Country sights and sounds
The wind and rain of early February gathered large numbers of ducks from the larger, more exposed lakes, as well as from the coast, and deposited them on smaller, more sheltered waters, many of which are no more than temporary ponds of floodwater on low-lying land.
A score of such birds were congregated in one particular field close to Ballintubber. We stopped the car just forty metres away and watched as they huddled miserably with their heads to the wind and the rain lashing down upon them. A few meagre bushes offered some respite from the gale; even so, I was glad not to be a duck, nor one of those hunter-gatherer types that walked over this ground thousands of years ago and depended on wild game for their survival.
It was inevitable that our discussion would turn to the difficulties associated with acquiring a duck dinner. Those birds, mostly mallard with a few wary teal among them, would have been sorely tempting to a man with a hungry family. They even looked rather good to me, despite the comforting weight of a packed lunch in my pocket.
So we fell to wondering how best one might be procured, not that we would do such a thing as to kill a wild duck outside of the approved season, even in the interests of such science as was before us. Nor would we really do so by any means other than that approved by the state, that is, by blasting them out of the sky with a shotgun, although catching them by almost any other imaginable method would require infinitely more skill and patience.
Many years ago, while living in the city of Norwich, I fell upon such hard times that the wildfowl dwelling on the River Wensum found themselves the subject of prolonged scrutiny. They were tantalising creatures, half-tame and fattened by the townsfolk on a diet of bread and biscuits rather better than my modest budget would afford.
A nocturnal visit to their night-time roost by canoe was nearly successful but resulted in such commotion as the entire assembly expressed their alarm that people came out from their houses to see what was going on, and sent us on our way with threats and cursing. A day or two later we learned that others had been of the same mind as ourselves, although their attention had been on the mute swans that lived in the park. They had been successful, too. Such was the outcry over the demise of those birds that our roast duck looked increasingly unlikely.
Then we watched a television programme about a jungle people and their art of hunting with a blowpipe. They shot monkeys and birds with alacrity and little apparent effort. This, then, would be our key to success. We fashioned a three-foot length of aluminium tubing as best we could and made darts from copper wire and plastic beads, as suggested in one of those ‘kill it yourself’ survival books. The ensuing misadventure will be recorded elsewhere. We remained duckless.
Snares were next. They proved equally unsuccessful but did serve to bring the eye of authority firmly upon us after our activities were discovered by a troop of bread-wielding city ladies who held us responsible for the death of their swans. We were fond enough of swans, so that the thought of eating one or more of those fine birds had not entered our heads before then.
Eventually one geriatric multicoloured drake was lured within grabbing distance and wrestled to death, presenting us with an immediate set of added difficulties. Grown ducks are surprisingly large and difficult to conceal, with long wings and longer necks that are impossible to conceal. We did get it home eventually and set about the business of plucking it. The kitchen filled with feathers and when somebody opened the door these spilled into the street by the thousand to tell everybody what was going on.
We did cook that unfortunate creature and spent half the night chewing what little meat was on its bones before consigning what was left to the bin. A lot of work had gone into that duck; the rewards had been miserly.
The birds at Ballintubber are still hanging around, enjoying the protection of the law. A little more of this austerity business will do them no good, I fear, as hunting and gathering comes back into fashion. But then, whoever has the wits to catch them will have earned their dinner.