In the chill of a late January morning, Ursa Major lay sprinkled against the veil of darkness like salt crystals on a black tablecloth. Orkney is a land of early risers and go-getters, and across the hilltops, yellow squares of light brought to mind the smell of coffee and warm kitchens. The sun, still an hour below the North Sea, was already cutting through an eastern umbra of cloud with a salvo of thin turquoise beams. The lapping hush of Inganess Bay, the water still invisible in the darkness, mingled with the murmur of greylag geese at rest.
It was cold and the snow-covered grass crackled underfoot as we set a spread of decoys, occasionally giving way to reveal the soft field mud below. Even in midwinter, Orkney’s sward is a lush, vibrant green. With the decoys set and bobbing in a light wind, we fell back to hunker in a steep ditch, rub our hands together and wait for the light.
It was the American writer and hunter Thomas McGuane who noted that the enemy of game are the joint dizzards of land development and sinful chemicals. Orkney is low on both and is a birders’ paradise in recompense. Most people who come to Orkney with birds on the brain do so to catalogue them, not eat them, let alone shoot them. But after six months, I’d had my fill of smoked cheddar, smoked fish and smoked whisky.
I was due to leave the island and my time to pull from Orkney’s larder was running low. Unfulfilled desires relating to food are not grand-scale worries but there again, I thought of McGuane, who said “a world in which a sacramental portion of food can be taken in an old way — hunting, fishing, farming and gathering — has as much to do with societal sanity as a day’s work for a day’s pay”.
Eating greylag is all well and good, but shooting them serves a greater purpose in Orkney. The birds have a population density high enough to impact local agriculture and edge out competing species, and have become a local bane. Shooting them is thus a combined form of pest control and conservation, a two-pronged effort praised by local politicians and agriculturalists alike.
I was the guest of Orkney Islands Goose Shooting, whose head guide Raymond Shearer knelt beside me on the snow, a collection of birdcalls around his neck like a talisman. He learned the guiding trade under the late Richard Zawadski, who pioneered gamebird shooting in Orkney. Now Raymond is the islands’ fowling guru, running his outfit with guide Shane Farquhar.
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