Recently I have spent some time exploring Wareham Forest. Its not an area I have walked extensively because I thought it was mainly coniferous woodlands which are not as interesting as mixed woodlands. However, I was surprised at how much open heathland there was, and one particular heath that grabbed my attention was Decoy Heath.
Now anyone from Dorset will probably know that in wartime, fires were lit on remote Dorset heaths to lure enemy aircraft away from the towns and munition works, acting as a decoy for their bombs. However, that is not where Decoy Heath gets its name. In fact, it gets its name from ducks.
Back in the day, ducks were trapped for food and feathers and in order to do this, new ponds were created or existing ponds altered in order to attract ducks and draw them into the traps. These ponds were known as decoy ponds and there were in fact two on Decoy Heath, hence its name.
Decoy Heath with the Old Decoy Pond
I visited one day this week on a beautifully sunny day and walked around the larger, and more obvious, pond. This is known as Old Decoy Pond but is not technically a ‘decoy pond’ in the accepted sense as its shape is irregular and there is no evidence of its being used to actually trap ducks. It is in fact thought to have been used to attract ducks to the general area and its size would have facilitated this.
The second and smaller pond where the actual trapping took place is known as Decoy Pond and is much less obvious, being smaller and somewhat hidden amongst trees and marshy land to the south of the larger pond. I returned on another very misty day to search that one out. This smaller pond, together with its associated but now derelict decoy man’s overnight shelter, is a Scheduled Ancient Monument as there are few remaining in this country in any recognisable state.
The way through marshy land
Just reaching the old overnight shelter was like something out of the Hound of the Baskervilles, with mist and marshy land all around making it difficult to reach the old shelter. The simple single roomed building with one door, one small window and a corner fire place was once probably thatched but the roof has long since disappeared. Only the remnant of the walls remain standing. The stream that feeds the decoy pond circles round three sides of the cottage, almost like the moat of a castle and it is hard to know where it is safe to tread.
The decoy man’s overnight shelter
It was fascinating finding this old relic especially on a day which seemed ideally suited to emphasise the mystery of the place. It was built in 1724 by the Drax family of Charborough Park, together with the pond and nearby Decoy House (now demolished) which was where the decoy man lived. It was used for over 100 years until 1856 when shooting rights were granted over the surrounding land, creating too much disturbance to make duck trapping viable.
So what about the pond itself? Well unfortunately the whole area was so marshy that it was impossible to walk farther in than the old shelter. The pond’s shape is still visible on the overhead satellite view but this appears to indicate that it has become considerably overgrown with reeds etc so that clear water is not now visible. However, it is still waterlogged and in better condition than most – it is in fact one of only two remaining in Dorset.
Satellite view showing the pentagonal pond in the trees
I was interested to read how decoy ponds were used. The practice dates back to medieval times in more simple forms but the more complex design seen here was introduced from Holland in the 17th century. Most were star shaped, a main pond with tapering ditches known as pipes running in a curved shape outwards, with netting over the top. In the picture above, the remnants of some of these ‘pipes’ can be seen stretching out from the pentagonal shaped pond.
It was down these ‘pipes’ that ducks would be lured by either using strategically placed food or by using dogs. The latter method relied on the ducks’ natural inclination to follow predators such as foxes to keep them in sight – thus the dog mimicking a predator led the ducks up the pipe. Carefully placed screens would be used to hide the dog but allow sufficient glimpses to maintain the ducks’ interest. When they reached the point of the pipe, they would be captured by the decoy men and have their necks wrung.
The images below give an idea of how the decoy ponds were used. They are by Sir Ralph Frankland-Payne-Gallwey, 3rd Baronet (1848-1916) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons from his book ‘The book of duck decoys, their construction, management, and history (1886)’.
It has been fascinating exploring this little corner of Dorset and the old custom of duck decoying. I am sure there is much more to learn but I hope you have enjoyed this little taster.
Thanks for stopping by.
Until next time,
Your friend The Dorset Rambler
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