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West Wind
by Alan Jarrett

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Storm Rising
The weather map on the BBC showed a deep low-pressure system piling in from the Atlantic Ocean.   A gloomy prediction accompanied the map, with a sober-looking presenter promising dire consequences for southern England unless some miracle occurred.   “There could be storm damage – do not go abroad unless your journey is necessary!”   Well I too hoped for a miracle – that the weatherman’s miracle would not occur and that the mother of all storms would indeed hit us!   I fervently hoped that my roof would not be blown off, or my car heaved from the road, but apart from that let it do its worst! 

The weatherman’s portent of doom and the layman’s curse are in fact the sort of thing we wildfowlers hope for above all other.   Give us snow or wind, and all manner of filthy weather thrown in and we will be content, and so long as we do not get an accompanying plague of locusts I shall be happy enough.   I must admit that I do not much care for the rain which is usually part and parcel of a serious storm; I can find few, if any, redeeming features about shooting in the rain, however if it is the storm with rain attached or no storm at all I will take the rain every time! 

Lovely, lovely weatherman.   Not that he would bring me a storm, but he would at least give some warning of its approach and with it time to prepare for a day out of what passes for normal life.   According to the weatherman this storm would hit sometime late the next day, get steadily worse overnight until it got itself into a thoroughly bad mood by the following morning.   Thus the blissful scenario of a serious storm with a wild wind from the west over one of my favourite marshes was enough to get the adrenalin racing and send me out to walk the dog with a spring in the step. 
It was a quiet enough night, with the sky almost completely devoid of cloud and the whole of the ether was a-twinkle with stars from horizon to horizon.   Was this truly the lull before the storm?   Whether it was or not made little difference, so long as I believed it to be so! 

Later as I leaned across a post and rail fence, and listened to the dog snort and cavort her way through the grasses round about, I looked to the west and imagined the maelstrom being whipped up hundreds of miles away on the bleak ocean.   I thought back to the days past when storms had thrashed the saltmarsh mercilessly and the wildfowl and been scattered before the winds in the desperate search for a sheltered place.   Mostly of course work or other commitments would have caused the opportunity to be passed up; just now and again I had managed to get out onto the shore, and with even greater rarity I had hit it right and got a few shots and a few birds to take home.   This time I was determined to at least be there – chance whether my luck would be in or not. 

Storm Breaking

Man and dog cowered in a deep, narrow gutter with the fury of the storm breaking over us.   It had been a long and pain-filled walk into the wind which had taken over two hours; two hours of slipping and sliding on muddy lumps and rutted edges; of cloying mud around ankles and calves; of shrieking wind, and – mercifully – no worse than sporadic rain.   The rain was being pushed through at a rate of knots, so that most of the squalls passed soon enough; yet while they were on the rain came in huge stinging globules which would no doubt have been fearsome to behold but for the darkness which hid everything. 

The last leg had given a short respite from the wind as it pushed at my side then my back as my walk took me in a wide hook around a great creek, although this was more than compensated for by the rain which then set in for what turned out to be a prolonged spell.   The whole of the salting was squelching and wet through, even though the tide had long since departed, whilst the gutters were running with water as the rain hammered down. 

Amazing as it often seems a gutter offered some respite; the wind mostly passed by overhead, and even the rain seemed less severe when once down below the level of the marsh.   I rested there, half sitting half lying, hoping that it would be worth it and that the birds would give me the chance to make the trek more than a fruitless exercise.   It merely remained to await a dawn that would obviously be much delayed by the heavily overcast skies. 

A bigger creek meandered its way across the mud flats before emptying into a main creek, which in its turn ran out into the channel and thence to the sea, and it was to the saltmarsh edge of this that I made my way in anticipation of the dawn.   Sometimes the saltmarsh edge was the place to be, whilst on others the big creek itself was the hot spot – only the dawn would reveal the truth of where the main flight would be.   If indeed there was to be a flight at all! 

On such mornings there is no light to shoot by for a long time.   Then all of a sudden gaps appear in the scudding clouds and the dawn gloomily breaks through.   It is a fantastically exciting time, with anticipation running high and all senses alert for the first chance; it is absolutely vital to maximise those early chances if at all possible, as all too often there may not be any more. 

No matter how wet through the dog may appear there is little that will dampen the enthusiasm of the Labrador.   In this respect dog and man are at one, as we await the sighting of the first duck, and both revel in this dark, bleak environment known to so few in this modern age in which we all live. 
The first duck appeared flying very low and well to the right – a tightly packed bunch of teal some dozen or so strong.   There soon followed three more bunches on the same line, so that the classic wildfowler’s dilemma arose – move to where the birds were flighting, or wait to let the light strengthen and reveal whether or not the flight was likely to occur on a wider front.   It is a difficult matter to decide on, for the flight may be narrow and short-lived; equally a move can precipitate a disaster with birds then crossing your recently vacated position!   This has happened often enough for me to know when to stay put, and I duly waited it out. 

In the event I did not have too long to wait as another pack of teal came to my right and for all I know may be flying still for all the effect the two shots had.   It never ceases to amaze me how duck – teal in particular – can fly so amazingly fast into a headwind; indeed shooting in a wild wind is perhaps the most difficult test there is in the wildfowling world, with both birds and shot undoubtedly being blown all over the place.   If there is any predictability in the flightpath of the birds it is very quickly dissipated as soon as the birds catch sight of the waiting wildfowler, or when a shot is fired – then it is every bird for itself as they scatter every which way. 

A couple more desultory longish shots brought no reward, and it was now possible to see that the flight was indeed scattered over a broad front so that it was not possible to determine with any degree of confidence where the best ambush place was likely to be.   The only common theme was that the birds were flying very low indeed, teal in the main but with a good number of wigeon too.   It had the makings of a very good flight indeed if the birds kept moving. 

At length I opted to move and then tottered out across the mud, pushed on by the lunatic wind that threatened to blow me off balance at every step.   It was again blessed relief to be low down out of the wind, although on this occasion I was in the deepest part of the creek and below the level of the mud itself.   I always find this a marvellous way to flight – out across the muds where you seem to be even more in the environment of the birds and at one with nature.   It does of course have a downside in that if you are unprepared it can be the very devil to shoot accurately as there is the constant struggle to extricate oneself from mud which continually tries to pull you down.   I was not particularly well prepared, and this was to lead to several uncomfortable, if highly stimulating, hours. 

It was some while before I managed to connect with anything.   This produced a wigeon from a pack of about eight birds, and the bird went spinning back on the wind for some way.   The dog eventually brought back a fine adult cock that would once have been resplendent in its winter finery before it splattered into a particularly cloying piece of mudflat. 

There then developed an amazing flight.   It remains one of the best I have experienced which has not been affected by snowy or freezing weather, and in many respects one of the most difficult.   Most certainly the shooting was challenging - at least I had difficulty placing shot consistently upon a speeding target.   I firmly believe that you often shoot in front of the bird under these conditions, whilst for the longer shots surely the pattern is blown apart by the more severe gusts.   It is always better to have some excuses for doing badly, and on this wild morning I was in need of all the excuses available!   Often spells of indifferent shooting can be overcome by sheer determination – simply by continuing to shoot until the wrongs have been righted.    Seldom, if ever, do you have this opportunity on the foreshore, although this day was to be different yet again. 

Pack Upon Pack

Far off in the middle distance a swarm of low flying birds appeared.   At first I thought them to be teal, but at length they turned out to be wigeon, flying low to hug the mud and beating right up to my position.   This time I did a little better, managing to knock out two birds with the first two shots whilst the third shot was in vain at birds which by then had exploded up and back on the wind at the shots. 
More wigeon came, and more missed shots.   Fitfully the rain came through, presaged on each occasion by a great brooding black cloud and an increased wind velocity fit to blow you over if you did but dare to venture into the open.  Only once did I attempt to look back at the sky to see how long it would be before it blew clear, and then the great globules of water slashed and stung at the face so that I quickly looked away again. 

During one of these mad squalls a duck mallard came right up to me, as if to land in the creek beside me.   The shot crumpled her unceremoniously but she went back on the wind an incredibly long way before a great gout of mud was flung up as she hit the flats.   Later I estimated the drop at almost 100 yards, which was a truly amazing occurrence considering how low the bird had been.    It was an astonishing event, but not the only amazing thing to happen that day.  

Much later more teal began to come through, hugging the mud as only teal can but still travelling at a remarkable rate of knots and for consistency sake it was as easy to miss them as it had been with the bigger duck.   Eventually a couple flew into a charge of shot, which made me realise that there was something in the cartridges after all!   At length a really big pack of teal came right up the mud at almost zero feet; most of them passed very close by to the right but I held my attention on a single cock bird which passed by my left shoulder.   Every colour and feature on him was visible as he passed within a few feet – far too close to shoot at – and no bird appeared more delicately handsome on this wild morning. 

After a few seconds my shot caught him at about 30 yards range and in that same instant a great gust of wind came and took him hurtling back the way he had come to hit the harder mud edge of the creek some 60 or 70 yards away.   Then astonishingly the wind bowled the little duck over and over until he was blown into the edge of the salting where he lay quite dead.   Much later the dog went across and hunted out the salting edge until she found the bird and brought it to hand. 

Another pack of approaching wigeon produced a pleasant surprise for there was a single duck pintail in their midst.   She fell right in front of the gutter in which I hid and the dog had only a few paces to go for this retrieve.   The shooting had been wayward in the extreme at times, but the intermittent problems with the gun which I had been experiencing over recent weeks reached a height of despair this day with more jammed cartridges than enough to add to my confusion.   This was to be the final trip out to the marsh for that gun, for a newer model waited at home, and was to be pressed into service without further delay. 

Then of course there was the creek in which dog and man hid: when I had first slid down its shiny pristine side it had been cleanly cut and devoid of any unnatural signs.   Little side inlets gave passage to the out-flowing tide, or the rain water which poured from the flats, whilst the edges of the creek were pockmarked with a myriad tiny holes where the small ragworm live.   Water poured along the bottom of the creek, in common with so many creeks of the same kind – all providing a conduit for water desperately seeking the easiest passage to the sea.   But after a few hours of stooping and ducking to remain unseen; of pulling sinking feet from cloying mud, and replacing them in a slightly less cloying place; of sitting on any muddy protrusion in the side of the creek until it gave way under the weight and cracked and slithered into the creek bed to make it more cloying still, the creek was an absolute mess. 

There have been many such creeks previously, and there have been many since.    No doubt there will be more in the future, as there are occasions when this type of shooting is the best way of getting on terms with the birds.   One answer of course is to be prepared and take something to place in the creek bed, as this will immediate prevent the constant battle with sinking feet.   Something to sit on in the side of the creek is of course another way of bringing a little comfort into what must always be by any measure an uncomfortable shooting situation. 

There are throughout these marshes variously scattered hard-bottomed hiding places, where I have carried wood or plastic out to flight.   Some of these places are in regularly use, whilst others become lost and forgotten as the saltings change and the birds no longer flight the same.  

On this morning the wind continued to blow, and the fitful rainsqualls swept through periodically.   The duck flight continued too, although there were fewer birds at more widely spaced intervals as the morning progressed.   It would be a long and arduous walk back, and as by midday I had a good bag of 17 duck and the water had got through the outer protective layer of clothing to make me uncomfortably wet it was time to give it best. 

No sooner back into the salting than I spied a pair of mallard approaching.   Their approach was low and slow against the wind, giving plenty of time to wriggle out of my rucksack and take cover in the salting to await their arrival.   In due course the drake came right up to where I hid, and the single shot caught him neatly for the wind to take him back the way he had come until he disappeared behind a clump of spartina.   The dog had been unsighted from her hidey hole in the creek next to me and I took here right down the marsh and back across the wind from where she soon found the drake – quite dead, but covered in mud. 

Wildfowl are magnificent creatures, with the drakes resplendent in their winter finery.   It is, for me, one the enduring disappointments of shooting under such conditions that most of the birds end up spattered with mud, and thus a little of their beauty is lost.    This last drake was a prime example to illustrate my point, with his bottle-green head and fine chestnut breast smeared in one dirty brown caking of estuary mud. 

The bag was now heavier still, and it was time to slide the gun into its slip and fasten it down so that no matter what the temptation no more shots would be fired on this day.   A truly wonderful bag consisting of 7 teal, 7 wigeon, 3 mallard and 1 pintail, and when I arrived back at the car a full two hours later I decided that this had to go down as one of my all-time great wildfowling adventures.

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