CLM Spring issue 2018 - Page 21

Duck decoys: stars of the pond landscape
where four pipes were added to an artificial lake
in 1868 (Lockley 1977; Stott and Mitchell 1991;
Saunders 2008). The fourth pipe was constructed
under the direction of Herbert Williams, one of
the extensive Williams family of Borough Fen who
took their decoy expertise around the country.
There was a history of decoy families promoting
the practice widely – the Skeltons of Friskney were
another such family – working not on the estate
staff, but essentially self-employed.
Decoys in decline
By the mid-nineteenth century, working decoys
had declined drastically as unproductive ones
were abandoned. This was due mainly to widespread drainage of wetlands brought about by
the numerous Drainage Acts: there was no longer
the extent of habitat to attract wintering wildfowl
from the Continent, and numbers of British
breeding ducks had also fallen.
Disturbance, too, played a part. The increasing
availability and efficiency of firearms, especially
with widespread availability of breech-loading
pieces in the nineteenth century, meant that
shooting was competing with and directly affecting
decoys. The two decoys at Berkeley, in Gloucestershire, were said to have been ruined by operation
of the Ground Game Act 1880, constant shooting
scaring the wildfowl away.
Developments (often railways) close to decoys
brought about the demise of others. The owner of
two Monmouthshire decoys, at Wilcrick and Nash,
was paid £500 compensation when the South Wales
Railway (later a part of the GWR) was constructed
within half a mile of each. It was the Great Eastern
Railway which put paid to the Suffolk sites of
Brantham and Lakenheath, while the South Coast
Railway cut through the Tangmere Decoy, in Sussex.
Coatham Decoy, on Tees-side, was also affected by
a railway, and was finally closed by construction
of nearby ironworks. Doncaster Decoy, abandoned
in about 1778, was later obliterated by extensive
railway sidings, and is commemorated by the
naming of ‘Decoy Marsh’ in Potteric Carr nature
reserve. Lincolnshire’s Fleet Decoy was destroyed
by the cutting of the South Holland Drain in 1793.
By the time of his survey, Joseph Whitaker, a
naturalist from Rainworth, in Nottinghamshire, in
undertaking a follow-up to Payne-Gallwey’s work,
was able to report only 21 decoys in use (Whitaker
1918). The decline continued through the twentieth
century, and by 1936 just 11 remained working.
The last decoy in commercial use was at Nacton
(Orwell Park), in Suffolk. This operated very
successfully (e.g. catching 9,303 birds in 1925–26)
from 1830 to 1968, when the Wildfowl Trust
took on a lease to catch birds for ringing, which
continued until 1982 (Matthews 1969; Day 1981).
This change from catching ducks for food to
ringing and releasing them occurred in all the
remaining working decoys in the latter half of the
twentieth century. The first decoy to go this way
was Orielton (Saunders 2008): from refurbishment in 1934 until 1960, 11,000 ducks were
ringed, providing some of the earliest insights into
wildfowl migration. Ringing followed at Nacton
and the other remaining decoys, peaking at over
8,000 birds ringed at six decoys in 1967, a significant contribution to migration and demographic
studies of waterfowl.
The decoys today
An assessment of the fate of decoys, undertaken
by the author in 2014–15, utilising Ordnance
Survey maps, satellite imagery, Historic Environment Records (HER) data and other sources of
information on specific decoys, gave the following
results. Of the 193 decoys that Payne-Gallwey
identified in England and Wales, about one third
(61) appeared to have left no visible remains in the
countryside today. The remaining two-thirds were
still identifiable from their impact on the current
landscape (note: totals are inflated, as one site can
show several features):
• 16 sites (8% of the original total) showed up only
as cropmarks;
• 28 decoys were represented by earthworks (this
is a minimum figure);
• defined relict habitats (ponds, lakes, wet
woodland, marsh) were identifiable in 148
instances, 76 surviving as ponds and 54 as wet
woodland on the site of the former open water;
• six decoys were in working order, even if not
being operated regularly.
Of the original total, at least 42 still had
pipes visible, while 14 sites had other structures
surviving (hoops in a surprising 11 sites, huts and
edging stones).
February 2016 British Wildlife 167
BWM27_3 04 duck decoys.indd 167
29/01/2016 12:55


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