Fifty years have passed since the villagers of Grove stopped their centuries-old habit habit of floundering around in a stream while attempting to catch ducks with their bare hands. The duck hunt, known as ‘pinning-up’, was held for the last time at Grove Feast in 1960 — after having been practised annually with wild enthusiasm, on the first Saturday after July 6, for at least the previous 200 years.

“Duck racing isn’t as easy as it sounds,” Albert Cook told John Bull Magazine in 1955. He added: “I’ve seen a dozen men take 20 minutes to catch a duck.”

The sport involved damming up Letcombe Brook and launching ducks for up to a dozen separate races, in each of which a duck was launched — and then chased by riotous contestants. The man or boy (or in later years, girl) who caught the duck was allowed to keep it as their prize.

Throughout the 1950s, the Grove Duck races acquired fame, locally, nationally, and internationally, as Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) inspectors became increasingly vocal in their condemnation of the sport, eventually threatening to sue the organisers and competitors for cruelty.

In 1957, for instance, it seemed that the RSPCA had scored a victory and frightened off the would-be competitors by its much-publicised threat of legal action, but a group of men and boys defied the inspector, pronouncing the sport to be in no way cruel, and the races went ahead.

The Oxford Times that year questioned 25 spectators, none of whom thought the sport cruel, but the RSPCA’s district secretary described it as “barbaric”.

The expression ‘pinning-up’ in the 17th century meant putting an end to something, but there is also ‘pinder’, meaning to impound or pen up stray animals; and, incidentally, the term ‘swan-upping’ (when swans are marked) was also sometimes called ‘pin-upping’.

Be that as it may, it is strange to reflect how recently Britons have acquired their reputation for kindness to animals. Certainly in Oxfordshire, such sports as badger baiting, and dog and cock fighting, were still popular (and legal) in the 19th century. There was even a flourishing Oxford University Bull Baiting Society until 1826.

On a more peaceful note, another custom that seems to have faded recently into disuse is the drawing of lots for mowing rights at meadows near Yarnton. Under a system that dates back to medieval times, the meadows of Pixey, Oxhay and West Mead were divided into 13 lots. An auction was held for the rights to the hay from the meadows on the first Monday after St Peter’s Day (June 29) and then the business of deciding exactly who could mow where was decided by drawing 13 balls from a bag.

It seems that the last time this ceremony took place in its traditional way was in 1978: the hay auction was held at The Grapes pub (now The Turnpike) and the drawing of balls happened the next day at the meadows. But the custom is steeped in mystery: why 13 balls, for instance, and how old are they, and why are they marked with names such as Boat, or Watery Molly, or Freeman, or Gilbert? Perhaps they are the names of long-forgotten tenants or commoners in the days of strip farming?

As it happens, strip farming, which many tend to think of as medieval and feudal, continued in some parts of Oxfordshire well into the 19th century. In Kingham for example land was not finally enclosed, bringing strip farming to an end, until the 1860s.