CLM Spring issue 2018 - Page 17

Duck decoys: stars of the pond landscape
The first decoy in England was probably one
built at Waxham, in Norfolk, around 1620, by
Sir William Woodhouse (Kear 1990). Other
early decoys are found at Acle and Hemsby, in
Norfolk, and Sharpham, Westbury and Stoke, in
Somerset. The best-documented early decoy is that
completed at St James’s Park, London, in 1665 for
King Charles II. A Dutchman, Sydrach Hilcus, was
brought over to construct the decoy; accounts and
details of materials used are still in existence.
South Lincolnshire became the first stronghold
of decoy construction (Roebuck 1934). As the
success of decoys became apparent, they spread
across the country, especially in extensive wetland
areas of East Anglia and Somerset. The heyday of
decoys was the early eighteenth to mid-nineteenth
centuries, when they were catching wildfowl
in huge numbers, many being sent to London
markets – 200,000 birds each season (Cocker &
Mabey 2005).
Much of our knowledge of decoys comes
from Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey’s comprehensive
The Book of Duck Decoys, their construction,
management and history, published in 1886.
Payne-Gallwey realised that the use of decoys was
a dying practice and he determined to document
the structures and working of decoys across the
British Isles. He listed 188 decoys in England, five
in Wales and 22 in Ireland. There has apparently
never been a working decoy in Scotland.
Payne-Gallwey’s published list was not totally
comprehensive. He failed to document some
notable decoys, including those at Porlock,
Doncaster and Stoneleigh. Payne-Gallwey himself
realised this: his own copy of The Book of Duck
Decoys, held by the Harrison Zoological Museum,
in Sevenoaks, is annotated with the author’s
handwritten notes detailing an additional dozen
sites, including Onslow, in Shropshire, where he
noted ‘I superintended the formation of a Decoy
Pipe here in 1889. It is the best made decoy pipe
in England.’ Recent research has increased the
number of known decoy sites significantly: Shrubb
(2013) lists additional sites.
At the time when Payne-Gallwey was writing,
only 44 of his England and Wales total of nearly
200 were still working, the majority having fallen
into disuse even then. Late decoys were constructed
in 1885 – the triangular decoy at Aldwincle,
in Northamptonshire, and that built by Payne-
Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey (inset), author of The
Book of Duck Decoys (1886), and his own decoy
at Thirkleby Park, North Yorkshire, which is now a
fishing pond in a caravan site. The plaque gives the
date of construction (1885). Andrew Heaton
Gallwey himself at his Thirkleby Park estate, near
Thirsk – while Onslow was completed in 1890.
Payne-Gallwey’s notes refer also to a ‘fine new
trap decoy’ built at Solway Moss, Cumberland,
and possibly both the last and the northernmost
decoy in Britain. By this time, the era of the decoy
was over and a steady decline in their use followed.
The structure of a duck decoy
Decoy designs varied. Some were built on the
edges of large lakes, others were adaptations of
existing ponds, while many were newly constructed.
Essentially, though, all consisted of a central area
of open water on which ducks would land, and a
number of netted arms (or ‘pipes’) leading off it
where the birds would be enticed and trapped. Pipes
generally numbered from two to eight (although
Fritton Lake decoy had at least 21), leading from
the central pond in different directions, so as to be
usable under different wind conditions.
The majority of decoys were built around a
central pond of 1–2 acres (0.5–1ha) in extent, with
a depth of 2–3 feet (0.6–0.9m), shelving towards
February 2016 British Wildlife 163
BWM27_3 04 duck decoys.indd 163
29/01/2016 12:55


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