The huge, yellow moon peered through the leylandii trees at the side of the paddock as I shut the hens in for the night. A couple of hours later — guided by the moonbeams — I went back out to top up the hay racks for the sheep and noticed that my shadow had shortened as the now smaller, but brighter moon traced its slow arc in the starlit sky. Wisps of clouds decorated the heavens and my primordial senses felt a gravitational pull evoked by the silvery light.
Eventually, after completing all my other chores, I knew it was going to be impossible to resist the lunar calling, but first I desperately needed a couple of hours of sleep. So, I put most of the things I would need into the back of the car, and then settled down in the armchair in front of the fireplace. Soon, the flickering flames from the driftwood logs lulled me into a sound slumber.
By the time I woke up, the fire had died down to a few smouldering embers. I stood up, then walked across to the window to gaze at the celestial spotlight and the long phosphorescent line it cast upon the distant sea. There was still only scant cloud cover — not exactly the best background for shooting — nevertheless, I left the house equipped with a 10-bore, a vacuum flask and an excited springer spaniel.
I drove along deserted roads to the foreshore near a small village, which every now and then yields a duck for the pot and, if I’m lucky, a goose or two later on in the winter. When I turned off the main street on to the shore road, my headlights lit up the yellow sandstone wall that surrounds the ancient graveyard; the black hands of the clock on the church-spire showed that it was nearly 2.30am.
I decided to go down to a long, narrow creek that would give me good cover after the tide had fully ebbed. Previous experience had shown that, with a bit of warning, I could move up and down a little in the deepest part of the gutter to get a bit closer to skeins of geese crossing the merse.
I was nearly at the ditch when I heard low-pitched greylag grunts from the back of the marsh. I’ve never had much success at calling greylags but shouted out some farmyard goose gabble and, for once, I must have said something right — it sounded as if they were coming towards me. There was no cover, so I stood still, looking for any trace of movement, but didn’t see the pair until they were right on top of me. I had been looking too high up — the two of them were no more than 12ft off the ground and moving rapidly.
I swivelled around and sent one flustered shot wide of the mark. When I tried to fi re again, nothing happened. Due to my thick gloves, I hadn’t realised that I had pulled the rear trigger twice. I consoled myself with the thought that getting a shot so soon after arriving was a good sign.
The creek was still too full of water to use as a hiding place, so I sat among the reeds and got ready for more action, but nothing else happened for a while. I began to wonder if, while I had been catching up on my beauty sleep, skein after skein of geese had been on the move when the tide had been flooding. Perhaps the two I had seen were the only ones to have flown over the saltmarsh that night.
Something big coming over the merse from the general direction of the cemetery caught my eye. The elongated shape was highlighted by an orange glow above the village. As it came closer it looked like an old crone on a broomstick. I wasn’t fooled for a moment, but could understand how old wives’ tales like that had come about: after a loud heraank a grey heron swung round, landed and began his own nocturnal quest.
The only other birdcall heard for quite some time was a vociferous cockerel up on one of the hill farms. I wondered how on earth the people in the farmhouse could sleep through that racket. It brought back memories of the last cockerel I had owned — he had similar vocal talents and, after several sleepless summer mornings, I had silenced his performances permanently. On the other hand, my grandmother had greatly appreciated his qualities as the star feature in a bigpot of broth.
The church clock had just chimed four times when a group of six greylags, then a batch of four, passed across the back of the marsh. I moved further along the side of the gutter and couldn’t believe my luck when a wide line of about 50 greys winged their way towards me from the opposite side. I hadn’t been able to get right into the creek: the water had only dropped a couple of feet below the top and I lay motionless in the narrow dark strip below the higher, white-dusted flora. Before the skein came near enough, a wise old bird made good use of the bright rays of moonlight and I think it spotted Kara, my spaniel, moving her head. A warning croak was uttered; the line split frantically and rose up high and wide on either side of me like the biblical tale of the Red Sea — any hope of bagging one was lost.
The flight ended abruptly and I wondered if it was worthwhile hanging about. I cheered myself up with some coffee and an emergency chocolate bar — the dog had to make do with water and a dog biscuit. After that, I felt warmer and resolved to stay a bit longer.
Around 4.30am a pair of low greys came down the creek, but I didn’t see them until they had sped past downstream. This time, there was no fumbling with the gun. At 40 yards, a single shot poleaxed the hindmost goose and it thwacked down on to the grassy bank. Kara scurried out, ears flapping, to pounce on and return with the greatest of wildfowling prizes: a moon-goose.
A bird for the pot
I placed the treasured fowl on its back, amid the frosty stems at the top of the creek wall and was glad to see there were no dark feathers on its breast — it would make a tender roast. The usual twinge of regret for a dead bird was added to by a pang of guilt when its mate came back to circle cautiously and call for its companion, but that still wouldn’t have stopped me shooting if it had been closer in. After a couple of lofty circuits the greylag gave up its search, flew out over the sea, and only then did I loosen my hold on the gun.
I was pleased that I hadn’t left earlier because the marsh now became an auditorium for an anserine choir. Little parties came from inland into the river that runs through fields behind the merse. I didn’t see many of them going in, but enjoyed their serenade immensely. The whistling of wings from a pair of mute swans passing overhead added to the music; as always, I marvelled at the length of their slender necks and the fact that they could actually get those gargantuan bodies aloft.
By 7am I hadn’t had anything else in range apart from a mallard, which I left alone. A hint of a mist had formed and all the plants in the bottom of the creek had frosted over long ago. My feet had felt like lumps of ice for ages and the lukewarm dregs from the Thermos flask did little to warm me or reduce my hunger pangs. Thoughts of shooting another goose were being rapidly replaced by fantasies about sitting in front of a blazing fire eating a couple of pork sausages, some rashers of smoked bacon, a fried egg…
A snipe landed at my feet and it appeared that it was also busy thinking about food. It probed in the mud, quite calmly, but flew away with a scaap the instant it noticed the dog’s evil glare.
It took enormous willpower to stick things out until daybreak in the hope of a morning flight. The cockerel’s crowing reached a crescendo, but the geese seemed content to roost quietly on the river — only a pair came over the foreshore at first light and they didn’t investigate my call.
My frozen feet were hurting as I crunched back along the shingle beach towards the church. Six long, chilly hours I had been out and all I had to show for it was a pair of pink paddles protruding from the top of my gamebag. Was it really worth it? Well, I might have been cold on the outside, but the glow of satisfaction I felt on the inside would certainly keep me going until my next moonlit vigil.