Our view as we approached Benbecula Airport, with water dominating land, justified the weight of our sporting luggage.
Shallow linked lochs interspersed by farmland formed from shell rich wind blown machair (a typical Hebridean beach) could be seen through the passing rain squall. Mountains reared up in the misty background and a single main road divides the island, along which we headed south over the causeway onto South Uist.
Arriving at Grogarry Lodge; antlers in gun rooms, bedrooms named after lochs, stuffed fish on walls, timber boarded bathrooms, and a hot water tank the size of a small car; we all felt at home.
Later on, walking to a hill loch with rods, I learnt something about the island and the delicate balance of ecosystems co-existing. One pertinent factor is the lack of ground predators on the islands – remember the removal of the hedgehogs to preserve ground nesting birds – and whether this, along with shallow nutrient rich machair lochs, provides for the perfect breeding conditions for non-migratory greylag geese, is open to debate.
But populations are reaching epidemic levels on South Uist and have a dramatic effect on farmers’ crops. Scottish National Heritage even funds a goose monitoring officer post that reports to the Local Greylag Goose Management Committee. We were soon to discover how we fitted into this ecosystem.
After supper, it was suggested those who were prepared for the morning goose shoot might want to down their whisky and consider bed. This was to be no dawn raid, but a pre-dawn foray to see off geese from the lochs near the cereal crop fields.
Wind gusting against window panes, whiff of goose fever in the air, we hardly needed the knock on the door at 4.15am to lever ourselves out of bed, yank on full waders, sleeve the gun from the safe, bag up Bismuth BBs and No.4s, and bolt a cup of tea in order to prepare for the handshake…
I had been warned our shooting guide had a tremendous handshake that, at this time of the morning, could numb the trigger finger. Forewarned and forearmed with sweet tea, we met our guide who, with narrow torch light, led us to our respective hides. The recommendation to wear waders was swiftly explained.
Rain, though expected here, comes in great chunks.
Huddled in the timber hide, a sudden gust of wind and darkening of the sky, heralded rain being dumped over the area as features such as an old croft steading, complete with sheets of choppy water in the foreground, loomed out of early dawn.
A few shots from the nearest gun, about 400 metres across the loch, but no geese. Having been warned about identifying swans in the half light, they seemed both obviously white as well as oblivious to our presence as they bobbed on the water.
Full day emerged with dramatic light shards – and with it, the geese.
The first scout skeins slid well wide onto nearby fields and then, with loud honking, came the main parties with the rising sun behind them from above the hills from where they’d been roosting by peaty lochs. I was surprised by their nimbleness in the air as they corkscrewed earthward, only to flare into the wind when a gun stood to fire.
“They’re going a lot faster than they look; so aim for the head,” I was advised, “and treat it as though it’s going the speed of a teal.”
Dazed by lack of sleep and lulled into a relaxed state by my spectator role, I suddenly spotted a single goose heading fast downwind.
More grouse than greylag, it barrelled towards me. Gun up and slightly in front, I fired. Boom as the BBs did their work and the goose crashed into the water. My first goose!
One of the species that benefits from low numbers of ground predators is the corncrake. Farmers are paid management grants to cut their cereal crops later in the year, thus providing habitat and food for them. But the crops tend to lodge (fall over), making them susceptible to goose attack and there are official township goose scarers, who’s job it is to keep the geese off farmers’ fields.
The wariness of these geese has to be experienced to be believed: wood pigeon in comparison are poor sighted.
Possibly that’s why the geese come into to feed during daylight so they can inspect for suspicious movement – I scared the first lot off by just raising my eyes to check on their distance.
Our final foray was onto a huge machair loch with ancient stone hides dotted over a large area. Getting to those on the islands was fun; wading through waist high water with gun above head in pitch dark with the sound of geese all around; they must have come in on the moon. On arriving at our isolated posts, dawn brought the sight of a steady stream of geese moving onto the fields – the opposite way from us.
Meanwhile, rock doves, a protected species, passed in droves, one lot trailed by a merlin, beating wings, biding her time. Teal whizzed by at grass height, large companies of wigeon swirled in the distance and starlings pitched up next to me. All of a sudden, a shot, maybe a township scarer doing their job, and we faced hundreds of geese in the air.
Sky thick with them, the noise deafening, adrenaline mounting, trying to concentrate on an old gander at the lead… but alas, in the moment, forgetting the golden rule about the speed of a goose…
That evening, Grogarry Lodge’s cook prepared a delicious feast of roast goose which, along with the early mornings, would sate any wildfowler’s appetite at this wonderful lodge run, in the most perfect old fashioned way, by a dedicated team of shooting guides, ghillies, stalker, cook and staff.
It’s ironic that you need to find time to breathe on South Uist. The air is so pure but the amount of sport, whether with rod or gun, is breathtaking.
Even if only once in a lifetime, you must try it.
Goose shooting tips
– Bring your chest waders.
– Check your gun’s chamber in relation to cartridge size – don’t use 2.75″ (70mm) shells in 2.5″ chambered guns! I used my 28″ barrel side-by-side with 67mm BB.
– Get some sleep beforehand!
– Remember the goose’s speed rule: think teal.