Between gale-force winds, blizzards and driving rain, James Marchington and Gary Green catch some extreme wildfowling opportunities on Orkney
We are on Orkney, a remarkable group of islands 10 miles off the northern tip of Scotland. The isles have strong Norse roots and a rich folklore all their own, but it is the geese that have drawn us here this time. There are masses of them, mostly greylags, living here all year round.
Farming here depends heavily on livestock grazing, and the geese cause massive losses to the grass. It’s not just what they eat – although five geese eat as much as one sheep – they also foul the ground and puddle it with their feet, making it unpalatable to livestock.
The ferry disappears behind another blizzard: no one is getting on or off the island for a couple of days
The Orcadians wage a constant battle against the geese, and welcome visiting goose shooters who also bring much-needed tourist revenue to the islands. I have travelled up with Gary Green, a keen rifle and shotgun shooter from Essex. The forecast warns of 100mph gales and heavy snow over the next 48 hours. We could be in for a rough ride.
We see them, dark shapes battling into the wind. They see our decoys, turn and set their wings as if to land right on top of us. Closer and closer they come but Magnus waits until they’re backpedalling the air to land before he shouts, “Shoot!” Gary throws open the camouflaged doors of his layout blind and sits up, the Beretta semi-auto coming naturally to his shoulder. He fires twice among the volley of shots, and two geese fall. We jump back into the hides to peer once again through the thin mesh.
This is a land of low, grass-covered hills, broken, rocky shorelines and always the sea with its changing moods. Farms and houses are few and far between, while the small towns and villages have a frontier air about them. It feels as though we really are at the edge of civilisation here; the living is hard and always at the mercy of the North Atlantic weather.
Magnus drives us in his Hilux to a former airfield, an eerie plain with concrete bunkers here and there. We nestle against a peat bank in search of respite from the wind and snow as the light fails. It seems impossible that any goose would come this way, but just before it’s too dark to see, there they are. A small skein comes low to the ground over to our right. Gary fires once, twice. A goose falls. Magnus’s dog, Buddy, is racing towards it before we hear the thump, and quickly returns with another fine greylag, his teeth audibly chattering with the cold.
The next day dawns clear and cold with a stiff breeze and a light dusting of snow over the fields. It finds us ensconced in a frozen ditch beside a small loch, Magnus’s decoy ducks and geese bobbing among the floating ice. The bulk of the geese are still sitting out on the grass field on the hillside above us, but a few skeins are moving about. Magnus’ calling skills are stretched to the limit as he tries to compete with the chattering of thousands of geese half a mile away, but he turns a few small parties our way and provides steady shooting for Gary, who is loving every minute. “It’s like a different world,” he says more than once. It does seem a million miles away from the comfort of his enclosed fox-shooting high seat, complete with mains electric heaters and kettle.
The sun bursts golden over the horizon, throwing a warm glow across this tundra-like landscape and making the snow glisten. Gary almost doesn’t notice, however, as he is focused on a single goose passing high over us. His first shot misses. He doubles the lead and the bird crumples, dead in the air. It takes a long time to fall, and Buddy has more than 100 yards to run out to fetch it. When he returns, we see the bird has burst on impact with the frozen ground. “That was some shot,” says Gary. “I gave it the length of a London bus for that second shot. They don’t look like they’re going all that fast, but they are.”
We have a memorable foreshore flight that evening, then all too soon it is time to pack ready for an early start to catch the ferry back to the mainland. Our time on these magical islands is almost over, but not before we have sampled a lively evening of local culture in the village pub. Seeing young and old together, eating, drinking and dancing to a live band, I am struck by the remarkable warmth of this close-knit community, stubbornly clinging to life in one of Britain’s harshest environments. Orkney is a special place, and a mecca for the wildfowler. You really should plan a visit; I know I’ll be going back.
Goose shooting on Orkney can be booked through Black Islander Sporting by contacting Hamish on firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 01349 877770.