Wild Duck and Their Pursuit - Douglas Butler (Book Review)

The Nationalist, December 9, 2010


There are many stimulating books that come one's way but one of the most satisfying to come into my possession for some time has to be Wild Duck and Their Pursuit by Douglas Butler. This lively and informative book looks at the natural history, the populations, the movements and the behaviour of wild duck in order to help the sportsman better to understand his quarry.
What makes this book special is the fact that the author is an enthusiast about his subject. Douglas Butler is a professional zoologist with a particular interest in wildfowl. His liftime interest in the subject began when he shot his first mallard at the age of eight and he has been an avid duck hunter ever since.

In chapter two he tells us everything there is to know about ducks. He is detailed about the difference in male and female plumage. We are taken through their nesting places, the nesting season and the number of eggs. We're also given a profile of the selfish drake who 'takes no part in the tedious business of incubation.' We're informed that there are in excess of 140 species of ducks, geese and swans on earth and the author here, as in other places in the book, gives us a European and American perspective on the subject. Since the duck is meant for eating the author tells us of its performance on the dinner table. He states that as a general rule 'the taste and texture of meat reflects the feeding habit of the animal from which it is obtained. The flesh of herbivores is more palatable than that of carnivores. . . .'

There is a fascinating chapter on 'Residents, Migrants and the Numbers Game' in which the distinction between resident and migrant is addressed and the migratory routes of wildfowl are described. The author emphasises the need for more accurate information on figures for wildfowl. From his experience he harbours 'a deep vein of cynicism when it comes to published figures.'. He is particularly sceptical of figures published on this side of the Atlantic but has considerably more faith in those for North America. The reason he wants accurate information is that 'As a hunter . . . I want to know the size of quarry populations so that I can then make an informed judgement about what is realistic in terms of taking a harvest.'

The author has a chapter highlighting lead poisoning as a mortality factor in wildfowl populations. The problem arises because when shot pellets are fired at a bird, only a tiny number of them hit the target while the rest are dispersed into the environment and those that fall in water may well be ingested by wildfowl. The evidence from America suggests that a considerable number of widfowl die off as a result while in Europe far fewer deaths are recorded. As a result legislation has been introduced in America, England and Scotland against the use of lead in these countries. The author would not agree with this prohibition because 'no one really knows whether the problem of lead poisoning is significant or not.' He is glad there is no such legislation in Ireland.

There's a whole chapter devoted to regulations in place for the shooting of duck. While the Americans have hours during which it is permissible to shoot wildfowl and the number of birds that may be killed in a day, no such restrictions exist in Britain and Ireland. Here, we can shoot ducks throughout the 24 hours. Dusk and dawn are the most favoured periods. 'Indeed it is more or less certain that the greater part of the annual bag is taken at the hour of dusk.'

A number of chapters in the book deal with the activity of shooting. One is on the subject of 'Walking Up Ducks', a term used to describe the shooting of game which the guns themselves have flushed with or without the assistance of dogs. Another deals with 'Flighting', which means lying in wait for the ducks, mainly in the twilight hours, as they go about their business. Here the author brings his lifelong experience to the subject and the chapters teem with information gleaned from long hours over many days and years: 'The man who knows his fowl will have spotted a few feathers washed into the edge or signs that pondweeds have been disturbed. And he will have spent the day in eager anticipation of the good things that may happen at dusk.'
The chapters are peppered with personal experiences across Tipperary and beyond, in England, Scotland, Europe and even further afield, bringing to the reader a wealth of experience gleaned from long hours in the open at dawn and dusk in the depths of winter, in all kinds of weather. Wildfowling is a largely solitary pusuit as the author tells us: 'Whilst all sports have a social element, hunting as much as any other, there are times when, selfishly, I much prefer to be on my own or with a single companion. Evening flight is one such time. Most of my flighting haunts are relatively small and can be adequately covered by a single gun. Since ducks can come in from any angle, sometimes with very little prior warning, it is much easier to be fully relaxed knowing that there is no danger to anyone else when one takes a shot. And, as every hunter knows, we only shoot really well when we are fully relaxed. I am personally very conscious of the fact that when I am shooting in close proximity to another gun, I shoot less well.'
This is the first book for many years to focus exclusively on duck shooting and it will appeal to ornithologists and conservationists, as well as those who shoot duck. Douglas Butler brings to the subject an impressive knowledge that comes not only from his academic background but also from the wisdom gained from a life of field experience. It's an unbeatable combination that has given us an instructive and lively publication.

The book was published by Merlin Unwin Books in September, contains 224 pages with many black and white illustrations most of which were supplied by the author himself. It retails for £20 and is available in most good bookshops.