My old mate John Humphrey?s delightful article on curlew in the Game Fair issue (The call of the curlew, 20 July) set me reminiscing. I know I don?t look it, but actually I?m plenty old enough to remember wildfowling before the passing of the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act.
My early wildfowling was in north Kent under the careful guidance of my father. Mostly, there were sufficient numbers of duck about, that waders were left alone, though the odd early-season curlew was certainly snaffled up when the opportunity arose. The widespread view was that they were fine to eat when fresh down from the moors at the start of the season, but a month or two of them eating crabs and sea worms made them less pleasant.
By the late 1970s, I was a penniless PhD student living on the outskirts of Swansea, and so curlew suddenly became a big interest, because they offer quite a large lump of meat. The other waders mattered, too. Redshanks, for example, are eminently edible, and gave great sport jumped from the gutters on the walk back from morning flight ? they saved many a blank. I can proudly say that during those few years I managed to bag at least one or two of each of the five species of wader that we lost from the quarry list after the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, and there were no mistakes over protected species, either. I even recognised the one whimbrel that I shot, and I did not mistake it for a curlew.
One morning, I stalked and shot three bar-tailed godwit with two shots, and then discovered that they are utterly delicious ? the equivalent of a woodcock. As I got to know the ground better, I began to put more duck in the bag, but there were always quiet times, and an odd curlew was always welcome. As those who have shot them will testify, they are far from unsporting. Their flight may look a little lumbering, but actually they are pretty quick and it is easy enough to miss behind. The only wilier bird I know is a crow, and you certainly needed to be better hidden for curlew than for duck or geese. Also, like the crow, they had a fantastic ability to put in that last-minute jink just as you started to raise the gun. Despite the rumours, I also concluded that the curlew did not become inedibly fishy within a few days of arriving on the shore. I enjoyed my curlew; they were good plain-roasted with a fat rasher over them, and cold slices made better sandwiches than most of my fellows took to work. In colder weather, there is not much to beat curlew casseroled with onions and herbs in brown beer.
If my recollection is correct, the 1981 Act came into force at the end of September 1982, but it was in late September the previous year that I last shot a curlew, and even then it was not really the intended quarry. As wildfowlers and seafarers know, the autumn equinox often brings the first strong gales after summer, and 1981 was no exception. I cannot tell you the exact date, but on the afternoon concerned it cut up very rough, so wildfowling took precedence over scientific research ? oh for the freedom of student days! The wind was roaring from the south-west, and I knew that the first few wigeon of the season were about. Out at the marsh front there was a long straight creek that cut a corner, and that often made a flightline, especially in a south-westerly. With the tide due to flood the flats at dusk, I thought I stood a chance at birds flighting into the marsh, and picking up that creek line as they turned back into the wind.
Whisked by the wind
I tucked myself into a little side channel a bit before sunset ? not that there was any sign of sun on that stormy evening. I was counting my lucky stars to have hit such perfect conditions of wind and tide. Soon after I had settled into my little hidey-hole, the curlew began to flight out from their inland feeding grounds. Herd after herd battled into the gale, passing well inland of me on their trip out to the flats. I was tempted to try to get under them, but decided that I should stay put, in the hope of a duck. I waited longer and longer, but no sign of a wigeon or even that teal which catches you napping as it roars down on the wind from behind. The light had all but gone, and I could hear the surf breaking above the roar of the gale. It would soon be time to go, or risk a wetting in the deeper creeks on the walk off. Then, I spotted a ragged mob of maybe a dozen curlew being whisked along by the wind about 100 yards to seaward. They were almost out of view when they turned back in front of me and settled into my creek about 200 yards downwind.
I began to contemplate a stalk, when another lot came round on about the same line. This time, however, they did not settle, but beat slowly back into the wind towards me. I waited until they were almost alongside, picked my bird and fired, as it dropped I swung on to a second and dropped that, too.
No time to dither, they were both dead on the mud, and those bangs may have ?stirred the pot?. I broke the old Belgian non-ejector, dragged out the two spent cases and reloaded as fast as I could. By this time, the first herd of curlew had lifted at the report, and in the confusion of the gale they were heading straight for me. They followed the route of the other party. I managed to pull off another right-and-left, leaving all four birds lying within 10 yards of one another on the muddy creek bed. It was time to gather up and head for home.
Nowadays, I would probably not bother with the curlew, even if they were still on the quarry list. But, like John Humphreys, I still resent the fact that I am not allowed to. Curlew numbers may have declined, and our home breeding ones have certainly departed from many old haunts, especially here in the south. But that has continued to happen despite 30 years on the protected list, and no-one can convince me that the few that we shot made a difference. On the other hand, this old fowler learned a lot about fieldcraft on the marsh from curlew. If you could outwit this wiliest of waders, the rest were pretty much plain sailing. I remember one rather good game Shot concluding that they are ?glued to the sky?.