Moy joins the Hunt
Eric Begbie gets a new labrador

Old Meg was turning decidedly grey around the muzzle when Moy arrived upon the scene. The younger, slimmer bitch was entirely different in almost every respect and, from the beginning, demonstrated the potential to become and remain a top class gundog. Admittedly I took considerably greater care with her training but this was aided by a degree of overt dependence whereby her whole life, outside the kennel, was dedicated to pleasing her lord and master. Although her temperament in this respect was a huge bonus when shooting grouse or pheasant, it had a number of disadvantages below the sea wall. For example, while patiently awaiting morning flight, she spent her time watching me rather than scanning the sky for approaching duck. Only when a shot was fired would her eyes turn to mark down the falling bird and then, unlike Meg, she remained rock steady until sent to retrieve.

Despite Meg's advancing age there was a period of several years when both labradors accompanied me on fowling expeditions. If either Peter or Leon came along, bringing their own dogs, then the pack of black labs present would frequently exceed the number of duck or geese to be retrieved.

During this time we tended to favour the north shore of one of the larger estuaries and, although the trip entailed a fairly long drive, there were few Saturday mornings when Leon, with Foss occupying most of the space in the rear of his van, did not pick me up at some really unearthly hour. I very much doubt if dogs relate to each other in the same way as people do but, on those early morning forays, it always seemed that Meg and Foss were the closest of friends while Moy remained aloof, appearing to prefer human company.

Some of those mornings were spent at a spot halfway along the shore of the Firth where a public road ran down almost to the water's edge. Cars could be parked close to a small natural harbour and fowlers would walk along the top of the broad sea wall in either direction to find a hiding place in the dense belt of reeds which lined high water mark. In many respects this was "tame" wildfowling as it was very common to return from a flight without ever having stepped on to soft mud nor crawled along a flooded gutter. The attraction of that place derived not only from the ease of access but also from the fact that, a few hundred yards offshore, lay several long mudbanks which were covered by only the highest spring tides. If undisturbed, geese would roost on those banks and, when flighting off at dawn, might pass over the grassy sea wall just within shotgun range.

It is tempting, years later, to look back on those days with a measure of disdain, feeling perhaps that wilder opportunities to do business with the fowl should have been sought. They were, however, pleasant outings during which there was much to be seen. While seated comfortably against a banking, sheltered from the wind, wrens, goldcrests and a variety of tits might be watched as they flitted amongst the swaying stalks of the high reeds. In midwinter, when natural feeding was scarce, those tiny birds lost all caution and would come within a few feet of an armed wildfowler to hungrily devour a carelessly dropped sandwich crumb or other titbit. As daylight strengthened, great flocks of fieldfares swooped low over the foreshore, their "chack-chack" calls mingling with the whoosh of a thousand wings. Sometimes teal might unwittingly drop into the ditch which ran behind the sea wall and then, discovering that they had unwelcome human company, spring vertically into the air to effect their escape. Little did those diminutive duck know that, although only a few yards above high water mark, they were safe from the guns of shore-bound fowlers. Less secure were the pheasants which occasionally strayed from the adjacent estate on to the shore. Much to the chagrin of the laird's gamekeeper, as soon as his precious charges crossed the tideline, they became legitimate quarry and, on mornings when the greylag skeins had passed too high or too wide, consolation might be obtained in the form of an errant longtail.

Unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably, the lure of the geese roosting on the mudbanks grew too tempting for some fowlers and it became common practice for boats to be taken out before dawn from the town on the south shore of the estuary. Then, instead of the chirping of small birds and the piping of waders, the early morning silence was rudely broken by the sound of outboard motors revving in mid-channel. Not surprisingly, the area was soon forsaken by the geese and, to the best of my knowledge, they have not returned to that part of the Firth in the numbers which Leon and I used to see.

Knowing that the great grey flocks were still in the general vicinity, we explored farther east and eventually discovered that the greylag were frequenting the wide mudflats of a large bay some seven miles along the shore. The terrain was so treacherous that, at low tide, no-one could approach within three-quarters of a mile of the roost and, in those circumstances, only a force-8 gale would cause the birds to remain within gunshot range as they flighted inland to feed. For this reason we normally timed our visits to coincide with a flowing tide in the hope that the greys would begin their daily journey from a point closer to the narrow belt of saltmarsh which skirted the shoreline. That bay was the scene of one of the few sorties when the services of Meg, Moy and Foss were required simultaneously.

Pulling in to a disused farm track, Leon switched off the engine of his rusting van and, immediately, we could hear the calling of greylag close to hand. Despite the sky still being pitch black, we feared that the geese might flight early so, without wasting any time, we donned our thigh waders and waxproofs and hurried down to the foreshore.

It was a bitterly cold January morning with the merest smattering of powdery snow clinging to each blade of grass on the hard, rutted marsh. Even where the tide had washed only a few hours earlier, the penetrating chill of midwinter had crispened the surface of the saltings so that each footstep crunched in the darkness. Drawn ever onwards by the anserine chorus, we at last found our progress blocked by the deep gully of a stream which meandered parallel to the sea wall before turning out to join the waters of the estuary. Knowing that the flock of greylag was not more than 300 yards in front, we sought cover in the reeded verges of the little river and settled down to await the coming of daylight.

Despite two layers of thick thermal stockings my feet were soon numb with the cold and my beard grew brittle as condensation froze in it at every breath. When a yellow and purple false dawn changed, quite abruptly, to the weak pinks and blues of a new morning the temperature seemed to drop a few more degrees and I began to have a serious concern that my fingers might be incapable of operating the safety catch and trigger of my gun.

Happily the geese did not tarry unduly on the shore that day. Well before sunrise they grew restless and, perhaps spurred into early flight by the sub-zero conditions, rose from the frozen mudflats in a single skein which came towards us fast and low. Because the long line of greys was little more than 20 yards high, it was possible for the shots to be taken while they were still well out in front. Presented with such an ideal opportunity, no mistakes were made and Leon and I were rewarded with one of the very rare achievements of a right-and-left each. Indeed, I cannot think of any other morning when we concurrently scored a double.

One of my birds dropped into the water of the stream while the other three fell on the far side of the gully. Without waiting to be sent, Meg lept into the river and, pushing iceflows aside with her muzzle, paddled out to collect the floating greylag. I sent Moy to pick my other goose and, as she swam across towards the opposite bank, I noticed that Foss was already preparing to re-enter the water with the first of Leon's birds in his mouth.

Its amazing how jubilation banishes discomfort. Once all four geese had been retrieved, we stood for several minutes discussing the flight and scanning the distant mud for any sign of more fowl before turning to leave the marsh. That was when we became aware that, instead of three black labradors, we were accompanied by dogs which had turned white. Millions of tiny ice crystals sparkled in their thick coats yet they did not appear to be in the least troubled by their condition. It is little wonder that labradors are so popular as wildfowling dogs - their evolution in the arduous climate of Newfoundland has fitted them perfectly to cope with the extremes of our own winters.

The next few years witnessed a marked expansion of my kennel. Moy produced an excellent litter of pups, two if which - Flight and Teal - remained with me until their training was complete and gave a great deal of pleasure before going off to work for other sportsmen. Another of that litter, Spartan Lady, was trained by Jim Munro to achieve high honours in the field trial world, including two remarkable performances in the International Retriever Championship. Much as I enjoyed putting young dogs through their schooling, however, I never seemed to have time to become personally involved in competitive activity. My principal criterion for judging a labrador remained its prowess on the wild marsh.

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