The British are obsessed by them, the Americans pay up to pounds 250,00 0 for them. Clive Fewins on the rise and rise of the decoy duck
Ducks poke their multi-coloured heads out of unexpected corners in every room of Sophie Ridges' stone cottage on the edge of the Mendip Hills in Somerset. The ducks are of the carved, wooden variety; "investment quality decorative decoys" as Mrs Ridges calls them.

They are made in small numbers by carvers in this country and on the other side of the Atlantic. Mrs Ridges, 52, says the gallery at her home in the village of Farrington Gurney (where she also runs wood carving courses) is the only one in the UK devoted specifically to wooden ducks.

The record price for a decorative carved wooden duck decoy at auction in the USA is $319,000 (about pounds 250,000) but none of the specimens at Mrs Ridges' gallery costs as much as that. She does, though, have a number on sale at more than pounds l,000, and a handful that she would not part with for any sum.

The most valuable are American and date from the late 1800s or the early years of this century. They are hollow in the centre, with a keel attached to the base to make them float and are regarded as "authentic" decoys.

These working models had to be durable, realistic and cheap to carve. They were not, therefore, things of great artistic merit. Frequently they were roughly shaped with an axe from a single block of wood. These crude early American decoy ducks can fetch four figures - although there is far less work in them than in the more sophisticated modern carved wooden ducks.

The wholesale slaughter of wildfowl in the USA eventually caused trouble. A number of species of duck became scarce and the Labrador duck became extinct. Eventually, in 1918, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Act and this effectively put an end to market hunting. Many of the hunters turned to other ways of making a living and this gave rise to decoy carving as an art form.

In this country, decoy carving has grown in popularity over the last 15 years. Mrs Ridges finds an increasing number of redundant and early retired people coming on the courses that she runs about six times a year, both at her home and at centres belonging to The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.

"If you wish to take up woodcarving then ducks are good things to start on because they are flat and have no legs," she explains. "Apart from being difficult to carve, legs are delicate things that often break.

"Ducks have a great appeal to the British sense of the ridiculous and they are also things of great charm and beauty. A duck carving is a comforting thing to have in the home."

There are an estimated 500-600 decoy duck carvers in the UK and they have their own association. Some of the best are women, and several of these were trained by Mrs Ridges' husband, Bob, a former master mariner who took up carving decoys as a pastime and became the acknowledged master of the art in this country until his death in 1989.

Judith Nicoll, 50, of Westcliff-on-Sea in Essex, who runs a show devoted to bird carvings in September each year at Pensthorpe Waterfowl Park, Fakenham in Norfolk learnt on a Bob Ridges course and perfected her art on several courses in the USA.

"Last year the event drew enthusiasts from all over the country and sold half of the 350 carvings on show for a total of pounds 23,000," said Mrs Nicoll.

Although they sell their work widely in galleries and at shows a number of full-time decoy carvers also sell them direct. Ted Oxley of Thorpe Bay near Southend has carved since the age of 16 but only took up bird carving full time when he retired from his job as a dental technician last year. He specialises in decoy ducks and usually uses Jelutong - the wood of the "chewing gum tree" from Malaysia - and English lime, as these woods allow very fine feathered work. A duck can take Mr Oxley two solid months or more to make. Last year, at the annual summer show and competition held by the British Decoy and Wildfowl Carvers Association Mr Oxley won the Best in Show award. Prices average pounds l,200 to pounds l,350.

Another of the better-known duck carvers is Guy Taplin, whose flotsam- filled workshop sits on the banks of the River Colne at Wivenhoe on the edge of the Essex marshes. Most of his work is abstract, the ducks being highly stylised. "They are usually just shapes, with no detailed work" he said. "They sell in the galleries at an average price of pounds 2,000- 4,000, though once I sold a big flight on a large base for pounds 1O,000".

The styles vary from intricate "feathered" realisticAs Sophie Ridges likes to say: "My late husband used to tell his pupils: "Inside every block of wood is a duck. We carvers delight in setting them free."

The Decoy Art Studio and Gallery, Hollow Marsh, Farrington Gurney, Avon BS 18 5TX (01761 452075).

The British Decoy and Wildfowl Carvers Association, 6 Pendred Road, Reading, Berks RG2 8QL (01734 311867).