Sam Buckley: on the hunt

by Sam Buckley 29 December 2021

Sam attends his first ever duck shoot along the Fylde coast in Lancashire to gain an insight into the rural British world of wellies, gun dogs and port.

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With an arsenal of innovative experimental preserves, his own rooftop kitchen garden and relationships with the best producers in the UK, Sam Buckley works with his team in the airy open kitchen to create multi-course tasting menus of pure magic at his Stockport restaurant Where The Light Gets In.

With an arsenal of innovative experimental preserves, his own rooftop kitchen garden and relationships with the best producers in the UK, Sam Buckley works with his team in the airy open kitchen to create multi-course tasting menus of pure magic at his Stockport restaurant Where The Light Gets In.

The day is bright and blue. The sky is clear and the air is still, poised with an icy tingle that makes the firmament feel like a taught canopy overhead. Perfect conditions, I imagine, for a wild game shoot, but in all honesty I have absolutely no idea. To call myself a novice would be to rank myself well above my station. One good thing in knowing absolutely nothing about a subject is that you are in a perfect position to learn. I am only worried that today my learning will be made with a series of blunders.

I am on a train heading north to Lytham St Annes. My bag is packed to the brim; thermals, top and bottom, my threadbare Macintosh, gloves, a wooly hat, a torch, extra jumpers and trousers and a thermos which I forgot to fill up at home. Perhaps I can get a soy milk latte at Preston when I change trains, although I feel like I’ll have to keep this to myself. I don’t imagine the shooters are the soy milk latte kind.

I am always slightly nervous stepping into the unknown. It’s not only my total lack of experience that makes me feel this way but also the masculinity of the rural world that gives me a feeling of inadequacy. I also worry that I might find myself in the wrong class. This is something that I can handle in the restaurant, with my stories and food to protect me, but out of place, in the world of ‘real men’ I could be overly exposed to their elements. I imagine a world of waders and lurchers, wax jackets and heavy limbs, pints of ale before a shift, big fists, belt and braces, rivets and engines, actions over words. It’s perhaps an old world I begrudgingly romanticise and fear at the same time. No matter. As long as they don’t sniff the soy milk in my thermos I might just get on OK. And I can always reach into my cache of stories from the kitchen should the need arise.

I watch out of the train window as the landscape shifts into lush green fields, scores of rabbits poking their quivering noses above the tufts. Marshes reflect herons, like reptiles on stilts, wading across the burnt amber surface in the late afternoon sun. Birds circle in formation overhead. It’s a beautiful sight and seems like a playground for any man with a gun and a notion to hunt.

I’m not sure if I’m here to shoot or if I’m joining as a bystander. Would any sane person offer me a gun? I’m not sure that if the gun was offered up I could even go through with it. And if I could, that it would not end in some bloody and tragic event.

As I step off the train I immediately spot Tom, although we have never met. He is a young man in his mid-twenties with a solid six foot two frame. His face is kind and fair with eyebrows that rise up in response to a question or comment. He is wearing wellies and an army green jerkin. When we shake hands I notice that his are spattered with dried blood. ‘Let’s get going,’ he says. I can tell we are in a rush to get to the shoot but he doesn’t fluster and holds a calm disposition.

‘Good journey? You might not be able to see, but we’ve had a hell of a show back there,’ he says, gesturing toward the boot of the car where later I would see the results of today’s shoot.

‘Looks like good conditions,’ I say, taking a chance. ‘Well it is and it isn’t,’ he says diplomatically. ‘It’s a beautiful day but really we could do with more cloud and there’s not enough wind. You’re shooting in the dark you see – in the starlight it’s tough to spot ‘em because they’ve got nothing behind ‘em. With the clouds it’s like a canvas, d’yer know what I mean? And the birds are on the painting.’

I was already learning.

We arrive at a farmhouse surrounded by fields lined by dykes. In the distance is a grove of pines and at the centre of the field closest to the farmhouse is a pond. Tom deftly backs his 4x4 alongside a hedgerow to neatly tuck it in behind a row of similar SUVs.

We jump out. ‘Have you got wellies?’ I was only wearing boots but Tom had come prepared for me. ‘I got these for my twelfth birthday, they should fit you alright.’ The zip was broken but that didn’t matter and with the aid of another pair of socks Tom’s childhood wellies fit snugly enough.

It was when Tom let the dogs out of the boot that I got my first sight of what he had referred to as a hell of a show. Piled up in front of the dogs’ cage was the kill of today’s earlier efforts; orange legs poking through a sea of feathers. We pick our way through. ‘Just put you hand in there,’ Toms says. It’s red hot, like a compost bin, possibly hot enough to cook a duck I think.

Stood in position around the pond, the shooters look like model soldiers on a model landscape. Everything seems totally still, wound up on a spring-loaded mechanism like a cuckoo clock. From that distance and without knowing what I’m watching out for I hear the crack of the shot – it fills the sky before I see movement. The first flock are now high above my head, the escapees from the first flush. ‘Do you not mark your birds?’ Tom shouts at the model soldiers who are now slowly traversing the area, heads down in search for the last fallen few. He sends his dogs on ahead to help with the retrieve.

His new dog of eleven months is called Boris. ‘It was Boris or Trump but we went with Boris,’ Tom tells me. I do not have the stomach to ask why. The dogs are a big part of it. If you don’t mark your birds, as in watch for where they fall, you can be sure a good dog will. ‘Go on, find it,’ Tom shouts, as the dogs bound ahead.

Everyone rounds up and I am introduced to the group who have come out to shoot for the day on a social. They’ve been on five drives already, shooting for a variety of birds including teal, woodcock, pheasant, wigeon and mallard. There are ten of them in total, all above the age of forty, and all male apart from Liz, who is still trying to find the last fallen widgeon. This kind of social will only happen about three times a year.

There is time for one last drive, or flush to be more precise. The organiser Andrew gives the orders, strategically placing everyone for the final flush. ‘Right then, we’re going to shoot this pit at the Birks. We’ll have four lined up along the dyke, Tom you’ll be back gun and you two lads in the field with me. Kill ‘em before they get back to the dykes, go for the drakes and do not shoot towards the farm.’

As the back gun, Tom’s job is to shoot the birds that get through. Going for the drakes is about keeping the breeding numbers down. ‘Sometimes the drakes will gang up on a female duck and kill it through drowning or exhaustion, it’s brutal,’ Tom tells me. I suppose shooting the drakes will relieve the natural order of things that is certainly a burden for the female.

Andrew flushes the pit and gets the birds up – in other words, he disturbs the surface of the pond to encourage the birds into the air. This time I am ready for the shot and can even follow the flight path of the pellets into the flock. I count three hits as I watch the birds slowly fall from the air.

Tom spots a snipe and yells to the men on the dyke. ‘I can’t get enough of snipe; they’ve got a great flavour because most of these birds spend a lot of time at sea and pick up a saltiness.’ It’s great to hear Tom talk about the birds as food. He is a keen cook and even thought about becoming a chef.

Eventually we all make our way back to the row of SUV’s lined up and someone takes out a bottle of port. A healthy slug of it is passed round to all and we cheers to a good day. I feel slightly undeserved of the drink but I accept all the same. I know it will help keep me warm when we head out onto the marsh later.

The birds will go to Lanigans of Lytham, purveyors of wild fish and game, owned by Andrew, Tom’s dad. A few will go to the farmer as a way of thanks but most of the shooters will not take a bird. For them it’s more about the socialising, which feels a bit of a shame. It is settling to know that at least Tom, who has been shooting since he was ten, will certainly mark a few for his plate.

The sun is going down fast now. We all finish our port and hand back the plastic cups. ‘You’re going on the marsh tonight?’

‘Looking forward to it,’ I say, with a feeling that I’m only half telling the truth. As we head to the car I discreetly check my thermos. It’s still warm which is a good sign for what’s to come.