Father and son Jeremy and Guy Westmoreland share their top tips for improving success at wild fowling. Plus, they identify exactly what kit you need to take along with you.
1. SAFETY COMES FIRST
As with all forms of shooting, safety should be your number one priority. If you are an inexperienced wildfowler, or do not know the marsh you are heading to like the back of your hand, you must go with someone who does. Remember, you will be out there in a tidal zone, an inherently dangerous place, in the dark. You can easily find yourself in the wrong place on an incoming tide and, before you know it, you are stranded with no way of getting back to dry land. And each marsh will be crisscrossed with gulleys and deep channels, so make sure you take a wading stick and check the depth before attempting to cross any body of water. And always tell someone exactly where you are going – these marshes are vast, so if something does go wrong, someone will know where to look for you. And for the same reason, it is advisable to take a fully-charged mobile phone with you.
2. FIELDCRAFT IS KEY
Fieldcraft is crucially important. Not only do you need to know how the marsh will be affected by both the changing tides and weather, but you need to know your quarry and how to identify it in low light conditions. For this reason, knowing their calls is crucial, as is being able to anticipate how each species is likely to react when you stand up to take a shot. Always remain crouched down and out of sight for as long as you possibly can – these are wild, wily birds and you don’t want to scupper a rare opportunity at the last second by giving yourself away when the birds are still out of range.
3. DO YOUR RESEARCH & RECONNAISSANCE
The success of an outing will come down to being in the right place at the right time, so leave as little to chance as possible. Visit the marsh during daylight hours and do your homework beforehand. Decide in advance when and where you are going to go by studying the tide charts and weather forecast, and thinking carefully about how the birds are likely to be affected by the tides and prevailing conditions.
4. DON’T LEAVE THE DOG AT HOME
You will be entirely dependent on your dog(s) to retrieve your birds which will often fall onto ground or water that you will not be able to reach, even in chest waders.
A good wildfowling dog will have a good nose, lots of drive and a strong hunting instinct as it will often have to make long retrieves in low light (hand signals are no use to man nor beast in the dark!). They need to be fit, too, as saltmarshes are harsh, exposed environments that can be bitterly cold and windy. And a dog that is willing to dive for a wounded duck can be a huge asset.
5. LEARN TO JUDGE RANGE
A good wildfowler will be able to accurately judge range, even in low light conditions. This comes with experience, but it is a really important skill as it is very easy to underestimate the range of birds when you have no reference points like hills, trees or telephone poles, particularly with larger species like pink-footed or greylag geese.
THE WILDFOWLER’S KITBAG
Gun: Generally a 12 bore with 3 or 3½" chambers and proofed for steel or other non-lead ammunition. Bear in mind that your gun will get muddy and come into contact with saltwater, so you probably want to leave the Purdey at home
Cartridges: These must be steel or other non-lead alternative such as bismuth or tungsten (you must not have ANY lead ammunition on your possession when you are wildfowling). And bear in mind that you won’t need many cartridges as most wildfowling clubs stipulate a bag limit of 10 birds per person per flight
Binoculars: There is a lot to see on the marsh, so take it all in and savour it
Hide, poles and decoys: Ensure that your hide is of a colour that will blend in
Clothing: Remaining warm and dry will be key to your enjoyment – you will be a long way from any respite from the cold, wind and rain – so thermal underwear, a thick, warm fleece and a good quality waterproof jacket (in a subdued colour) are all must-have items
Flask of tea or coffee
Head torch and mobile phone
Game bag: Remember, you will have to carry your birds back to the car
Gundog gear: a neoprene dog coat will keep your dog warm, and the added buoyancy will help with long swims and retrieves. And remember to keep a supply of fresh water and dog food in the car for afterwards – they’ll have earnt it!