Going for a goose
Why Nicholas Watts enjoys greylag shooting.
I live and farm in the Fens and most years I have the chance of shooting a few greylag geese. In the past I used to shoot a lot of mallard, but while we still have them they are no longer in any quantity. One season I shot 199. They were everywhere and congregated in large numbers wherever there was food and safety. I would ask other farmers if I could shoot duck on their farms but gradually their numbers declined to such an extent that I now rarely shoot them as I would only be shooting the stock. The cause of their decline is another story.
Fortunately, greylag geese have taken the place of mallard. Nobody wants them, they eat a lot of food, and their preferred food is our crops – moreover their numbers are increasing so it is sustainable shooting. What can be better than that?!
I really enjoy pheasant shooting, but shooting greylags is something very different. Having chosen the venue and set out the decoys, there is nothing more exciting to me than seeing a skein of geese coming my way.
Will they see the decoys? Should I call them? Would it be better to let them come round again?
All this goes through my mind – pure adrenaline. I have a couple of shots and the birds just can't get away fast enough. Are there any more coming? Should I set that one up alongside the other decoys?
All these questions were answered when I went with my daughter Lucy and gamekeeper Richard to flight greylags on some millet stubble that we had recently harvested. There were about 450 of them. I had seen them a number of days earlier but I was busy for two mornings, then Lucy was not available for two days and then we were both busy for a day. A morning came free and so off we went. All this delay had actually been working in our favour – the geese had been undisturbed on that field for eight or nine days and they were intent on feeding.
It was still dark when we arrived, and it needed to be, as we had 40 decoys to set out. There was only a slight SSW breeze, which meant that the geese would come over the dyke twice before they landed, if they were attracted to our decoys. If they weren't attracted, then they had the rest of the 35 acre field to land in, so they could land 500 yards away from us.
Having set the decoys out, we went to the reedy dyke about 30 yards away, spaced ourselves 20 yards apart and waited for the first geese to appear. An unmown dyke is the best place to hide in as you usually have 360 degree vision, far better than a hedge when you may only have half that and a hide may need erecting. On this occasion the reeds in the dyke were 9ft high so I had to clear a few in order to see from both sides of it. There is always the conundrum of whether to shoot at the first small party that comes round, typically a small party of two or three birds that don't usually land. If you let them fly round and go away they can go back to the others and tell them that the coast is clear, whereas in fact there are already some people there. If we were to shoot at them and not kill them all, they might well go back and tell the others to go elsewhere. We decided not to shoot at the first ones that came, and indeed there were three of them and they didn't land.
A few minutes later there were some more coming but they looked committed to drop in at least 100 metres out, and probably hadn't seen the decoys. I worked my goose call and their reaction was immediate: they came round to us and we shot two out of the three. We scrambled out of the dyke and as we were setting them up as decoys I heard some more on the wing. We dashed back to the dyke, I could see them – they had set their wings and were heading straight for us – fantastic! I adjusted my grip on the gun and checked that the safety catch was off. I didn't need to give them a call, they were on us. I dropped the first one but missed the second and wondered why. I didn't have to wonder too much – my shooting position was awful! I was unable to stand up properly and was half twisted round. If I had stood up for a good stance, the geese may well have seen me, but you go for what you feel will be your best option.
That's how the morning went. Some of the skeins came straight to us, though one or two were going to drop short and I was able to bring them on to us with my goose call. Inevitably, there were some which landed way out across the field so one of the younger members was dispatched to put them off. Leaving those geese out there on the field, well away from our decoys, would no doubt attract more geese. I used to have a dog that would put them up but she is no longer with us.
Halfway through the flight it became misty, which I think helped us in that it kept the geese low and helped to deaden the sound of our shots.
Having shot the geese what do you do with them?
I am a firm believer of eating what you shoot, so the geese went straight into my cold store. They were sorted out for age – the younger ones are plucked, while the older ones are breasted so they can be casseroled. The breast feathers are saved for pillows and duvets and the back and wing feathers go in my biomass boiler.
So why are our feral geese increasing and our mallard declining?
Mallard ducklings depend on insects for food and these are declining in many areas. In contrast, goslings require short grass and, with the help of the combustion engine, we are now a nation of grass cutters. Goslings have a surplus of food and any animal or bird which has more food than it can eat will increase in numbers. We only have to look at ourselves to realise this!