Interest in the waders on The Wash was first started by members of the Cambridge Bird Club in the early 1950s. Prominent in these early days were undergraduate members such as Ian Nisbet and Bill Bourne and Cambridgeshire resident Tony Vine. Initially, efforts were concentrated on finding the locations of the main wader roosts and making counts/estimates of populations during the winter months. I was first taken up to The Wash by Ian Nisbet, soon after I went to Cambridge University in October 1953. Others who became active at this time included Chris Smout and Ian Wallace, from the University, and Graham Easy and Colin Kirtland who lived in Cambridge itself.
I had started wader ringing with Eric Ennion at Monk’s House Bird Observatory in Northumberland in 1952. Small hand-operated clap nets were our main tool. We only had very limited success in the Wash area, but a memorable highlight was catching a White-rumped Sandpiper (with four Dunlin) at the Wisbech Sewage Farm, which was situated on the banks of the River Nene about three miles south of Sutton Bridge.
When I received my first mist-nets (through Eric Ennion) in 1956 I set about working out ways in which they could be employed to catch waders. We soon had good success at Wisbech Sewage Farm but only very limited success on The Wash itself, except in the creeks behind the seawall at Holbeach, where we were able to catch up to 100 Redshank per night during autumn passage (late July–September). Other undergraduates such as Chris Mead and Steve Boddy (both of whom went on to work for the BTO) were regular participants in these activities.
For several years from the mid-1950s I had been badgering Peter Scott to lend us the rocket nets which the Wildfowl Trust used to catch Pink-footed Geese. I had participated in one of his goose catching attempts and was convinced that they would be ideal for catching waders on the farmland surrounding The Wash which is extensively used by waders as their high-tide roost during autumn passage. Eventually he agreed and sent Hugh Boyd, Geoffrey Mathews and Malcolm Ogilvie up to The Wash for a week in mid-August 1959. I assembled a team of a dozen or so ringers, mainly from the Cambridge Bird Club. This is when The Wash Wader Ringing Group was formed.
We lived in the old sewage farm manager’s house on the banks of The Nene, some eight miles inland from The Wash shore itself at Terrington. In those days field roosts in August were widespread and plentiful with three to five roosts, each of five to fifteen thousand birds, on fields between The Nene and the Ouse. Similar roosts occurred right around The Wash from Wainfleet (near Gibraltar Point) right around to Snettisham/Heacham. All the roosts were dominated by Dunlin, with occasionally 10,000 or more of these in a single roost.
We chose the Terrington area because of the relative accessibility from our base and because we already had permission from all the land owners in that area to access their farms. The first rocket net was set on a rough ploughed field (after an early pea harvest) next to the seawall and about a mile west of the ‘white barn’ which is now regularly used as a mist-netting base.
Each rocket net was 60 m long and 20 m wide, and of a mesh and thread size similar to the current ‘large-mesh’ cannon net. The net was propelled by six rockets, each dug into an open-topped hole and placed on a ramp just behind the furled net. The net was so heavy that it was rolled onto a large wooden drum which had to be carried by two people with a metal rod through the centre of the drum. The heavy rockets (about 15 inches long and 3–4 inches diameter) were filled with a slab of cordite – a relatively slow-burning explosive – which acted as a propellant. These were cunningly counter-weighted so that the rockets actually follow a curved trajectory over the birds and back into the ground, rather than relying on pulling taught on the back ropes of the net and then dropping to the ground in the way which the current cannon nets do. Each rocket had a fuse in it, rather like our current electric fuses, and was connected via a cable to the firing position. Because the cordite was obtained from the military (Peter Scott had been in the Navy during the war) it was difficult to obtain. The Wildfowl Trust representatives therefore were keen that we only fire the rocket nets if we had the prospects of a big catch.
We had to wait out one or two tides when we were unsuccessful in getting sufficient waders into the catching area, but eventually, on the afternoon of 18 August 1959, birds poured into the catching area and when we decided that there were several hundred potentially catchable, the net was fired. Over 1,100 waders of nine different species (including a handful of Black-tailed Godwit, which were then quite uncommon on The Wash) were caught. Extraction from the net was slow and birds were transported to the edge of the field and placed in ‘keeping cages’. These were the same keeping cages as used for Pink-footed Geese and so had to be secured with numerous safety pins, but even so they leaked small waders like a sieve. Daphne Watson subsequently designed and made new keeping cages and similar holding pens are still used to this day on The Wash and at many other wader catching locations around the world.
Totals from the first rocket-net catch on 18 August 1959
The first big lesson we learned from that catch was the need for dedicated ‘covering material’. We used material and clothing to cover the birds on that first catch but then obtained large qualities of old wool sacks and hop sacks from sources in Birmingham as well as old bed linen sheets and so on. For many years we operated with a huge, but very motley, selection of covering material.
That first rocket net catch was the only one we managed to make in that first week on The Wash in August 1959. We were fortunate, however, that the Wildfowl Trust agreed to loan us the rocket nets for four further years, with Hugh Boyd and usually Malcolm Ogilvie accompanying them on each visit. Hugh Boyd worked tirelessly behind the scenes to engineer this. In total, 12, 916 waders were rocket netted, and several hundred more were retrapped or controlled, in a further six weeks of fieldwork on The Wash in August/September 1960−1963. After that the cordite propellant became so difficult to obtain that the Wildfowl Trust could no longer lend us the rocket nets. Eventually we designed and built out own cannon nets, which came into operation in July 1967, after abortive trials with some Ministry of Agriculture cannon nets in August 1966.
In those early years the core of the WWRG remained centred on past and present Cambridge Bird Club members, though there was an ever-growing circle of participants from elsewhere in the UK, particularly on the traditional Wash Week in August/early September. Bob Spencer, head of the BTO Bird Ringing Scheme, took part in several years. There were many memorable incidents and highlights, far too many to recall. But two, in particular, stand out in my memory. Both relate to the first week of September 1963 (the last of the rocket netting weeks). Right at the beginning, a recce showed the possibility of making a good catch of Grey Plover on a training bank in front of the seawall at Holbeach. Hugh Boyd rashly offered to buy a round of champagne if we could make a catch of 100. We did! And he kept to his word – although most was drunk out of plastic cups! But he refused to buy more champagne when we had another catch of nearly 200 Grey Plover later that week!
There were also unusual numbers of juvenile Knot shown up by our recces, again on the training bank wall at Holbeach. We caught 1,171 Knot and within five weeks we had received four reports of birds in West Africa. One travelled there in only five days and was unfortunately shot by a member of the US Peace Corps! We were unsure of the explanation of these unusual movements for many years but now know that they were juveniles from the Siberian breeding population which had, unusually, crossed the North Sea to the east coast of England on the way south to Africa. The majority of the Knot (both adults and juvenile) which occurred on The Wash in the autumn back then were from the Greenland/north Canadian breeding population.
Another memory of the early days, of high significance looking back now, was our early attempts in 1967 to catch on the tidal shore at Snettisham/Heacham. Not having the courage to fire the net into the water we set the net on the beach and tried to get the birds to roost on the inland side of this, with the net firing up the beach. Naturally there were considerably safety problems and also a high risk of the net and cannons being swamped by the incoming tide before birds could be got into a catching position. A couple of firing attempts with this configuration soon convinced us that it was a ‘non-starter’. We plucked up courage and tentatively set the net set the ‘other way round’ and made a catching attempt on a small number of Oystercatchers. This worked. These and other species proved to be remarkably buoyant in the net and resistant to being inundated provided they were removed from the water quickly. Hence the gradual development of today’s main shore-catching technique.
Since those early days, WWRG has sustained its high level of wader ringing. Catching takes place in all months of the year, not just in the restricted period when waders on The Wash roost inland of the seawall on farmland. The wader cannon-netting technique has since been employed in a wide range of countries around the world. There has been some evolution of the equipment used but relatively few changes from the original 1967 design. Those individuals who were involved in the early days also spread their wings widely and many have been the core of long-term wader study activities elsewhere.
I find it extremely interesting to still read the detailed fieldwork reports from The Wash. I also take whatever opportunities I get to still visit there and participate (as I did for a week in September 2018).
Cover photo: l-r Clive Minton and Mike Watson processing godwits c. 1975. Photo by Daphne Watson