Bird Haunts and Nature Memories/Chapter 13
AN OLD CHESHIRE WILD-FOWLER
SNOW and ice, ice and snow, far as the eye could reach into the mist that hung over the marshes; every broad gutter fringed with an icy border where the last flood had reached, every hollow where the water had lodged firm enough to walk on; flakes of cat-ice where the water had sunk, and packed broken fragments piled on the edge of the time-encrusted grass; the broad Dee saltings resembled the Arctic regions rather than Cheshire. These frozen marshes were a scene of desolation different from summer days, when the air danced above the short-cropped gram of rich turf, pasturage of hundreds of sheep, and when bright-plumaged sheldrakes flew past, when noisy lapwings called and redshanks yelped over the green plains. A bitter east wind sweeping across the reclaimed levels of Sealand cut like a knife, it was almost torture to face it; yet the cold winter sun struggling through the mist that veiled the distant Welsh shore made the ice particles glitter and sparkle. It was very beautiful, but very cold.
Hungry fieldfares, redwings, and mistle thrushes looted the red berries from the wind-swept thorns or sheltered in the evergreen oaks in the Hall garden. Skylarks in hundreds searched the tide wrack, every little head down as they ran like mice amongst the debris left by the water; now and again a twittering flock would rise and pass out into the mist towards some liker bank that they knew well. Black-headed gulls, though now unadorned by brown hoods, beat to and fro, waiting for the food-supplying water; and far in advance of the tide came a great flock of curlew, alighting on a patch of marsh which even the high tide could not swamp; here they crowded, bunched together, their wild moorland calls deadened by the searching wind.
Ere we reached the small white farmstead that stands on the very edge of the saltings, its garden wall lapped by the highest tides, the deep gutter that runs close inshore—remnant of the ancient channel—was filling fast. Up came the water, bearing on its flood a swaying mass of ice blocks, floes, and crinkling fragments; visibly the level rose till the frozen mud vanished and a broad, swift river forced its way towards the embankment. The tide was coming.
A steel-grey line stretched across the horizon towards the once famous Parkgate, indistinct at first, then growing clearer, till we could see the dancing ripples of the racing waters. Sandbanks and mud flats disappeared, grass-covered salting sank beneath the flood; tiny trickles became brooks, empty depressions deep gutters, gutters rivers, until the tide swept far and wide across the view.
"The western tide crept up along the sand,
And o'er and o'er the sand,
And round and round the sand,
As far as eye could see.
The rolling mist came down and hid the land."
With the water came the gulls-black-heads and commons galore, lesser black-backs and herrings; before the tide reached the frozen cart-track a pair of great black-backed gulls, fine birds indeed, alighted on the shore to investigate the body of a crow. The curlews packed closer as the water swirled round their refuge; not until the freshened mud was left bare at the ebb, bare but glittering with daggers of new ice did they move in search of food.
When the tide was full, when we could see shadowy boats steaming down the distant channel seaward, the grey geese came, following the water from their sandbank refuges, now many feet below the tide. Only for a minute did we see the pack, then they settled, hidden in the mist; one or two skeins broke from the main body, flying inland towards the fields. Fine birds, these pink-footed geese, as with outstretched necks they swing along in regular line with steady, powerful strokes; there is nothing in their wild freedom to suggest the awkward, waddling, averted birds of the farmyard. They are geese of the wilds, of the mists and driving spume, ever alert, ever free, birds of the mysterious North.
In the white farm by the cart-track lived the old wildfowler, the man who knew the birds and where to find them. He could tell when they would come from northern lands, knew when they would return; he knew where they would be met with at any hour of day or night, feeding on the grass, resting on the banks, or swimming on the tide. He was one of the few who, as often as not, could outwit than, taking toll of their numbers by his skill and patience; he was a sportsman of the old school, a man of first-hand knowledge, very critical and often scornful of modern methods. In spite of years—he was then past the proverbial human allowance—of much exposure to the wildest weather on the darkest, coldest nights, he was still hale and hearty, well able to guide and govern his extensive farm, for he had inland cornfields and pastures, and grazing over miles and miles of the broad marshes. With his sons and five of the smartest dogs in the district he tended a huge army of sheep, gathering them from the furthest confines of the marsh to fold them safe from the rising tide, and sending them back at the ebb to feed on salt-freshened turf. Though by force of circumstances he had deserted the hereditary passion for wild-fowling and become sheep-farmer, his heart was still in the old days; he loved to boast of his big shots, his adventures amongst the birds. By right of knowledge he made the marshes his, later they became his by legal tenure; his Scottish flocks grazed where he formerly punted.
How can we describe the man? He was no miserable shore shooter who tramped along the tide line, fearful of losing his way on the wastes, snapping his 12-bore at any passing gull, balked by the first deep gutter. No; in his younger days he was a true wild-fowler, who loved the roar of the punt-gun that hurled a pound and a half of lead into the packed grey geese or barnacles, laying low ten, fifteen, or twenty at a shot. Once, he told us, thirty-five were gathered—a famous number, be reckoned. When the grey dawn came—for he often shot at night—he would visit the spot where he fired to gather the slain and cripples; he knew where he had been in the darkness; the wastes were mapped in his brain. What need for daylight when he could find his way in the "wild roads" or amongst the "lums" and "gorings"? He was acquainted with every channel, every intricate gutter and current; the banks and flats were as easy to him as the streets and houses to the town dweller. Why, he said, should he waste time with the "cripple-killer," or tramp the dangerous mud at night to pick up fallen birds, when he might get another shot at fowl elsewhere on the marsh?Somewhat bent, more perhaps through much crouching in the old punt than the result of years, the old fowler was a fine, broad-shouldered, well-built man. There was penetrating keenness in his eyes, which twinkled with humour beneath heavy eyebrows, though, like all men of crepuscular habits, he had a half-frown. This was not the frown of ill-humour, but a set expression of determination, indicative of the strong character of the owner. A
firm, determined mouth, fully exposed by a clean-shaven upper lip; a skin tanned and wrinkled by many a keen wind and salt-laden blizzard—we have the picture of a man who had conquered nature's wild forces, had stood and withstood the bitter rigours of winter which had slain many of his weaker fellows.
When we entered the cosy parlour and sat down with the family to a sumptuous repast, we saw our host in his true character, a yeoman farmer of the real Cheshire type. Courteous, kindly, with that generous nature and open-handed hospitality that marks the true gentleman, his very independence made one feel at ease. With pride he talked of the excitements of the chase; story after story, racily told, flowed from his lips; at times he spoke with scorn of ignorant bird hunters who could not make a bag. Often he was asked to teach the art of wild-fowling, but, though always ready to give a hint to anyone who was really trying, even at the expense of a coveted shot, he invariably refused to give the benefit of his long experience to those who aimed at saving themselves the drudgery of learning. In his narratives he mingled the Cheshire vernacular with Lincolnshire long-shore names of birds, for his father was a Lincolnshire man. "Billy th' Duck," as the Wirral men nicknamed his father, came with his broad, undecked punt and big gun from the eastern seaboard to find virgin soil, or rather virgin mud and sand, in the Dee estuary; there were no professional wild-fowlers, no students of the art, when he first arrived in Cheshire.
Donning his sealskin coat, cap, and long boots, Billy launched his punt, loaded his old muzzle-loader, and paddled down the gutters to look for fowl. Two Neston men, fishing in one of the channels, saw through the mist a strange object approaching. "Look ye, a wha-al," cried one; "see its flappers going!" They would have had a weird tale to tell if the skin-clad figure had not laid aside his paddles and hailed them; as it was, the stranger with his uncouth garments, his big gun, and flat-bottomed craft, was long the talk of the neighbourhood, until he became a well-known character in all the Deeside villages and the city of Chester.
Old "Billy" grounded his son James in the sport, but it was through perseverance that the son became master of the art. In these days of light, narrow, well-decked punts and complicated breech-loading swivel-guns it is not easy to realise the skill that was necessary to work, single-handed, the broad, pointed craft, with only a few inches of protection from the waves, with the great muzzle—loader firmly fixed upon its block. There was no fine balance or recoil in the old gun, only strong rope breeching; both punt and gun had to work together on the bobbing wavelets to secure a successful shot. James was less amphibious in his sporting garments than his father; he was content with a ragged black overcoat, and a black felt pot-hat; yet he could bring down more fowl than many a man with more perfect modern appliances. He was very full of the deterioration of the estuary as a wild-fowl haunt; the fowl no longer came, for they were too much disturbed and could "get no harbouration nowadays."The pink-footed is now the goose of the Dee; these he had sold so low as 1s. 3d. per head in Chester or to the farmers and cottagers of Wirral. Not only did he shoot them, but at times he would set traps, common rabbit gins, in neatly hidden holes in the slub. "Laughing geese"—white-fronteds—he knew well, and he had great tales of the former abundance of barnacles. though he persisted in calling them brents, a common confusion. Half-a-crown was the price of a barnacle in Chester market; the true brent, though he knew it, was seldom
obtained. Ducks of various kinds—mallard, teal, wigeon, pintails, even the rare garganey—fell to his gun; sometimes he would slip down to the Point of Ayr, risking rough weather, and on the hauls obtain "black ducks and tufters" (scoters and tufted ducks). Curlew, golden and grey or "silver" plover, and small waders were marketable; once he declared he got 240 knots at a shot, and considering how these birds crowd together when the tide flows his story may well have been true. Shovelers he knew, but called them "spoonbills," and when he really obtained the latter bird he distinguished it as a "white spoonbill."
Those who condemn wild-fowling as massacre know nothing of the sport, nor of the avifauna of the tidal estuaries; apparently large bags obtained with the "big gun" are trifles compared with the vast hordes of fowl which frequent the flats and saltings in winter. The shots are difficult to obtain, as often as not are not obtained, and a second shot is impossible anywhere near the first for some considerable time. The skill, knowledge, endurance, patience, and pluck required to make a successful "gunner" make wild-fowling one of the best sports; it is far too arduous and dangerous for the majority; as a profession it no longer pays. When it is, as in this case it was, a means of livelihood, no one has a right to criticise; wild-fowl are alike food for rich and poor.
William Kemp, "Billy th' Duck," came to Cheshire at the very beginning of the nineteenth century; James Kemp died in 1905. For nearly a century father and sons—for James had a brother, who also for a time followed his father's profession—led the way as Cheshire wild-fowlers. Others imitated them with more or less success. but now, in days of easier carriage, professional wild-fowling has vanished from the county.