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Meg Saves the Day
An extract from Fowler in the Wild by Eric Begbie

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Where the dunes narrow and meet the shore of the outer estuary, a little reed-fringed depression in the sand fills with water at each tide. One morning, many years ago, two members of the wildfowling club arrived at the spot and discovered more than 200 geese having a wash and brush-up in the shallows. Although the phenomenon was never repeated, that small tidal lake became known as the "goose pool".

The sandhills overlooking the pool provided an ideal hiding place for a waiting gunner and, if the pinks were roosting far out on the flats, their flightline might be directly over his head.

With that possibility in mind, I had risen very early and taken Meg from her kennel. Under the harsh sodium lights of the quiet village streets nothing moved and we travelled eastwards along deserted country roads. In the market town the first signs of a new day were beginning to show. A squad of cleaning ladies waited for the caretaker to open up the ancient oak doors of the school and a mailvan stood outside the post office, its exhaust billowing white in the cold morning air. Another few miles of empty highways and then we met a sudden flurry of activity as the nightshift spilled out of the mill at the head of the river.

Turning down the narrow forest track it was with an element of selfish satisfaction that I noted no other tyre marks in the glistening covering of hoar frost. Around the gamekeeper's cottage sleepy pheasants perched in the conifers like fairy lights on a Christmas tree but those birds aroused no sense of excitement on a morning when the pursuit of a nobler quarry was in prospect.

Stars still twinkled brightly in the clear black sky as I released Meg from the back of the car and swiftly climbed into overtrousers, wellingtons and a warm camouflaged jacket. Then, checking that there was an ample supply of cartridges in my pocket and that the car doors were securely locked, I whistled the dog to heel and strode out along the well-worn path through the dunes towards the shore. Only the merest breeze ruffled the long coarse grass and, with the better part of a mile still to walk, the faint strains of goose talk greeted my ears.

Spurred on by the welcome sound, I hastened my pace and allowed Meg to hunt ahead as we progressed. Twice she put up rabbits from in front of her nose and stood, stock still, watching them bolt. The thought may have been entirely fanciful but I credited the fact that she did not give chase, as she normally would have done, to some knowledge on her part about the real purpose of the outing.

When, at last, the goose pool was reached, I crept cautiously over the sand to find a hiding place in the reed fringes. The eastern sky was just beginning to take on an indigo hue as, with Meg now keeping very close, I settled down to await dawn. Although the pinkfeet were fully 400 yards out on the flats, their music seemed to surround me and, anticipating an excellent flight, I guessed that there must be upwards of 1000 birds on the roost.

Without a strong wind or stormy sea to disturb their leisure, the geese were in no hurry to leave the foreshore that morning. Ever so slowly the world lightened and the estuary came awake. The first birds to move were herring gulls which travelled silently landwards, no doubt to seek out and follow an early tractor ploughing the barley stubbles. Then, singly and in pairs, crows descended upon the shoreline, their raucous cawing rudely disturbing the tranquil scene as they searched for morsels amongst the seaweed at high water mark. When the golden orb of the sun poked above the far horizon, woodpigeon came out from the forest and dropped down to the sands to replenish the supply of grit in their crops before departing inland again for their breakfast.

Still the pinkfeet did not move. At one stage a sudden movement of Meg's head caused me to look behind and I simultaneously sank lower into the reeds and gripped the gun tighter as three long-necked shapes registered on the periphery of my vision. Before the safety catch had been slipped forward, however, the birds revealed themselves as cormorants. How often, I wondered, had those evil-looking fisheaters caused a wildfowler's pulse to quicken in vain?

I remembered other mornings when, under similar conditions, it had been a full hour after sunrise before the geese rose from the shore. My vigil that day might have been equally protracted had not a helicopter from the nearby airfield appeared in the sky. It is a strange matter that the fowl are able to ignore jet fighters streaking over their heads but become greatly disturbed if a whirlybird approaches within half a mile. Protesting noisily, the huge flock took to the air and, like a dense dark cloud, headed low over the sand towards me.

Conscious of the adrenalin affecting my heart-rate, I crouched low, trying desperately to attain invisibility in my sparse reed haven. Then everything seemed to go wrong. With the first birds directly overhead, I sprang up and pulled the trigger. Missed! Swinging on to another goose I pulled again but the firing pin fell impotently on to the primer and the cartridge did not detonate. Birds were streaming over my position as I fumbled to remove the dud shell and insert another round into the upper chamber of my gun but, in my haste, I dropped the cartridge into the water at my feet.

By the time that I had succeeded in reloading, the skein was well out of range and I muttered a string of curses at the lost opportunity. Then I noticed that Meg's eyes were still firmly fixed on the departing pinks and, following the direction of her gaze, I saw one of the birds falter and begin to lose height. Without waiting for a command, the little bitch took off and raced out of sight into the sand dunes. She was away for fully 10 minutes and I had removed the cartridges from the gun, buckled it into its sleeve and was considering whether to set out in search of her when she re-appeared over the crest of the nearest dune, clutching the fat goose in her tender jaws. It is a cardinal rule of wildfowling that, whenever one appears to suffer an inexplicable miss, the birds should be watched vigilantly until they are out of sight. A wounded goose can carry on flying for a considerable distance before dropping from the skein and, if it has been hit, every effort must be made to retrieve it. That morning, in my dejection, I had failed to abide by the rule but Meg saved both the day and the bird.

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