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Phil Gray: Words on wildfowling

It had suddenly become perceptively lighter as the pre-dawn darkness succumbed to the stealthy approach of that first hint of brightness in the east. It had been a bitterly cold wait and now, with the light, it felt even colder. There must have been a slight change in temperature because, almost instantly, the blued barrels of my gun became white and sugared with frost. I had experienced this before of course, but it served to remind me of other wintry days on Whittlesey Wash or the Norfolk and Lincolnshire coastal marshes.

As the frost penetrated my gloves I had cause to remember a morning when accepting a wet duck from my dog, I had forgotten to remove my glove first. When a woollen glove is wet it stays wet, and on a frosty morning the hand suffers as a result. On the morning in question the frost was severe, but I was young, stubborn and determined to stick it out. One finger in particular – perhaps there was a hole in the glove – became numb and to this day if the weather is very cold the tip of that digit turns white and the sense of feeling is temporarily lost.

After a few days of such weather, our tidal river soon buzzed with packs of diving duck. Tufted duck and pochard from frozen-over gravel pits were the obvious majority, but goosander, merganser, goldeneye and even the occasional smew would turn up. In those days our local wildfowler’s club had the shooting over two miles of the tidal River Nene. The pochard would rush along in great packs of 30 or 40, following the river and often only six feet above the surface. The hum of their short, rapidly beating wings was audible a long time before they came into view.

As it was their habit to fly in an extended line, the width of the river, it was sometimes possible to swing ahead and bring two or three tumbling down with one raking shot. Even in hard weather we don’t see them in numbers like those nowadays. Perhaps the ice on their home waters is being kept open for them. I once shot a tufted duck from a mixed bunch of divers, and a drake pochard flying 15 feet behind it was killed by the same shot, clearly showing the length of the shot string.

Winters of content

There were winters like 1963 and 1981 when the tidal river froze and great ice floes would sail up and down, a hazard for a retriever. One morning before light, a strange creaking, scraping and crashing began. This was abnormal and I couldn’t fathom the source of the racket. It turned out that on the flood tide the ice had packed right across the river at the bridge near the tidal limit and for a good quarter-mile back downstream. Now the ebb had started and it was pulling the ice with it. The great white mass came scouring down the river’s edge with an awesome roaring sound. It was a matter of waiting for the whole lot to pass by before any shooting could even be considered, and then a wary watch was kept for more ice. It was a spectacle never to be forgotten.

The writer could hardly believe his eyes when, on one occasion, a skein of Brent geese, a bird seldom seen on his patch, passed within 100 yards his hide.

Another memorable occasion was when 200 Brent geese flew in one morning. We are not above 18 miles from the coast as the goose flies, but I had seen only the odd Brent on our ground before. I heard their cronking call first and could hardly believe my eyes when the skein passed by within 100 yards of my hide. Good numbers of pinkfeet and a few whitefronts were regular winter visitors until perhaps the mid-1960s when numbers declined on the coast. When the geese eventually returned to the east coast, it was to Norfolk they went and not to our patch. We still get a skein now and again, but no longer in the thousands.

I got my very first goose in December 1958. It was foggy as I walked across to the tidal river at dawn. I was half way to my destination when seven or eight pinkfeet blundered out of the grey pall. They were very low, not much above head height and too close really. I managed to bring one down though and, having no dog in those days, ran in the direction of the fall. Fortunately the bird did not run and I was soon admiring my prize. I was so proud of my achievement that I cycled straight back home to show the family!

You are more likely to bag a greylag on Whittlesey Wash these days. Canadas appeared first, but greylags seem to have usurped their territory, just as they have in other locations. I am not unhappy about that as I would prefer to shoot greys. For a few seasons several Canadas were shot and a few still are.
One well-known local who goes by the name of Brimmer told me he once shot a Canada that fell into a dyke, just out of reach. Not having his dog with him, he grabbed some vegetation on the dyke brink and leant out to reach for his bird. Now Brimmer is a big man and a tuft of grass was never going to anchor him. At the extent of his reach it gave and our hero joined his goose in the drink. I wish I had been there to see it.

The soggy guest in the bright yellow baseball cap

Recalling that leads me nicely into another story about a friend who was a member of a syndicate with land on the Hundred-foot Washes at Sutton Gault. He was asked if he would take a stranger for an evening flight and being an obliging type he agreed. When his guest turned up it was obvious he was new to the game. He did have thin fishing waders, but the rest of his gear was not appropriate – especially his bright yellow baseball cap.

The floods were out and the pair waded along the droves to the favoured spot. Once there, my friend tried to give the novice some idea of what to expect, emphasising the importance of staying exactly where he was placed, mainly because of the hidden, deep dykes on either side of the drove.

“I couldn’t take my eyes off that bloody hat,” said my friend, deciding he had better move well away if he wanted a shot himself. He began to walk off, but then remembered some last-minute instruction. He turned to find, to his amazement, his guest had vanished into thin air. “I couldn’t believe it. ‘Wherezzeegone?’ I said. Then I saw this yellow cap floating on the water!” Next moment a floundering shape surfaced and struggled to the side of the dyke. Now, helpless with laughter, my friend helped his guest to his feet and decided he had better stay with him. There was no ice, but the wind was a bitter easterly and, needless to say, the yellow peril was never seen down there again.

Keeping warm amid East Anglia’s icy blast

When the floods are widespread and frozen, hundreds of duck will sit out on the ice all day, safe from their predators. One year, when the wind was strong, we had some good flights as they headed out at dawn for the sanctuary of the ice. Back then we had just graduated to waxed cotton coats. Previously, not being able to afford the necessary £10 for one of these luxury items, we had relied on ordinary tweed jackets under thin Parkas or camouflaged smocks from army surplus stores. The waxed coats were wonderfully waterproof, but they could be very cold and become stiff. After being out in a sharp frost for an hour or so, had you felt inclined to remove your waxed coat you could have easily stood it up on the ground.

With all the ice and snow, the aspect could be distinctly polar and one felt like Scott or Amundsen when setting out into that forbidding landscape. What an adventure for a young fowler! As crumbs of fine snow blew across the frozen ground in wriggling lines – like sand on a beach – it had an irritating habit of blowing into a broken gun, making it difficult to close again; snow can create additional hazards for the gunner. One local fellow, Joe Anthony, got snow in the muzzle of his pump-action and blew four inches off the end of the barrel. Luckily he was unharmed.

After a particularly cold vigil at dusk in such conditions I would run back the two miles to my bike at what used to be called ‘The Scout’s Pace’. The idea is to run as fast as you can for 100 yards, and then walk the 100 and so on. Anyway, it warmed me up better than any hip flask. It might be tempting to have a nip or two of spirits, but the warmth does not last. In fact, if you are out in the cold for long it can have the opposite effect. A flask of hot tea or coffee is to be preferred. Safer too, unless someone else is doing the driving of course.

When snow is thick on the ground the wigeon cannot graze, but after a high tide has washed the river brinks clear, some grass becomes available. Hundreds of wigeon pack to this feed and in the past good shooting could be guaranteed. Nowadays, long reaches of the tidal river are out of bounds so most of the fowl feed there.

The beautiful greylag goose is one of the author’s favourite birds.

Last season brought deep flooding for months and the sport was not the best. When snow came in January I decided to try a last fling by the tidal river. Wearing snow camouflage, I was able to kneel invisibly at the edge of the mud. Due to ice and fog, I was a few minutes later arriving than I would have liked, but the flight had only just begun. It wasn’t long after I had settled that a pack of about 40 pintail tore out of the fog and I dropped one beyond the far bank. Holly, my yellow lab bitch, swam over and bounded off to make the retrieve.

She was gone quite a while and during that time a big lot of teal whizzed by and, twice, teams of mallard sailed past on set wings, looking as large as geese in the murk. Naturally I couldn’t shoot as the birds would have fallen into the swiftly ebbing tide. Holly appeared on the top of the bank, seeming to check where I was, or perhaps her bearings, and soon vanished again. She must have been out of sight for five minutes in all, but when she did return she was carrying a fine pintail drake. My guess is the bird had fallen through the snow crust, but thank goodness Holly doesn’t give up.

The next opportunity was an easy hen wigeon that tried to pitch on the river and then a trio of mallard from which a drake fell to the snow. I had 11 shots during the flight with varying success, and finished with a high wigeon from a company of 100 that whistled overhead. The bag was the pintail, a teal, two wigeon and two mallard, which were welcome after an indifferent season.

I tried again a few days later, which brings us back to where we started. There was no fog and the birds were fewer. Nevertheless, as well as my reminiscing, I managed to put a couple of wigeon in the bag. As bird movement slackened, the cold began to make itself felt and Holly’s fur jangled with ice – it was time to seek somewhere warmer. At 72 years of age my blood is thinner now than it was when I was a youth with the frostbitten finger!

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