The line of poplars tossed and swayed like the plumes on a giant?s hearse and the living fingers of the wind plucked at my coat and sought to buffet me into the dyke. The tattered shreds of the clouds whisked across the sky and into the sour, yellow sunset. It had been a rough month. The dykes and rivers were bank-high, all roaring down to Denver and thence to the sea. The banks were being watched as anxiously as of old, when a breach would have meant thousands of acres drowned and many Fen people homeless. It is a timely reminder to those who live below sea level that we are still at the mercy of the waters, the ?Bailiff of the Marshlands?, the evictor par excellence.
A series of dry and mild winters together with the cutting of a relief channel and a general improvement of the drainage system have perhaps rendered us complacent. The two inches of rain which fell during four days reminded us how little it would take to undo Vermuyden?s work and reflood the Fens. A heavy snowfall, a swift thaw and a high tide backed by a strong wind would still suffice to have us scuttling to the highground like rabbits.
As I tramped along the drove, ankle-deep in thin black mud, I could see the strips of water glinting dully in the rows of sugar beet and potatoes. It was just our luck that at a time when sugar was in short supply and my home-brewing activities seriously curtailed, a combination of virus yellow and wet weather had decimated the home-produced sugar crop. Seeds of winter wheat were floating in a muddy scum on open fields. ?Lovely weather for duck,? my non-shooting friends had said. It is certainly an ill-wind which blows nobody any good and the wildfowler is probably the only man on earth who looks forward to wind and rain in winter. His rejoicing must now be tempered with the thought that hard winters, shortages, strikes and hardship are well-nigh synonymous.
A murky evening
We go shooting partly to escape the cares of the world, and they were far from my mind as I slithered and staggered along. A splash of flood water lay by the riverside amid the brown and green reeds, a quiet and secret place where a few bags of tail corn had been liberally scattered. I homed in on it through the murk with the accuracy of a pigeon to the loft. I was accompanied by Ranger, a cheery and hard-working springer. Since the loss of the great Cassius and before Drake comes of age, I am obliged to rely on borrowing the dogs of my friends. To go into such wild and watery country dogless is inadvisable for all the well-known reasons. Roger, Ranger?s master, had confided in me his one fault, a reluctance to face water, a fault more than offset by his courage in the most formidable of cover.
We reached the swollen river and followed a trail of reeds along to the pond. Ranger bustled about and with a chortle, a cock pheasant was up and whirling across the river, his long tail streaming. He fell with a mighty splash in the water, and the dog who dislikes water dashed in after it, his little head bobbing bravely through the white-topped waves. He seized the bird near the far bank and came struggling back to heave himself over the reedy mat at the margin and dropped it at my feet. My pleasure made me forgive him for the spray he showered me with as he twirled his coat like a mop. I think the fact that he had seen the bird drop made him go straight for it without considering that the water was cold.
Thus encouraged, we tramped on and I got another similar shot, this time a hen which also fell in the river and which the game little chap retrieved without hesitation. As I arrived at the splash, a rabbit scuttled to some haven over the bank and I rolled him over as he crossed the skyline. He almost bumped into another I had not previously noticed, but its lumbering hops and lack of fear of man or dog brought the gun from my shoulder as I recognized the scourge of myxomatosis. A stout stick quickly put an end to its cruel suffering. The other rabbit was quite clean.
I built my hide with loving care. Time so spent is seldom wasted. I wove scraps of rush into a delicate tracery, basing the whole edifice on a monolithic bleached and dead thistle standing in prickly solitude like a guardsman. I settled down behind this gauzy film, took the binoculars from their case and generally sorted out my paraphernalia so as to be ready for some hoped-for hot work.
Even as I fumbled in the bag for a spare box of cartridges, a whisper above the storm made me look up to see five magnums of champagne beating wearily into the splash. The mallard dropped into the water in five white plumes of spray as I watched helplessly with broken gun. Being caught with an empty gun at flight, even if you are just changing cartridges, is a humbling experience, and my self-denigration was well earned. At any rate, the birds down would serve as decoys to others. As the light faded and the livid western sky relapsed to a sullen jagged scar, several packs of birds came over, eager for the flooded potatoes I had seen earlier. Two tail-enders swung back and came in, nearer, nearer, the electric moment was here. I leaped up, scattering my delicate filigree to the gale, and fired. The rear bird staggered and recovered. My second shot folded him up and he hit the water like a depth charge. I reloaded quickly and was able to down one of the original five which had swum close to me in the lee of the rushy fringe. Ranger sprinted into the muddy water and fetched both birds as though he had been born to water work.
A short, sharp flight to the pond developed, but unfortunately from the inaccessible river side, and I could only watch in frustration as a succession of birds dropped into the pond without even a preliminary cautious circuit. One changed his mind at the last minute and decided he preferred potato to corn and was in the act of lifting over the bank when I downed him on to the short grass. Ranger must have been pleased at such an easy retrieve for a change. The bird was such a heavy drake that I suspected some domestic ancestry, but the ring on his leg might have given weight to his genuine pedigree.
The light had all but gone and I abandoned the remains of the hide and stood in the open peering heavenward with widened pupils. A movement on my left made me swing round and identify the clipped but mothy flight of a woodcock, something of a rarity for us. My long shot with an ounce and a half of fours led me to sense rather than see a fall and I rushed to the place. Ranger lived up to his name and bustled about as I waited in an agony of anxiety but it was all right, there he was modestly poking the bird at me with his velvet snout. So it was. A good evening by any standards, and for a change all had gone well, though most of my shots were easy. With no dog I would have lost two mallard, two pheasants and the woodcock. Who could question the value of a dog on such a night. He had earned his biscuits. Bravo Ranger!