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Foul Weather Fowling
Adapted from "Fowler in the Wild" by Eric Begbie

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Its a long time ago now, but some of the adventures I shared with Peter, when we both lived in central Fife, will be remembered for even longer. One of the great joys was travelling to distant fowling grounds, despite the fact that for most of the season there would be upwards of 20,000 geese within a few miles of our homes. The north shore of the Solway Firth was not exactly uncharted territory as far as we were concerned but we did want to get to know the area better and a two day trip would permit us to explore more of the marsh.

Eastern Scotland had, for over a week, been in the icy grip of a severe freeze-up but, approaching Galloway, we were unprepared for the thick snow cover which lay in the fields and blocked all but the major roads. Even where snow ploughs had cleared a single track, the going was difficult and often we drove between high white walls through which only telegraph poles and the highest trees sprouted skywards. By mid-afternoon we had to engage 4-wheel drive to achieve striking distance of the coast and, despite the benefit of full traction, were eventually forced to abandon the vehicle a mile from the shore.

We had timed our visit to coincide with the full moon in the expectation that we might enjoy an evening flight, spend some hours on the moonlit merse and then retire to the comfort of the Land-Rover for a few hours sleep before returning to the marsh to do business with the fowl in the morning. Our plan was then to travel farther along the coast to sample a different location on the following evening. Taking account of the conditions, however, we elected to carry all of our clothing, together with the food and a camping stove, down to the sea wall and cache them within easy reach of the saltings. That way we would suffer from neither exposure nor hunger if, as appeared likely, the conditions worsened.

A high spring tide covered much of the marsh when we eventually slid our guns from their covers. Watching the light slowly fade from a cold cloudless sky we tried to pick a place where duck might form a flightline but, in the event, darkness fell without a shot being fired. We did hear the music of flighting pinkfeet from farther along the shore but, even had we chosen the right location, they almost certainly would have passed over well out of shot.

There was time for a welcome fry-up before the tide turned and we spent an hour wondering whether another fall of snow might maroon us on the foreshore for a week or more. With only sufficient food for a couple of days, the prospect was not particularly inviting, especially if we were unable to shoot enough fowl to augment our rations. Such idle speculation was, of course, the sort of romantic nonsense to which wildfowlers are prone as, no matter how deep the drifts on the roads, we could readily have walked ten miles along the high water mark to reach a coastal village.

When the moon came up and the water began to recede, we worked our way out over the shore, carefully noting every gutter and taking frequent compass readings as we progressed. With the silver orb of the moon rising higher in the sky a few wigeon began to whistle as they passed overhead but there was no chance to pick out the birds against the inky blackness of the clear sky. For a couple of hours we waited before Peter remarked that the chill had gone out of the air. A westerly breeze began to blow and soon some clouds drifted over, perfectly veiling the heavens and providing exactly the brightly illuminated backdrop for which wildfowlers pray.

For some time we shot steadily as small packs of duck traversed the saltings. A few pinks could be heard in the distance but none came our way. Then, with ominous suddenness, I was aware of a warm blast from the south as the wind abruptly changed direction and, almost immediately, the merse began to to crackle as ice in the creeks and gullies started to thaw. The thin covering of cloud was rapidly dispersed and replaced by dark towering masses which totally obscured the moon and, by the time we had regained the sanctuary of the sea wall with half a dozen wigeon apiece, a strong gale was driving rain across the marsh.

Attempting to steal a few hours sleep in those conditions was futile but, rather than try to return to the Land-Rover, we chose to shelter through the night in the lee of a large hawthorn thicket. In the knowledge that the tide would be flowing again by dawn we checked our bearings and, 90 minutes before the time scheduled for sunrise, headed for a raised portion of the saltings alongside a deep creek. With the storm becoming fiercer by the hour, two tired fowlers positioned themselves 100 yards apart to await the coming of first light.

Handicapped by my spectacles, I was cowering behind a bank, attempting to keep the rain off my face, when the sound of a shot echoed above the unrelenting howl of the wind. Glancing up, I was just in time to see a skein of geese racing towards me, not more than 25 yards above the flattened saltgrass. With the wind in their tails I doubt if their speed was much less than 70 mph and, just as so often happens, it was two hastily taken snap shots which brought a right and left crashing to the ground. Meg ran out, unbidden, to pick up the pinkfeet and she had barely returned with the second bird when another clustered group of seven or eight geese came sweeping over the saltings. This time it was Peter's turn to score a double while I had to be content with a second barrel kill. For half an hour the pinks continued to flight in, providing that superb quality of sport which far surpasses anything offered on the grouse moor or beside a pheasant covert.

Not until I dropped a bird into the gully did I notice the power which was behind the rushing water. Pushed by the incoming tide, the flow should have been upstream but, doubtlessly as a result of the exceptionally heavy rainfall and rapidly melting snow, the brown torrent was gushing out to sea.

Paying absolutely no heed to my shouts, Meg leaped into the raging water to retrieve the goose. Aided by the current she quickly caught up with the dead bird but, when she turned to bring it back, the bitch could make no headway against the stream. Unable to scramble up the steep, slithery sides of the creek, she began to tire and, as the minutes passed, started to slip back in the spate.

Having realised our plight, Peter came over to assist but there was nothing that either of us could do to help the stricken labrador. We watched in helpless horror as the little bitch grew weaker and I was on the edge of panic when Zulu slid down the banking into the gully and swam towards Meg. To our amazement the big dog took the goose from her and, demonstrating enormous power, paddled strongly upstream. Relieved of her burden, Meg succeeded in coming ashore and, although clearly exhausted, ran along the bank keeping pace with Zulu.

Once both dogs were safely on the firm merse we collected up our guns and bags and struggled back in the direction of the sea wall where we laid out nine pinkfeet before brewing a restoring jug of coffee. There were then decisions to be made. The choice lay between trudging back to the Land-Rover, with all our gear and the shot birds, in order that we might attempt to explore a different section of the Firth or, on the other hand, remain where we were for another day and night.

Noting that the thaw was continuing, we opted to stay put. That way, we calculated, there was a good chance that in 24 hours we would be able to drive the vehicle down to the shore and load up at the sea wall.

By mid-day the teeming rain had eased off and, although the gale remained unabated, we were rested and eager to resume our engagement with the fowl. Neither of us had much experience of tide flighting on the Solway but, after scanning the marsh with binoculars, decided that the high wind and fast-flowing tide made the experiment worthwhile. Aware of the dangers presented by such wild conditions on a strange marsh, we were perhaps not as adventurous as the situation demanded and it may be that we missed out on some of the best opportunities. Nevertheless, by continuously falling back before the advancing waves, we did see a lot of duck moving back and forth in their search for sanctuary. Not many passed within gunshot range but, by the time darkness fell, Peter had accounted for several mallard while I succeeded in getting a couple of nice cock teal and a single pintail.

By that time our hawthorn bushes were becoming very familiar and we felt almost at home while, once more, sheltering behind them waiting for the moon to rise. A welcome meal of tinned ham and baked beans was consumed as we laid plans for the night's campaign. We knew that if the events of the previous evening were repeated, we should have the best opportunity of getting under the pinkfeet by moving a mile farther along the saltings. However, faced with the choice of exploring uncharted territory in the dark or settling for the chance of a few wigeon, we opted to merely repeat the sortie of the night before. In view of the success which we had achieved during the morning flight, there was certainly no need to take any risks just for the sake of another few geese.

Rather than separate, Peter and I stayed together in the creek which I had occupied that morning. This strategy enabled both of us to obtain a degree of shelter from the gale, allowed us to watch two directions simultaneously and, most importantly in view of our earlier experience, meant that assistance was readily to hand if any difficulties arose.

The cloud cover was thin and variable with just sufficient moonlight to persuade the fowl to move. At first it looked as though we were to witness a repeat performance of the previous night's sport as small packs of wigeon flighted across the merse. Between us we shot almost a dozen of the whistling duck, with my companion getting the lion's share of the action, before their flightlines altered . As the ebbing tide progressively uncovered more of the saltings, the wigeon chose to frequent the freshly washed saltgrass farther out on the marsh.

For another half hour we sat, enjoying the sensation of being protected from the storm by our deep gutter. Just as we were discussing whether or not it was time to brave the elements and return to the sea wall, the music of pinkfooted geese was carried in on the gale and heavier cartridges were hurriedly loaded in the hope of a shot. The clamour of the geese grew in intensity as the ragged flock approached. Although it is never easy to estimate numbers at night, I guessed that there were over 2000 pinks silhouetted against the moonlit clouds with even more invisible against the darker sky.

For fully five minutes we crouched in that gully watching the geese overhead. There were orderly skeins and disorganised groups, high geese and low, silent parties and noisy. So enthralling was the spectacle that we let them all pass unmolested until the last shootable birds were directly above us. Misjudging their speed, we each had time for only a single shot and, as it happened, mine connected while Peter's went astray. During the wigeon flight I had kept Meg securely tethered by my side so that Zulu had to pick all of our duck but, as the pinkfoot was clearly in sight, lying on firm ground, I decided to release the little bitch to let her regain her confidence after the morning's ordeal. I need not have worried. She bounded out, picked up the dead goose and carried it high as she trotted back to our creek.

Despite our excitement, fatigue was beginning to have its effect and, notwithstanding the mildness of the night, both Peter and I began to feel chilled. It was not quite midnight, the moon was still high in the sky and we could have remained on the marsh in the expectation of getting some sporadic shooting but, surrendering to our shivers and feeling decidedly hungry, we repaired to our base to feed, rest and recover our energies for the morning flight.

It was totally unreasonable to expect another dawn like the one before yet, as the first pale streaks of morning were accompanied by a heightening of the gale and a resumption of the previous day's torrential rain, our anticipation of exciting sport was sharpened.

To add a little variety to the situation, Peter and I swapped places. This unfortunately meant that I had to keep my eyes open, being unable to rely upon the sound of my pal's shots to alert me to approaching birds. Despite my limited vision in those circumstances, the sight which unfolded as daylight strengthened was really quite incredible. Geese passed inland from their roost at the tide's edge, other geese crossed back over the merse after feeding under the moon, duck flew past in all directions and waders circled and spiralled in front of the advancing waves.

The effect of rain on my glasses did nothing to improve my standard of marksmanship but, by the time the marsh had quietened, Meg had retrieved three geese and several duck while Zulu had been working even harder for Peter. Our joint tally for the morning flight amounted to eight pinkfeet, a greylag and a dozen assorted duck.

Buffeted mercilessly by the gale, the trek back to dry land was even more arduous than previously. Eventually, breathless and soaking with sweat, we regained the shelter of the sea wall and thankfully slid down to our beloved hawthorn thicket. After shedding our load and recovering our breath, we drew lots to decide who would walk inland to collect the Land-Rover. Needless to say, I lost and, leaving Peter to guard the guns, dogs and equipment, I trudged up the track to reach the vehicle. For the first time in 36 hours my feet touched a metalled road.

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