It is a bit sad, perhaps, that when the other spotty young men were obsessed with Austin Healeys and girls, my own thoughts were of beer, rugby and geese ? the geese filling all the space left by the others. I read the books, absorbed the yarns and felt that if I could only shoot one I would die a happy man. I spent my winter holidays in the bungalow of my friend Ken Morrell, in Lincolnshire, hard by Wainfleet marsh, where the pinks came early.
Each morning was the same ritual: sharing a bed with the late David Garrard, who was formerly Homeloader in Shooting Times ? as well as being the worst snorer in the world ? I passed the night trying to hang on to my share of the blanket to keep out the east wind that shot unimpeded through the paper-thin walls of Ken?s shack. No alarm clock was required and the next morning, in a shivering, pre-dawn glow, we slogged out across the marsh, over the notorious Cardinals Creek, where better fowlers than us had been drowned, and on to the green marsh seamed with creeks, where we hid. The geese ?oggle-goggled?, as Ken called it, and as the sun kissed the distant wolds, they sprang up and spread across the bloodstained heavens to come shouting over us.
They were always too high, and though I took the odd misjudged shot with David?s homeloads in my BSA 3in Magnum, nothing ever fell, but my hunger grew with every failure and I went home, my head ringing with the sights I had seen and the sounds I had heard. It was like the quest for my first salmon. I went to the gamedealer in Skeg to gawp enviously at rows of geese hanging on hooks, hearkened to more successful fowlers, re-read the books and immersed myself in the subject. How I wanted to shoot one of those hounds of heaven and to possess what had been for so long unattainable.
Though you catch the drifting clamour,
Through the sleet squall?s sting and hammer,
Still the flight shall work its magic and the breathless stalk
shall hold you,
When the grey geese come calling off the tide.
Patrick Chalmers knew what he was talking about when he wrote those lines.
A sky full of pinkfoots
In the fall of the year a man stood by Loch Leven in Fife, where poor Scottish Mary did time. It was a dour day ? ink-black clouds round the horizon, so dark at midday that cars on the M90 needed lights ? but above the lake was a gash of clear sky, a blue hole fringed with red fire. Staring through this porthole into heaven the man heard a distant, wild cry, ?pink wink?? He shaded his eyes and a thousand feet up was a speck, spiralling down through the hole towards the water; behind it another, and another, then a dozen, a score, a hundred, a thousand. The sky was full of pinkfoot geese, like a swarm of bees, shouting with joy at journey?s end, spiralling down as if through a funnel to settle on the water, drink deeply ? for they had lost a third of their bodyweight en route ? and, a thousand heads tucked under a thousand wings, they fell asleep.
The man raised his ragged cap to salute the navigators of the Viking whale roads that had once more flown south from Icelandic breeding grounds for the winter. Some admiral of the skein had led them, having made the journey a score of times, and in his train flew families with goslings that had never seen a human being. The man had waved them off in April, wished them Godspeed, and now they were back. The writer ?BB? called them ?sky gypsies?, Peter Scott preferred ?messengers?, for they are evocative birds. Great writing, poetry, paintings and photographs almost, but never quite, capture the essence of their allure.
They carry with them the aspirations of the human spirit, visiting places beyond our ken ? children of nature, they live in the wildest country with no shelter, restless spirits wandering where and when the urge takes them. They brave fox, eagle, lurking gunner, gale and blizzard, shouting paeans to the cold moons of our winter as, navigating by starlight, they fly out to who-knows-what distant stubble to feed.
The migratory pinkfooted and greylag geese are aristocrats. Below stairs, mooching about on the slob and eating seaweed, are the protected barnacles and brent from Russia, quarry of the old Essex punt-gunners. Feral Canada geese are descended from a few introduced as ornaments with the usual regrets attendant upon such experiments. They look well enough cackling over autumn stubble and make a fair mark for a gunner, but the damage they cause and exploding numbers make them unloved, though a young Canada is the best goose to eat.
Pinks are the wildfowler?s star birds ? wary, hard to shoot, romantic, hardy and swift. Bag one in flight and, for a moment, you have captured a piece of goose magic but, like a rainbow, you can never possess it. Partial to sugar beet tops, their numbers wax; they hurry down to Norfolk to gobble them up, but sugar beet-growing is threatened by a cut in subsidy, making it a less certain food source. Enlightened landowners protect them on feeding grounds and wildfowling clubs on the roost where, if the birds have security, they will stay. A century ago they deserted ancestral grounds in Norfolk as they were given no peace.
There are self-styled ?goose guides?, some, but not all, of whom preside over a fearful slaughter of the innocents over decoys on feeding fields ? a blot on the escutcheon of true wildfowlers, and pointless, too, for it is illegal to sell a dead wild goose. Proper goose shooting means dawn and dusk or under a moon, when they sail across the saltings to and from distant feeding grounds. Etched across a flaming dawn they sing a wild song as they beat inland to a chosen field while earthbound mortals stare up bewitched, wistful, neck hairs prickling.
A winter dawn ? my greatcoat white with rime ? When crouching low behind the grey sea wall, I waited for the geese, and heard their call. (W.G.M Dobie).
A nobler quarry
On a morning when it takes a hefty clout to break the ice in the bullocks? trough and lacks an hour to daylight, a man stricken with goose fever crosses the sea wall and stumbles a mile across the saltings. The ?hen-footed fowl? pipe and whistle, early knots of mallard and teal flash past half-seen, but he is after nobler quarry. A creek selected, he and his dog ease into it, peering east where the sky is kissed with apple green and pink. Far out on the muds the geese are talking, stranded by a receding tide.
Like the whoosh of the Flying Scotsman exiting a tunnel, a flailed scarf of a quarter of a million knots whirls along the tideline, as one they bank and flash their snowy tummies, turning brown again as they swing back to settle. The geese fall silent and, with a roar of distant thunder, leap aloft, bands playing, a muddy thumbprint on the oil painting of the dawn.
This spreads out into a series of vees, echelons and all shapes known to heraldry as, climbing steeply, they aim for a ?tatty bottom? five miles inland. Often the gunner watches frustrated but full of strange emotions as they pass two gunshots high, for no shooter loves his quarry like a goose man. They fade inland, the music dying with their passing. Should conditions favour him with fog, a stiff headwind or a tide that left them close to the green marsh, he has a chance, but they are hard to shoot. Should the goddess smile and his aim be true, a bird falls like a black rag for his dog to rush and seize. That is a fowler with a spring in his step, elation in his heart and a goose feather in his cap.
It was to be many years before that man was me, and I got my first one, a whitefront, on the Bedford Washes one Boxing Day in the 1960s. My second came the day after, but I had to wait another year before my first pink, shot on Cummertrees Marsh on Solway with a double 8-bore borrowed from a friend. That is another story with a twist in its tale, but it has been told in these pages ere now. The fever was not cured by that success so, half a century later, the clamouring of a skein of pinks still makes me shiver. Like the man on Leven, I salute them when they arrive and again when they depart. I hear their music inthe clamour of children in a school playground or the squeaking of a heavy cultivator working a distant field.
Grey geese have become common since the days of ?BB? and his exciting tales of ambushing two or three birds a flight. Now they wax fat and plentiful and huge bags have become possible, so much so that, for some, the magic has dimmed, even more so since the imposition of non-toxic shot.
For me, the crying of the messengers from the northlands still has the power to mesmerise, and to bag one or two at flight is one of the great shooting achievements, especially when the feat is carried out with dear old Roaring Emma. In that triumphant moment, a shooting man can wish for nothing more, not even an Austin Healey.