I?ll never be a hardcore wildfowler. Not for lack of love of the marsh, nor any particular failure in duck hunting ability, but because I have the two things that are an absolute impediment to full-on fowling ? a job and a family.
That is why, on the morning of 1 September last year, while luckier fowlers were returning from morning flight, I was heading towards Liverpool Street station with tens of thousands of other commuters. The rest of the rat race was immune to my pain and completely ignorant of the importance of the date. It was one of those moments when those of us who are unlucky enough to live in urban or suburban Britain feel separated from the rest of the population.
I had the same sort of feeling a few weeks before in a village hall just outside Stevenage, when 250 supporters of the local hunt had gathered to sing hunting songs with one of the fell packs. It is almost as if we, the traditional inhabitants of the countryside, carry on with our lives on a separate plane to the rest of the population. They do football, drugs and shopping absolutely unaware that we are carrying on the eternal cycle of the hunter-gatherer, farming and village cricket.
The pain of being absent from the marsh gnawed through work and meetings. It was heightened by the knowledge that others less restricted by employment and geography would already have been thinning out the good numbers of Canadas that had been using the estuary. The only thing causing me any rivalling concern was the prospect of England holding on to their lead in the last Ashes test. Haunted by visions of Warne destroying the England middle order and geese-laden Essex fowlers, it was not my most productive day. At least the evening offered the chance of a duck, even if of the inland variety. There were a good number of homebred mallard on the main lake at home and, while it cannot be shot without risking a retrieve from someone?s back garden, there is a good flightline out over a smaller pond which nearly always supplies a duck or two. It might not be wildfowling, but it does have the advantage of easy access and a nice stile to sit on, so I was joined by my five-year-old son Tom as well as my old spaniel who is twice his age.
As the light faded the quacking grew louder until the first pair of duck appeared on course to pass 20 yards out to our right and at the same height off the ground. The only recognition problems on this lake are the colony of mandarins which frequent the area and a homebred barnacle goose which does the odd circuit of the lake. Confident that I had not forgotten what a mallard looks like in the preceding swing months, I swung the semi-auto on to the trailing duck, through it and on to the first, squeezing the trigger twice on the way through. To my surprise everything happened as it should. Both duck fell dead. The first in the grass field beside us, and the second with a satisfying splash in the pond behind.
The spaniel/boy retrieving team had only started working together at the end of the previous season, but already there was a natural understanding. An onlooker might suggest that they both ran-in. I would prefer to think that they simply pre-empted my command, but anyway they had the two duck back with me in seconds and the spaniel had even deigned to pick the one from the pond and save Tom a swim.
It was a still evening, so even though we were well back, the two shots sent duck flying all around the lake. A bunch of mandarins whistled by on our left and Tom spotted a single mallard heading straight for us at a suicidal height seen only on 1 September. I checked his ear defenders again and we crouched together behind the thick green hedge. It was as straightforward a shot as you could ask for. Low, straight and on steady course; so of course I made a total mess of it and two shots didn?t disturb its progress. Dog and son were scathing, but plucking two pin feather-laden mallard was quite enough of a challenge and I was more than happy with the evening?s bag.
Saltmarshes in September
There was no more chance of getting to the marsh on 2 September, but 3 September was a Saturday. The tide would be at its lowest at dawn, there were unlikely to be any duck in the estuary and the Canadas would be wary after a two-day hammering, but nothing was going to keep me away. Getting up and out of the house, even two hours before dawn, caused little suffering and soon the jeep was heading east with gun and spaniel in the back and a steaming cup of black coffee beside me. I had chosen my spot on the basis of nothing other than it was close to a normal roosting spot for the geese and the freshwater lagoon behind brought the possibility of a mallard or teal crossing the marsh even at low water.
From the parking spot, it was a gentle 30-minute stroll first along the sea wall then down on to the saltmarsh and across a series of interesting bridges as the track snaked seemingly at random out to the furthest corner of the marsh. There was only a small saltmarsh island across a 10-yard creek between me and the flat muddy expanse of the estuary floor. Out in the middle of the mud lights flickered on a small inhabited island connected to the shore at low water by a causeway. Half a mile to my left the river bent close to the sea wall and it was here that the Canadas sometimes roost.
A few mallard crossed the marsh recognised only by their whistling wings, invisibly high against the dark sky. As the sun started to push the light of dawn over the horizon, geese became visible as a black mass then individual lumps, but they flighted straight out across the sea wall or up the river away from the marsh. As the sky lightened I slid down into a well-hidden creek resigned to a blank if enjoyable flight.
That is my excuse anyway, as when geese did appear it was from completely the opposite direction and instead of announcing their arrival with a fanfare, it was only one brief honk when they were already over the marsh that alerted me. Flustered, unready and off balance, the first shot hit nothing, despite the fact that the party of eight geese was crossing just 25 yards away. Somehow the second was better aimed and the tail-end goose angled down towards the mud. I delayed over the third shot, thinking first to finish that goose, then finding the others too far away to be sure of a clean kill.
The spaniel was already gone. The goose had fallen across a small creek in deep black mud. The dog?s short legs disappeared with every step and by the time he reached the goose all the white on him not already covered by his neoprene coat was plastered with a layer of black mud. He grabbed the bird by its thick neck and, sometimes pushing, sometimes pulling, hauled it back through the quagmire to me as I waited on the edge of the marsh.
It may have been a mud-splattered mess but the goose was a great prize. The first bird of the season from the foreshore. I settled back down in my creek with the filthy spaniel, content to watch the sun rise over the estuary. Pigeon started to flight into the marsh behind us, but nothing else moved in the air. Then, with the sky blue and breakfast beckoning, a speck appeared far out over the mud. It flew in a consistent and determined style; a duck, but too big for a teal. A mallard? Something didn?t seem quite right. Then, as it came ever closer, suddenly it became obvious. A cock wigeon flying high but in range across the marsh.
Four weeks later, I would have recognised it immediately, but today I was not expecting duck, let alone migrants, and it is often the case that you can?t see what you don?t expect. This was probably the only wigeon on the entire estuary and, even though the tide was half a mile away, it had chosen to fly over me. Whether it was the surprise or simply incompetence, the first shot missed, the second clipped him and, though the blessed third hit hard, he still set his wings and made it out over the saltmarsh island on to the flats. On another day, when the tide was in, I would have paid for my incompetence, but today everything went right. It was a simple walk across hard mud and shallow crab-filled splashes.
The spaniel quartered in front and I caught sight of the bold white wing bar at the same moment as he winded the duck. He delivered it to hand clean, pristine almost, and quite dead. A goose and a duck on a beautiful September morning how fine the world can be.