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Fowling in gales and floods

After a reasonably calm Christmas, in the West Country 2007 announced its arrival with howling gales and driving rainstorms. The splash conditions that had been created on the Somerset Levels by the rains of late November had subsided, but the storms at the turn of the year refreshed the standing water. Several rivers topped their embankments to spill out floodwater on to the meadows. By New Year?s Day there were extensive sheets of water on the low-lying areas. This coincided with a near full moon ? ideal conditions for a foray after wigeon in the late evening.

A daytime drive-by reconnaissance of one area over which I had permission to shoot gave me hope. Several hundred wigeon dotted the wide floodwater, parties of teal sheltered on the fringes of the withy beds and a few shoveller here and there probed the wet grassy margins for their food. Out in the middle of this watery landscape a fleet of Canada geese seemed to lie at anchor as smaller wildfowl flitted restlessly overhead. I would return later.

In late afternoon I parked on the remote and heavily rutted drove. With deep rhynes on either side and narrow gateways on to the fields, I turned the car round carefully to face the main road while I still had plenty of daylight. Gun, seat, decoys and dog were unloaded, and I walked along the drove to the margin of the vast inland sea that the floodwater had created. On one small field that the flood had not quite reached, the splash was dotted with wigeon feathers and droppings. I assumed duck were using this as a feeding area during the night.

Decoys were floated out in their stringers along the margin of the splash and, when I was satisfied with their appearance, I turned to my own comforts. The sun was setting below a stream of shredded clouds, which were fleeing before the cold east wind. I set my shooting stool among the reeds and sedges on the edge of the field, positioning myself so that if conditions were right, the rising moon to the east would give me enough light to see any duck arriving on the splash and any birds approaching up-wind would be visible in the sunset?s afterglow. That, at least, was the theory.

After spending several minutes persuading my springer spaniel Molly to sit on the only dry tuft of reeds that stood above water level, I unsleeved the gun, a Damascus-barrelled 3in magnum by W. W. Greener that had just come into my possession. Having checked the barrels and made sure the safety catch was on, I loaded up with bismuth and settled down to wait.

A party of golden plover swept high overhead, the noise of their wings sounding like distant surf as they called to each other in fluted tones. Light was now draining rapidly from the sky and the wind had died away as the yellow glow on the eastern horizon heralded the rising of the moon, in the intervening darkness the flight started. A small trip of teal rushed past me at head height, seen only as a brief blur against the low horizon, and several large packs of wigeon roared overhead, high and invisible and heading further afield for their nocturnal feeding.

Several light splashes among the decoys had Molly straining to run-in, but I couldn?t make out the teal that had arrived. Further out on the water a cock wigeon proclaimed his presence in the gloom with several loud whistles,which were followed by additional splashes as he was joined by more of his kind.

Even though there were now birds all round me, I still had not really been given the chance of a shot, catching only a glimpse of fleeting dots that vanished just as quickly as they appeared into the dark background. Suddenly there were Canada geese in the air, their calls getting stronger as they approached. There was a moment of frantic fumbling to change the cartridges in my gun, replacing my duck loads with magnums, while still searching the dark sky for a sight of these great birds. In the gloom I picked them out about 100 yards away, but even as I prepared to mount the gun they slid away to my right, just out of reach, continuing on their way vocal and unmolested. There were more splashes on the water before me as both wigeon and teal arrived or departed.

By now the moon was riding higher in the sky, a veritable ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas, back-lighting the clouds that sailed across its face and giving light to the cold hazy sky between the clouds. A pair of wigeon flashed over my head but I was unprepared. By the time I had mounted the gun they were gone. They did, however, give me an indication of the arc of sky where the birds would be just visible. I adjusted my position so I could make a quicker response next time.

More wigeon calls came over the splash and I slipped forward the side safety catch on my Greener just as three blurred dots were etched against the pale backdrop. Choosing the nearest I swung well ahead and fired. My spaniel Molly is a sharp dog, going on the ?B? of the ?Bang?, which is fine when shooting wildfowl but embarrassing at my roughshoot. Within seconds she was back at my seat and delivering a fine cock wigeon, the first bird to fall to the Greener and my first wigeon shot under the moon for nearly 30 years.

Following the sound of my shot there seemed to be parties of duck flying in all directions, and a small group of teal zipped past me low and to my front. I thought I was ready for them but was obviously not ready enough. My shot went well behind them and they stood on their tails in their characteristic full-power climb. More wigeon were approaching and I picked out two as they curved round to inspect the decoys ? potentially a perfect left-and-right, except my second barrel missed. Another splashy retrieve for Molly and then all went quiet.

I decided it was time to leave. With large areas of the Somerset Levels under floodwater and many fields on the slightly higher ground splashed up, the wildfowl are spoilt for choice in their night-time foraging. I collected in the decoys while Molly went for a joyous splash about. We returned to the car in the cold, silvery moonlight.