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Anidea prevails in some quarters, that one of the most captivating and healthful of all our winter sports-wild-fowl shooting-has of late years become so meagre as to be scarcely worth an ordinary equipment for following it up. But such is an erroneous impression. The sport is, in some seasons, good as ever; though severe winters have so seldom visited us lately, that there have been fewer opportunities of pursuing the good old sport. It is perfectly true that mild winters are unfavourable to the wild-fowler; and so they always were but there is yet a greater cause for the falling-off in numbers of the wild-fowl species, and which is so palpable as to require neither logic nor argument to support it. We allude to the drainage of swamps and moorlands. These places are the very strongholds and nurseries for wild-fowl; and whilst they remained as nature left them, the numerous and beautiful varieties of water-fowl revelled in the luxuriant feedings of those sequestered spots, which seemed specially planned as the habitations and breeding-haunts of birds whose home, whose resting-place, and whose subsistence are on the waters and the moor. And thus we find that, whilst many thousand acres have been converted from swampy marsh to arabie and meadowland, such advantages have only been attained at an enormous and doubtful expenditure: and, besides, at the sacrifice of one of our most invigorating, useful, and distinguished sports; and the driving from our shores of a variety of the largest, the rarest, and most interesting of the wild feathered tribe. Those who are ignorant of the true relish and excitement of the sport of wild-fowl shooting, and of the interesting study of ornithology, will treat with scorn the man who places such in opposition to the drainage and reclaiming of uncultivated land but let such men think of the mischief incurred to sport, to table luxuries, and to the feathered exiles whom instinct has taught to seek for refuge, home, and nestling on the shores of our favoured island.
For these reasons, it is much to be regretted that the spade and the
draining-pipe have found their way into some of the most favoured and extensive haunts and breeding-grounds of wild-fowl, and thus uprooted for ever the very habitations of the most beautiful and useful of the feathered occupants of the waste.
There are many sportsmen living at the present day, who remember the famous Sedgemoor in its wild and uncultivated state, and who have enjoyed the healthful sport of wild-fowl shooting on that extensive tract, to their hearts' content. Sedgemoor is said to contain more than a hundred thousand acres, and to be upwards of thirty miles in extent. Excellent snipe-shooting may still be had there; and an occasional wild duck may be killed at almost any season of the year. There are also, in severe winters, opportunities at Sedgemoor, even at the present day, of killing large numbers of wild-fowl of different species, as ducks, widgeon, geese, and teal; and, indeed, it is but two years since some sportsmen had as good sport there during the winter as could be desired, and killed a great number of wild ducks and widgeon, but in no proportion to the numbers which were annually killed before the drainage of the moor. It was in those days the sportsman used to sally forth with dog and gun; and at every swamp and bog, where sags or rushes grew, he might be almost certain to spring a duck. It was then as easy to make a bag of wild-fowl on Sedgemoor, as it is at the present day to make a bag of partridges on a well-stocked manor. With favourable weather, a good dog, and steady perseverance, it was the sportsman's fault entirely if he returned without success. But how different now! The man who brings home a pair of wild ducks or teal from a snipe-shooting ramble on this blood-stained moor, is looked upon as a very lucky fellow; so few and far between are the visits of wild-fowl, unless the winter has been so severe as to drive them in large flocks to our shores; and then they become scattered, in small parcels, over every moor throughout the land.
Few but those who have exerted themselves in days gone by, and who have walked the moors at favourable seasons, can tell the true enjoyment of this exquisite sport: no partridge or pheasantshooting can equal it, nor even the glowing excitement of a good day's woodcock-shooting can excel it. But the days are past when a good bag of wild-fowl can be made up on the moor by means of the shoulder-gun; and it is only on the sea-coast, with a punt or a yacht, and swivel-gun, that large numbers of wild-fowl can now be killed. It is, therefore, the more seriously to be regretted that the strongholds and breeding-haunts of these useful species should be destroyed, and thus deprive the English sportsman of one of the most desirable pursuits that can be followed with dog and gun.
There are many other moors and fens which have shared the same fate as Sedgemoor, amongst which may be mentioned the celebrated Norfolk broads, once so famous for decoys and wild-fowl nurseries; but which are now so greedily drained, that most of the nurseries and decoys are almost entirely destroyed. The extensive fens of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, and parts of other counties, where water-fowl were annually bred and reared, are also now in course of cultivation; and a wild duck's nest, in those parts, has become quite an object of curiosity.
But, notwithstanding the heavy blows which have thus been struck at our sport, by the Norfolk agriculturist; our own travels and experience tell us that there are yet remaining in that same county a few of the fairest and best retreats for water-fowl that can be found in the land: thongh many are but vestiges of what they were; and are used by the waterbirds in no proportion to the days of "auld lang syne." The persecuted victims to the mighty improvements and extension of agriculture are now wary of their haunts, and hover suspiciously in the air over places where in former days a glance sufficed to satisfy them all was right and serenely safe from interruption. A wild duck now, never rests its foot within the precincts of the Broads or the Moors, without first making a careful reconnoitre of the surrounding country.
Of all counties on the eastern coast which have been more or less drained, in order to reclaim swamps and moorland for agricultural purposes, Essex has suffered least; and as far as regards its marshes and other wild-fowl haunts, they remain nearly as nature left them; and what with its numerous tributaries from the sea, its singularly advan❤ tageous position on the eastern coast, and other peculiarities, Essex, conjointly with Norfolk, may now be fairly considered the best counties on the coast for wild-fowl shooting; and we believe there are among the Essex and Norfolk sportsmen some of the best puntmen that can be found, and some of the keenest wild-fowl shots.
An easterly wind, in season, never fails to bring numbers of wild-fowl from the Netherlands to the Essex and Norfolk shores, rather than Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, and Yorkshire, which in former days were considered best, and as offering the fairest sport to the wild-fowler of any in the land. The Norfolk pools, however, have always been a highly favourite retreat of water-birds. They were so extensive before being drained, and were so wild and unapproachable, except in boats, that wild-fowl of every denomination bred there annually in thousands ; and when the decoys were strictly kept up, the quiet and repose offered to wild-fowl by those means, made the country for miles around a complete preserve.
But those are days which can only be looked back on by the English Sportsman with regret, for never now can so extensive a space of wild country-composed as it was of lakes, islands, swamps, bogs, and marshes-be made a nursery for wild-fowl and if it were attempted, art and ingenuity could not form so wild and complete a place for the purpose as nature had made the Norfolk broads, where everything favoured the aquatic visitants, and nothing seemed opposed to them. These pools were very shallow, weeds and grasses flourished luxuriantly at the bottoms, and were more immediately within reach of those for whom they seemed purposely to have been planted.
And it is not here that the extent of the mischief rests. In addition to injury to the sport of wild-fowl shooting, there is also another sport scarcely inferior, and which has much occupied the attention of many a good shot-we allude to the fen-birds, such as plovers, godwits, snipes, sandpipers, oxbirds, and other beautiful varieties, which afford excellent sport to the ardent sportsman. These, and all their species, were formerly very abundant on the moors and broads before mentioned; and though there is yet every year, whether a mild or severe winter, a goodly sprinkling of many of these birds, still in no proportion to the numbers
which used to frequent these places before the drainage and cultivation of lands, which were formerly their breeding-grounds and feeding-haunts. Still we are happy to be able to bear testimony to the fact, that there are yet many places about the coast, and more especially the eastern coast, where very excellent sport may be had at any time during winter, by any indefatigable sportsman who may delight in either wild-fowl or fen-bird shooting. And we allude more particularly to the various fens and marshes which have remained free from the mischief of the agricultural spoilers in Essex, Norfolk, and parts of Lincolnshire.
But to have done pleading the cause of the sportsman and his gods, it may be amusing to my readers if I add another tale to those already told of my adventures: it is one which occurred in one of the counties alluded to; and bearing as it does upon this peculiar branch of sport, I shall not, I trust, be condemned for concluding this article with the most interesting facts connected with it :—
It is but a few years since that I met with a singular adventure, and made a very successful day's sport; and as it was a very unusual occurrence, and one full of excitement to me, I make no further apology for laying the facts attending it briefly before my readers. One morning during the early part of December I found there were a vast number of both grey and golden plovers about the marshes; and having always been fond of plover shooting, I immediately prepared myself for the sport by filling my shot pouch with No. 7 shot, and providing other necessary equipments, and sallied forth with my good old dog Sambo. I met with what I considered very fair success, and bagged four brace of plovers, a godwit, and two couple of snipes. I was returning home at about four o'clock in the afternoon, when, passing through a small copse bordering upon an extensive bay, portion of a fine river, the bay comprising many hundred acres of ooze, I encountered an awkward and difficult bank abutting on a wide and deep ditch of water, over both of which I was desirous of passing, in order to save myself a circuit of a mile. When on the top of the bank, some earth suddenly gave way and precipitated me headlong into the ditch of water below. This ditch, I should observe, lay in a straight line with the bay alluded to, and into which it emptied itself. Whilst sprawling in the ditch-which was considerably more than knee-deep with water, besides several inches of soft mud-I heard something directly in front of me, plunging in the water in a rather unusual manner. I looked, but could see nothing, though there were the usual signs of something having just made an exit from the surface and vanished under water. I kept my eye fixed on the spot, thinking a water-rat or some other amphibious animal would make its appearance near the spot: though I confess I thought the noise too great and the disturbance to the water too much for so small an animal as a rat, and so prepared myself for a snap shot; for notwithstanding my headlong tumble, I had with some difficulty contrived to keep my gun above water. In a few moments, some sixty yards lower down the ditch, something made its appearance above water an instant, and then immediately dived again. I thought I could not be mistaken in supposing it the head of an otter I had caught a glimpse at. I scrambled up the bank, and, through copse and thicket, made the best of my way in the direction taken by the supposed ctter; and, after many and severe scratches, I again approached the ditch
about a hundred yards below the spot where I had measured my length. As good luck would have it, I managed to hit upon the right place; for, just as I peered over the ditch, there was, unmistakably, a very fine otter staring me full in the face, but only for a moment, for on seeing me he instantly disappeared beneath the surface. I was within five yards of the animal, and, of course, disdained to shoot the poor brute at so close a distance. I followed him up, but with the greatest difficulty, so thorny was my path. Whilst pursuing the otter through every obstruction, it occurred to me as a very unsportsmanlike proceeding to shoot an otter under such circumstances, when it would probably afford a splendid hunt with a few dogs on another day. I therefore determined not to fire, should he present ever so fair a shot; and on again approaching the ditch, the animal was nowhere to be seen. But, ye gods! what a sight for a wild-fowl shooter met my eyes! There, in a line with the mouth of the ditch, were a party of some three or four score of wild ducks, unsuspectingly busy at feed in the bay, about fifty yards from the shore. I stood looking at them with delightful surprise. It would have been the easiest possible thing to have crept down within the copse to within thirty yards of the nearest of the party; but I had nothing larger than No. 7 shot, which were almost useless for wild duck shooting. Still, I knew I could make pretty certain of killing a pair with my two barrels, by taking them under the wing directly they rose from the ground; but what of a pair out of such a beautiful flock? I paused-and a great many reflections ran through my mind. There was not time to go home and fetch larger shot-it would have been dark ere I could return; and, besides, the hour of flight was rapidly approaching, when they would probably leave the spot for inland marshes: but I remembered the wild duck generally returns to the same spot next day, if undisturbed, and it is probable I may find these birds here to-morrow. Something seemed to suggest that "delays are dangerous, ," "no time like the present," and so on; still I did not at all approve disturbing the flock with a couple of ounces of "No. 7." But there was another not improbable event which suggested itself to me: if they be not disturbed, probably they may remain there all night and if so, what a glorious chance with my punt and gun, and the time of tide favourable, it being just flowing over the ooze. At all events, I determined on keeping my "No. 7" in the barrel, and resisting every temptation either at the otter or the ducks; and accordingly made the best of my way home, deposited the contents of my pockets, and without saying a word to any one, beyond giving directions for feeding my dog, wet as I was, I proceeded directly to a small shed on the beach, where my punt and gun were kept. After some half-hour's delay, everything was in readiness-my punt launched, gun shipped, ammunition box and accoutrements deposited in their proper places in the punt; and so equipped, I embarked. It was then nearly six o'clock, and I had upwards of two miles to row down the river before arriving at my destination in the bay; another half-hour had therefore elapsed before I found myself near the spot where I had seen the ducks. The night was dark and cloudy, but there was a new moon which threw a little light upon the water, though not so much as could be desired; and I found, that if I should be fortunate enough to fall in with the objects of my pursuit, I should have to shoot by sound and guess, as it was impossible to see the