|Thirty-odd years ago, when I was looking for a fitting epigram to grace the title page of my first book, "Modern Wildfowling", I came across a quotation from James Wentworth Day which seemed to encapsulate the abiding qualities of the sport. It went: "The true philosopher of the gun is the wildfowler, for he must have the sensitive eye of an artist, a love of solitude and lonely places. He measures beauty by the flash of a bird's wing, by the glint of dawn on sliding waters, by the march of slow clouds. He is the son of solitude, the lonely one."
Looking back, I suspect that I took myself far too seriously in those days. Worse still, I expected my readers to do the same. Yet, when all is said and done, the words of Wentworth Day are just as apposite today as they were when first penned. Perhaps more so.
Solitude is a wonderful therapy, a powerful antidote to the pressures of modern life. As the apple-green luminescence of a false dawn creeps across the eastern sky, a lone fowler out on the estuary can contemplate many of the eternal questions of the universe - such as Darwin's view of evolution, Einstein's theory of relativity or why a spaniel always waits until you are looking the other way before setting off in pursuit of a hare.
He might even solve the first two!
I don't imagine that many of the great thinkers of the past would have developed their philosophies against a background cacophony of traffic noise, mobile phones and chattering tellies yet, when we try to explain how much we value the peace of the salt marsh, half of the people think we are weird; the other half can't hear us above the din from pub's muzak system.
Fortunately, as wildfowlers, we are allowed to be weird. Why else would we rise from a snug bed long before dawn, drive halfway across the country to the coast and then trudge through glutinous mud with a gale driving sleet into our faces before sitting in a creek for two hours waiting for the geese that eventually fly past three gunshots high?
I'll tell you why. It's because out there on the marsh we are more in touch with our roots than 99% of the population will ever be. It's because, in fair weather or foul, there is more raw beauty in the estuarine wilderness than in a thousand city art galleries; more evocative music from the wildfowl and shorebirds than in all the concert halls of the nation. And because, no matter how stormy the morning, the slow lightening of a dawn sky never fails to bring inner peace. Yes - really weird!
In fact, fowlers are almost as weird as flyfishers. A few weeks ago I was trying to explain to someone why I enjoyed pushing a boat out on a secluded loch and fishing, totally alone, into the dusk with only the gentle sounds of rising trout breaking the silence. "You should get a grip of reality", I was advised. The only response I could muster on the spur of the moment was, "What's so great about reality?"
Is reality a wee girl's broken body being found in a ditch after being murdered by a paedophile? An old woman being mugged after collecting her pension at the Post Office? Football thugs wrecking a city centre? Drug crazed hooligans trashing a housing estate? If so, pass me my fly rod. Or excuse me while I whistle up the labs and head for the saltings.
You see, in a lifetime of country sports, I have never met a fowler or an angler who needs the artificial stimulation of narcotics. I can't imagine that the sedative effect of opium gives a deeper peace than an hour on the marsh or in a pigeon hide. Surely the "high" from an ecstasy tablet is pretty poor compared to the thrill of a successful shot at a fleetingly glimpsed teal.
Similarly, you simply don't find field sports participants engaging in any of the other perversions and anti-social behaviours that feature so regularly in the "crime columns" of our local newspapers, a fact that most certainly derives from the high level of respect for other beings, their property and the environment that country sports engenders.
But that's me getting too serious again. As another season draws nigh and the great battalions of grey geese prepare to migrate back to our shores, let's relish some of the other ways that the sport of wildfowling can safeguard our sanity.
Having a gundog certainly helps. Because, as fowlers, we are not interested in the circus tricks of a field trial mutt, we can choose our dogs according the qualities that will be of value on the foreshore. What we really need is a big strong goose dog that will brave a foaming tide to bring back the birds.
Some gundog experts may not be conversant with Begbie's First Canine Law but less refined readers will readily recognise that the bigger and coarser a dog is, the less foolish you feel when talking to it. Even when you are miles away from any other human being at the outer extremity of the saltmarsh, you would feel a bit daft talking to a corgi or a yorkie. But you can have a real discussion with an oversized labrador.
The point of this digression is that talking to a dog has been proven to be an effective stressbuster. A gundog, especially, will listen to your troubles without interrupting and it will never contradict what you say. Most important of all, it does not evaluate your words or actions. It doesn't even accuse you of being weird for going fowling in the first place. How many of your friends can you say that about?
Yet another route that wildfowling charts towards sound mental health is that the pursuit of wild fowl in wild places conditions us to coping with failure. Someone once calculated that a coastal fowler had a one-in-three chance of finishing a flight with a bird in the bag. Last season's permit returns from my local estuary suggest that this was an over-optimistic view.
The crux of the matter is that if you can cope with sleep deprivation, endure a soaking in icy brine and feel envious of brass monkeys, just to be rewarded by missing the only duck that comes within half a mile, then you will have no difficulty with minor life crises such as redundancy, divorce or the cost of non-toxic cartridges.
Given the choice between being a "son of solitude" or a "reality junkie", I know which side of the river I'm going to be flighting. But first, let me finish by returning to the more serious theme. While hunting ducks with Cree Indians in Saskatchewan a couple of years ago I read about an American education initiative called "Hooked on Fishing - Not on Drugs"
A number of schools, voluntary agencies and fishing interests had combined their resources to offer kids from deprived areas a chance to go fishing rather than hang about on street corners. The early signs were that getting into the countryside and participating in a "hunting" experience was very effective in diverting youngsters away from delinquent sub-cultures.
Maybe our wildfowling clubs (and angling clubs) need to be much more pro-active in encouraging young people to become involved. Many folk have suggested that the future of our sports depends upon recruiting new entrants. Let me take it a stage further - perhaps the future of our society depends upon it.
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