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First Flight on Loch Leven
Eric Begbie recalls a great day

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Back in the early 1980s my wildfowling club had an amazing stroke of luck when an opportunity arose to rent some shooting rights adjacent to Loch Leven. Frequently, when motoring south with empty bags from a sortie to the Tay Estuary, my friend and I cast covetous glances at the great flocks of geese grazing in the stubbles alongside the motorway or filling the sky as they moved from field to field in search of the richest feeding. We knew that the loch itself was a nature reserve and that the estate which surrounded it was so carefully managed that no itinerant fowler was likely to be permitted to set foot on its verdant pastures.

What we did not realise at that time was that a small section of the loch's shoreline was in independent ownership. It was a vigilant club secretary who noticed a small advertisement in the "Dundee Courier" offering the sporting lease of a single field which ran down to the water's edge. A letter was written, an interview arranged and it said a good deal about the reputation of the club when, from over 100 applicants, the landowner chose us to be his shooting tenants.

Needless to say, the responsibilities placed upon the shoulders of the club committee were enormous. Under the watchful eyes of the nature reserve warden and the keepers of the adjoining estate, no lapse of good conduct could be permitted nor any hint of greed be tolerated. Fully aware of the burden resting upon its membership, the committee drew up a rota which ensured that both the frequency of shooting and the number of Guns were strictly controlled.

It was under this arrangement that, with considerable excitement, I prepared for my first flight at the loch. Days of rain had transformed the landscape into a patchwork of flood and flash while the temperature plummeted to deliver a final deathblow to the Korean chrysanthemums in the garden. From my window I could see that the first snow of winter had capped the hills and I retired to bed on the night before the flight with modest optimism for the morrow.

As always on shooting days, I awoke long before the alarm clock disturbed the rest of the household and washing, shaving, breakfasting and dressing were performed on automatic pilot. My mind was firmly on the hours ahead - a preoccupation which, judging from the scuffles emitting from the kennel outside, was shared by the labradors. As gun, clothing and dogs were packed into the Land-Rover, I noted that not only had the wind of the previous evening dropped to a gentle breeze but, perversely, the clouds had cleared during the night and a full moon brightly illuminated the snowy hilltops. Such conditions inevitably spell disaster for a morning flight on the estuary so I feared that the geese on the loch might already have deserted the roost to feed in the silver moonlight.

In the event, I need not have worried. I met the other two Guns who were scheduled to shoot that morning and we walked down the long narrow field to an accompaniment of goose music from many, many geese out on the water. Although the eastern sky was tinged with only the merest hint of dawn, the grey flocks were clearly preening in preparation for another day. We each ensconced ourselves in the tangle of reeds, rushes and hawthorn which lined the shore and slipped cartridges into the chambers of our guns in readiness for the flight.

Duck began to move very early. From my own position I was unable to catch sight of them until they had cleared the black backdrop of trees behind me and most were well out of shot before the gun could be brought to shoulder. A single bird did, however, give an advance warning quack and paid the price for its noisy approach. At last the pinkfeet and greylag began to grow restless. First a few small skeins rose from the vicinity of St Serf's island and traversed the length of the loch to pass high over the lights of Kinross. For a period of 20 minutes the activity increased until the sky seemed full of geese - skeins large and small, orderly and ragged, silent and calling, high and low. But only the high ones, it seemed, came over our stretch of shoreline. There were a few to which guns were raised but, discretion prevailing, triggers were not pulled. The possibility that a warden might have had his field glasses trained upon us added an extra margin of caution to our range-judging.

When we reckoned that the flight had ended we gathered by the boundary river to discuss the prospects for the remainder of the season. Certainly harder weather was required and a good gale would not go amiss. We were earnestly considering whether an evening duck flight might pay dividends when a loud "wink-wink-wink" caused us to dodge behind a thorny briar. Being the only one who had not slipped his gun into its cover, the youngest member of the party hurriedly thrust a single cartridge into the chamber of his 20-bore and brought the gun to bear upon the leader of four pinkfeet which had caught us unawares as they flighted the wrong way back towards the loch. As so often happens with a snap shot, his aim was spot-on and the goose tumbled out of the sky stone-dead. For once Meg did not run in and I was able to send my younger dog over the wide stream of the North Queich to collect the bird. While we were watching her swim back, another small group of pinks emerged from behind the trees and passed directly overhead well within rage. This time no-one succeeded in getting a cartridge into his gun.

Sadly, as the years passed, the number of club members who were willing to pay a small additional subscription for the privilege of shooting at Loch Leven declined and eventually we had to give up the lease. For those short years, however, it was a fantastic privilege to be able to go wildfowling right on the shore of one of Europe's principal waterfowl wintering sites. Admittedly, having access to only a few hundred yards of the loch's 12-mile shoreline meant that the geese did not always flight over our patch but, when the weather was suitably wild, watching the great skeins battle against a gale as they come off that expansive inland water was the next best thing to being far out on the foreshore.

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