(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty)
Country Notes

Flying tonight

Patrick Galbraith finds a little bit of Heaven in Hull

It had been four weeks exactly since I first crossed the almost mile-and-a-half-long suspension bridge that rumbles over the river Humber into Hull. The first time I’d visited the City of Culture, I was on a quest to find out if life is altogether happier without your trousers on. My short stay at Britain’s second-oldest naturist reserve, situated just beyond the city limits, was only meant to be a bit of journalistic business but goose-pimpled and hungover, I was left questioning everything.

By the time I arrived at the Jolly Sailor, which had every bit as much as charm as the leaky 1980s caravan I shacked up in on my first visit to Hull, darkness was falling fast and the Chinese takeaway across the road was starting to come to life. Half an hour later, as I drained the dregs of my John Smith’s, the sky outside erupted with incessant caterwauling.

Tens of thousands of pink-footed geese were flying out to sea to roost for the night. It was them I had come for. The following morning, long before daybreak, I was going to traipse across the marsh in the hope of shooting a goose as they made their way back inland to the feeding grounds.

Wildfowling is possibly the most poetic form of hunting. Usually at dawn or dusk, salty sorts hunker down in brackish ditches waiting for ducks and geese to fly into range. There is not as much luck involved as a layman might suppose. Proper fowlers are students of the marsh and have an intricate understanding of tides, bird migration, and the impact of the wind in determining flight lines.

Strewn across the table in front of me, were 1930s copies of Shooting Times, the nation’s bestselling fieldsports rag, of which I am the eighteenth editor. Throughout the 1930s, Stanley Duncan, a railway engineer living in Hull, wrote a weekly column for the magazine under the title “Jottings for Wildfowlers”.

Unlike almost every other bit of land in the UK, the public is permitted to shoot wild birds below the high tide mark as it belongs to the Crown, but for as long as anyone can remember there have been those who vocally oppose the sport. Concerned that his way of life “was threatened with prohibition”, Duncan decided, while holed up in a little black hut on the Humber, that wildfowling needed an official organisation. The Wildfowling Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as it came to be known quickly flourished, and it was a matter of great pride to Duncan that WAGBI had members ranging from dukes to dustmen.

The following morning, after a few hours of restless sleep, I drove to meet two local brothers, Paul and Dave Upton, who have been fowling in the footsteps of “old man Duncan” since they could walk. After a bleary hello, they set a fearsome pace through the rushes and I fell into step. Tripping and stumbling in the darkness, I reflected on one of columns I’d read the previous evening about “the call of the moon, the bright stars and the wonderful stillness”. The landscape Duncan loved is different now, with a constant fug of light, cast by the swollen city, obscuring the constellations.

Arriving at the water’s edge, Dave and I settled in behind a clump of reeds and shared tobacco and a flask of tea while listening to the world awaken. Out in the estuary, on a muddy island, thousands of geese were starting to stir. Three cigarettes later, just as the sun cleared the sea and turned the morning gold, the first birds took to the sky. For the next hour they poured over us, far too high to shoot but mesmerising to watch.

Then, just as it seemed it was all over, two ducks came floating over the reeds. As soon they were in range I leapt up and they flared off to the right. Swinging my gun onto the closest one, I pulled the trigger and it tumbled lifelessly into the waves. After Dave’s Labrador retrieved the bird, we headed back to town for breakfast. Over our pies, the brothers asked if I’d like to go and see the grave.

“It initially took a while to find,” Paul reflected, as we slipped through the gate. “I suspected he was buried here somewhere, but it was unmarked. Once we finally located it, a few local wildfowlers paid for a gravestone.”
It reads:

Stanley Duncan, Founder of the Wildfowlers Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

then underneath, in gold lettering:

Not for one, but for all

“That was sort of his motto,” explained Paul, pointing to the inscription. “He believed everybody should have the opportunity to shoot geese.”

A fortnight later in London, I mentioned to someone in passing that I’d recently been to Hull. “The City of Culture,” he responded with a derisive smile.

“Very well deserved,” I replied. From the naturists to the wildfowlers, everyone I met there seemed to have a much nobler sense of what it means to be human.

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