After a night spent sleeping on the M6 on the way to my brother’s wedding, it was with some trepidation that I set off from Macclesfield to King’s Lynn on a second long journey in only two days. Despite some fairly impressive snow lying behind the dykes over the Cat and Fiddle Pass through the Peak District, the trip was actually quite a doddle, and the sun rose fair over the North Norfolk coast the following morning.
My grasp of English geography is very poor, and having been born and brought up on the west coast, even my knowledge of Scotland hardly stretches far east of Carlisle. I’m fairly well familiar with most places between the Mull of Galloway and Cape Wrath, and the only time I have ever really seen much of the east coast was looking at wild grey partridges in east Lothian and short eared owls in Caithness. My limited wordliness meant that my first look out of the window at Norfolk’s coast was something of a revelation. People joke than Norfolk is flat, but I can now say with some confidence that it is ridiculously flat – the sort of flatness which is accentuated by not seeming to have anything in the way of hedges or dykes – (although I suppose if you’re from Norfolk, you would say that there are a great deal of dykes).
From where I was standing on Monday morning, a great plain of damp grass stretched off into the distance, crisscrossed here and there by stripes of tall, waving reeds. On the horizon, the sea wall rose up like the crust of a pie, and I crossed my fingers that it would hold back the tide long enough for the day’s shooting. What had initially seemed like appalling emptiness gradually came into focus as my eye learned to pick out signs of activity. I’m used to looking for wildlife on rough, hilly ground, so the adjustment to this strange terrain took a moment of two. After a few minutes, I spotted curlews like grazing cows through the puddles, while great lines of brent geese surged along the sea wall in the distance.
Skeins of pink footed geese passed high overhead, and two marsh harriers scoured through the reeds and turned back on themselves with a very familiar delicacy. With the exception of the one I saw at Geltsdale, I had never really seen marsh harriers before, but they are very like the hen harriers now passing through the Chayne, if not in coloration but manner. I poured a cup of coffee watched one as it worked with the wind, pushing up a team of curlews and checking for any stragglers. Now and again, a tinkling mist of golden plovers turned suddenly over the land like a shoal of mackerel, baring white undersides as they tacked their way lightly to and fro, trailing wings like sickles.
The morning’s shooting was through soaking pasture up against the sea wall. Snipe rose up in good numbers, and when they had the wind behind them we never really stood a chance. On the second drive, a bittern rose out of a red bed nearby and wafted oddly past like a cross between a heron and a tawny owl. Bowed, rounded wings paddled the wind like a woodcock in slow motion, and he bumped and shuddered as an unexpected gust of turbulence turned him back down to ground again four or five hundred yards upwind. If I hadn’t already been taken with Norfolk, my entire trip would have been made worthwhile by that single sighting. I have always wanted to see a bittern, and now that that goal has been realised, I now have to hear one booming… My time will come.
During the afternoon, we shot some cracking cover for woodcock. The wind made them twist sharply as soon as they left the shelter of the trees, and many more cartridges were fired than connected. One wood in particular gave me some great inspiration for the woodcock strip on the Chayne, and I will have to work at recreating that magical mixture of brambles, young trees and quality shelter at low level over the next few weeks as the new trees go in and the old ones come down.
As if it hadn’t been a good enough day, there was only just time for a quick cup of tea before we were out again for an evening flight on the network of ponds and puddles which is scattered across the coastline. I was shooting miserably, but did manage a gadwall drake which came looming out of the gloom, as well as a flighting snipe. I had never shot a gadwall before, and it was a real pleasure to get a close look at these subtly beautiful ducks. Not for a gadwall the yellow mohican of a wigeon or the brazen, glossy blue head of a mallard; the more I looked at the fallen bird, the more I found to appreciate – every single tone of grey imaginable, all laced together and dabbed unexpectedly with a stunning burgundy smear on each wing. Although I had generally shot pretty poorly, there was a great deal to be pleased with on my first day in Norfolk.