The wildfowling season is underway and Roger Ratcliffe goes in search of Stanley Duncan, a Hull engineer who 100 winters ago established a club for Britain's coastal shooters.
It's a fine September day, and the ducks and geese seem to have had access to a calendar. They appear to know that it's the start of the wildfowling season.
And so they're absolutely nowhere to be seen. Not so much as a moulted feather is visible at low tide on the saltmarshes and mudflats of the Humber.
The nearby fields and the drainage dykes are also completely still. But as the season continues – and the weather worsens – birds will come back to feed, fattening themselves up for winter.
You can be sure that the hunters will be there too, crouched among the reeds
or sitting motionless on
the foreshore with their gundog in the gloom before dawn, listening for the
whizz of pinions or the whistle of wigeon, the gibber of mallard or the honking of a goose. And they'll be taking aim.
This year, along a muddy creek near where the flat Holderness plain meets the gritty brown Humber on the east side of Hull, the shotguns will be raised with special significance. It was there exactly a century ago that an idea was born which allowed the sport of wildfowling to survive bird protection laws.
In the autumn of 1907, Stanley Duncan, a Newcastle-born engineer who had moved to Hull to work for the London and North Eastern Railway, was out shooting when he took shelter inside a ramshackle black hut at the side of Patrington Haven and indulged in a spot of crystal ball-gazing. Through the Edwardian years the word "conservation" had become what today would be called a buzzword. Wildfowlers needed a new attitude, he thought, or their sport might disappear. They must speak up for themselves and their hunting grounds with a single voice.
From the talks Duncan had with others in that black hut came the idea for the Wildfowlers' Association of Great Britain and Ireland, which changed its name in 1981 to the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, and is about to celebrate its centenary.
Today, there are still a few shooters in Hull who remember Stanley Duncan, who died in 1954 at the age
Those who've seen his diaries remark on the range of birds he shot in his younger days that wouldn't be tolerated now. His bag for two days on the Humber in 1911 included one barn owl, three moorhens, a grey plover, two greenshanks and a kestrel.
On one occasion, Duncan and his brother Norman shot 150 curlew in a day. Another time it's said that he blasted 200 cartridges at woodpigeons attracted to a field of newly sown peas, and bagged 145 of them.
Duncan's skills as a wily hunter were legendary. His ability to mimic the calls of birds was so good that he once hailed a taxi near St James's Park in London by emitting a loud whistle, and caused a flock of wigeon to rise from the park's lake and circle over him.
But in Hull these days he's remembered as a sometimes grumpy old man who in his later years ran a shooting and fishing shop at the city centre end of Anlaby Road and encouraged young wildfowlers by letting them pay for cartridges when they could afford them.
Barry Upton, now 77, remembers visiting Stanley Duncan's shop – a regular meeting place for Hull's wildfowlers – and being allowed to take new shotguns on trial for the weekend even though they were more expensive than he could afford.
"Old man Duncan was a short, thick-set man, and when he was in the shop he always wore a flat cap and a waistcoast. If you met him in the street he would be wearing a Homburg."
When Duncan died in 1954 he was buried in an unmarked grave due to a family dispute over his will, and it might've been lost forever had local wildfowlers not traced it a few years ago and raised money to put up a headstone.
But for men like Barry Upton, Duncan's legacy is the very survival of wildfowling as a sport. The organisation he founded in Hull, with an inaugural meeting at the city's Imperial Hotel in March, 1908, would defend the rights of wildfowlers to access the foreshore – the land between the high tide and low tide owned by the Crown – and successfully argue the right to shoot several species of wild ducks and geese in an era when more and more birds were being protected by law.
"When Duncan started you could shoot all sorts," Upton says. "Twenty-five years ago you could even shoot redshank. Nowadays, wildfowling is no longer going bang-bang-bang when you go out. It's fifty per cent shooting and the other half conservation. We manage the grasses and reeds for wildfowl and clean the foreshore of stuff like old tyres and plastic bottles left by the tide. And we rear ducks and geese and release them into the wild . . . far more than are ever shot in a season."
Another hunter who recalls him is Arthur Leek, now in his 80s. Leek founded a club for Hull and East Riding Wildfowlers in 1953 after a conversation with Duncan at his shop.
"I told him we were having a problem with a farmer on the Humber, who wanted to ban goose-shooting, and Duncan said that if we didn't get ourselves organised we'd lose our rights. He was absolutely correct on that."
Duncan had managed to ensure that the sport was not dominated by well-off middle-classes, and that his organisation spoke up for working men who loved hunting ducks and geese. But he also realised that figureheads were also needed, and involved lawyers and landed gentry.
Arthur Leek took a similar approaching, asking a well known Hull Justice of the Peace to be the local wildfowlers' president – someone who could open doors that might otherwise remain closed.
The classless nature of Stanley Duncan's organisation was always important to Leek.
"I'm proud of the fact that our members range from Dukes to dustmen," he says.
stanley duncan – A SPORTING LIFE
n Born in 1878 at Heaton, Newcastle, the young Thomas Elliot Wang Duncan – he was always known as "Stanley" – learned the art of wildfowling from his father on the Northumberland coast.
n Duncan came to Hull around 1900, working as an engineer for the London and North Eastern Railway, and he was already well-known in shooting circles as the author of a column in The Shooting Times under the heading of "Jottings for Wildfowlers".
n It was a letter to the magazine on October 26, 1907, that set the ball rolling for the first wildfowlers' club in Britain.
n It began: "Sir, I have been asked to suggest a Wildfowlers' Association, to which you, Mr Editor, might give some assistance by permitting your paper to be the organ through which proposals might be considered and views debated."
n The Wildfowlers' Association of Great Britain and Ireland was largely for shooters who hunted for ducks and geese. In 1981 the club changed its name to the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, and included those who also hunted for game
birds like pheasant and partridge.