|Give Me the Moonlight!
the moon on the shore of Loch Leven
|There can be few more enthralling experiences for a wildfowler than to attempt to flight grey geese under the moon. Regrettably, the right conditions occur so rarely that I had to flick back through the game book for several years to find a successful account of such an expedition. Mark you, the occasion is so indelibly etched upon my memory that I hardly required any prompting to recall the tale.
If I may be permitted to alter the metaphor slightly, the red letter night in question occurred during the period, a few seasons ago, when my local fowling club, the Eden Wildfowlers' Association, held the lease of a field that ran right down to the shore of Loch Leven in Kinross-shire.
Because it is such an important overwintering site for migratory fowl, the loch has been a National Nature Reserve since 1964 and the land leased by our club was one of very few sections of shoreline that are outwith the designated reserve. We always felt a great sense of privilege in being able to shoot there. Many sportsmen do, of course, decoy geese with the assistance of a professional guide in the feeding grounds close to the loch but being able to flight them right at the water's edge really was something very special.
Under the moon that experience becomes even more magical but, as most fowlers will readily appreciate, there are very few occasions each season when the necessary combination of conditions comes together and makes a successful night flight possible.
Of critical importance is the degree of cloud cover. Thick clouds will obscure the moon completely while, even worse, is a totally clear sky. Trying to pick out birds against the twinkling stars of an inky firmament is pretty well impossible. Best of all is a thin veil of clouds which will be brightly illuminated by the moon and against which the fowl will be clearly silhouetted. Just to complicate matters, when geese are the quarry, we need an evening when the moon does not rise until a couple of hours after sunset. This timing offers a chance that the birds will return from their feeding fields to the roost and have time to rest before moonlight persuades them that a nocturnal nosh-up might be an attractive prospect.
That year both the October and November full moons had failed to provide suitable conditions and it was not until two days after the December moon that a sortie to the loch became a feasible proposition. By good fortune, I was also in possession of a fine Tolley 8-bore that Patrick Keen had kindly loaned to me from his exceptional collection of big fowling guns, so I had a double reason for making the short journey to Kinross-shire that night.
When I drew up beside the bridge over the North Queich, where we normally parked our cars, I was selfishly pleased to note that no other club members had been tempted out for a moonflight. That evasive sense of solitude, so valued by wildfowlers as a respite from the hurly-burly of modern life, is accentuated when out under the moon and it was a real bonus to have the place to myself.
Meg ran ahead exploring fresh rabbit scents as a careful path was picked towards the shore. The moon was just beginning to poke above the eastern horizon and was not yet brightening the sky sufficiently to light up the uneven ground. In another hour it would be possible to walk around as confidently as in full daylight.
Geese never really settle on the roost at times of a full moon. Even when it is totally obscured by cloud, both pinkfeet and greylag will talk incessantly throughout the night and, even if there is insufficient light for serious flying, they will restlessly move back and forwards within the roosting area. Long before Meg and I reached the water's edge, the sound of the birds could be heard from out on the loch.
Although the hide that I'd built from pallets and camouflaged with reeds at the start of the season was hardly necessary for concealment purposes, it did provide a comfortable place to sit while drinking in the atmosphere and a warm cup of tea while waiting for the silver orb to rise behind the thin filigree of high cloud. Working from sounds rather than having any visual clues, it seemed that there was a small group of about two hundred pinkfooted geese roosting offshore between the hide and Scart island. The main body of pinks, which from latest counts must have numbered over 10,000, were located farther out, in the shallows north of St. Serf's Island.
The cartridges that Patrick had supplied with the double-8 were old Eleys, loaded in varnished paper cases with rolled turnover closures. I carefully checked the printing on the over-shot wads to ensure that I was chambering No.1s rather than the smaller shot sizes he had given me for duck.
Before long a couple of small skeins rose from the group out in front but they passed several hundred yards to the south of my position, probably heading for a barley stubble that they had been using during the day. Another hour passed before there was any substantial movement. Then things really did come alive. The air was filled by the evocative talk of flighting pinkfeet and I could sense, rather than see, a large mass of maybe a thousand birds leaving the roost near St Serf's and wheeling over the loch before settling again much closer to where I sat.
There was now almost continual activity as groups of geese moved under the moon. Some took a course over the town of Kinross towards the pastures below the Cleish Hills while others appeared to favour the area to the north of the loch above Balgedie.
I had almost given up all hope of getting a shot when the pinks that had settled close to my hide became restless. For five or ten minutes their talking became more impatient and then, with characteristic suddenness, they fell completely silent. For three or four seconds the night was still before being filled with the heart-stopping clamour of several hundred geese taking to the air.
Meg's tail began to beat an urgent tattoo against the timbers of the hide and I gripped the Tolley with renewed anticipation. It would be nice to be able to relate that those geese came directly overhead and that I scored a classic right-and-left. In wildfowling, however, events rarely unfold quite as sweetly as that.
Most of the birds passed a hundred yards to my left and only a small skein of perhaps a dozen crossed to my side of the Queich. Swinging the heavy muzzles of the 8-bore through the nearest goose, I pulled the front trigger and watched with delight as the pinkfoot tumbled out of the sky. As Meg ran out, unbidden, to pick it, I guessed with regret that the remaining birds were too far away to warrant a second shot.
Although I waited another thirty minutes, hoping that more geese might come my way, it was not to be. Nevertheless, it had been a wonderful evening and I walked back up the field towards the old Isuzu feeling completely at peace with the world.
Incidentally, my game book reveals that the goose shot that night bore a leg ring. When I received the ringing data back from the authorities, it transpired that the bird had been banded as a juvenile two years earlier at Merton Mere. Just why a pinkfoot which had spent its first winter on the west coast of England should turn up two seasons later in eastern Scotland is one of those unfathomable mysteries that add to the unpredictability of the sport of wildfowling.
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