Scotland is an alluring place for the wildfowler, says Tom Sykes as he offers his advice on how to make the most of a trip to the foreshore in pursuit a truly exhilarating quarry.
Wildfowling is a truly magical sport that is so often underrated and eschewed in favour of other types of shooting. Indeed, it has a bad reputation for being cold and wet, and with limited chances of a shot. However, I believe this makes the rewards so much greater. Bagging a wild goose or duck on the muddy estuary is special.
Over the years, I have dedicated a lot of my time to wildfowling at my home club, in north-west England, picking up valuable knowledge of the sport along the way. I have also made the effort to travel, visiting various locations and wild landscapes up and down the UK – from duck shooting on the flooded washes of Norfolk to goosing in the reedbeds of the Tay.
As is the case for a lot of wildfowlers, Scotland holds real allure for me and I usually venture over the border a couple of times a year for a week at a time to embark on a wild goose chase with a good friend of mine, Shane Robinson, and others. Scotland has much to offer the wildfowler, both inland and on the foreshore; the majority of the foreshore is, in fact, freely accessible for those wishing to shoot ducks and geese. If you’re yet to have your first taste of wildfowling, it’s a great destination.
Before you head out with wild abandon, though, there are a number of key things you should know...
Health and safety
I suppose one of the first things I should cover, for both beginners and experienced wildfowlers, is the dreaded health and safety. Wildfowling is a dangerous sport and one where Mother Nature should always be respected. The fast-moving tides and dangerous mud can catch out even the most experienced of Shots. Having a sound knowledge of local tides and the lay of the land is a must. Beginners should always accompany an experienced wildfowler or guide. A vast amount of time is spent watching the ground prior to shooting, not only to get a good idea of bird movements but to make sure that the area is safe to shoot with the corresponding tides.
For those who are shooting alone, I would always recommend letting other people know where you are going. Check in with said people once you have reached the safety of the car. I always carry my fully-charged mobile phone and, if there is a group of us, we will take radios, too. These are great for relaying information about bird movements but also important should the situation turn south.
A walking/wading stick is one of the most important pieces of equipment for the wildfowler. I would never walk out without one as they are invaluable when navigating water or simply feeling your way in the darkness. A compass is also useful for when the weather takes a nasty turn and the fog rolls in; it can be near impossible to navigate in a featureless environment.
Most of the complaints I hear about wildfowling relate to weather conditions. It’s fair to say that it isn’t always sunny, warm or dry in the middle of winter, but as my grandad used to quote the famous Alfred Wainwright, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”. Advances in technology have paved the way for materials like Gore-Tex and neoprene – they make the whole experience of sitting in a muddy gutter much nicer. I personally use two types of modern chest waders for wildfowling: I have a pair of breathable waders which are ideal for warmer weather or when walking a long distance; and I also have a pair of neoprene waders for when the weather is not so nice and the temperature plummets.
Last season, I headed to the Solway in pursuit of geese with a group of friends. Due to the lack of space in the vehicle, I only took my breathable waders as these are normally fine for November shooting. However, we hit a very cold week where the temperature dropped below zero. I sat in a wet gutter on the marsh with my friend Shane as the water froze around us! Although that wasn’t the most pleasant experience, it was down to my own poor judgement. The cold, numb feeling soon left me, though, when the birds took to the skies and goose fever took a hold.
Guns and ammunition
Wildfowling guns are a little different to the type you would commonly find in a grouse butt. We typically carry heavy guns to help us pull down large birds at range. Again, technology has aided the wildfowler; guns with 3½" chambers enable us to use heavier cartridges.
It is worth noting that the Scottish legislation relating to the use of lead shot differs from that in place in England and Wales; it follows a habitat–based approach as opposed to a combined species/site restriction. For example, in England and Wales it is illegal to shoot any duck or goose with lead shot, or to use lead shot on a specific published list of SSSIs. In Scotland, shooters can use lead shot to shoot wildfowl species as long as this does not occur on or over wetlands. The use of lead shot over wetlands to shoot any species is prohibited in Scotland.
Although I still love the magic of taking out one of my muzzle-loaders, I now shoot most of my quarry with a Beretta semi-auto or Benelli pump-action 12 bore. I personally opt for 2¾" 32g No. 4s when duck decoying, 3" 36g No. 3s for high ducks or low geese, and 3½" 42g No. 1s for most coastal goose shooting – all steel shot cartridges.
As well as using modern guns, I also enjoy shooting with an old AYA Yeoman 12 bore side-by-side which has been bored out to ½ choke in both barrels. The gun patterns amazingly with some of the steel cartridges on the market and has proven to be a deadly little thing on the ducks.
Quarry identification is a major part of foreshore wildfowling, as much of the shooting is done in poor light. There are a lot of non-target species on the marshes, some of which can look similar to quarry species to the untrained eye. Most ’fowlers rely on recognising silhouettes, wing beats and calls as well as general behaviour. Scotland is renowned for having its own issues with barnacle geese that often flight off the mud to the feeding grounds in and around the skeins of pinkfeet. It is important to know what you are shooting at – if in doubt, don’t shoot.
Every wildfowler needs the trusted companionship of a dog. In my case, this is my white labrador Goose. Goose joins me on every wildfowling adventure and has done so since he was eight months old. He is now over two years old and has two full seasons under his belt. He has built up his own knowledge through practical experience, as well as the typical dummy work all pups go through, and he’s a phenomenal dog for the job.
Due to his light colour, I have trained Goose to be comfortable under nets and inside hides from a young age – this ensures he isn’t seen by approaching birds. A dog is a must for most wildfowling as they can retrieve fallen quarry from hard-to-reach areas, like tidal creeks, efficiently and with speed. Goose is wonderful company for me as he has a very laid-back personality, which is ideal for the quiet times. He also has the drive when required; he soon springs into action when needed.
Decoys and calls
I am a believer in using decoys and calls to enhance my sport. It is usually worth the effort of carrying decoys as they can often be the difference between a successful trip and a blank one, depending on the situation. Decoys come in various forms including the soft, collapsible type which are easier to carry over greater distances.
I carry a selection of calls around my neck during every outing. They don’t always work but I would be lost without them. They are most effective when used with decoys, and I carry something to call just about anything, including mallard, wigeon, teal, pinks, Canadas and greylags.
All that is really left to say is that if you haven’t experienced the joys of wildfowling, do your homework and get out there. Whether you’re shooting inland or on the foreshore, the sport takes you to some truly wild and wonderful places. And if done correctly, it can produce a bounty of delicious meat for the table. At the end of the day, one of the major perks of pursuing ducks and geese is the excellent meals that come from it – in my case, usually enjoyed whilst relaxing in the armchair with Goose by my side, planning our next adventure.