George Bird's Photo's and Observations of
Another means of taking duck and extensively in use on large estates up to about 50 years ago, was the decoy, not so favoured by the sportsman, who said the large quantities taken reduce the numbers to such an extent there would be none left, but looking back at the quantities that were then taken, and the greatly reduced numbers that come over now, one can only come to the conclusion the real reason is that many of the old haunts have been drained, clearing of the woods and hedges, and general breaking up of our once undisturbed countryside. Duck come in to rest in quiet places near water during day time, and flight in the evening to feed, these places are now very scarce, for even if a pool and swamp may be in itself snugly out of the way, the birds to reach it would have to pass over population and dangerous country.
To give some idea of the working of a Decoy, and a few records of the kills, it may be said that they were first recorded in the Reign of James 1st and that in 1886 although many had ceased to exist there were 47 still in use. Today there are not more than three or four, and after much inquiring, I know of only one where the keeper is fully employed, and one other that is still occasionally used. In 1799 10,000 head of Wigeon, Teal, and Common Duck were caught in one season in a decoy in Essex by a Clergyman.
In another decoy in Lincolnshire 2,300 were taken in one month, and in a record for the same decoy over a period of 35 seasons the extraordinary number of 95,836 birds, consisting of 48,664 Common Wild Duck, 44,568 Teal, 2,019 Wigeon, 285 Shoveler, 278 Pintail and 22 Gadwall. George Skelton in 1819 took in a decoy in Huntingdonshire 2,400 Duck in seven days. It was this George Skelton who illustrated the advantage of the small decoy of 2 acres, where as earlier large pieces of water of 50 or even 100 acres were regarded as necessary, he was laughed at, but at the end of his first season he had confirmed his theory in the above result, and after that he was in great demand wherever suitable small lakes could be used in erecting those decoys, and he is still regarded as the greatest authority, a name which will be handed down so long as Ducks and Decoys are written about.
Thomas Gilbert Skelton, a grandson, was responsible for the reconstruction of several decoys in Suffolk and Essex. The Marsh House Tillingham Decoy, and Mersey Island Decoy both in Essex, Lakenheath Decoy, Iken Decoy, Brook Hall Decoy, and Nacton Decoy, all of them I have been to. With the exception of Nacton, all are derelict and grown up. I could mention many others in the County that were in existence, one at Benacre and one at Ash Abbey that has one pipe still useable, or was a few years ago. The decoy at Nacton was 50 years ago considered by far the most elaborately laid out in England and very spick and span, which may still be said of it today under the care of Mr. Thomas Baker who succeeded George Skelton, a Great Great Grandson of old George, there having been two generations of the Skelton descendants of old George Skelton, the last one L. Skelton having taken Baker when a lad so that today, it may reasonably be said, Mr Thomas Baker is the greatest living authority on the once great art of taking Duck in decoys. I have spent many pleasurable and instructive days with Mr. and Mrs. Baker and family, both in Spring and Summer and also during the Winter. The Decoy "two ponds" lie in a short deep valley, and the second one is the Decoy, surrounded by a belt of woodland which slopes down to the ponds and in Spring time what a sight for the naturalist? Bluebells carpet the woodland and primroses cover the carpet of fine lawn like grass surrounding the ponds. Wood violets on the banks, beautiful Rhododendron line the walks, Nightingales seem to be singing from every bush, the Blackcap, Garden-warbler, Willow-wren, Reed and Sedge-warbler, Pigeon, Turtle-dove and a score of other nesting birds, a perfect paradise.
The Decoyman's cottage lies snugly and yet almost princely on the south side just removed from the ponds. On approaching the Decoy one notice on the left two shallow ponds surrounded by wire netting with over hanging shrubbery, these are fed by over-flow from the decoy and here are put in semi-confinement any rare birds caught in the decoy, they are first pinioned and soon become tame. A little further on the right is the keepers larder lined round with shelves where he places his kill. It can hold 1,000 birds. A few yards from this is the first pond of about 3 acres, on one side of which is a boat house. Short lawn like grass comes down to the waters edge with here and there majestic Copper Beeches hanging over the water where during the Spring and Summer, Tufted Duck, Shoveler, Pintail etc may be seen with Mallard, these are all pinioned birds. We now get the first view of portions of the Decoy and by walking up a gentle rise or bank at the back of which is a submerged path, which goes quite round the decoy pond to enable the operator to do this without the occupants of the pond having the least suspicion, there are four pipes and near each placed on the high ground is a rustic hut where the whole Decoy pond may be seen and the process of taking the Duck observed without being discovered.
I have stood in one of these look-outs in all seasons of the year and never a dull moment, only regret at coming away. I have watched from here the courtship of the Mallard, always a pleasing sight to see the Drake chasing the Duck, wheeling and turning skimming the water and then alighting with a splash continuing his advances, Teal and Wigeon are more secretive. The Shoveler somewhat resemble the Common Duck, nests of both can always be seen in the undergrowth in the coppice. The Pinioned Tufted occasionally nest in rushes near the water.
I have stood in the look-out and watched the Kingfisher flit across the water like a radiant streak of the rainbow to his nest in the far side bank, his clear call - "Tiptee" most distinct from all others, always taking the same route backwards and forwards. It was at their nest I had my hide ready and was proceeding there one afternoon when I heard my name called from across the larger pond, and making for the spot I saw the Hon. Mrs. Pretyman with rod and line then casting for a trout, Baker with net and spear standing beside her on the velvety grass, primroses everywhere and bluebells, the trees a delightful picture in the sunlight. Her Ladyship asked what I intended to photograph and wished me good luck . Returning the compliment, I made my way to the hide where luck favoured me, and I came back before a fish had been caught much to the surprise of her Ladyship, who was greatly interested to hear of my success and the report I gave of the gorgeous little creature coming each time with a fish to feed its family and then coming out of the nesting hole backwards, a most ungainly manner I said for a King? At my suggestion she came to the hide and was delighted with the experience; which reminds me a question asked when I was lecturing to the students at Trinity College, Cambridge. On one occasion, after the lecture, questions asked by the students, one of them asked if "it was easier for a Bird to photograph a Bird" as he had tried on several occasions without success.
I have been in the look-out in winter during a gale, and also when ice and snow covered everything, a trying time for Baker, as ice has to be kept free from the pipes and done when the birds are out, - between nightfall and daybreak, by taking a boat through the waters, breaking the ice everywhere, then feed with light grain which float round the entrance to the pipes, the tame duck will then keep new ice from forming, hunting for food.
I have stood at the look-out as dawn was breaking, when there were only a few tame duck to be seen, and watched the flight come in, and in a short time some 3,000 or 4,000 birds were on the water. It is a most thrilling sight indeed, and to hear the whistling as they cut through the wind with tremendous velocity to a few feet above the water, straighten out, and come to rest with grace and ease. There is much I should like to add about this charming place, one of the days fishing, and eel pritching - when no fairy tales need to be told of the catches, and many other never to be forgotten instances, but space will not allow.
But there is one special word of thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Baker for the valuable help they so often have rendered, for Mr. Baker would often find a nest and start putting up a hide in my absence.
Nacton decoy And Tom Baker
I will now try to explain the working of the Decoy. Looking from one of the huts, one sees a sheet of clear water of about 2 acres surrounded by woodland, some of the Copper Beeches, sending their slender outside branches over the water. A wide lawn like grass glade goes to the waters-edge, and a reed fence surrounded the ponds, placed about 2ft from the water. This allows the duck to come out on to the grass verge, browse in safety, and seclusion. There are four openings in the fence at the points of the compass and these at first appear to be dykes, they are however the pipes. The largest pipe is 70 yards long, the others about 65 yards, otherwise they are exactly alike. They are 22ft wide at the mouth and all have a pronounced bend. Strong iron hoops 20ft high at the arch gradually reducing, covered with strong string netting, the water is about 18 inches deep and gradually gets shallower to 2 or3 inches as it gets to the narrow end which is about 2ft wide. Here the tunnel net is fastened on, and the far end tied to a stake, (this has wooden loops and string netting, when the ducks flutter into the tunnel-net which hold 20 or 30 birds it is taken off and the birds quickly dispatched). Reed screens run about three quarters of the length of the pipe, these overlap each other with low ones between the ends of each for the dog to jump over, and where the decoyman shows himself.
It is generally October before many ducks are taken and the following gives an explanation of how it is done. (There is no shooting near the Decoy until they have finished the Decoy work).
When the grey of dawn begins to light up the water the duck return to come in for the day, the greater proportion having been away for the night feeding in streams, pools and boggy places, often a long distance from the Decoy. If the night has been dark and they are not satisfied, they feed for some time after they arrive; then preen themselves and settle down to rest, many on the grass bank already mentioned , others on the water.
After a moonlight night having fed well they settle down sooner so the decoyman tries them about 11 0'clock in the morning, and again at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. These are considered the best times. He proceeds to the decoy with his dog and often with a helper, he peeps through the screen near the entrance. This is done by slipping a wooden peg "flat and about 2 inches wide" through the reeds twisted round when a good view is obtained. If there are plenty of fowls about the pipe which the wind favours, he gives a gentle whistle, which at once attract his tame ducks for it is the call always used at feeding time, and they at once swim to the pipe. He throws corn, crushed oats, barley, or hempseed, this floats on top and the birds start eating. The Wild Duck generally are attracted and swim to participate in the food things, he moves further up and throws more and then goes deeper into the pipe, but if they will not proceed further he brings his dog into play, and it is sent over the low screen which is between the high ones. This seldom fails, for directly the dog appears every head is stretched forward, and they swim, again the dog goes over, and on the ducks follow, till the decoyman peeping through sees they are well up, he then goes back, for by now the fowl are generally suspicious and often starting to swim back. Now is the time for him to show himself and wave his hand or hat. The sight of the man to the ducks act like magic, away they fly and dash up the pipes thinking round the bend is safety. The Decoyman follows showing himself where the screens overlap, for he is not visible to the other ducks on the water. The birds get more and more confused, dashing against the side and tops, but going onward all the while, the pipes get narrower and smaller, and they get more mixed up and alarmed. At last, into the tunnel net they crowd; the decoyman now hastens to untie the net and playing the end between his knees extracts ducks, giving the ducks a sharp twist break their necks - a really painless death. It is really surprising how quickly an expert at the work can kill a great number of ducks, so that within a few minutes of entering the pipe, they are lying dead on the ground and the other duck on the water, none the wiser. In fact, in a short time another lot may share the same fate for as long as there are ducks on the water, they will go in and take after take takes place, while the tame ducks are still eating the food thrown to them, unalarmed.
The average take for a season is between 3,000 and 5,000 birds, Mallard, Wigeon, Teal and a few Tufted and Pintail.
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