DECOY. There are very few or no objects of sporting attraction so replete with pleasing varieties, and so abounding with characteristics of extraordinary instinct, as the whole of the operations affecting this ingenious occupation. The wild scenery, the secluded situation required, the proximity of the sea or extensive range of waters, the liabilities of the season, the difficulties of access, and the distances from the residences of the neighbourhood, are all subjects of strong interest, and never fail to excite in the mind of an ardent lover of nature an enthusiastic feeling. It is fortunate when a situation is found where Nature has supplied the growth of willows and underwood of any sort; otherwise you are obliged to plant around the piece of water selected for the purpose of a decoy, which is mostly of an acre or two, to give a general effect of shelter. The slips, or pipes as they are called, are about twenty feet long, forming a designed curve, and gradually narrowing to the end. These are hooped over, and then covered with strong netting. The number of these apertures is regulated in course by the extent of the pond, always having sufficient to face the point of most winds that blow; for only those can be worked with effect which are opposite to the blast. Between each pipe, and the whole length of it, a shade of reeds, about six feet high, is erected for the purpose of concealment to the attending man, with a few small loop-holes to peep through. Round the whole a high bank is raised;
and as reeds and grass, with bushes, are allowed to grow in wild luxuriance, the interior of the pond is entirely hidden from view. In length of time, by continued cultivation, the appearance becomes similar to a plantation for game in an extensive marshy waste ; indeed, in most places, it is much used by hares, and occasionally by foxes.
The decoy birds are wild-ducks, bred on the spot, which become domesticated by the most constant and regular supply of food, and are kept within a moderate number by killing them off when the season is over. At the commencement of winter these birds begin, by an unaccountable instinct, to take their wheels of flight, leaving home at the reflux of the tide and returning about high water, rarely unaccompanied with a numerous flock of new acquaintance. These excursions are closely watched by the keeper both night and day, always being prepared to greet the return with plenty of corn. This keeps all quiet till day-light (if a night flight), when his delicate work commences, but seldom successfully without a brisk wind. When the pipe is fixed upon to work at, a small quantity of oats orhemp-seed is thrown at the mouth, which, accompanied with a pleasing whistle, induce the old birds to rush forward, and if a good number of foreigners should follow, he by degrees supplies the food more within, till the body has reached beyond the turn to exclude them from the pond. At that critical moment he runs to the front, and showing himself, with a shout, the birds fly to the end, where, cooped up in a very small space, a most ludicrous scramble and squalling takeplace. A helper, being ready, has then only to take them by the neck, and, being expertly educated in Jack Ketch work, twists away till even hundreds are thrown into a pit-hole purposely prepared.
It scarcely ever occurs that the old birds are to be thus entrapped. Being familiar at business, they take
good care to keep in the rear; or, if impelled by numbers and eagerness far into the pipe, they then dive, beating a safe retreat in that way.
The great pride of a decoy-man is not only to possess an expert helper, but an assistant of another description—a dog—which through the whole of the movements is no mean performer. He is accustomed to wait upon his master at all times, who, by teaching him playful ways, brings him as it were to amuse the decoys. They then not only become used to his gambols, but delight in them, and will dash after his tricks whenever they are exhibited. We are told, in print of authority, these animals are made use of to rouse the lethargic and sleepy habit of the strangers, and that they fly to the dog to scare him away from disturbing their quiet repose; but to us this is not evident, firmly believing it to be the daily practice with the domestics that works the magic with the new comers. These observations are genuine, and drawn from the hook of experience. When the work begins, a signal is given to little Venus, or Daphne, or Mercury, and she or he flies to the call, skips around the skreens, jumping and shaking the tail, and pricking the ears—the eyes sparkling with pleasure, and bursting with ardour to give salute with the tongue; but no babbling; it is all forbearance, though full of fire; and it is only by frolicsome freaks the whole pond is attracted, exciting a general rush to get at the dog. This is one of the principal means of having a well peopled pipe. The breed is peculiar to itself, and perfectly nondescript : in appearance the veriest of curs, but in sagacity a spanielsmall, of great vivacity, the active energies are surprising, and the animation with which the part is acted is as extraordinary as it is amusing.
The wonderful power in the fowl, of nasal discrimination, renders the schemes of their enemies delicately dangerous, and it is only by the aid of lighted peat in your mouth, used as a cigar, that you can wipe away the stigma of animal odour. Without this safeguard you cannot approach within a quarter of a mile.
To enumerate or describe the different beauties rewarding the anxious task, is not easy; but it embraces in few words the whole of the duck kind. Yet there is an exception, though of the same family, of singular curiosity—the dun-bird—which, although in general companionship, is rarely to be taken in this manner. He is certainly the sultan of flavour, and may be hailed as the first in the rank. This may render his sagacity or instinct more refined perhaps; but, be it as it may, different traps become necessary to secure him. On the side of the rivers at the evening dusk, a high net is erected on poles, in the neighbourhood of the decoys, when in the flights of these highminded creatures they get entangled.
At the first blush of this account, it is natural to conclude that a decoy is good for gold as well as for ducks; but there are many contingencies in waiting, and many's the time and oft, that, with plenty saluting your eyes and ears, disappointments arise, leaving the carriers empty, and lords of the markets in despair. First, you must have cold weather without frost: then you must have the wind at east, and with a breeze: then you must have birds with good humour, and inclined to vary their taste with new friends: and, last of all, you must have skill, luck, and a great flight; and even with these happy combinations, neither oats, dog, peat, nor winds will do. I have seen the whole congregation floating in the centre in close column, casting their heads to the air, as it were watching the clouds with one eye, and laughing at you with the other. A little farther, strange, though true : I have known some years successful to overflow, and others barren to hopes—having the same quantity, the same weather, and the same experience.
In 1795, the Tillingham decoy in Essex netted, after every expense, upwards of eight hundred pounds; and in 1799, ten thousand head of widgeon, teal, and wild-ducks were caught in a decoy of the Rev. Bate Dudley, in the same county.
The general season for catching is from the end of October to February. By the 9th Ann, ch. 25, and 10 Geo. II. ch. 32, to take or drive away any wild-duck, teal, widgeon, or other water-fowl in the moultingseason, between the 1 st of June and the first of October, is punishable with a fine of five shillings, to be levied by distress; in default to be imprisoned, whipped, and kept to hard labour. The right in the property of decoy-ponds was settled in the Court of King's Bench in November term, 1810, when it was determined that disturbing a decoy by firing a gun in the neighbourhood, to frighten away the wild-fowl which had been decoyed by the tame birds, constituted a trespass.
Decoys are usually let at a certain annual rent; but improvements in drainage are gradually exterminating these ancient distinctions of the fenny districts. Thirty thousand francs have been paid for the produce of Lake St. Lambert, near Paris, for one season.
Harewood, Harry. A Dictionary of Sports. London: T. Tegg and son, 1835.
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