This was harder to write than my previous two wildfowling articles because it’s not easy for me to clearly remember something that happened 25 years ago. I’ve never been one for recording stuff in a diary or even taking photos, so thinking back to those far off days (from my perspective at least) before camera phones and Facebook pages gave everyone the ability to make an eternal record of every commonplace occurrence. Sadly, all I have to rely on to tell this tale is my sepia toned memory of the day, so I hope that hindsight doesn’t embellish the facts too much. What I do recall with crystal clarity is the sense of anticipation that built within me as the moment drew closer, and like a child on Christmas day, that almost unbearable wait, as the time between waking and present opening stretches out to eternity. For this article is about how I came to the sport, and to the actual day I would venture forth, under moonlit skies, with my own gun and join that pantheon of shooting greats. This day, I would become a Wildfowler.
Firstly, a little context. Being born into a farming family has its advantages for a lad with a sporting outlook on life. Dad wasn’t always a farmer, and has long since retired from agriculture, but it just so happened that when I arrived on the scene, the world I was born into was composed of 600 acres of mixed farmland and woodland, a wonderland for a boy like me to have endless adventures in and develop a healthy appetite for the great outdoors. As the youngest of four (it is often said my arrival was a bit of a surprise), I had a lot more freedom afforded to me than my older siblings, mother and father being run ragged with life as they were at the time. So my upbringing was much more relaxed than that of my much older sisters, and I certainly got away with more than my brother ever did. Thus, I spent most of my spare time roaming the boundaries with catapult or air rifle (once deemed safe enough to do so), and as long as I was home for tea, was left to my own devices.
Organically grown, free range and with a healthy interest in the natural world cultivated, my obsession with fieldsports grew unabated. I greedily devoured any books, magazines and stories devoted to the subject, and as my knowledge of the theory expanded, so too did my desire to experience more of the practical. Up to that point, other than forays with my trusty BSA Supersport, my exposure to real shooting had been quite limited, mostly accompanying father on pigeon decoying expeditions as observer and bag carrier, or ‘brushing’ on local shoots. I had a few shots every now and then (under strict supervision), but frustrations grew within me and a burning need to ‘have a proper go’ just could not be extinguished.
I still have the first shotgun certificate granted to me shortly after my 14th birthday, a very proud moment for me, as it meant I was now ‘in the club’ even if I still wasn’t allowed to go solo. Opportunities to shoot became more frequent (always under supervision), and it was noted that I appeared to have a natural talent for hitting targets, so one day I was taken to my local clay ground and assessed by an instructor. It was the first time I had ever fired more than a handful of shots in one go, and it turned out I did possess some latent abilities, which my father was urged to nurture. Funds weren’t freely available for this, so a compromise arrangement was reached, and for the next few months I would spend every other Sunday morning ‘trapping’ for paying customers, and in return I would receive an hours lesson the following Sunday. I really enjoyed my time there, and many years later I returned to work there as an instructor and course setter, still the best job I’ve ever had and a brilliant time in my life. Hmmmm… maybe a future article there?
By the time my 15th birthday rolled around, I was an accomplished and safe shot. The lessons had sharpened my natural skills, I was competing on level terms with (and sometimes better than) people who had been shooting for many more years than I, and it was suggested that now was the right time for me to have my own gun rather than keep using someone else’s. Father decided on a budget that compromised many future birthday and Christmas presents, and I literally bounced with excitement on the journey to the local gun shop. Two or so hours later, I was finally the owner of my own shotgun, and my life was complete. It was an absolute pig, a heavy, ill-fitting and decrepit Spanish made 12 bore over and under with double triggers and a kick like a mule. But it was mine, and mine alone. The kindly old gent who owned the shop threw in 250 cartridges and made a promise to buy the gun back whenever I decided to upgrade. I never did take him up on the offer, and that old doorstop still resides in my cabinet.
Fowling season was on the horizon, and with it the chance of a day or two ‘on the flood’ at my Uncles farm in Buckinghamshire. He kept sheep and cattle on land either side of the River Great Ouse, and often autumn rains lead to the lower lying meadows becoming submerged, and with that came hordes of migratory ducks and geese. As a family, we often went up for the odd day or two when he needed help on the farm, but every year without fail father took a weeklong trip to see him in October, and they would spend the week fishing, shooting and drinking. I had spent the whole summer on my best behaviour, in turns acting as grown up as I could, but also begging him to let me tag along like a little child. Little did I know that he and my Uncle had something a little different in mind this year, as I was soon to find out.
The time when he usually went had come and gone, and I spent a few days feeling sorry for myself, cursing my luck. The weather had been unusually mild and dry, so I harboured hopes that the trip was merely delayed and not cancelled. I came home from school on the last Friday of the month, to find the car loaded with dogs, bags and guns, and my heart sank at the thought that I wouldn’t be going this time. To my utter surprise, instead of saying goodbye, Father told me to get changed, grab my things and get in the car, as we were leaving as soon as I was ready. I raced around the house with a religious fervour, and in no time at all, was sitting in the passenger seat of the car. As we drove down the lane, my thoughts turned to the days ahead, and the chance of a moonlit duck flight. But what was this? We weren’t taking the usual route to Uncles farm…. Father remained tight lipped, with the vaguest hint of a knowing smile.
All I remember about the drive was the skull crushing boredom. With a short stop off for a sandwich and a toilet break somewhere very forgettable, it was late (or early depending on your point of view) when we finally arrived at our destination. It was a windswept and desolate place, or so it seemed bathed in the light of the cars headlamps. Dad was tired, so after feeding the dogs in the cramped boot, he reclined his seat, covered himself in his coat and promptly fell asleep. I tried to do the same, but was far too excited to sleep, so I just lay there listening to the faint sounds of the wind outside and the much louder snoring within (mostly the dogs to be fair). I suppose I must have drifted off eventually, because the next thing I knew, the car door was being opened and holding the handle was my Uncle. It was now broad daylight outside, and I could finally see where we were. My heart skipped a beat, for laid out in front of me, was the great expanse of the Solway Firth, the absolute greatest paradise on earth for wildfowlers. I think I must have died and gone to heaven.
Our home for the next few days was the world’s oldest caravan. It had a rudimentary stove, a chemical toilet and not much else, save for a couple of hammocks and a camp bed. It was within spitting distance of the high water mark, and I often wondered if it would float or sink should the tide rise unexpectedly. We were somewhere at the eastern end of the estuary, I suppose the nearest town would have been Gretna, but we were still just on the English side of the border. All I could see around me was a large expanse of boggy pasture, and the occasional cow dotted around, the wind was fresh, and filled my nostrils with the salty air. I soon found out that we would be meeting Uncles friend Kevin, who would be looking after us for the duration, and had some fantastic shooting lined up for us along the coast. We spent the morning sorting out our stuff and getting some sleep in the hammocks, for come the afternoon, we would be heading out onto the marsh.
Kevin arrived after lunch and introduced himself to Father and I, before catching up on old times with Uncle. I’m not sure how they knew each other, but Kevin seemed to be a quiet and reserved man, very much unlike Uncle, who could be heard from several counties away when he was in full swing. He looked a proper sight in his black waders and dark blue anorak, but the 10 bore cartridge belt around his waist was a sure sign he meant business. I myself probably didn’t cut much of a dash, dressed as I was in dads old wax proof and a pair of green Dunlop wellies that were 2 sizes too big. But I couldn’t care less what I was wearing, for the lure of the saltmarsh was strong, and it wouldn’t be long before the vast squadrons of honking geese would be overhead. I felt nervous, giddy with anticipation and although I tried my best to hide it, the adults could see how tense I had become. We gathered our things, locked up and made our way out into the gathering dusk, trailing Kevin with careful steps.
The first flight was uneventful. I remember that Father later explained to me that this was a lesson to be learned sooner or later by all Wildfowlers. If conditions aren’t right, you simply won’t see the birds. It could be lack of wind. Or too much, or wind in the wrong direction. It could be rain, or cloud, or snow. It could be the moon or the tide. Experience teaches you that drawing a blank on the foreshore happens just as often as the times when you end up pulling the trigger. Red letter days are few and far between, and although you can make plans to shoot, they can unravel at any time, and a perfect opportunity can turn into a fruitless trip. But I was undaunted. Although my gun never left its slip, I had tasted the life of the coastal wildfowler for the very first time. Felt the tidal ooze beneath my feet, the wind in my hair, experienced the curious all-encompassing sound of the marsh. I felt alive and elated, making our way back to the caravan, I’m almost certain my feet never touched the ground. I slept the sleep of the just that night, and I needed to, for the mornings flight was to be the most exhilarating experience of my life so far.
I was shaken awake by dad, who was already dressed, and a cup of lukewarm coffee was shoved into my hands. It was still pitch black outside and a glance at my watch confirmed it was not a time for decent folk to be up and doing. I could hear the wind had picked up outside and rain was lashing the plastic window, driven by the gusts. After dashing down half a packet of digestives, it was on with my gear and we were once again making our way out onto the treacherous marsh. It was low tide and the shore line was a good mile out from our starting position. I assume Kevin never slept, because he was ready and waiting for us in the gloom like he hadn’t left the previous night, just stood sentry outside the caravan. We took up position in a rough wooden butt sunken partway into the marshy ground, a couple of inches of inky black water in the bottom. Kevin and Uncle then went on a bit further to sit in a creek. The wind howled around us, a cold westerly, but it promised to bring in all sorts of waterfowl as the day broke, seeking refuge from the elements on the sugar beet fields inland. Kevin was certain this was going to be a good flight, and anticipation was high, even showing in the face of my stoic father. The rain eased and a watery moon eventually became visible low in the still dark sky. The dogs whined softly sensing the tension in the air, quivering with a mixture of cold and excitement.
Our perception of the passage of time changes from one moment to the next. Enjoyment or intense concentration can make hours seem like mere minutes. Boredom or anticipation can do the opposite. For my young, inexperienced self out in that desolate part of the world, the seconds might as well have been years, as an agonising period of inactivity seemingly went on forever. In reality, the suspicion of light on the horizon behind us meant that I was probably only stood there shivering and tense for just a few minutes before the first stirrings made me tighten my grip on my battered old gun and fumble two cartridges shakily into the chambers. As the seconds stretched out, the noises around us intensified, and as dad growled “look up”, appearing in front of me were hundreds of pink footed geese. Honking and whistling they came, closer and closer, tempting me to shoulder my piece and pull the trigger, but I was frozen, spellbound by the magnificence of it all. Suddenly, there was a flash and a bang from my uncles hiding place, and tumbling from the enormous formations above us came a single goose, it landed with a dull thud to our right, and I could just make out uncles sleek black Labrador on the retrieve. So it had begun.
Dad pulled through the trailing edge of a V, the metallic clang of his semiauto cycling another cartridge and ejecting the spent case into the puddle at our feet. The bird lurched and set its wings, crashing down well behind us, a whistle dispatched Jess the spaniel who made short work of it, and our team had one in the bag. I took my chance next, drawing my bead on the birds at the rear of a small ragged line. All the lessons and practice forgotten, I missed well behind and carved up the empty air above me with my first two shots. My shoulder stung from the double punch of those heavy magnum loads, my woolly jumper and thin waxed jacket affording me little protection from the harsh kick of my gun. Unperturbed, I reloaded and took aim at the leading bird of a skein high and out to my right. This time I concentrated on my shot, calculated the required lead and when I was sure, squeezed the trigger. I cannot adequately describe the feelings I experienced as I watched that goose fall from the brightening sky. All at once, months of frustration came pouring out and I think I let out an involuntary cry, a very unbecoming thing for an aspiring sportsman. But the elation and the pride of becoming a bonafide wildfowler, mixed with the remorse felt when taking a life, and I needed an outlet for those feelings. A hearty slap on the back brought me back to me senses, and this time, I had the honour of dispatching Linnet the Labrador to bring back my prize. To this day, that is still the best mornings wildfowling I have ever experienced, as between the four of us we accounted for nineteen Pinkfeet and two White fronted Geese.
As the dawn gave way to morning, we squelched our way back to the caravan. Kevin headed off home with the birds and while Uncle climbed back into his hammock, dad and I got changed and headed into Carlisle for the day. We weren’t going to shoot this evening as Kevin had something else to do, so we had some breakfast in a greasy spoon and took in the sights. It was early afternoon when we returned, and Uncle was still asleep with his dog stretched out across his chest. We stayed on for another couple of days and I managed to bring down a few more birds. It was commented upon that we were all starting to smell worse than the chemical toilet, so we met up with Kevin, divided up our share of the spoils, and headed for home. I didn’t want to leave, but all good things must come to an end, and a return to reality was inevitable. We feasted on Goose for a fair few weeks upon our return, and it has never tasted as good, but we also dropped a few birds round at our neighbours, as a thank you for helping us out on the farm during the year.
I often think back to those far off days. Life was simpler, I had so much freedom and didn’t really have a care in the world. It was probably the best time of my life, and I should have appreciated it more. Very soon after that trip, life’s complexities began to descend upon me. Some good ones like girls and booze, and some not so good, but we have all been there haven’t we? Although shooting remained a constant in my life, it was no longer the centre of it, and the passion burned less furiously but I hope more steadily. I was very lucky to have the upbringing I did, and I am thankful for it every day. And so my thoughts now turn to the future, and what it has in store for my sport, and my musings on that shall form the fourth and final part of these articles.
© Columba Palumbus 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file