Wildfowlers bring out the big guns for celebration

Punt guns on Cowbit bank
Punt guns on Cowbit bank
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AN UNUSUAL form of salute to the Queen took place at Cowbit on Saturday, when a number of punt guns were fired at 11am, precisely.

It’s a custom that has taken place at Cowbit Bank, close to the church, for every Coronation and Jubilee celebration since Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and possibly before, although there are no documents still around to determine exactly when it began.

Punt guns are used by wildfowlers and are suggestive of the area’s past, associated with characters such as poacher Kenzie Thorpe, otherwise known as The Wild Goose Man, and other wildfowlers who supplemented their meagre living off the land by shooting and selling birds to London during the winter months.

According to Trev Tyrrell, Cowbit farmer and chairman of the parish council, there are wildfowlers around much of the British coast.

Traditionally, farmers and wildfowlers went out on Cowbit Wash when it flooded, making a living from ducks and plovers, which were then sent on the train from Cowbit Station.

“It was most of their income for the year in some cases,” explains Trev.

“They would be working on the land in summer and doing that in winter when the Wash used to flood.

“It flooded most years until the Coronation Channel was built in 1952.

“That was to prevent the town flooding, and they also diverted the River Welland around Spalding, but it prevented the Cowbit Wash flooding.”

Cowbit Wash is an area of farmland, extending 20 miles, which once acted as a flood plain for the River Welland.

When the water froze over during the winter, locals would skate on the ice.

Trev, a former skater, jokes: “The saying used to be that if you were born in Cowbit, you were born with a pair of skates on your feet and a gun in your hand.”

Skating finished on the Wash when it ceased to flood, halting a Cowbit custom, although Trev says skating has taken place since when there were patches of ice.

When the current Queen came to the throne, people were still wildfowling, although, by that time, it was done for sport rather that to alleviate hardship.

Punt guns are still used by wildfowlers today – enthusiasts who take a punt gun on a boat out on the Wash to shoot ducks several times during the season.

The punt guns themselves are enormous, with 8ft barrels and a big stock, and so they were traditionally mounted directly on to the punts used for hunting.

Trev, who uses a 12-bore shotgun for shooting ducks, says: “The gun is mounted in a boat and the wildfowler punts his boat, or manoeuvres it until he gets the ducks in range and then he makes them fly.

“This is where the skill is involved because he pulls the trigger, the gun goes bang and they are all spread out, but you can get up to a dozen or more.

“There has been a lot of pub talk about how many they can get with one shot.”

The guns are also highly collectable, so Cowbit’s are safely stored at various locations in the area.

When formerly used in anger, the guns were loaded with lead shot, but the Cowbit punt guns are used only for ceremonial purposes when they are filled with a black powder and a wad to contain the charge, so Saturday’s spectators were perfectly safe.

l Trev is unofficial custodian of the parish records, which make interesting reading. For instance, in 1903 the village spent a total of £32 11/2d on celebrations for King Edward VII. The money went on fireworks, meat (£14), bread, coal, butter, groceries, a tent (£3 5s – now over £2,000), mineral water, beer (18s), crockery from Elderkins, powder for the guns (3s 6d) and (2s 6d) on advertising.