Call of the wild

Outdoor Living

READY FOR TAKEOFF Wild greylag geese are extremely wary, quickly fleeing with much honking and hooting if spooked.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

The lakeshore has become a second home during this interminable lockdown. Yet it is always interesting, even with the distant tops hidden beneath a blanket of snow and the grass crisp underfoot. This evening, an hour before dusk, a great grey bank of cloud is building to the north and a thin breeze cuts over the water to keep me on the move.
I was looking for lapwing, a small flock of which had flown over my home a short time ago. If I could find out where they went there might be more. According to the Lough Carra website, a century ago renowned ornithologist Robert Ruttledge recorded the lapwing as a common species here. Now they are anything but common. The breeding population is almost non-existent.
But there were some, I had seen them, and now I would track them down.
As if by way of reward, the evening brought not lapwings but a flock of greylag geese from their feeding grounds to the south. Conversely, a hundred years ago there were no greylags in the area. As late as 2009, there were none being recorded locally for 15 consecutive years. Today there were upwards of 50.
I heard them long before they came into view, and as I stood with my back to a lone pine they appeared as a long, thin, undulating double V and began coming to the ground about 50 paces away.
While domesticated greylags are very trusting birds their wild counterparts are extremely wary, with excellent eyesight and an evident sense of danger or peril. With a wingspan of over five feet and body weight of three or four kilograms, one of them would make for several days of fine dining.
I might as well have shouted it loud, for no sooner had that thought entered my mind those birds that had just touched down, and had done so with immense grace, well they leaped as if there were hounds at their tail and turned about and fled, back in the direction from which they had just arrived.
I had fully expected them to need a long take-off, as is the case with swans, which must work hard to become airborne, hauling with outstretched wings while running as fast as they can. No, there was just that sudden spring and a monumental effort – accompanied by much honking and hooting, I might add. The lot of them were soon out of sight and as they fell quiet I imagine they had found some other safe haven, one not already occupied by hungry ramblers.
Many years ago, while on a wilderness camping trip, a sort of Survival Safari if you like, I had spied a large and weighty Muscovy duck that had unwisely forsaken the secure confinement of the farmyard in order to live a life of freedom with its wild brethren. An hour of stalking brought an irresistible opportunity and a well-aimed catapult accounted for a rather splendid prize. That evening it was plucked and cleaned and roasted on a spit, above flames that sizzled and smoked from dripping fat.
Although that introduction to wild cooking was by no measure successful, it was a most interesting experiment. The conclusion I came to while attempting to eat various parts of this Schwarzenegger of the duck world remains unchanged to this day: There is far more enjoyment to be found in having our wild things alive than around us than there could be in a dozen such dinners, especially if the main ingredient is as tough to eat and as difficult to digest as our muscle-bound, iron-sinewed, spit-roasted duck had been.
Besides, these geese form lifelong bonds with their mates and it would be unfair to deprive him of her, or her of him. I would far rather be greeted by the sight of a dozen goslings on the water than have one dead goose hanging in the shed waiting to be plucked.
Fifty geese together make quite a spectacle. Imagine how they used to be when they appeared in flocks several-thousand strong. I saw them that way on the stubble fields of southeast Scotland. Perhaps some of these local birds are an overspill from those huge concentrations.
Among their number are two white individuals, evidently farm geese who found the call of the wild overwhelming and couldn’t help but bust out of their own lockdown.
We shall stick to ours. There is still a lot to see.