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From Fox's Earth to Mountain Tarn
On Wilder Wing


THERE is exhilaration in the very thought of wild-fowl. The name was, and in the main is, confined to certain forms to distinguish them from tame fowl and from those intermediate types which serve the uses of sport. They are not game. No law protects, no sentiment hallows them. But, like other nomads, a wayward life has taught them to look after themselves.

Bohemians of sport, they have fitful moods and ways, which fall within no conventional lines. Tramps, they camp one night here and another there, with a wild freedom of movement which only long observation may reduce to a certain loose order. To the evening and the morning flight a yearly flight is added. Quite a number of wild-fowl are migrants. It is part of their restlessness. A wild impulse bears them over the sea. Some would yawn themselves to death, year in, year out, on the same hillside, by the same heather.

Strait-laced sport looked askance at them, as convention always does at the unconventional. It took them not under its private umbrella, though earth took them under the canopy of the sky. It might shoot one that came in the way, perhaps to empty the gun, as it might shoot a weasel, but was not serious. It picked the creature up with a certain half-unwilling admiration of its shape and hues, and hesitated whether or no to drop it into the bag. In moor, field, and covert it was neither game nor quite vermin; neither to be petted nor quite killed out.

Mire snipe nest on the moors, and rear broods there. The bird that rose, wildly as a sudden breeze, when grouse were few, and sportsmen on the way down the hill, needed a sharp aim and a nice judgment. Once, twice, thrice, they tried, and failed. The zigzag movement was so puzzling. A wild challenge came back from the vanishing forms. "You can hit a lumbering grouse," it seemed to say, "but this is beyond you." It was very irritating; they would try again. So they fired till they hit, and still fired, till they mastered the art of hitting. It became interesting, made good practice, and was matter of boast over a pipe in the evening. One told me the other day that he had killed snipe with right and left. He spoke with justifiable pride, but without the gravity with which he summed up the bag of grouse.

If the month be September, and part of the moor marshy, there may be matter for rarer boast. The jacksnipe will be back. They are close-lying birds, with a habit—disconcerting to the beginner—of springing up just under the dog’s nose, and within a few feet of the sportsman.

So, in the covert, when a touch of frost was on the ground. There is all the difference in the world in hitting a pheasant rising heavily to the branches, or driven across some clear space, and catching a woodcock, as it flits from shadow to shadow, or appears for a moment against the sky over the tree-tops. There was an irresistible temptation to fire. To fire and miss, and fire again; and not be satisfied with less than three hits out of four. The mystery, the surprise, the uncertainty, all wove themselves into the web of excitement, with its woof of charm, and a couple of brace were something to be proud of.

The other day the young laird was out with his two liver-coloured Irish spaniels. I watched him as he crossed the turnip field. The sound of shooting came from the further distance. At midday he brought in his bag. Among the many partridges came forth lighter birds, with the golden-spotted plumage. Occupants for a little of the same bag, the two were not of the same order. A chance shot had brought them down. "What an expanse!" said the shooter. And he pulled out the wing to its full extent, opening out the black and golden-barred flight feathers. They might not be partridges, but they had a wild grace and were hard to hit.

It seemed an easy shot when the wild duck flapped away. But the bird kept on. The same shot would have brought down a partridge. It seemed to be hit, from the scattering of feathers, or was it a mist of vanity? The coat must be thick, or the flight faster than it seemed. He tried again with heavier metal; and yet again, till he could measure the distance. The spell was upon him. In the new world of wild-fowl was a charm, found neither in tame fowl nor in the intermediate game. Sport had passed through a new birth, and was once more virile. By day was a wilder play of wings; at night a mixed bag and a fresh story.

Even in the time of eternal grouse, pheasant, and partridge, when all else was heresy, were sportsmen, who, while taking their share in orthodox sport, found the charm of the year in being among the wild-fowl; in visiting their haunts, in knowing their ways, in taking the chance of a hit or a miss. And in trudging home from marsh, lake, or seashore, tired and wet, bedraggled and happy.

One points out how Scott seems to have been ignorant of the charm of wild-fowling, when he bemoans the inaction of snowclad winter, and the emptiness of out-of-door life. Perhaps Scott was not an all - round lover of nature. And Marmion might have been all the lighter without these depressing introductions to the cantos. Far from welcoming the busy day and social night, in the city, such weather would at once have allured me to the wildest shooting within my reach.

"I light my pipe," said another, "and look out for the mallards. The bay is nearly half a mile off, but I can see the ducks between me and the sky, almost as soon as they leave it. At first a solitary pair or two come silently and swiftly, probably making their way to some favourite spring further inland. With the help of a cartridge I bring down a brace from a great height as they pass over. In the hard frost I get a number by waiting for the last hour of light, near some open place on the loch or stream where they come to feed. On my way home from shooting, when I have been in the direction of the swamps, I often do this, and generally succeed in filling my bag with mallard and widgeon."

This was written in 1848. All the freshness and charm are in the passage, all the virility, all the difference between wild and tame sport. This is being slowly taken in. The eye is brightening, the long breath being drawn that fills the half-stifled lungs. The touch of nature is here, that—given time—makes all kin. Your ordinary man is usually sixty years behind.

Indifference passed, sport entered on this delightful arena of fresh breezes with freshening rains, or still crisp frosts which stiffen the sedges and put an edging of ice around the lakes. The bird was welcomed as is some strange, half-understood genius, by society—say of grouse and partridges. If still a Bohemian it was a favoured Bohemian. A little wild-fowl shooting became a fashion. There was no ritual such as gathers round conventions; we do not waste courtesy on outsiders. There was only the freemasonry of the gun. There was no red-letter day. No season. Wild - fowl have all seasons for their own: from August away round with the sun till March. The height, perhaps, is about the winter solstice.

The cry was for more; how familiar that cry has become! To have them at command; to be able to invite the house-party to a little wild-fowl shooting. The difficulty was to command them, so fitful were the moods and divers the wants of the varied and indefinite group. Water was an attraction for many fowl. Where was a lake, the wild-fowl gathered; where was none, it must be made. Each aimed at his own duck-pond.

Nature is a niggard; she does not favour private battues. Even on a natural loch wildfowl were sparse.

The solution was at hand, and might have struck any schoolboy. The natural haunts of the wild - fowl were invaded. The nests were robbed. The eggs were brought to the scene it was desired to enrich, and hatched out there.

The broods were carefully reared. A man with a bag, not unlike that of a sower in a grain-field, or the hen farmer feeding his chickens, went his rounds. The young took to what they were intended to mistake for their native water. When all were afloat, the view, so much more generous than nature, enlivened the spirit of the experimenter. It was plain they could be tamed. The wild-fowl nested where they were reared. They were faithful as curses in coming back to their owners, and of much the same moral complexion. Wild ducks sat while the man with the bag attended to their wants, just as domestic ducks would do with the hen wife. It is by no means certain that some of them did not cross with the ducks of the cottages round about, to make the progeny still more amenable to discipline.

All this just shows how men are attracted by the charm of a pursuit, and then proceed to kill that charm out—how they think they will improve upon nature; and, deceived by the near success, are blind to the more distant failure. Sport, virile at the first, interesting in the wild resourcefulness of the quarry, and the keenness of the pursuit, comes to this. Perhaps the gun gets into the hands of the wrong people. From the stalk by the streamside, the hiding among the moist sedges, the waiting on the twilight flight, to shooting over one’s own wild-fowl, reared by a poultry man at eighteen shillings, more or less, a week.

An experiment south of the Tweed may be of use as showing some of the ramifications of the new-fangled system, ending in duck-ponds and poultry-yards. It is always well to see on a large scale—the details come out so much more clearly. The new reservoir to a canal offered hundreds of water acres.

The scene on the lakes and rearing fields is said to be interesting as beautiful. One lot of young birds are set out in an old orchard quite close to the village. In clutches of thirteen, the eggs are under hens in sitting-boxes, each box being carefully numbered. For the first three weeks, the ducklings are fed four times a day; at first with hard-boiled eggs and bread-crumbs. There were several pochards’ nests—presumably birds reared there. One which had nearly completed incubation was extraordinarily tame. She just moved off her eggs and stood close by while the nest was photographed. She then moved on to the eggs and sat there, quite unconcerned, while her own picture was being taken. A wild bird sitting for its photograph, and changing its posture to oblige, is vastly entertaining. If those responsible do not see it in that light, there must be an absence of a sense of humour.

A friend of mine, a charming old fisherman, brought home a clutch of the eggs of the sheldrake, and placed them under a common duck. The ducklings duly appeared, found nothing unusual in the conditions, and followed like little puppies. If one had suggested that he should take them to the waterside and shoot them, he might have used strong language. "Na," he would have said, "if I want to eat them, I’ll thraw their necks here."

Such confusion is there between natural and artificial conditions; so is blurred the line which separates tame and wild. The freest of winged creatures are raised as pheasants for the coverts. It is not nice to thraw their necks, and one is ashamed to shoot. Such broods satisfy Huxley’s definition of a hybrid as having the vice of both parents and the virtues of neither. And hybrid game yield hybrid sport.

The truly wild life of the land is in balance, is self-adjusting. Wild-fowl seek the places they affect, and fill these to the full capacity. Where are none is no place for them. Possibly the matter looks more serious than it really is. The duck-ponds, where people play at shooting, may be comparatively innocent. Nature may prove the stronger in the long run. Only the half-tamed birds may cross with the wild, and enervate the wild life of the land.

Our wild-fowl quite naturally fall into three groups. There are our resident wild-fowl, which both nest and winter with us; the fowl which winter, and do not nest; and those in an intermediate state, which mainly leave in the spring, but drop a certain proportion behind to nest here. A fourth group nest with us, and leave for the winter, but with these I have no present concern. The wild-fowl are mainly a northerly tending cult; certainly all those affecting sport.

The common snipe is a resident, the jacksnipe a migrant. The woodcock is in the transition stage; they go north, but a sprinkling remain. So it is with the ducks. With some forms migration is local. Birds may shift about within the country; wintering in one place, and nesting in another.

Why should there be any migration? Wherefore should we be dependent for our winter stock on the autumn flight? Is it not possible to chain the errant forms? Why not breed them here? In the case of birds in the transition phase, this should be quite easy. Every place might have woodcock galore. But why not jacksnipe? To the ingenuity that is peopling the duck-ponds, the difficulties should not be insuperable. All that is wanted is a beginning. If fertile eggs may not be had, why not have the breeders netted and sent south? Those reared here would be not unlikely to remain; that is if their parents were taken from them.

When the balance of wild life within the land has been disturbed, when the centres of activity have been replaced, when colonies of wild-fowl are here, there, and everywhere, when wilful and natural movement—as far as the group is concerned—is checked, and the furthest reaching of our migrants is chained to a duck-pond, then, from the throat of the conventional may well come the hallelujah.

But we sadly ask, whither may we go on pilgrimage in search of wild life? What is left of sport, with its knightliness, its keenness, its freshness all gone? What is that which shoots its hand-reared fowl, and, in each kill, may recognize an old friend? Even the spaniel which licked the pochard in its nest, and was taught not to hurt the young widgeons, might be ashamed to bring the bird ashore. The last of the strikes may be that of the dogs—until some servile curs are bred to do the unsportsmanlike work.

In Scotland, the natural haunts are many, greatly peopled, and from most parts within easy reach. The northern and western islands swarm. Scarce less animated are the fords of the west coast, and the estuaries of the North Sea. The lochs are large and old, and in the long years have gathered their full contingent of resident, and migrant life. Islets within the lochs are crowded at nesting time, so that scarce may the foot be put down without crushing the eggs. Here at least men might have been satisfied with the natural resources, and careful not to spoil its wild charm. In some degree it would have compensated for giving over her moors and her game birds.

But she has given over her wild-fowl also. Scotland is modern and even advanced. Certain refinements in her methods might excite envy and imitation. We are informed that birds are taught, by means of a horn, to fly in a particular direction. It is almost as remarkable as the docility of a circus horse, and might make the fortune of a man who kept a caravan. It is interesting, as showing what may be done by a horn. To shoot the creatures so tamed and summoned within reach of the gun is quite another matter. And to insist on calling it sport will really necessitate making a gift of the word, and finding another name for what is more legitimate.

Developments are possible. The disease may spread. The virtue of those who still maintain a show of better things may be sapped. Impatient week-end guests may have to be catered for. Should present fields of sport show exhaustion or become stale, the face may be turned increasingly in this direction.

In the great lakes, whose margins dim away in charming perspective, separated but by a mountain ridge from other lakes as large and animated and lovely, the experiment may defeat itself. The new life would be conquered by the old, the bond by the free; or would cross to other lakes and thin Out in the distance. Loch Leven might serve, in which case we should have the interesting double experiment of fish and fowl being brought up in the nursery. Fish are bound in by the shores, fowl may move about. In so far the new experiment might differ from the old. But some disturbance must follow from each new centre, some lessening of the virility of wild life for each tame contingent. And it were well to let these winged Bohemians severely alone.

As trout are the poor man’s fish, so wild-fowl are his feather. The two carry the cycle of sport round the year. He lays down his rod to take up the gun. When the one are out of season the other are in. When the trout are showing the pale fringe round the anal fin and pressing toward the redd, the wild-fowl are casting the bridal plumage, the young are already on the wing. A true and good sportsman of the old school, writing more than half a century ago, talks of May as the month for wild-fowl shooting. He was in the neighbourhood of the breeding-rocks, and no doubt found plenty. That was before a close time was thought of. No one now would think of shooting in May. A May fish and a November fowl, that is the modern order.

On any burn one may surprise a wild duck. On any marsh flush a snipe, in any strip of trees startle a woodcock. On the outskirts of a village the house garden ran down to a stream. Fishing from the bottom fence in summer, one could hook a trout; shooting from the same fence in winter, one could knock over a mallard. I have seen both done, perhaps been at the doing of them.

Waste land and open water are the poor man’s preserve: what lights or flies there is game. These are or have been narrowed, and the privilege as far as possible restricted. The tendency is to carry the policy further. A gossip called on one of the old families, and being asked the news, told how a baillie’s eldest son was to be married. "And pray," was the reply, "who ever heard of a merchant of the town of Montrose having an eldest son!" Those who would restrict the right of primogeniture are disposed to deny the use of a gun, or at least of a place where a gun may be used.

The policy may be unwise. The gun has its uses. It keeps light and atmosphere round bare lives, leads into open places, forms tastes which are at least not impure, makes better citizens and better soldiers. It lessens the temptation to poach. It spends the barbarous, if you will the savage instincts, which might seek other outlets.


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