Blast from the past

The name of Snowden Slights will live forever as the greatest of Yorkshire's wildfowlers. Roger Ratcliffe goes in search of the legend.

A chevron of grey-lag geese flies across the gunmetal sky and appears to put on extra speed as it passes the village churchyard where Snowden Slights is buried. The single mallard carved on his gravestone also seems in a hurry, as if frantically escaping from the man who slaughtered thousands of wildfowl along the nearby Derwent.

Those who come to this almost table-flat farming area of Yorkshire to find out about Snowden Slights always end up here, at the tiny St Mary's Church in East Cottingwith. Fittingly, his grave is the nearest one to the Ings – a dozen miles of riverside hay meadows that flood like fenland each winter, becoming a magnet for ducks, geese and wild swans, and where his huge armoury boomed for more than half a century.

Some visitors also seek out his simple red-brick cottage standing alone beside the Ings. It has been modernised and extended but still has the long narrow garden where he was photographed in 1912, a year or so before his death at the age of 83.

In some years Snowden Slights's entire annual income had amounted to what it now costs to order a serving of wild duck at a good restaurant, yet his name has long outlived those of the rich baronets and gentleman farmers who were the local nobility. The reason for his fame – the reason people still come in search of the legend – is the sheer scale of his butchering.

Prior to the very first Wild Bird Protection Act of 1880 there were few restrictions on what could be shot, and old Snowden found that everything could earn him a few pennies on the markets at Leeds and York. He shot bitterns, dippers, kingfishers, fieldfares, skylarks, and even rare spotted crakes, and sold them to taxidermists, stuffed birds being popular ornaments in Victorian times, but these provided but small bonuses. His main quarry was the many thousands of wildfowl that fed on the Ings each winter, and he would leave home in his punt at dusk and return in the cold grey morning with the boat laden from keel to gunwhale with dead birds.

His records are incomplete but between 1890 and 1907, from his punt alone he shot 5,355 birds. Incredibly, on one occasion he managed to kill 44 ducks – 24 of them mallard and the rest wigeon – with a single blast of lead shot. Another feat was the bagging of 18 snipe – one of the most difficult quarries of all – with consecutive shots.

You can understand why he was such a prolific killer when you see photographs of the great artillery he deployed against the wildfowl of Derwent Ings. He had a collection of 28 guns, many of them huge by normal standards and kicking like a mule when fired. The giant in his armoury was a 10ft-long muzzle loader weighing 140lb, which threw out 18 ounces of lead shot each time he pulled the trigger.

The heaviest guns were mounted horizontally in his 17ft-long punt, specially designed for shooting in the flooded fields. Its draft was only four inches, enabling Slights to follow ducks and geese into the shallowest water. He would lie flat on his stomach, as did his gundog – made deaf by countless fusillades – and stealthily propel the punt using two slender shafts of wood known as "creeping sticks" until he found ducks and geese feeding at ground or water-level.

Part of the legend of Snowden Slights are the stories of his hardships. After one day's shooting his clothes were frozen onto him and he sat in front of his fire until he had thawed. Even worse, he fell into the water on one particularly hard January day, a story told by his biographer Sydney H. Smith in Snowden Slights, Wildfowler.

"On seeing (a little bunch of) pochard he took the gun up onto the bank and the recoil sent him tumbling backwards into the icy waters of the Derwent, causing a huge splash as he disappeared into the depths of five or six feet. Hastily scrambling out he got into the punt and, wringing wet, went to retrieve his birds in rapidly freezing garments.

"At once he made for home two miles away, how he arrived he does not remember. He could not speak and his hard-frozen clothes had to be cut off by his friends. Thanks to an iron constitution he was the next day able to follow his calling."

Slights always rejected the description of sportsman and preferred the term "market fowler" because shooting was his main source of income, which it continued to be until a year or so before his death, although it had always provided meagre wages. To save on the cost of carriage to get his ducks and geese to market he tramped into Pocklington sometimes twice a week, a distance of nine miles each way. It was on one such visit that he had met his future wife. Slights had started his working life as a basketmaker, but a freak flood had destroyed the carefully kept beds of osiers which provided his supply of willows for peeling and weaving. He then turned to fowling to make a living, making baskets only in the six months a year when wildfowling was off-limits.

Today, some locals still claim to have his baskets. His cottage is now occupied by a couple of retired teachers, Dave and Judi Griffith, who keep his spirit alive with photographs on the wall and make sure that his grave is kept clean at the village churchyard. Outside their front door is an engraved mallard cut from a tracing of the one looking so desperate to escape from Slights's gravestone.

The duck, geese and swans that pass overhead in winter no longer meet a blizzard of lead shot, for Snowden Slights's old killing fields are now protected havens for wildfowl. Much of the land is part of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's Wheldrake Ings nature reserve.

An account of Slights's death is available in the obituary that his biographer Sydney Smith wrote for the Thirsk and District News, under the heading: "At 7.30pm on Saturday evening, April 5th last, the 'Last of the Yorkshire Wildfowlers', joined the great majority at the advanced age of 83 years."

Four years before his death Slights had suffered an unspecified long and severe illness, but recovered sufficiently to continue his twin businesses of wildfowling and basket making. Three days before his death, Smith took two friends to visit him at his isolated cottage and found him giving his own lunch – the last food in the house – to a tramp who had knocked on the door.

"Two days later, he felt too tired to arise from his bed," wrote Smith. "As the evening shadows fell in the hushed stillness of the little room his gentle breathing merged with the subdued notes of the redshanks calling in the nearby Ings and, punctuated by the drumming of the snipe as it swooped and rose again in playful evolutions before settling down to rest, his noble spirit fled."

Some of the Snowden Slights armoury can be seen at the Yorkshire Museum, Museum Street, York. Tel. 01904 551800. Three of his account books are kept at the East Riding of Yorkshire Record Office, Champney Road, Beverley. Tel. 01482 392790.

THE ART OF WILDFOWLING

Taken from Snowden Slights, Wildfowler, by Sydney H Smith, published in 1912 by TAJ Waddington, York.

Every winter flocks of geese descend on our shores from their icy fastnesses in the far north, and the early spring sees the return of these, again hardly a wit the worse for their hot reception along our inhospitable shores.

Every sporting newspaper heralds the first appearance of them. By telegraph and post their progress down the coast is anticipated and their advent prepared for. Wildfowlers are in wait to welcome them, armed with the most deadly sinews of war that modern skill and ingenuity can devise – specially built wildfowl guns shooting heavy charges of shot, carefully designed punts with huge breech-loading guns fitted on the very latest types of mount and recoil gear.

All is in readiness to exact toll from the ranks of the wariest of God's creatures, and with what result?

I venture to say not one per cent of the quarry is annually brought to bag. I cannot overlook the effect of evolution upon such species as wild swans, ducks and many of the more sought-after and larger waders. Our forebears, with their primitive method of capture, of necessity took toll only of those birds which were the most confiding, leaving the more wary to propagate their race.

It is therefore evident that as time went on higher types would be evolved, and we have today more flocks of fowl more cunning than of yore...