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Decoys

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



A decoy is a contrivance for taking wildfowl, introduced from Holland ; hence the name, from the Dutch eend, duck, and kooi, cage. The earliest method of capturing ducks in this country, as described by Willughby (1678) and other authors, was by driving them into tunnel nets at a time of year when the young birds were unable to fly, and the old ones were moulting. This plan, which was in vogue as early as the reign of King John, and gave rise to litigation in Lincolnshire in 1280 and again in 1432, was found to be so destructive that in Henry VIII's time (1534) an Act of Parliament was passed to prohibit it. In the subsequent reign of Edward VI. (1551) the law was altered by protecting the eggs instead of the birds, and this protection was afforded to certain species of wildfowl, as well as game, by what is now known as the principal Game Act of William IV. (1 and 2 Will. IV. c. 32), which is still in force.

Another method of duck-catching, which, like "driving," has long become obsolete, was by means of a wire cage, which was worked with cords and pulleys and lowered on to a platform in the water, to which the birds were enticed by feeding. An example of this contrivance may be seen at Hardwick Hall, Derby, and a plan of it is given in Sir R. Payne Gallwey's Book of Duck Decoys, 1886 (p. 71). In this volume may also be found a description of a so-called "trap-decoy" (examples of which exist at Haughton, Park Hall, and Ossington in Nottinghamshire) whereby the fowl are captured "by lowering a trap-door at the entrance to the pipes after they have entered them for food placed therein."

The ordinary wildfowl decoy, however, as now generally understood, is worked neither by "driving " nor " trapping " but by " enticing" the birds up a wide-mouthed "pipe" (as it is termed), partly by means of a small dog, trained for the purpose, towards which they are attracted by curiosity, partly by means of decoy ducks which come at a call to be fed at the mouth of the pipe, and gradually lead their wild companions into it. Once within the pipe their retreat is barred by the decoyman, who, showing himself behind them; causes them to rush up the pipe into a bag-net at the further extremity, where they are then easily captured and killed. It is generally asserted, on the authority of Sir Henry Spelman (Posthumous Works, ed. Gibson, vol. ii. p. 153), that this method of decoying wildfowl was introduced from Holland by Sir William Wodehouse in the reign of James I. However this may be, the decoy constructed in 1665 by Charles II. in St. James's Park is apparently the first made in England on the Dutch plan, of which any account has been pre-served. In that year, John Ogilvy, described EDEN PHILLPOTTS. as "Master of His Majesty's Revells in the Kingdom of Ireland," published a little book entitled The Fables of sop paraphrased in Verse, in which is a curious woodcut representing a decoyman taking fowl from the end of a pipe-net, by the side of a pool wherein the mouths of two pipes are shown. Sir R. Payne Gallwey, who has reproduced this engraving in his work on Decoys above mentioned, is of opinion that " this is the earliest sketch of a decoy and its pipes, as now used, in existence." In this, however, he is mistaken, for earlier engravings of the subject may be found, not only in the U nations Ferarum Avium, &c., of Antonio Tempesta, 1605, and in the Aucupationis multifarice Effigies by the same artist, 1639, but in a still earlier collection of engravings drawn by Bol and engraved by Philip Galle, 1582. (See The Zoologist, 1886, p. 382.)

Those who are of opinion that decoys in England are amongst things of the past may be surprised to learn that at the present day there are about forty still in use in England, and three in Ireland, while at least 140 others are known to have existed formerly, and to be now dismantled or out of repair. The counties in which the greatest number of decoys once existed were, as might be expected from their proximity to the coast, Essex (29), Lincolnshire (39), and Norfolk (26). For the fourth place, Somerset-shire vies with Yorkshire, each having possessed at one time no less than fourteen decoys -in active operation. The reclamation and cultivation of the fens, the enclosure of waste land, the formation of railways, and the great increase in the number of shooters have each and all contributed to ruin decoys ; while the Iarge numbers of wildfowl which are brought by steamer and rail from Holland and other parts of the Continent every winter, render it less than ever necessary for the owners of decoys in this country to incur the expense of maintaining them. Moreover, in counties where game is strictly preserved for the purpose of being killed by shooting parties during the winter months, "decoying" is out of the question, since absolute quiet must prevail within sight and sound of the decoy pond, or no ducks will stay to be caught.

As regards the construction and management of a decoy, we have only to imagine a pool of a few acres in extent, lying in a quiet, out-of-the-way spot, far from any high road, and if surrounded by trees all the better. Marshes by the sea, especially on the East Coast, are found to be most favourable for such a purpose, since fresh-water pools in such situations at once attract foreign fowl coming in from the sea on their first arrival.

Having selected the pool, the next thing to be done is to cut the "pipes," as they are termed, up which the ducks have to be decoyed. These "pipes," which may vary in number according to the extent and shape of the pool, are simply net-covered ditches of a peculiar shape, something like a cow's horn, that is to say, wider at the end nearest to the pond than at the other end, and gently curving throughout their entire length. The reason for having several such "pipes " to a decoy is that the fowl may be taken when the wind, no matter from what point of the compass, is blowing down the pipe towards the pond. The reason for making the "pipes" curved is that, if they were straight, and the ducks could see the further end, they would at once suspect a trap, and never enter them.

Three, four, or five such pipes are cut, and are arched over at intervals with hoops of wood (or iron, if expense be no object), over which is stretched a strong netting, tapering gradually towards the far end of the pipe, and terminating in a sort of hag or purse, in which the fowl are eventually taken. As it is absolutely necessary that the decoyman should be concealed from view of the ducks on the pool, a series of screens, made of reeds and set one behind another in echelon, is fixed at intervals along the side of each "pipe." With a few tame ducks, taught to come at a whistle to be fed, a few handfuls of grain, and a small fox-coloured dog, the decoyman is ready to begin operations.

Selecting his " pipe " according to the direction of the wind, he throws a handful of grain over a screen into the pipe, and whistles. The wind carries the grain towards the mouth of the "pipe," the tame ducks come eagerly to feed, and the wild ones, getting an occasional mouthful as the grain drifts by them or to-wards them, gradually discover that the nearer they swim towards the mouth of a pipe the more plentiful does food become. Unsuspectingly they enter the wide mouth, so wide as to convey no suggestion of a trap, and then the decoyman's little dog comes into play. Taught to dodge in and out of the reed screens to fetch a piece of bread or biscuit, he shows himself momentarily to the ducks in the pipe, and disappears when returning to his master. Wildfowl are eminently curious, and their curiosity proves fatal to them. They behave towards the dog exactly as cattle would do so long as he retreats from them, they follow him. Perhaps from his colour they take him for a fox, their common enemy, and fancy they are driving him away. At any rate, they follow him up the pipe until, having passed the first reed screen; they are virtually cut off from the rest of the flock. At this juncture the decoy-man shows himself to the ducks in the pipe, though not to those on the pool. He makes no noise, but merely waves his arms ; and the frightened fowl, afraid to return past him to the open water, instantly rise on the wing and fly up the pipe, following its curve in the vain hope that it will lead to freedom. Instead of that, however, it leads to the bag-net, from which one by one they are taken out to have their necks adroitly twisted.

Such, briefly stated, is the modes operandi. The whole business is conducted so quietly that the wildfowl on the main water are never alarmed, and time after time the bag-net is filled and emptied.

In hard winters, when there may be several hundred ducks upon the pool in a day, great execution takes place if the decoy-man knows his work and has a good dog.

At a celebrated decoy at Ashby, in Lincoln-shire, as many as 113 ducks have been taken at one time, and 248 in one day.



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