Coming up against stormy skies and vast numbers of geese, James Marchington and Gary Green experience an unforgettable wildfowling visit to Orkney
As the first hint of light appears in the steely blue-grey sky, we are already in position lying flat on our backs in coffin-shaped hides in the middle of a grass field. Icy rain stings our cheeks and the wind howls in our ears, making it hard to hear the shouts from our guide, Magnus Norquay, even though he is lying in an identical pop-up hide just a few yards away. And then, through the wind, comes the magical sound of geese on the wing.
We are on Orkney, a remarkable group of islands ten miles off the northernmost 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.
No one is sure of the numbers but it is in the tens of thousands; figures of 30,000 and more are bandied about without argument. What is certain is the damage they do to agriculture on these weather-beaten islands. 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.
“Through the wind comes the magical sound of geese on the wing”
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. We set off on the long trek north at 4am the previous morning, arriving in good time for the 6.30pm ferry from Gills Bay to St Margaret’s Hope. A bit of weather would be welcome as it helps us outwit the geese, but the forecast warns of 100mph gales and heavy snow over the next 48 hours. We could be in for a rough ride.
The sound of approaching geese grows louder and suddenly 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 flimsy 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. He’s pretty sure one of them is his but we will argue the details later. For now, the birds are quickly gathered so as not to spoil the decoy pattern and we jump back into the hides to peer once again through the thin mesh. It’s not much but at least it is some protection from the biting wind.