Call of the geese
Every season thousands of wildfowlers head north of the border in search of sport. Eric Begbie wonders if they are drawn to Scotland by myth or reality.
It was late November and the BBC weather alert had forecast a deep depression which would bring storm-force winds and heavy rain down from the Baltic. If the meteorologists had done their sums correctly, the gales should cross the North Sea and hit the east coast of Scotland in the early hours of the morning. Exactly the news that a wildfowler prays for.
As I released the Labradors from their kennel three hours before dawn, the wind was already rattling the slates on the roof and a couple of loose flower pots tumbled around the yard. Rusky knew the score. He had experienced similar mornings twice last season and appeared to know that the storm could herald the opportunity to retrieve a bird or two. The yellow pup, Flight, on the other hand, was only 15 months old and his expression seemed to say that he would prefer to curl up and go back to sleep.
The 40 mile drive to the estuary passed without incident and I was happy that the rain which had been forecast to accompany the gale had not yet materialised. There were enough problems to solve without the added discomfort of a comprehensive soaking.
Like most fowlers, I am a firm believer in both Murphy's and Sod's Laws. You may recall that Murphy stated that if something can go wrong, it will. Sod goes further and asserts that Murphy is an optimist! I was not surprised, therefore, to discover a friend's car already parked at the side of the coast road and I knew that he would have pinched the very spot I wanted. I didn't fancy trudging half a mile along the sea wall only to find that Tom had a couple of pals with him so, tossing a mental coin, I drove on to the next access point.
That section of the estuary has dense reedbeds below the flood bank and, despite the roaring nor'easterly, I was sweating by the time I had broken a path through the reeds to get to the edge of the tide. Fortunately there was still an hour before sunrise, so I had plenty time to get my breath back and settle down in a muddy channel to await dawn.
The first geese caught me totally by surprise. I did not hear them against the howling of the gale and it was Rusky who saw them first. By the time I looked up to see what the dog was gazing at, I was too late to even raise my gun. If that was Murphy's doing, then Sod might dictate I would see no more fowl that morning.
But no. Over the next half hour a nice little flight did develop and the Pinkfeet, that had been roosting out on the open mud, were kept low by the wind. Most passed a bit wide of my position but a few ragged skeins came close enough and each of the Labradors had a retrieve before I slipped my 8-bore back into its sleeve.
That story is merely the modern-day equivalent of those told by some of the classic wildfowling authors of bygone times. Millais' ‘Wildfowler in Scotland', with its tales of the east coast estuaries, started the trend and generations of fowlers have been drawn north by the subsequent adventures of Powell on the Solway, ‘BB' on Tayside and Cadman on the Northern Firths. A scan of the literature might, indeed, suggest that Scotland is a wildfowlers' Mecca.
But what is the reality? Although the season was 10 weeks old, the morning that I have just described was the first when conditions were of the kind a wildfowler craves. The two geese that I harvested that day brought my personal total up to five from almost 20 outings to the shore since September. But no-one wants to read about blank flights.
One of the reasons why fewer geese now appear to remain in their traditional Scottish haunts throughout the season is that they will move quite long distances in search of better feeding or less disturbance. Pinkfooted geese, in particular, are highly nomadic and recent ringing studies have shown the same individuals being recorded on the Solway, at Martin Mere in Lancashire and near Burnham Market in Norfolk all within the space of a few weeks. These observations tie in with changes in agriculture, particularly in relation to sugar beet, which are undoubtedly drawing geese to more southerly locations.
Duck are a little more predictable and some of the best duck marshes are now encompassed by nature reserves with permit schemes. This is a huge advantage for the visitor as the permits normally include maps showing access points and the wildfowling is wardened by Countryside Rangers who can give information about flightlines. Even then, the bag returns from such reserves usually show an average of less than one bird per visit.
There is always a great attraction to shooting in new locations and facing novel problems and, possibly to a greater extent than most sportsmen, the wildfowler appreciates the romance of dramatic scenery, glorious sunrises and the effects of weather and tides. So long as he does not expect a large bag of geese or ducks, a visit to Scottish foreshores can be a spiritually fulfilling experience.
In addition to coastal fowling, some Guns use the services of professional goose guides who specialise in decoying geese on their feeding grounds. Although not wildfowling in the traditional sense, the best of those guides do provide an opportunity for visiting sportsmen to get under some geese more easily than they would on the estuaries. The antics of some rogues have given this sector of the sport a bad name but there are still a few reputable guides to be found if you stick to those who are registered with the British Association for Shooting and Conservation.
Of course, no guide can give guarantees that the fowl will be co-operative and, even when the birds do oblige, he will observe a strict bag limit of five pinkfeet or three greylags and adhere to time restrictions that dictate that you must be off the field within two hours of sunrise so that the geese get a chance to feed undisturbed. Because of that, it is probably advisable to book with a guide who can provide some roughshooting or pigeon decoying to pass the time.
Incidentally, the non-toxic shot regulations in Scotland differ from those in England and Wales. You cannot use lead shot when shooting over wetlands, a definition that includes the foreshore as well as lochs, marshes and rivers. But, in Scotland you can still use lead when shooting ducks or geese over dry land, such as when decoying on barley stubbles or winter wheat.
By the way, as I drove back along the coast road after the flight that morning, I came across Tom and a companion peeling off their waders at their car. They had not seen or heard a goose. Tom introduced me to his friend who was over on a visit from Ireland and was called Phelim Murphy. I hope he could not hear me laughing as I wound up my window!