survivable human microclimate I think some items in the list of clothing required[3] need to be explained in detail so that new recruits can avoid the unpleasantness that I endured. 

1.      Clothing needs to be both waterproof and quiet – the rustle of a waterproof collar against the brim of a nylon hat is totally useless when trying to listen for the whistle of approaching wigeon.

2.      Hats need peaks to keep hoods clear for wide vision. Hoods are vital to keep the neck warm and a good way of stopping rain penetrating at the neck[4]

3.      A vest is important; the best (in my humble opinion) being of string which hold in the warmth and can easily be vented by undoing the shirt buttons. These like wool shirts are as rare as ducks teeth in the world of high tech ‘wicking’ fabrics.

4.      Trousers need to be light and warm. If they get wet through perspiration you’ve got the wrong sort!

5.      A pint or two of hot tea (all wildfowlers carry a flask) requires that the clothing selected should also have the benefit of secure but efficient below waist fasteners, another not often listed disadvantage of chest waders. 

Out on the marsh waiting for flight, the very real problem of an unprotected and potentially wet posterior that can result from sitting down while wearing thigh waders is solved by adding a pair of waterproof shorts (cut down from rain trousers) to the ensemble.

A square or two of foam ‘kipmat’ is also a great comfort to the nether regions and weighs practically nothing. This beats kneeling in the mud. (As all the old but sometimes arthritic wildfowlers recommend) Here again I’m thinking of making a minor modification determined by experience of recent gales. If it’s windy an un-tethered kipmat can blow a mile away[5]. I don’t want to carry the weight of pegs so I’m experimenting with a shaped insert to fit inside my natty waterproof shorts so the mat moves when I do! (A skirt would be a better design for this attachment but there is a limit to the humiliation I can take from my laughing family, let alone fellow wildfowlers!) Perhaps a waterproof kilt is the acceptable answer – I wonder which Clan has cammo colours!

In addition to all this; it is necessary to carry a small flock of weighted decoys[6], a shotgun, a belt of cartridges, a torch, compass, maps, permits, whistles, as well as a spare pullover, so the need for at least an 80 litre rucksack is paramount. It must have wide shoulder straps[7] and a waistband to pull tight and high to support the weight of all that gear. (Let alone the weight of a couple of 16 pound geese, hopefully at least once in the season - close to Xmas would be nice). With the addition of the Geese the first rule requires even more space in the rucksack as the first rule of Polar exploration comes to the fore and clothing has to be removed and carried in the rucksack to keep cool when walking off.

I carefully and literally weigh up all the equipment I use on the marsh. For example I like to set up a small cammo scrim to break up my outline but can save almost half a kilo by carrying just a net to which I tastefully add some marsh grass.

Resplendent in all this gear I also need a stout wading stick, possibly the most important safety aid for the marshes[8] It also serves to hold up the cammo net and other useful purposes known only to wildfowlers. 

The same Darwinian rules have been active pertaining to almost every item of clothing I now wear for the marsh and although (due to the need for concealment) I look like everyone else out there, I am effectively a unique species with clever adaptations for survival. I expect other wildfowlers are still evolving similarly.  

Currently I’ve been working on a blind that entirely hides my shape under a huge goose decoy. This is so effective that it even fools other wildfowlers. The doctors say that most of the pellets will have to remain in my backside until they work their way out naturally! Nature is wonderful but it needs to be tempered by a little common sense and evolution steers us to many a blind alley. 

To advance and evolve we need to reveal what we have discovered. Each generation should not be destined to learn the hard way, and in the case of wildfowling the cold and wet way. We must pass on our knowledge.


[1] In 1969 Much of it was from the 1950’s  (Korean War vintage). The British Antarctic Survey was always on the lookout for bargains!

[2] All Polar explorers can use a ‘hand cranked’ Singer sewing machine. This (like the ability to wash and iron clothes) they keep very secret when they get married.

[3] See “Fowler in the Wild” by Eric Begbie for a comprehensive list of clothing.

[4] In a headwind powered downpour a hood can fill with water and act as a funnel to the upper body. In this case A towel round the neck works but is just one too many items to carry in my opinion as it can become soaked and heavy.

[5] Few activities are more humiliating to a probationary wildfowler than chasing a windblown foam mat to the horizon during flight. Even worse is not being able to find the way back to the flash in the dark!

[6] Each of my decoys is weighted by a lead ring which is a good shape for holding in the mud and is attached by elasticised line so it can be wound up and the ring secured neatly over the keel

[7] I’ve taped foam ‘kipmat’ to my shoulder straps, but if the waistband is correctly fastened there will be little weight on the shoulders, a technique not always known to those who hike with big rucksacks. Also, bigger loosely packed rucksacks are much easier to carry than small ones.

[8] In Antarctica we always carried a crevasse probe similar in many ways to a wading stick.  For some reason lost in the mist of time it was always referred to as a “bog chisel”.  I often think it a strange and fateful thing to be walking the marsh with a wading stick to sound the depths of the mud in the same way I walked 30 years ago with a’bog chisel’ tentatively probing for crevasses in the Antarctic. Both crevasses and quicksand are potentially lethal, though on balance, I’d prefer the quicksand.

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