One man and his dog. Or sometimes two, or even three men, with or without their dogs; waiting in the dark, in muddy creeks, for dawn to break. Duck and geese and curlew, heard but not seen until half-light. I think I’m getting the idea: this is what wildfowling is about. I am standing in a (currently waterless) waist-high creek at the seaward edge of Calvo Marsh, at 6.30 am, a few days before Christmas 2003 and an hour before high tide, with a wildfowler whom I have not met before, and whom I have heard but not yet seen.
Both my alarm clocks had gone off at 5.15am and I had piled on thermals and multiple layers of warm clothes, managing to resist the urge to paint my face with camouflage colours; my rucksack was ready with headtorch, notebook, emergency Mars bar, whistle and compass, Swiss army knife (well, I’d heard about those disorientating fogs on the marshes and you never know when you might need a nail-file); the thermos was waiting to be filled; the bag of spare dry clothes was already in the car. The internet is a wonderful thing: I’d spent hours reading Eric Begbie’s reminiscences of his wildfowling days on the Firth of Forth, especially his chapter on ‘Be prepared’, and one that might have been titled ‘how to survive hypothermia and total immersion’. Bearing in mind the colour of my hair, I also took particular note of his comment that “the white orb of a human physiog stands out like a glowing beacon amid the drab colours of the marsh”, and borrowed a dark, hooded fleece!
It was cheering to discover how many other people were up and about at that early hour – there were lights in bedroom and bathroom windows, and yard lights at farms, even the occasional car. A shooting star arced across the sky as I drove towards Silloth and I made a wish then stopped the car on a long straight road and turned off the lights, just to enjoy the emptiness. The only light was from moonshine on the wet road. The landscape seemed almost alien, as wide and flat as East Anglian fens.
The single-track road eventually branched to form the tracks to two farms, and I could go no further and parked. Soon the headlights of another car light the marsh beside me, and then swing into the layby.
“Brian Hodgson, I presume?”
“Is that Ann?”
Becky the black labrador is just visible in the dim light of the open boot. Identities established, the humans put on their waterproofs and wellies, sling on rucksacks and shotgun (in Brian’s case) and we set off across the marsh in the dark. Becky zigzags in front of us, only visible when her eyes shine green in the light of the torch, and each startled ewe is a pair of glow-worms. As we head towards the sea the cropped grass becomes lumpier, the meanders of the creeks wider and deeper; Brian has done this many times before and clearly knows his way, but I’m glad of my head-torch as we clamber in and out of hollows, creep under barbed wire and jump across obstacles. However, the birds are already stirring, curlews are occasionally calling, so we must use the torches as little as possible.
It is a truly amazing experience to be out on a Solway marsh before dawn. I stop to look around, at the lights from scattered farms, and from houses across the Firth in Scotland, and Brian points out that from this perspective the red-lit masts of Anthorn and the yellow lights around Chapelcross power-station, taken together, look like a large ocean-going liner, and it’s very easy to suspend disbelief.
Eventually we slither down into a deep creek with muddy sides and bottom – and this, apparently, is where we are to stay. It’s still completely dark, not yet 7am. The clouds have covered the moon again; but gradually the calls of other birds are heard. “Pweet”, the characteristic whistle of the male Wigeon; Curlews, an occasional Lapwing; the bubbling twitter of Sandpipers; the “quack” of a Mallard ... and then we hear a conversation starting, a gabbling, clearly a large flock of geese across the water at Cardurnock Point. Barnacle Geese. Now the gulls join in, and there is a harsh croak of a Heron. But the most exciting sound is the “wink-wink” of the Pinkfoot Geese. Out there in the darkness the wildfowl are talking. I have no idea how close we are to the sea, I have no idea of the topography of the place; or whether this creek will suddenly fill with water as the tide comes in – but it really doesn’t matter, because I’m sitting here amongst the silt and pale grass of the saltmarsh, listening to the sudden breathless flurry of wings overhead as the duck return to the Solway. My toes are frozen, my clothes are muddy, but it’s so very unimportant: somewhere out there are hundreds of birds getting ready for another day of feeding; another step for the geese in preparing themselves for that long migration Northwards to breed.
Brian and I are talking quietly, leaning back against the bank, when he suddenly leaps forward, grabs the shotgun and – before I have scarcely even begun to realise that about twenty wigeon are flighting over – he fires off a single shot. The formation wavers and the birds jink to one side, then reform and carry on, but none falls. Becky looks at me reproachfully.
High tide is due at about 7.45am. I had forgotten about the sea, but I suddenly notice there’s water around my feet. As the sky turns from black to grey the dark marsh to our left has taken on a steely shine; the main creek is filling up and spilling over into our side-branch, an insidious silent creeping of brown water, debris swirling gently on the surface, pale bubbles of froth. The water reaches Brian’s feet but not Becky’s backside, and washes gently back and forth, then after about thirty minutes it silently drains away.
'Flighting by moonlight on the Solway'. (My grateful thanks to John Rogers for this image of his painting)
We are waiting for the geese to leave their roosts on the sands and fly inland to feed; at dusk they will fly back to the coast again. Duck do the converse – they feed inland at night and return to the coast at dawn. Each day, then, there are two ‘flights’ when wildfowl may be shot. Perhaps you have a mental image of a man with a shotgun standing trium-phantly with his foot on a pile of feathered corpses? I certainly hadn’t known what to expect, and I was intrigued by the whole experience.
I learnt that only certain species of duck and goose are legal ‘quarry’: no longer may you shoot at Curlew or Sandpiper. Greylag, Pinkfooted Geese and Canada Geese are quarry. The Barnacle Goose is definitely not - the whole precious population of Barnacle Geese from Svalbard overwinters here. Mallard, Wigeon, Teal and Pintail, for example, are permitted quarry, but Shelduck, Eider and Scaup are protected. But how can you tell the difference when it’s dark?
“The general rule is, if you can’t identify it, don’t shoot it”, Brian says, “But you can usually tell because you’ll have heard the calls.”
He has been wildfowling for more than twenty years and when I suggest that he must have learnt a lot about the behaviour of the birds, he agrees but points out that, “It’s always different, it’s influenced by so many things – the phases of the moon, the height of the tides, the wind. If the wind had been driving the tide high onto the marsh this morning, the duck would have come right up to the edge here instead of staying out on the water.” (We can see their dark shapes bobbing about). “Or when there’s a full moon and it’s a clear night, the duck will be feeding on the flashes – we’ll put out decoys, and we’ll be out all night ourselves. But you need a bit of cloud for when the geese flight, you need to be able to see their silhouettes against the cloud.”
We hear a couple of Pinkfoot Geese calling, and one even flies close by: but not close enough. Brian tries to encourage it to come closer by blowing one of the two whistles that hang around his neck. These ‘calls’ are for Wigeon, and for Pinkfeet and Greylag, and sound astonishingly realistic. The goose ‘call’, a beautifully turned plastic whistle, is made locally by Eddie Nixon, and is sold all over Britain.
The sky near Skiddaw is pale apricot, and now I can see the sea, no more than 20 metres away. I can see my companion for the first time, too: he has a gold ear-ring, and is a young-looking forty-something. The geese across the water have been silent for a while and I have given up on them but suddenly they all begin calling again, and then we see the whole flock flight. The sight and sound of them, the massed dark shapes lifting into the air, are thrilling – and they fly away from us, towards the RSPB’s Campfield Reserve. There will be no more shooting here today but Brian doesn’t seem to mind, because I’m beginning to learn that for him and other wildfowlers the shooting is a bonus not the real aim.
“I just like being out here and being part of it - the early morning, the solitude of it. It’s an environment that’s alien to us, and 95 percent of the time the wildfowl have the advantage. There was one morning when about 4000 pinkfeet lifted off. ‘What a sight!’ I said to the dog, ‘Look at that, and if you only remember one thing in your life, remember that!’ ”
The dog has been sitting with her back towards us, shoulders hunched, for two hours. A couple of times Brian has spoken to her, once to comment that she’s being very unsociable, and she turned to look at him briefly, but she has ignored me very pointedly. She seems to be sulking. Brian has been talking to me rather than telling her about the geese, and I have also usurped her rightful and more comfortable place in the creek. There is no bird for Becky to collect, so we hunt for the empty cartridge case, then head back to the cars, where I learn more about wildfowling as we drink our very welcome hot coffee.
To go wildfowling you must have a registered shotgun and be insured and – here on the southern shores of the Solway – have a permit from the South Solway Wildfowlers Association, of which Brian is the Secretary. The SSWA is affiliated to BASC (the British Association for Shooting and Conservation), and oversees 8690 hectares on the Solway marshes stretching from Grund Point at Skinburness, through Calvo and Cardunnock, Newton Arlosh, Drumburgh and Burgh, with a lease on part of Rockcliffe marsh. A major part of this, about 80%, is in the form of Reserves, which ensures that there are large areas where the birds can roost and feed undisturbed. And you can’t just wander out onto a marsh at any time and take a pot-shot at a quarry species, or scare a passing Coastal Path walker; the wildfowling season runs from September 1st to February 20th and – with some minor variations - shooting is not allowed between 10am and 2pm. The geese are most abundant in January and February, and some of the keen wildfowlers will then go out two or three times a week.
“I’m out in the night and out at work in the day. And by February there are some of the lads turning up with thick stubble, they’ve scarcely slept. People think we’re crazy – we are!”
I first heard about the Solway’s wildfowlers from a conservationist, and was puzzled by this schizophrenic mix of poacher and gamekeeper. BASC’s name also links shooting with conservation, often in the context of culling sick animals or keeping population size within sustainable limits. So how does this work with wildfowling? SSWA, for example, works closely both with English Nature – digging scrapes or ‘flashes’, the shallow ponds where duck may feed, and cleaning existing ponds – and with the Marsh Committees who look after the common grazing. As always, there is a conflict between the needs of the graziers, who need good drainage to improve the grass, and the wildfowlers and conservationists who want to keep the marshes wet; as always, there must be compromise. The wildfowlers also have a wardening team, who keep an eye out for poachers, and maintain the gates and carparks at the access points to the marsh.
Despite Becky putting the blame on me, the lack of birds today might be more to do with the clear, dry dawn – stormy weather would drive the birds off the shore and force them to fly lower, giving the wildfowlers a rare advantage. Although when Brian describes it thus, “When you hear the rain and wind battering against the window at four in the morning, you know you’ve got to get yourself out of bed and get out there on the marsh!” , I’m not sure whether hunter or quarry would be most disadvantaged.
Curiously, the duck but not the geese can be sold on; geese must be eaten by the fowler and his friends. This reminds me of a book I saw advertised on the internet: How to carve wildfowl. I had expected a cover photo of a glistening, well-basted goose breast, a still life with carving knife and fork and a jug of gravy. But it was about wood-carving – making decoy birds. Decoys generally resemble mallard and are set out in a row on a tethered nylon thread, to bob about with the tide and convince incoming flights that all is well and this is a good place to visit. Advantage: wildfowler.
The second time I go out wild-fowling with Brian is several years later, in January 2011. This time my alarm clocks are set even earlier, for we are to meet at Abbeytown at 6am. There has been a heavy frost overnight and the roads are sparkling white in the light of the nearly-full moon; black tyre-tracks show that I am certainly not the first to travel those roads this morning. After meeting by the Wheatsheaf Inn we drive along a single-track road to a dead-end by a farm on Border Marsh. We are not the first here, either, as a black pick-up truck is parked in the lay-by, its owner, like us, preparing to set off across the marsh. Becky the labrador 'passed on' some years ago, so today we're accompanied by Lucy, a very bouncy and sociable black labrador who is clearly delighted to be out on the marshes. The grass is white and crusty with frost, and the moonlight makes it easy for us to pick our way across frozen pools and ditches, heading in the direction of the Anthorn masts. We eventually reach a series of branching creeks, known as 'Piero's Hole': "You can spell it any way you want," Brian says, "It's supposed to be named after an Italian who always liked to shoot from here."
As on the previous occasion, we settle down in a creek, our boots making sucking, popping sounds in the mud when we shift our feet. Brian lays down a bed of camouflage net for Lucy and she curls up, pressed against the muddy wall of the creek, and is soon snoring softly. We lean back against the bank, elbows propped on the frosty turf, and wait. The moon sinks behind a low wall of cloud to the right of Criffel across the Firth; the mist that has been hiding the lower lights of the masts rises so that the upper lights have orange haloes. The silence is complete. The mud is icy cold.
"There were ice-floes piled in the creeks around Christmas, some of them were the size of snooker-tables. You should've heard the noise they made when the tide was coming in," Brian says. There were ice-floes drifting with the tides and piled on the shore of the Firth, too, and the spectacle even hit the national news.
That long period of extremely cold weather in December 2010, when the fields and marshes and fells were coated with snow and ice, meant that the geese had great difficulty grazing and were becoming hungry and thin. Geese migrated to, and stayed on, the Solway in great numbers this winter, but the SSWA asked for its members to observe a limit on the number of geese that could be shot, no more than three geese in any 24-hour period. This was in line with a call from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee: after seven days of widespread freezing conditions the JNCC may ask wildfowlers and others who may disturb waterbirds through their normal activities to consider voluntary restraint of those activities (and after 14 consecutive days of freezing weather a statutory suspension of wildfowl and wader shooting can be implemented by the Secretary of State).
That limit no longer applies on this January morning, but there are no geese near us. We hear some Pinkfooted Geese chattering and calling over on the Anthorn side of the estuary, but they don't come our way although Lucy is sitting upright and whining in anticipation. By 8am, the sky is light enough to see the details of our creek and the mud-banks and the estuary. There are a couple of deep booming shots from Cardurnock, and several shots over on the Scottish side, and later we see a flock of more than one hundred geese in the distance, heading inland.
It's nearly a quarter to nine, and the orange ball of the sun is starting to peer over the Caldbeck Fells, so we pack up. We have heard Curlew, Wigeon, Redshanks and Shelduck, and flocks of gulls are now beating their way up the estuary; we have yet again experienced the wilderness and uniqueness of the marsh at dawn. And then, as we near the cars, a lone Pinkfoot Goose flies towards us. Brian calls it with his whistle, and it comes closer, overhead - within a stone's throw. It takes a good look at us then veers off . The goose - like us - is probably laughing.
"The moon's upset things, it all gets back-to-front when there's a full moon because the geese go off and feed inland during the night. But it's coming up to the end of the season and the moon will be right, so we should get a few good mornings. There might be a dozen to fifteen people out then." Brian is apologetic that I haven't been able to see flocks of geese flighting overhead. The owner of the black pick-up returns as we're pulling off our muddy waterproofs, and he has had no luck either but nevertheless he's smiling broadly. "A long walk for nowt," he says. "There must've been four-five hundred geese over there, but they weren't going anywhere."
We had heard only a couple of shots from England but there were several shots on the Scottish side – possibly from Caerlaverock, the large National Nature Reserve that is run by Scottish Natural Heritage, where conservation and wildfowling apparently co-exist. Trying to understand this mixture, I had gone to Caerlaverock in 2003 to meet Wally Wright, a former Warden and a wildfowler himself, and Alan Steel, the Reserve Manager, at the cottage that is the SNH’s Reserve Office, South of Dumfries.
Caerlaverock’s wildfowling permit scheme has been seen as a blueprint for other reserves, Wally told me. It’s certainly very well-organised: Alan had prepared a plastic folder to show me the application forms, information, maps, car stickers and so on that a wildfowler requires. Eighty seasonal permits are allotted, and 22 per day for visitors, but he was quick to point out that, “You needn’t imagine that 100 might be out at one time! There’s only ever a few, more likely three – or none!” and he showed me the record sheet to prove it.
But huge numbers of man-hours are put in by those who do go out and this is a Reserve, so one might have expected there to be huge numbers of birds to shoot. Both men laughed.
“The ignorance is alarming!” Alan said. “Some people I was talking to thought we had to put (daily) bag limits on the wildfowlers, like six geese. I couldn’t believe it, to be honest. A wildfowler might shoot six geese in a season if he’s lucky.”
Wally agreed: “ You can think of it like taking a harvest of the wildfowl. Wildfowlers would be the last people to shoot too many, as they have to look to the future. It’s in their own interest not to take big bags." The records of the numbers shot over the Caerlaverock Merse convinced me. During the 2002/2003 season 'bag returns' were 55 Pinkfoot Geese, 33 Pintail, 23 Wigeon, 25 Teal and 12 Mallard. (Updating me recently for the 2009-2010 season, Alan Steel told me that bag returns for the 40 local and 84 visitor permits used during the six-month season were 84 Pinkfooted Geese, 11 Greylag Geese, 61 Canada Geese, 14 Mallard, 4 Teal, 2 Wigeon, 4 Pintail and 2 Shoveler.)
“Manhours”, though: what about the women? Wally and Alan could only think of one, who had once accompanied her husband. Both men were of the opinion that wildfowling is too cold and uncomfortable, why would a woman want to do that, to sit around “in the mud and gla?” “It comes down to the old hunter-gatherer. The woman needs to stay at home --,” Wally’s eyes twinkled under his woolly hat, “-- and do the housework.”
Perhaps that was why he suggested I visit the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust’s reserve down the road, where there was an exhibition centre and “a nice wee restaurant”, but I walked down the long track to the SNH’s reserve instead, past stirks gloomily chewing silage in muddy fields, and found myself in a forest of pale whispering sedges, so high and dense that I couldn't see the sea. A path and wooden walkways took me onto the merse itself, its thick wiry grass dotted with dry kelp and driftwood; there was no sound but the hissing of wind laden with the smell of mud. England was almost hidden by cloud though Silloth’s church spire was sharp and black.
Wildfowling has always been more of a ‘working-man’s sport’, Brian Hodgson had told me, and during hard times had provided many families with food. The men may be hunter-gatherers but, now that I’ve experienced being out on the marshes at dawn, it no longer surprises me that poachers can be gamekeepers, hunters can be conservationists. As so often with those who ‘use’ the Solway, it’s the wildness and emptiness and wildlife that are so important.
And for Brian: ‘There’s been a couple of occasions, when the dog’s brought back a goose and I’ve laid it down here on the bank, and I’ve looked at it – and for a split second, I’ve wondered why I’m doing it. Just for a split-second, mind. And afterwards I’ve thought I must be getting soft, but when I’ve mentioned it to some of the other lads, there’s one or two of them have thought the same. Just that quick thought....’
(Text copyright Ann Lingard, 2011. A version of this article appeared in Cumbria Life in 2004)
South Solway Wildfowlers Association. Details can be obtained from the Secretary, Brian Hodgson, email@example.com, or through the website
Caerlaverock Wetlands Reserve (run by the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust: hides, exhibition centre, café; entry fee)
Caerlaverock Nature Reserve (run by Scottish Natural Heritage: free entry) A brochure can be downloaded free.