A FRIEND of mine is a member of a shooting syndicate.

Each to his own of course, but killing birds is not my personal cup of tea.

That said, I was once a pretty mean shot with a 12-bore, albeit at clays. I even once went out in a gunning punt, because I wanted to know at first-hand what traditional wildfowling was like.

Whether, in this modern-age, we feel it is an acceptable way of going about things or not, it is part of the heritage of the Dengie and of our river.

Fitch says in his 1894 ‘Maldon and the River Blackwater’, “as good as the Blackwater is for fishing, it is even better for shooting, especially wildfowling”.

In the 19th Century stalking birds wasn’t just a “sport”, for some it was a way of life that could put both much-needed food and money on the table.

My own maternal ancestors, the Pitts of Church Street, were certainly involved in it.

Along with the Wrights, Claydons and Handleys, they were great admirers of the exploits of someone they affectionately referred to as “the owd Colonel”.

That would have been Colonel Champion Russell (1820-1887) of Stubbers, North Ockendon – a keen amateur naturalist, enthusiastic wildfowler and friend to the local fishermen-gunners.

Maldon and Burnham Standard:

The Blackwater has long been a favourite with wildfowlers. Photo Jon Yuill

Colonel Russell left few records, but on one occasion, in the winter of 1860, we know that he led a small fleet of 32 punt-gunners and made a record British bag of 704 wild geese killed and gathered in just one simultaneous discharge of punt-guns.

That was off Bradwell and each of the villages along the neighbouring coastline had their own resident gunner – it was Walter Linnett at Bradwell, Sydney Tiffin at Tillingham, the Leavetts at Tollesbury and Mussett and Cook over at Mersea.

Their unofficial biographer was the countryman/author James Wentworth Day (1899-1983) and he first published his groundbreaking book ‘The Modern Fowler’ back in 1934.

It became extremely popular and ran into a number of revised editions – I have a copy of the first (by Longmans), one for 1949 (by Batchworth) and another for 1973 (EP Publishing). To complement that work he also later wrote The Modern Shooter (Herbert Jenkins 1952).

Wentworth Day talks about the exploits of another great sportsman-gunner of his age – Dr John Henry Salter (1841-1932) of Tolleshunt D’Arcy.

In fact, he inherited Dr Salter’s extensive Shooting Record and now, all these years later, I have it in my own collection.

Maldon and Burnham Standard:

Dr Salter’s extensive Shooting Record (top) and James Wentworth Day's books

Dr Salter’s shooting archive is an incredible (albeit quite shocking) social document of its time.

Measuring 14 x 9 inches in landscape and some three inches thick, it has 526 pages, is leather-bound and has a title plate on the front.

The first entry is dated February 7, 1865, and relates to a shoot on the Tollesbury marshes. The record ends some 64 years later, on September 2, 1929.

Each line gives the date, place, who the “guns” were (i.e. whom he shot with – Lord this and Sir that and celebrities of the

age, like the cricketer WG Grace), the species, individual and total “bags”, the names of the gun dogs and detailed explanatory notes.

As terrible as it seems today, during his lifetime Dr Salter shot a combined total of 62,504 head of 104 different varieties.

Ironically enough, he was also the chairman of the Wild Bird Protection League.

However, that might not be as strange as it first appears. You couldn’t get a bigger name in ornithological conservation than that of Sir Peter Markham Scott, CH, CBE, DSC & Bar, FRS, FZS (1909-1989).

Peter Scott, as he was more commonly known, founded the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (at Slimbridge, Gloucestershire) and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Few realise, however, that despite those impressive credentials, he started life as a wildfowler and knew the Dengie and Blackwater well, painting it as well as shooting in its unique landscape setting.

Maldon and Burnham Standard:

Blackwater wildfowler Cliff Claydon (by permission M Emmett)

Wildfowling by punt and punt-gun was not for the faint-hearted. Both Scott and Wentworth-Day had seen war service and saying goodbye to someone off on a weekend shoot has been compared with “the kind of farewell that might have been appropriate for a bomber pilot taking off for Germany - a compound of respect, sympathy and consciousness that we might not meet again”.

Perhaps that was a little OTT, but I can certainly vouch for how cold and uncomfortable it can be, out there on the flats in a narrow, open-decked punt, lying down no more than six inches above the freezing, salty water.

Even though we didn’t shoot at any living thing that day, I was pleased to get back on dry land and enjoy the obligatory “hot flask” of beef consommé and vodka.

Those old Dengie wildfowlers were certainly made of stronger stuff than me!