On the opposite shore the lights of Aberdyfi, in Gwynedd, shone brightly, but that was the only sign of habitation from where we were waiting for the morning flight to begin. Nick Powell, chairman of the Dyfi and District Association for Wildfowling and Conservation (DDAWC) pointed into the darkness towards the main channel. “We share this stretch of foreshore with three other clubs and it runs for three miles, from the Leri, in front of the sand dunes in the west, to the white posts further inland. We’ve almost finished the first year of our seven-year lease, which is subleased through the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW).”

The other clubs that enjoy the sporting rights on this spectacular stretch of the Dyfi are the North Worcestershire Rough Shooting and Wildfowling Club, Aberystwyth Shooting and Conservation Club and the Llancynfelin and District Wildfowlers Association. I asked Nick whether this ever meant that there were
too many fowlers on the foreshore at the same time. “Not at all. All the clubs operate under a permit scheme, so there are never more than a certain number of permits issued at one time,” he said. BASC Wales is also able to issue day visitor permits for the Dyfi estuary.

The lease was arranged by BASC, which, as Nick told me, has been invaluable. “BASC negotiated the lease and the terms under which we could get it, including forming a management plan for the marsh. A trustee from each of the four clubs has signed the sublease. The whole valley was designated a Biosphere Area by UNESCO last year, and it is the only one in Wales, with only two in the whole of the UK.” The clubs have an annual meeting with CCW and others as part of the management structure, but at present there is little else organised between them. As Nick said, “I think that at some point we may have to do more in partnership, but without losing the four clubs’ individual identities.”

We both instinctively hunkered down as the weeoo, weeoo of wigeon came from our left. Nick had tethered Lucy, his solid black Labrador, to his stick a few yards in front of us. “She’s like an early warning system,” he said, “particularly as I don’t always hear the birds coming, and while it is still as dark as this there’s no chance of me seeing them. I just need to watch her and she’ll show me when something’s about.” Lucy had indeed perked up at the sound of the wings beating past us, but with heavy black clouds in the sky, there was no way of making out the birds. “Perhaps Connor will see them,” said Nick, “he’s got eyes like an owl.”

Connor Sherman was farther up the estuary with his father, Mike. At 15 years old, Connor is already sure of his future. “He wants to go to Sparsholt. His brother, Maverick, is at Newton Rigg at the moment,” Mike had told me earlier as we headed out along the sea wall. Both brothers are passionate about their fowling and do much to promote the sport. Connor also does some work for Kevin Wilcox, of Tidepool, testing and demonstrating duck and goose calls.

The wigeon called again, their voices growing distant as they headed out to the open water. Over in the same direction, we could hear geese chattering away, their high-pitched, jackal-like sounds giving them away as whitefronts. “We don’t shoot the whitefronts. We have a voluntary restraint on them and in the mid-1970s the club organised a whitefronted goose breeding scheme,” Nick told me, as we went back to watching for duck.

Time for tide flighting

Though the threatening clouds kept sunrise at bay for a while, it didn’t slow our quarry down and, frustratingly, merely obscured our view of them. Lucy pricked up her ears a few more times, but without he necessary light there was nothing we could do. Eventually, the sky turned a dull grey and Nick and Mike decided that we may as well move to a good spot for putting out the decoys and waiting for the tide to change. Water had been slowly trickling into the gutter in front of us and the decoys would have to be placed before high water.

Half a mile along the shore, we shrugged off our bags and Nick and Connor went to put out the decoys. Both had FUDs, a new design of foldup decoys from the US. Realistically painted by wildlife artist and wildfowler Adam Grimm, the decoys are incredibly flexible. They can be set up in a variety of poses, pinned into grass or attached to a mother line and floated on the tide. I was curious to see whether the geese would be as convinced by them as I was.

Calling in the Canadas

A string of wigeon decoys joined the Canadas and we settled in to wait for the geese to start moving. Before long, the familiar sounds of Canadas hit our ears. We all stretched our necks, eager for a sign of geese on the move. Farther upstream, a small group, five in number, had lifted. Connor started putting his call to good use and almost immediately got an answer. As the birds turned, their paddles lowered and they hit the water, too far out for a shot, but they were clearly curious. Connor changed the pitch of his call to the low, contented sound of feeding geese, and the birds sailed in towards us, slowly at first. They were coming in for a closer look at the decoys. It was the first time I’d seen decoys working this effectively, and combined with Connor’s calling skills, I was sure we’d get a shot. Though these geese stayed just out of our range, one juvenile broke away from the group, paddling between the decoys, honking hopefully. Frustratingly, it stayed between or behind the decoys, eventually drifting down river from us.

The tide had truly started changing, the airpockets in our bank popping and gurgling as water filled them. A perfect V of geese flew past us, heading in to feed on the fields behind us. “More whitefronts,” said Nick, “they tend to fly in formation, whereas the Canadas are all over the place.” As if to demonstrate this, a noisy gaggle of the latter approached from the fields. They curved round, clearly interested in the decoys, but landed too far out and soon lost interest.

A successful youth programme

I asked Nick about the juniors in the club. “The DDAWC has eight juniors at the moment, which isn’t bad, and they are all keen,” he said. “We are increasing the age of the juniors to 21 next year. I think this will help keep youngsters interested and it means that the membership is more affordable for them.” New members must be proposed to the club by an existing member, and if they are inexperienced they must go on six outings with a sponsor to get to know the marshes.

As we spoke, Lucy the Lab let out a muted whine and shifted position. Sure enough, a large group of Canadas was approaching from the fields, but they swung away at the last minute, perhaps sensing all was not well. As we turned to watch them, Connor spotted a pair coming into the decoys. He called frantically and they came right in. I missed, but Nick’s 10-bore and his home load found the big goose and brought it plummeting into the water. Lucy was untethered and jumped straight in, dragging the goose back to Nick.

The water had risen as far as it would, and we waited for it to subside enough for us to collect the decoys. The mountains of Snowdonia were no longer obscured by cloud, but it had started raining. More geese flew past, but their route was set and they wouldn’t divert towards the decoys, no matter how convincing they were. As we packed up for the morning, a little egret flew past, lapwings dived over the fields behind and a snipe got up as we headed back to the sea wall. Despite the low cloud and the rain, the Dyfi’s dramatic scenery made a stunning backdrop for the fowlers of these four fortunate clubs.

For more information on the Dyfi & District Association for Wildfowling and Conservation, visit www.dyfiwildfowlers.org.uk.