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Icy fowling in years gone by

Over the Yuletide period we receive many Christmas cards depicting shooting scenes. Most of these show pheasants or woodcock breaking cover from a woodland floor blanketed with snow, the gaunt branches of the oaks bedecked with an icing-cake layer of brittle white, but in Wales and the south of England, this kind of scene is receding further and further into the realms of fairytale ? where have all the cold winters gone?

On the Somerset Levels, the most recent cold snap was in January 2003. The placid floodwater froze over and I saw some 30 white-fronted geese on Curry Moor, driven south
west from the upper Severn estuary. Wildfowl gathered in huge numbers to rest where there was flowing water; any greensward that broke through the frost layer was a target for night-time feeding. The cold weather lasted all of three days before a rapid thaw set ? that was the extent of the winter.

Like many wildfowlers, I have made a point of recording all my shooting since the age of eight in a gamebook, and I have to go a long way back to recall coastal wildfowling in truly
harsh conditions?

Back to school

The week before it had snowed quite heavily, enough to cancel all the school buses, though the school remained open. It was an adventure to walk the three miles to Llandysul along roads that only saw the occasional intrepid Royal Mail van clanking along on tyre chains. With barely one-third of the school?s usual population in attendance, a carnival atmosphere reigned, with ad hoc mixed-age lessons, film shows and concerts. Late in the week a partial thaw set in and the roads were cleared ? school reverted to normal. Reports from further north told of severe sub-zero temperatures, however, and, with my brother Jim ? at 19, six years older than me, and a car driver ? a wildfowling expedition to the Dyfi estuary was planned for the early hours of Saturday. We left the house at midnight on Friday.

At first we made good time, as the roads were reasonably clear, but north of Aberaeron conditions became increasingly tricky. Several slides and a near piling-the-car-into-a-hedge incident made progress more circumspect. Almost six hours after setting out we parked up on the track leading to the saltings. There was no time to lose if we were to be in position by dawn; we still had a two-mile walk ahead of us.

The freezing air hit us with a shock as we opened the car doors, but pullovers, coats and waders were quickly struggled into, cartridges stuffed into pockets and guns un-shipped, as Jim slung the food and Thermos haversack over his shoulder. We set out to walk the straight track along the deep canal to the railway bridge on the sea wall. Within yards my breath was freezing on my balaclava.

In complete and silent darkness we climbed the embankment to the railway line and stood for a moment to regain our breath and take stock of our surroundings. Across the estuary the street lights of Aberdyfi twinkled in the brittle cold; the distant roar of surf on the
bar at the estuary?s mouth was interrupted by the occasional melancholy wail of a lapwing or the haunting cry of a curlew, far out on the mudflats. We turned to walk along the railway embankment to reach our chosen saltings, stopping frequently when we heard the sleepy gabbling of white-fronted geese on the estuary or the whistle and churr of wigeon over the huge stubble fields on the inland side of the track. In the intense darkness that precedes dawn there was one noise that was new to the pair of us. For a young teenager with a vivid imagination it was scary. From far out across the mudflats there came a deep and unearthly groaning, interspersed with crashing and splintering noises.

?Jim, what was that?? I squeaked, only to be told, ?Shut up and keep walking?. It was evident Jim didn?t know either. We left the embankment and cut out on to the saltings, crossing the short-cropped salt pasture before reaching the spartina. The recent tideline was marked by an enormous jumble of sheets and blocks of ice, piled on the edge of the spartina like a line of bulldozed rubble. At last, just as the eastern stars were beginning to fade, we reached our favourite hides beside a deep creek and settled in for the coming of dawn.

As I checked my barrels and loaded my 16-bore with a couple of Alphamax 4s, I swivelled around in my muddy hide to face the railway embankment, peering through the sharp-edged and frosted spartina toward the lightening eastern skyline. We were after wigeon coming back to the estuary from their night foraging on the inland stubbles. Several times during our walk packs had passed over our heads, bubbling and whistling to each other in the icy darkness, and our hopes were running high for a good flight.

An ice flight

Now that I had begun to cool down, the north wind, blowing down from the snow-locked peak of Cadair Idris, which sat brooding over the north shore of the estuary, was beginning to seep through my clothing. The low hills of the eastern horizon were black against the vivid yellow of the sky when a ragged party of teal swept past, too suddenly for me to react, and only then did I discover that the fingertips of my right hand were frozen to the gun barrels. For several precious minutes I tried breathing on them in an effort to release them, but this seemed only to make matters worse. In desperation I called to Jim and a small quantity of warm coffee poured on to the barrels quickly brought relief, just as a big pack of wigeon roared overhead.

For the next hour, we both experienced the flight of a lifetime. We could hear the duck coming while they were still some distance away and invisible against the dark background of the hills. Suddenly they would appear as they crossed the horizon into the pale dawn sky, fleeting and weaving black silhouettes that faded from view as they flew across the still-dark sky. All thoughts of frozen gun barrels were forgotten in the quick dashes out of the hide to retrieve downed birds, and by the end of that time six wigeon lay in the spartina beside a small pile of empty cartridges. I stopped shooting ? six birds was all I could carry comfortably and I made this my self-imposed limit. Jim fired two more cartridges, which also brought his tally to six, though his bag included two mallard. I stumbled over to his hide to open the flask of soup and we sat together as small parties of wigeon and teal continued to flight from inland.

We could easily have shot a dozen birds each, but were content to watch the pageant of dawn unfold around us on this wild estuary.

Weathering the snowstorm

Somewhere far out on the sands the geese began to stir themselves, talking more urgently to each other until the moment?s silence before they all took wing, a wavering line above the sand dunes of Borth, some miles down the estuary. It was now light enough to see clearly and the source of the unearthly night-time noises revealed itself. Beyond the exposed mudflats, the main river channel was a swirl of large ice floes moving down to meet the now rising tide. Thick blocks colliding with each other and being up-ended by the maelstrom of currents and eddies produced the whole range of noises we had heard in the darkness.

The oncoming tide began to spread across the mud, lifting the thin ice sheets that had formed since the last tide, and all the waders on the estuary heralded the rising water and new day in a truly wild chorus.Suddenly Cadair Idris was lost from view: a yellow-grey curtain approached from the north and the bright morning light faded.

It was 9 o?clock as the snowstorm hit us and, despite many layers of clothing, I found myself shivering uncontrollably. Visibility was reduced to a few yards as we packed up and threaded our way along the quietly filling creek to the safety of the railway embankment, and thence back to the car. With the heater turned up fully we gradually began to thaw out on the slow journey homeward, and with this thaw came excruciating pain from the frost marks and blisters on the tips of my fingers.

In 40 years of winter wildfowling adventures, I have never experienced such intense cold since that morning flight. It could be that when we have been hit by cold weather I have ?gone soft? and have had the sense to stay indoors, but I rather think that we simply have not had true winter conditions for a number of years. As we move more into January, perhaps we can hope for a ?proper? winter, just like those we see every year on our Christmas cards.