Shooting in the suburbs

Berwick marshes

Just eight miles from Tower Bridge and inside the M25, Berwick Marshes is a shoot with a difference, as Marcus Janssen discovered.

On paper, it isn't immediately obvious why Steven Wallis and Gary Wilson's Berwick Marshes shoot near Rainham in Essex was joint winner at the 2011 Purdey Awards. Their entry was described by one of the judges as the most understated they've ever received, so in order to fully appreciate just how unusual this shoot is, I was going to have to see it for myself.

Convinced I was lost, I rang Steven on his mobile to find out where I'd gone wrong.  “There's a public carpark, just off the main road,” said Steven. “Yes, that's where I am. Where do I go from here?” I enquired. “You don't go anywhere mate, you've arrived,” said a bemused Steven. Not only was the carpark just off the main road, but I could clearly hear the M25 traffic in the background. To my right, a group of kids were smoking in a hatchback with shiny wheels and a loud stereo, and to my left, a chap clad in designer labels was holding open the front passenger door of his Overfinch for his bandana wearing Labrador. Through the morning haze, I could just make out the silhouettes of London's skyscrapers on the horizon.

The history of Berwick Woods

Up to the mid 1950s the area now known as Berwick Woods was farmland. Purchased by Hoveringham Gravels, the site became the East London Quarry which operated from 1956 until the late 1970s, extracting  3 million tonnes of sand and gravel. The excavated void was then filled with 1.5 million tonnes of waste from the local area.

Upon closure of the quarry, the site was levelled in part, and otherwise left to a process of natural regeneration. Developing habitats attracted wildlife, in places forming important havens for bird, plant and insect species.

Tarmac Ltd. acquired the site in 1995, renaming it Berwick Woods, and started a scheme of comprehensive restoration. 330,000 tonnes of earth was imported to the site, much of it from Rainham Marshes during construction of the A13, and thousands of native trees and shrubs were planted and a network of paths was created as well as bridge links to
Rainham and Hornchurch Country Park.

The Berwick Marshes shoot

In 2003, Steven - who is district manager for Tarmac - and Gary bought a 38-acre piece of the site from Tarmac and immediately undertook a lot of work with the help and expert advice from various conservation organisations including Natural England.

Their aim was to encourage and enhance habitat for both wildfowl and other bird species such as skylarks and barn owls as well as a local adder colony for which the site was given SSSI status.

They also keep an eye on the rest of the site for Tarmac. “We cut the grass at certain times of the year to suit skylarks,” said Gary. “We've removed Himalayan balsam and Japanese knotweed, we do as much as possible to enhance the habitat for the adders, and we have meetings with the moth people, the orchid people, the skylark people and the barn owl people! Just yesterday, I had a meeting with a specialist grass botanist!” laughs Gary. “They all want certain things done within their own agendas.”

Significantly however, they also strive to work with and include the local community wherever possible. They know that if they alienate the locals, the whole thing will be very short-lived.

This broad-minded approach has had an amazing effect. With open access to the land, not only do the local community take pride in looking after it as though it is their own, but by setting a great example, Steven and Gary have conveyed to many the significant benefits of managing land for the purpose of shooting. “It's about making people understand,” says Steven. “We bought the land to shoot on, but it's also about the conservation side of things and enhancing it for everybody.”

Initially they had a few issues with the locals and there were some complaints in the local paper. “But they're starting to get used to us now,” says Gary. “We've educated and converted a lot of people, people who were opposed to it, but now understand what we've done and plan on doing to conserve the wildlife here.”

Berwick marshes

With their shoot situated in the middle of suburban London, they occasionally have had to make certain compromises. For instance, they agreed to stop shooting on a Sunday after the local council received some complaints. “So we agreed to shoot on Saturday nights only,” says Steven.

Shortly after they acquired the land, Natural England asked to meet them at the site. “I have to be honest,” says Gary, “I was hesitant. But I went down there and didn't mince my words; I said: ‘We bought this site for shooting, and if you stop us shooting, I'll sell the site, and I won't care who I sell it to.'”

Steven continues: “And they were absolutely brilliant. ‘Why would we want to stop you from shooting?' they said.” Impressed with their attitude, both Steven and Gary have been won over by Natural England. “Since then, the relationship we've had with them has been absolutely first class. Emily Dresner, the local officer, couldn't be more helpful,” adds Gary. They signed an HLS agreement last year, and were also given a new 10-year shooting agreement. “They seem to understand what we are trying to achieve here,” he added.

The shooting

Berwick Marshes is a small, private shoot which Gary, Steven and a few of their friends shoot no more than a dozen times a year. The reward for digging out the ponds to keep them open, is seeing good numbers of wildfowl flighting into the four separate ponds and 30 acres of river fen on windy nights.

They could easily increase the intensity of their shooting, but opt to only shoot the pond furthest from a housing estate that literally borders the southern edge of the site. “We could shoot the rest of it,” says Gary, “but we don't. We need to ensure that the balance is maintained.”

I joined Steven and Gary for an evening's duck flighting on a particularly still January night, and what an experience it turned out to be. With London's fluorescent orange glow lighting up the western sky and a cacophony of traffic, police sirens and barking dogs all around us, it felt odd to be holding a shotgun and scanning the cityscape for incoming wildfowl. Within minutes of settling beneath a hawthorn for cover, the boom of Steven's 12 bore reverberated through the London suburb of Rainham as a small flight of mallard whistled over. 

Over the following half-hour, Gary's team of labs were kept busy as good numbers of teal, gadwell, wigeon and mallard provided fast and frantic sport. Gary would return the following day to ensure that all birds and empty cartridges had been picked up. “On a couple of occasions, we've shot 30 odd within 30 minutes, and called it a day,” commented Steven as we splashed our way back to Gary's truck.

On my way home, a shooting friend rang for a chat. "What have you been up to?" he asked. "I've spent the day in Rainham in Essex," said I. "What on earth have you been doing there?" asked James.

"Why, shooting, of course."

I'm still not sure if he ever believed me.

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