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Autumn’s End

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The simple, laughable joy of wildfowl

 

After weeks without meaningful rain, Galloway was drier than a bone. Muddy tracks had been frozen so often that the puddles finally sighed and blew away on the east wind. The peat crunched underfoot, and banks of fallen leaves swirled in skirts across the moss. There was hardly a fungus to be found in woods which usually groan with chanterelles and seps, and the damp, October reek of fallen wood was replaced by dry, apply scents of preservation and storage. Without water, the rot was stopped; animation was suspended. Jays ran shuttles of acorns through the stillness, stealing a march on Winter.

By this stage of the year, the Solway coast is usually being lashed by rain which tears down the leaves and transforms even the shallowest hollow into a grubby tub of mud. Growing crowds of migrant wildfowl glory in this liquid blend of mud and stubble, weeds and water. While skeins of solemn geese march overhead like columns of heavy cavalry, ducks stage guerilla raids inland by night, looting the land and then retreating back to the shore before the sun lights them up again. Heavy rain spreads them across the entire county, and every flooded field holds a teal or two after a wet week – but drought reduces their options and forces them into a bottleneck on the deeper, more reliable ponds. Ponds like mine.

Even as I left the house, the wind felt different in the gloaming. Clouds had piled up overhead and some light spots of rain were falling as I walked up with the dog at my heel and the gun under my arm. In fact, the cloud was so heavy that the darkness caught me offguard – I was late, and there were already a few mallard on the pond when I arrived – they rose with a rushing clatter and whistled away invisibly beneath the dark horizon. I was in position for five minutes before the first birds returned with the first slapping flakes of snow. Wigeon hens growled in the breeze as they inspected the pond on their preliminary fly-past, and one fell to my shot as the others motored vertically off into the darkness. The shape fell with a bump on the dry ground and the dog rushed to find it as another small group swept in from the Solway side. A left and right dropped two into the water, and then I was packing to leave. Of all fieldsports, wildfowling should be pursued in moderation, and three wigeon was more than enough for my purposes.

I had been by the pond for ten minutes, but now I moved to the shelter of the old turnip feeder to watch the rest of the flight. Snow was falling in a sleety mist as two dozen more wigeon came in, and my heart swelled at the sound of cock birds calling as they came. I am so preoccupied with grouse and blackgame that I always forget the simple, laughable joy of wildfowl – nothing can make me smile like that daft whoop, and I left them to it as a crowd of teal skimmed over the whins and added their bleeps to the glee.

By midnight, the skylight in the kitchen was covered in snow and the autumn has never recovered. The leaves are gone and the trees are glossy with rain.

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