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A Day of Blizzards and Geese
George Downing recalls a red-letter day

A Day of Blizzards and of Geese 

The forecaster’s promise of gales and wintry showers seemed, for once, very accurate as I left my flat, gun and waders stowed securely on my back, and struck out for morning flight on the Eden.  My journey took me along the back streets of St Andrews, devoid of the student bustle of daylight hours, and on past the venerable Royal & Ancient clubhouse, the pristine greens now gleaming bright white under a dusting of snow.  Arriving at the lay-by that serves as a rendezvous point for such fowling activities on the Eden, I met up with my fowling companion Charlie Lyne-Pirkis.  We continued pedalling our way down to Balgove Bay where we hoped some pinkfeet would be waiting for the first glimmers of daybreak before departing for the fields of Fife.   

The weather seemed perfect.  Carried on the Northerly raging across the mud flats in front, we could clearly discern the anxious murmurings of pinks as we stashed our bikes on the edge of a green and donned waders in the half light.  Knowing the roosting geese could be only yards away, we crossed the sea wall mindful of sky-lining ourselves against the lights of the town and ensconced a little distance apart amongst the sparse gorse bushes at the foot of the wall.  As the light grew, so too did the restlessness of the birds in the buffeting wind and it was a party of three or so that had lifted and were setting back over the sea wall into the wind, returning to the main gaggle, that offered the first chance of the day.   

Two barrels later and 3 or so geese flew on to join their friends out in the bay, my hastily snatched shots finding only thin air.  The reports however tipped the balance in the minds of the slumbering geese, it was time to go.  I heard the crescendo of the skein’s take off and, moments later, geese were scudding past me much like the fighter jets across the bay, at mach 2 and well up.  I fired a single parthian shot at a departing skein to no avail and Charlie too missed a good opportunity at a singleton that zipped low over him but the lead these speeding anserine bullets required that morning was beyond our calibre. 

With our barrels and limbs cooling rapidly in the continuing squall we resolved to return to the bikes then wend our way back to Charlie’s flat for some warming post flight nourishment.

An hour after leaving the marsh we were huddled in the living room, guns and clothes drying on all available radiators and, laid out in front of us, two almighty plates of fowling man’s breakfast!  Chatting for several hours, cleaning weapons and reliving the excitement of the morning flight, we developed a plan for evening.

At around 3pm we left the house dry and warm, ready for whatever the Arctic storm had to throw at us.  Spirits were soaring as the snow and wind showed no respite.  On arrival at the same part of the bay in which we had awaited morning flight, we were greeted by a single wigeon sitting on the edge of the snow covered fairway, sheltering behind a sprig of gorse.  As we neared, it grudgingly took to the air and fought its way down to the marsh below where we spied a large pack of duck sitting on the edge of the making tide.  Carefully negotiating our way over the bank, we adopted the same positions along the sea wall as we had done that morning; backs to the wind, eyes to the sky and minds on the geese that were soon to return.

A third fowler was to be joining our Arctic expedition and we soon expected Tim Field to appear out of the impending gloom.  However the first chance of the evening presented itself before his arrival.  A pair of wigeon flickered over Charlie, whose reactions had not been dulled by the cold. One bird fell on the marsh behind us and, after a brief search with the torch, was recovered.   

Some wildfowlers might take a very dim view of another fowler shooting without a dog and I would agree with them that a dog is an invaluable aid in retrieving injured or water borne birds, not to mention a great companion.  However one of the limitations the student fowler has to swiftly come to terms with is the fact that, as far as estate agents and landlords of student digs are concerned, dogs are not welcome guests.  As such, I and my friends learned to adapt our shooting habits to ensure shots were taken only when a clean kill over land could be expected.  Undoubtedly it reduced our shooting opportunities but added a different perspective to our fowling. 

Tim now appeared out of the snow which, having lessened for a time, had begun to fall again in earnest whipping past us almost horizontally in the rising gale.  Charlie and I left our positions to join him in the lee of a small gorse bush, keen for some brief respite from the relentless blizzard.  Sitting together, straining our ears for the sound of geese, we were surprised by a pack of birds only metres in front of us, hovering like the polarised image of fireflies against the floodlit snow screen.  I moved first and took a shot followed closely by the others.  It was impossible to tell if anything had been hit so I leapt forward to find three teal not far away lying close together in the fresh snow.  None of us could tell who shot them but my gut instinct told me my first shot had rung true and when Charlie and Tim said they felt their single shots had been off the mark, it seemed that my first barrel had claimed the trio! 

It was rapidly becoming hard to tell how light the sky was and when to expect the geese.  The snow was coming down thickly and soon our only view was towards the driving range where the floodlights illuminated the South Eastern view.  We stayed there huddled together in the shelter of the scrub atop the seawall, scenarios of incoming skeins wrestling with the elements at 15yrds off the deck keeping our minds sharp and eager despite the chilling conditions.  Suddenly we heard the murmur of goose song to our right.  Quickly spreading out along the wall we readied ourselves and our chambers for the appearance of the geese.  It seemed the first skein had passed to the South but we knew there would be more.  Our patience was rewarded when, shortly after the first skein, the unmistakeable cries of pinkfeet heralded the approach of a second, this time headed straight for the three of us.  The first birds reached Tim who generously waited until the skein was directly over the three of us before we opened up.   

I cannot speak for Tim or Charlie but for me the experience of waiting for that skein and that opportunity in conditions that you hear of spoken about by gnarled old fowlers in post flight pub talk, was a special moment; A moment to become indelibly etched into my mind as I swung through the right-hand branch of the ‘V’ and fired.  Too soon…?  A little further through… wait… now!  And then, to my relief, a goose peeled out of the formation and began to spiral down onto the golf course.  I ran out to collect my prize knowing full well that it could make good its escape in a matter of seconds in the squall.  It hit the deck and was clearly very lively running with both wings apparently functional towards the estuary.  Snatching a cartridge from my jacket pocket I loaded for a finishing shot, this goose was not going to escape!  I killed it only as it reached the sea wall, I dare not think what would have happened if I’d missed.  Having focussed solely on my bird until it was in hand, I now walked over to find out how the other two had faired.  Unfortunately they had both failed to connect but to be honest the skein was certainly higher than we would have expected given the conditions and was probably the best part of 45 yards up as they crossed our position.  We returned to out spots hoping for a further skein but despite waiting for another half an hour, none was forthcoming. 

We all realised during and after this flight that it would be one which we would not forget for many years to come.  For my part it was about being in an extreme environment with like minded people pursuing a common interest and cementing strong friendships with my fowling friends. Just some of the reasons I love this sport of wildfowling.