CLM Spring issue 2018 - Page 16

Duck decoys: stars of the pond landscape
Duck decoys:
stars of the pond landscape
Andrew M. Heaton
View inside a duck decoy. From Payne-Gallwey (1886)
Since the nineteenth century, disturbance, drainage and changing attitudes
have seen a steady decline in active decoys. Three working decoys now remain,
catching birds for ringing. Others form features of scheduled monuments,
parks, country parks and SSSIs. The author sets out the results of a study of
their present condition, revealing that two-thirds of the former decoys, with
their distinctive star shape, still impact on the modern landscape.
It is 130 years since the publication of Sir Ralph
Payne-Gallwey’s definitive work on British duck
decoys. As a means of trapping wild ducks for
local consumption or for markets, decoys were a
significant feature of the rural economy from the
seventeenth to the nineteenth century, with about
200 examples in England and Wales. Ten years
before Payne-Gallwey’s study, Wilkie Collins’s
1876 novel The Two Destinies opened with a scene
detailing the capture of ‘dozens on dozens’ of ducks
in a duck decoy. Collins’s (accurate) description of
the working of the decoy may have been informed
by Daniel Defoe’s narrative in A Tour through the
Whole Island of Great Britain (1727). It says much
that these two literary giants should have taken
such an interest in a device for catching birds,
demonstrating that, as sources of food for country
house or urban market, duck decoys played a
significant part in the rural economy for several
centuries. There has been a steady decline in decoy
numbers since Victorian times, and many decoys
documented by Payne-Gallwey are no longer traceable. Nevertheless, a surprising number still remain
as enigmatic features in the countryside, of both
historical and natural-history interest.
The origins of duck decoys
Permanent structures for trapping wildfowl originated in the Netherlands, probably in the sixteenth
century. A ‘decoy’ consisted of a central pond from
which radiated a number of curved arms covered
in netting, in which the birds would be trapped: a
decoy pond typically displayed a star shape.
162 British Wildlife February 2016
BWM27_3 04 duck decoys.indd 162
29/01/2016 12:55


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