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Pinks from the East

Humber, Thames: northerly gale eight to severe gale nine; snow showers; moderate to severe icing…” I cocked an ear to the deadpan delivery of the evening shipping forecast and listened with growing interest. Outside, the wind was already tugging at the bare branches of the lime tree in the front garden and rattling the kitchen windows. Inside, I sat measuring out powder, ramming wads into the green ribbed Remington cases and tipping into their greedy mouths most of my remaining stock of bismuth 3s. The following morning’s goose shooting had been planned for a few weeks, but I had not dared to hope that the weather might turn out the way it seemed to be doing. For once, I had caught it right and, with a score of shells loaded and tucked into the bottom of my fowling bag, the double-eight ready in its slip, and coat, hat and waders beside the utility room door, I turned in for a few hours’ sleep.

Next morning, my friend Paul parked the Land Rover at the end of the cattle drove and as we left the shelter of the loke and walked on to the marsh in the pitch-dark, the full force of the wind hit us square in the face, buffeting mercilessly across the flat countryside of east Norfolk. Paul had invited me to shoot a private marsh, which he had visited once before earlier in the season. On that occasion there had been a few pinkfoot about, but now, in November, the big flocks had arrived. His reconnaissance suggested that the birds were using the block of grazing marshes to which he had access, and now it was up to us to use what fieldcraft we could in order to get within range.

Paul dropped me off at a cattle gate that divided two blocks of marsh. “You can use the gate for cover or you can find somewhere along the edge of that dyke,” he said, as he headed for the adjoining field. I elected for the latter, finding a cattle low along the edge of the dyke where I could kneel behind a few scraps of sweetrush and still have a clear view of the morning sky. The dozen shell decoys I had in my bag were quickly pegged out on the marsh in front and Pintail, my Labrador, joined me excitedly at the dyke side. Reaching for the cartridges I had loaded the previous evening, I swung open the breech of the old Cogswell & Harrison, inserted two squat brass heads, locked fast the underlever and waited for the first streaks of grey in the eastern sky.

Long before dawn we could hear goose-talk. From out of the darkness the high-pitched chattering ink-ink sounds suggested little groups of birds moving out from the roost to graze, but though I stared into the north until my eyes ran from the gale that assaulted my cheeks, I saw nothing. Until, from behind me, a single bird banked into view just feet above the marsh, craning its neck at the decoys. Its black silhouette was visible against the grey sky for only a few moments, but by the time I had got the gun up to my shoulder, cocking the right hammer as I did so, the goose was well out above the furthest decoy and sideslipping with the gale. My shot went harmlessly into the air and I cursed inwardly — no doubt this would be my only chance of the morning. The goose had come right over my decoys but I had seen it too late and missed. Pintail looked on disapprovingly.

The first squall out of the north was a mixture of hail and sleet, which came almost horizontally across the marsh. Though I knew I had to be on full alert, the hail stung my face so much that it was almost more than I could do to look into the sky. Even the geese seemed to resist the urge to get airborne in such weather, but as the squall abated, the great birds started moving once more. Now it was getting light and I could see them, little groups of six or eight coming out of the north with the gale under their wings, a succession of birds streaming across the marsh, maybe 200 yards in front of me. But then came more geese, this time a bunch of four. I gave a couple of notes on my call, the birds responded and I could see that they had spotted my decoys. I crouched lower in the dyke, the long brown barrels of the big gun iced over with frozen hail, its hammers cocked and ready. Then, in a moment, they were over me and I sat up, swung on to the leader and fired. My first shot missed, but the second barrel brought a pink spinning down on to the marsh. Pintail could not believe her luck and quickly brought the goose to hand.

With the squall front passing, little chinks of blue showed in the dawn sky and I could see geese everywhere. One gaggle of about 20 spotted my decoys, swung round and pitched into the marsh behind me, but they were too far out for me to consider a shot, even with the eight. Then another group of half a dozen came much closer, going like trains. Again I waited until the last moment before looking up and swinging through on to the leader, which crumpled in a hail of pellets. My other barrel confirmed the right-and-left, but the second bird planed down and crashed 100 yards in front of me, head up and very much alive. I could see that it was making for the broad dyke, which bounded the edge of the marsh and that Pintail, who had watched the first bird down, was unsighted. Ignoring the dead bird, which could easily be picked later, I desperately worked her on to the running goose. Eventually she spotted it and gave chase, but too late, the goose had made the water and dived. It is remarkable how such a big bird can disappear underwater so completely, but when Pintail arrived seconds later, it made the mistake of surfacing for breath, albeit for a split second. The Labrador was in the dyke in a trice and soon had hold of her prize.

By now Paul was getting some shooting. I could hear the crack of his Beretta semi-auto and saw the occasional pink fall out of the sky. However, the geese just kept on coming and I took only one more before deciding that, with four in the bag, I had shot sufficient. It had been a memorable flight, made all the more special by the chance to use the double-eight for what it was originally intended when it was built all those years ago. We visited a different spot for evening flight, a quaking bog far out on the marshes beside the ancient drove road, which once took cattle from Norwich to Yarmouth. The white cap and fan of an old drainage mill stood sentinel beside the reed-fringed dyke where I knelt and waited for the light to fade. Far out to sea, the sky darkened with heavy, snow-laden clouds and, as dusk approached, a bunch of wigeon dropped in to feed among the sedge tussocks.

Paul and I saw the geese again at last light, heading back to the roost in huge skeins, hundreds strong, etched black against the gold and pink of the dying day. They were too far away to consider shooting at and it was pleasure enough just to watch in wonder. The first flakes of snow started falling as we made our way home along the drove road, and by the time we got back to the Land Rover the ground was white. Real fowling weather had arrived at last, and for days afterwards I could hear nothing but that magical sound of pinks.