The 14 square miles of Poole Harbour, with its relatively small harbour mouth, is an area of outstanding beauty but also one of contrasts and extremes. To the north of the Harbour lies the town of Poole with its docks and ferry terminals and with a population in excess of 130,000, while to the south-east the peninsula of Sandbanks at the Harbour entrance, is home to some of the world’s most expensive real estate.
It is not, the stranger might suppose, a wildfowling Mecca. A false assumption for it is to the west and south of Poole Harbour that the Dorset wildfowlers turn to for thei quite remarkable sport. Here is to be found expanses of spartina saltmarsh and phragmites reed-beds, backed by lowland heath, virtually unchanged, save for the occasional farm, forestry block and oil installation, since the days of Thomas Hardy’s novels.
Due to the narrow harbour mouth and the influence of the nearby Isle of Wight, the Harbour experiences some of the most complex tides in the world. Between each low water, there are two high tides, with a smaller “false” ebb between them. However, water movement is relatively small with an average 2-2.5m rise and fall on spring tides. Apart from the main dredged channel, most of the water is less than a metre in depth, with much of the area drying out at low tide to reveal extensive, but extremely sticky mudflats.
There are a number of islands in Poole Harbour, the largest of which, Brownsea Island, is owned by the National Trust, while its nearest neighbour, Furzey, is part of Wytch Farm, the UK’s largest oil extraction facility. Some of the smaller islands have changed hands recently for millions of pounds, and one of the smallest, Giggers island at four acres, was acquired by the DWA several years ago, but for a very modest sum!
Today, the DWA controls the wildfowling on some 38km of Crown Estate foreshore around the uninhabited south and west shores of the Harbour. The area is heavily protected, being designated a Grade 1 site in the Nature Conservation Review; a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI); Special Protection Area (SPA) and Ramsar (wetland of international important) Site.
Today, teal and wigeon are the wildfowlers’ main quarry, supplemented by mallard and pintail, while increasing numbers of gadwall and shoveller are also being seen. Significant numbers of goldeneye are present, but they seldom venture near the marsh, preferring open water in the main channels, while pochard and tufted only occasionally feature in the Club’s annual returns. Canada geese were introduced into the area in the early 1950s and have proved a worthy quarry, though they seem to have developed a sixth sense to help them avoid ‘fowlers in ambush, as too have the steadily increasing population of feral greylags, not one of which has yet been shot!
The DWA is perhaps unique amongst ‘fowling clubs in having no direct entry to its ‘fowling marshes and access is only by boat. Due in part to the nature of the adjoining land, it is also a deliberate Club policy to ensure that the available shooting is evenly distributed and not concentrated around a limited number of access points. As a result, planning every trip is a major logistical exercise!
Tides have to be carefully considered to ensure there is sufficient water to access the chosen marsh, while slipways for launching boats are all located on the northern shore. Shooting a morning flight may require a journey across the Harbour in the dark and it is often necessary to arrive at a chosen spot several hours before dawn in order to reach the marsh before the tide goes out.
The best type of boat for ‘fowling in the Harbour is the subject of considerable debate within the Club. Traditionally, a flat-bottomed Poole canoe would be used to approach the marsh and then to be anchored in deep water, with the final approach made in a small punt or dinghy which could then be used as a floating hide and this method still finds favour with many members. Others prefer dory or flat-bottomed jon boats to access the marsh directly, with the boat then used as a floating platform. However, traditionalists point to the difficulty of hiding the larger craft and their limitations in very shallow water or on mud, where a small punt can be easily manoeuvred.
The size of the Harbour and the shallow water mean that conditions in a strong wind or gale can be as bad as the open sea and, as a result, ‘fowling under what may appear to be ideal conditions is denied to all but the most experienced boatmen . . . or the most foolhardy!
A progressive wildfowling club, which offers some of the finest wildfowling in the country, the DWA welcomes new members, with the proviso that this is real wildfowling, demanding dedication and effort but with the benefit of real and exciting sport.
However, there are few shooting experiences that can equal the solitude of the marsh or to witness the arrival of a new dawn and the bird activity that ensues. The excitement of a snap-shot at a bunch of teal tearing through the channels and gutters, or the approach of wigeon on set wings to a spread of decoys and a well blown call encapsulates the very essence of wildfowling. Every bird shot on the foreshore is hard won and the additional demands of ‘fowling in Poole Harbour only increases the sense of satisfaction with each successful trip. Col Peter Hawker would be proud to know that the traditions he established are still being borne out by the members of the Dorset Wildfowlers Association.
Some 65 years ago, in 1952, the Dorset Wildfowlers’ Association (DWA) was established to protect and promote the outstanding wildfowling to be found in Poole Harbour, Dorset. This, the second largest natural harbour in the world (after Sydney Harbour) has enjoyed a long history of wildfowling, stemming back to the early years of the 19th century when Col Peter Hawker, the father of wildfowling, spent long dawns and days punting after the vast flocks of wigeon and geese which haunted the shallow waters and sandbanks.