Snipe-Shooting, 1886. A work made of platinum print, pl. x from the album 'life and landscape on the norfolk broads' (1886); edition of 200. Artist Peter Henry Emerson. (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)
Country Notes

Another country

We all need to reconnect with the natural world

It had all gone perfectly. Our alarms went off at 4.20 am, we were on the marsh an hour later drinking sweet coffee in the salty blackness, and by the time light started to seep into the sky, teal were on the wing.

As so often happens, the first opportunity of the morning appeared some 15 yards out and had pitched into a creek just behind us before we managed to get a shot off.

The cock teal sat there whistling in the stillness totally unaware of our presence. It’s those moments that feel as though you’re a stowaway on a ship, hearing and seeing things that most never will that make wildfowling such a rich way of connecting with the world.

Hunting allows us to become part of something. A birdwatcher observes nature where a wildfowler — in part through being a predator — almost becomes nature.

Simon Garnham, who was sitting somewhere up behind me on the mud, is an apple farmer, a former Marine, and an English teacher at the local high school. His family has lived in Essex for hundreds of years. But his Essex is an almost lost land.

It’s a place where the local church organist gladly receives braces of pheasants from parishioners and where men still sit at the bar in local pubs talking about greylag geese and the best loads to shoot them with.

Every time I go to visit Simon, I notice more and more houses being thrown up on fields around his village where lapwings, grey partridges, and hares once thrived.

By six, we could see little flotillas of mallard moving through the water. It was the ripples we noticed first and then their plump bodies gliding along on the rising tide. It’s usually not clear why duck eventually take flight, but they always do, inevitably just at the point when your focus has started to drift. The first three came low down the creek and then towered when they saw us. I was onto the drake by the time they were above me and 36 grammes of steel sent it tumbling into the purslane.

we live in a country where people are chronically disconnected from the natural world

By half eight, we’d shot another three. Simon’s spaniel had picked two of them but had then refused to swim out across the river and Simon was forced to strip off and retrieve them himself. It’s not that I can’t swim but notes generally don’t, so I sat there drinking the last of the coffee as he worked his way, barefoot and in his boxer shorts, through the reeds on the other side.

With the birds in the back of the truck and the young dog curled up asleep, we drove back to Wrabness for breakfast. The plan after that was to head down onto the southern bank of the River Stour to see if any snipe were around. They are the smallest birds on the British quarry list and are shot sparingly before generally being cooked with their innards still intact, which are made into a sauce.

For early November, the morning was warm and above the orchard, a last swallow was cutting circles in the air. As soon as we got beyond the sea wall, we realised it wasn’t going to happen. Two walkers were trudging through the snipe marsh. Simon shrugged. “They are trespassing,” he said resignedly, “but I suppose you can see why they’re here.”

The pair stopped and looked out to sea and we watched them for a while. That evening, as I plucked one of the ducks, I thought about those walkers and I thought about access. In many ways, I’d like to see more of it. Not the wayward dogs and the rubbish and the cars parked across gateways, but I wish that more people were able to go out onto the marsh at dawn to shoot ducks.

I wish more children had the opportunity to butcher deer, then cook the loins in the woods. But we live in a country where people are chronically disconnected from the natural world. To be able to walk the dog is fine, but standing in a field and having a look isn’t going to put things right.

If we want people to be inspired to fight for those grey partridges, those rural Essex pubs, and the teal on the marsh, they need to be able to see and hear and taste.

Give the children air rifles and send them to the woods. Give them fishing rods, make them sandwiches, and send them to the sea.

This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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