Wildfowl on the northern firths
Robin Rolfe takes a nostalgic look at wildfowling north of the Great Glen and offers some sound advice on how to make the most of it.
The northern firths for the purposes of this article lie to the north of the Great Glen i.e. the Beauly, Cromarty, and Dornoch.Therein lie the bays of Udale, Alness, Munlochy and Nigg, and all have one thing in common: the backdrop of the high hills of the Eastern Highlands. In fact it is not unknown to be ensconced in one's hide on the foreshore with the distant roaring of a red stag during the rut in the background.
The resident population of mallard and teal are augmented in autumn by large migratory flocks with the addition of wigeon, pink-foot and greylag geese not forgetting the occasional goldeneye and pintail. Up until recently the greylags held sway in terms of numbers, but over the last few years the pink-foot has become far more numerous.
The hound-like yelping call of the hungry pinks provides a wild symphony over the stubbles when they flight in with the break of the cold dawn over the North Sea. The larger greylags' gruff honking adds a subtle background to the wild chorus.
The Firths, as the tide retreats, reveal a wildfowler's paradise of mud and sand-flats crossed with gutters of varying depth affording the wildfowler adequate concealment from his quarry. Despite this, modern camouflage gear has enhanced the wildfowler's success considerably, so long as he does not moved about!
Many wildfowlers associate their sport with forays at dawn and dusk, but this need not necessarily be the case. I have found tide flighting to be most rewarding and exciting - when the location and conditions are right. I am fortunate in having such a location virtually at the bottom of my garden.
With a strong northerly wind onto a windward shore, it is advised that you are in position two hours before high tide. Get comfortable and wait. With any luck, parties of mallard, teal and wigeon will start to fly westwards from the exposed eastern bay towards the sheltered upper reaches. Wait an hour or so after the tide turns as the birds will sometimes come within reach as they return. I have memories of flight some years ago when, by chance, I dropped two teal out of a bunch with one shot. One was quickly retrieved to hand by Rock, my Labrador, who then bounded back into the surf to retrieve the second. As he was about to grab it, a seal rose from the depths and beat him to it. The look on the poor dog's face was a sight to behold.
These northern firths, until quite recently with the advent of faster roads and cars, were quite remote compared to the more southern fowling grounds. The north was a magnet to the great wildfowlers of a bygone age. In Victorian times, Millais was stationed at Fort George with the Seaforth Highlanders, and plenty of leisure time afforded this intrepid young officer the opportunity to sail across the Moray Firth to the bays of Beauly and Nigg where impressive bags were made with his muzzle loading punt gun. After the Second World War well-known writers on the subject of wildfowling such as Arthur Cadman and 'BB' made regular sorties to the north. In fact, so deeply was Arthur committed to his wildfowling that he made his home at Inverness where I was fortunate enough to become great friends with him.
A lot has changed though, since then. Oil has been discovered in the North Sea, and the north shoreline of the Cromarty Firth is a blaze of lights with a continual traffic of all sorts of seaborne oil installations. Nevertheless the wildfowl seem little disturbed by all this. What the couple of punt gunners who used to work these shores might think can only be guessed at.
The mussel beds still afford cover to the fowlers who wait for the wigeon to flight in on a stormy night. On Udale Bay, the large tractor tyres - put there decades ago by local fowlers - afford excellent cover as they are now festooned with a massive growth of mussels and seaweed. These chaps knew what they were doing - a line of barrels was also sunk along the river as it meandered across the sands at low tide. These have now rotted away long ago. Despite them being used at half tide I do not encourage the shooting of geese on the roost as this will really disturb them and quickly cause them to abandon the roost. Nevertheless to ambush them on the tide-line coming off the roost at daylight is memorable sport, especially if they are fighting with a fierce sleet-laden headwind.
Wildfowling is synonomous with the wide-open seascapes and haunting calls of the fowl, however, head a bit further north to the iron bound coast of Caithness and it all changes. Virtually all of the wildfowling has to take place inland. Make no mistake, ducks and geese are there, where they make the large lochs their haunts.
'The Land of the Cats' is a wild and beautiful place, as is Orkney and the Western Isles where estates can offer excellent duck and goose shooting on their plethora of large and remote lochs.
The thought of wildfowling conjures up visions of big guns and large shot, but nevertheless, Arthur Cadman used to use a 26" barrelled Purdey 12-bore with 2.5" chambers loaded with No.7s for his goose shooting. 'Imagine you are woodcock shooting. Aim for the head and you will kill them stone dead at any sensible range.' Thus spoke the great man. What he would have thought of the double-barrelled 2-bore I once had the temerity to use, I dread to think.
Weaponry for use on the foreshore should be able to withstand the ravages of salt water and sand. Despite Arthur's choice, I really would not recommend one of London's finest. One could deliberate for hours on the right gun for wildfowling, but the only certainty would be their ability to handle non toxic shot. My preference is a 30" double-barrelled side-by-side, 3" chambered, fully choked 12-bore made by Jeffrey's in 1929. However, the really big magnum 12-bores are gaining in popularity if one can afford their pricy ammo. No.3 shot is my preference as I feel it gives a maximum range with a good lethal pattern.
The middle of October usually sees the influx of geese in the Northern Firths; lean and hungry after a long flight from the north, they seek succour on the barley stubbles. For the wildfowler it's a magic time as he waits on the tide line for the great skeins to move off at dawn. The gabbling of the birds falls silent, then the goosetalk reaches a crescendo, and with a mighty roar the birds are up and away, skein after skein of them. Lucky is the fowler who drops a brace or three to take home.
The Black Isle and Dornoch Firths have their own wildfowling clubs to monitor the areas under the auspices of BASC, and I would suggest any reader wishing to know more about the wildfowling on these Northern Firths to contact them at Trochry, Dunkeld.