The magic of Loch Leven
Simon Everett on the huge skeins of geese that set up home for the winter in the heart of the kingdom of Fife.
Crouched low in the hide, which might be a stone wall, a ditch or a net draped over any kind of cover to conceal the human form, the honking of the geese heralds their arrival. Even seasoned Shots get goose bumps when the incessant chattering starts and the sky fills with approaching skeins of geese.
The greylags tend to be the first to leave the water, just as the sun starts to cast its rosy glow over the world. By the time it is turning everything it touches to burnished gold, the pinkfeet begin to follow their bigger cousins out onto the fields to feed.
Loch Leven is a magnet for about 10,000 pink-footed geese every year. In an average year they arrive in late-September and remain through the winter until early April when they make the long flight back to the Arctic tundras of Iceland and Northern Norway. Here, their breeding cycle is timed to coincide with the very short Arctic summer. The birds breed, nest and rear the youngsters over the three months of long days. After this the young geese, barely fledged, have to make the long migration back to Loch Leven. The older geese help their youngsters during the flight by leading and providing a slipstream, just like a peloton in a cycle race, and show them the traditional migration routes.
The guides only shoot the morning flight and then leave the geese to feed undisturbed for the remainder of the day and to flight back to their roost on the expanse of the loch. In the afternoon, the best guides drive their areas taking note of the whereabouts of the feeding geese, enabling them to make an informed decision of where to set up an ambush the following morning, taking into consideration variables such as wind direction and weather conditions.
In order to be in position and settled, your guide will want to be away early. There is the hide to prepare and the decoys to put out, anything from a few dozen to 50 or 60 decoys are used, depending on how readily the geese are coming to them. He will know from his experience of the preceding weeks. Some Guns like to be involved with the decoy setting, others are happy to make themselves comfortable in the hide. I find it enhances the experience to have a hand in each part of the operation, and setting the decoys helps to pass the time until the eastern sky begins to lighten, especially when it is cold and frosty as the exercise helps to keep one warm.
With the decoys placed and the Guns as concealed as possible in the hide, it is then a waiting game. Some days the geese lift off the water early and while their voices can be heard, it is still too dark to see the distant specks until they are almost on you.
Other days they linger in their beds and don't flight until it is quite bright, when you can see the mighty skeins approaching from a great distance. At first they are no more than a dirty smudge on the brightening sky, gradually becoming defined until at a mile's range one can distinguish individual birds.
Geese fly deceptively fast, each wing beat carrying them forward about 12ft on a still day. It is surprising how quickly they cover the ground and before you know it, they are wheeling overhead, drawn in by the deception laid out on the field in the form of the decoys, reinforced by the emphatic calls from the guide.
The lead birds call back, excited by the prospect of easy feeding. A good guide can literally converse with the geese and convince them to come to breakfast. The next moment their paddles go down and they drop out of the sky, wheeling in circles like a display parachutist dropping to earth. Stay crouched and under no circumstances look up - the white roundel of your face will alert these wary birds immediately and they will lift away faster than you can get to your feet to shoot. Stay calm, even though your heart begins to quicken, make ready with your muzzles up, at the very most peek out under the rim of your hat by lifting your eyes, not your head. Let the first birds, the elders, land and then get up quickly and shoot the younger, more na?ve and more tender birds that are following. A volley of shots will ring out and with luck you will each have a bird to add to the bag.
The guide will then send his dog to retrieve the fallen geese before the next skein arrives. It can be quite hectic with new skeins arriving thick and fast and confidently dropping into the decoys, even with the dog still collecting the fallen. On other occasions it will be less frantic and there will be time to gather one's thoughts before the arrival of the next skein.
In any case it is a truly magical experience that I would recommend to anyone.