Sam Buckley: on the hunt again

by Sam Buckley 27 January 2022

After a somewhat raucous day out on a ‘social’ shoot, chef Sam Buckley heads deeper into the marshes to experience a more serene, laidback evening hunting game birds as the sun sets.

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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.

Read the first part of Sam’s duck hunting experience here.

We’ve driven to Freckleton through four miles of winding country lanes. Earlier in the morning, Tom had been to check the conditions and laid feed to encourage the ducks to stay. ‘I were checking for signs, feathers and shit.’

‘And was there plenty about?’

‘Oh yeah, loads of shit. It should be a good show.’

When we get to the marsh we take the earlier ‘kill’ out of the boot and line them up in a ditch behind the car to give them a chance to air and cool. ‘We'll lay ‘em out in order so you can get a good picture,’ Tom says thoughtfully. ‘I don’t mind if someone comes and robs these – they’d actually be doing me a favour – but I’ll keep the woodcock in the boot.’ Tom had marked a woodcock he’d shot earlier by removing the feathers from the crown of the head, to ensure it would end up on his plate. Woodcock are his favourite.

Looking at the birds laid out by species, I couldn’t help but think of the work involved to prep all these birds for the oven. Tom’s dad has someone who works at the shop processing the wild game, plucking and eviscerating. He has been there for over forty years and Tom remembers being a toddler watching this man at work. ‘I don’t know who will take over when he goes, he’s a machine – he’ll never retire but one day he’ll have to stop.’

We clamber through a stile and come out of a copse of trees onto a flat horizon. It’s late in the afternoon. The clouds hang on a low, flat ceiling of pale blue grey, parting in wisps to reveal the day’s last pinks and golds where the sun is setting behind a long strip of foamy white. The river Ribble appears as a bright streak of silver separated from the sky by the hard black line of the bank opposite. Underfoot, the ground is a series of humps and ditches. It is extremely hard to tread – there’s no footing and you have to anticipate a fall with every step. Tom picks a spot a little way from the bank. We empty the decoys onto the floor and turn the crates upside down for seats.

‘There’s ducks everywhere. See ‘em all on the water? I squint, tilt my head and take his word for it. The upturned crate I am sat on is almost bobbing on the marsh. It’s not very comfortable but trying to stay afloat might keep my mind off the cold.

‘Could you just hold this for us pal?’ Tom thrusts the gun into my hands and I seize up with an immediate weight of responsibility.

‘Did you have this made for you?’

‘No, I’m not that fancy. People can get carried away; my dad for example has five or six guns for different occasions. If he’s going for a walk he’ll take his lightweight 12. He’ll use a gun like mine for shooting geese but I shoot everything with just the one. Keep it simple, then you know where you’re at.’

A single star makes itself seen over the river as the sky turns a slight shade darker.

Tom’s friend Ben is sat downstream and closer to the bank. Ben has recently finished his probationary period and become a fully fledged member of the club. That means he’s now eligible to shoot alone, although I suspect his decision to sit away from us might be to avoid the distraction of my presence.

The club holds the rights to shoot on this land. Tom has been shooting with the club since he was a boy. He fired his first gun at ten. At eighteen he was put in front of a committee to gain full membership. They determined his knowledge of the marshes and quizzed him on the etiquette of the shoot. It must have been little more than a formality; his zeal for the marsh is palpable.

‘They want to get young people involved or else there’d be no one to come out here and take over–’

Tom interrupts himself as he tells me this with a throaty quack.

‘Those are lapwings that are flying over now.’

Lapwings are protected, so they can’t be shot. I’m amazed that Tom can spot the breed in the shadows that make up the sky. ‘It’s just experience, coming out here and knowing what’s what. You can tell by the wing beats, that’s a big thing.’ Once again I adjust my eyes to the landscape and with difficulty discern the full arc of the languorous wingbeat as it crosses our field of vision. I try to log it as a lesson.

‘See, now we’d want the wind blowing strong onto our backs and the ducks would be flying over us.’

We are sat with whatever wind there is to our backs for this reason and away from the river to prevent the dogs from jumping in after a fallen bird. Tom knows from experience that the current could sweep them away.

Tom sees and hears the flutter of wings overhead before I have time to cover my ears against the shot. The dogs have already infiltrated the movement and marked the direction before I’ve finished recovering from the blast. They return diligently with a bird and leave it obediently by Tom’s sodden wellies.

Our aspect is long and flat. More stars start to appear and the flashing lights of an airplane can be made out in the distance. For twenty minutes these are the only signs of movement in the sky. ‘You see when there’s no wind, it really does have an effect,’ says Tom. ‘To be honest if you get one you’ve done well but there’s a ten duck limit anyhow and you have to stick to that; you don’t want to get caught out. It’s a bit like being at school.’

Suddenly he takes two shots directly over my head.

The heavy crack redoubles in the sky, seeming to fold over itself before it changes momentum and disappears to the edges of the horizon. The call of ducks replaces the boom as if they were warning their friends of our presence or chastising us for our impudence. ‘The wild ducks love it on the marsh because of the mud. They feed on the gravel, storing it in their gizzards which helps digest the feed by mincing it up against the rough surface. A bit like the mechanism of a grain mill.’

Tom spots a pair of egrets and lets them pass. I have to keep adjusting my eyes as the current of darkness slips further and further over the river. There is no flushing on this shoot. Here we just wait for the ducks to take flight naturally and hope that we’re ready when they do.

Suddenly, one of the dogs – Boris – gets loose and makes off. ‘How the fuck did he get off there? Boris! Boris! Hold this while I get him.’ I am no more relaxed with the gun cradled in my arms the second time round. I have a sensation of needing to make an urgent decision.

With Boris retrieved, Tom settles in again. I stretch my body and twist round switching my view of the landscape, looking inland as much to keep moving my body as to watch for ducks. Another shot is fired; I see nothing. Tom has hit a widgeon. ‘I heard that before I saw it.’

As the dogs retrieve the bird, we sit and smoke cigarettes. It’s peaceful. Even with a companion you feel solitary but satisfyingly so. You give over to an unstirring urge to just sit and watch for the birds that may come suddenly from any direction, watch for the dark as it settles with indifference, watch for the stars, the distant flashing lights and the stillness of it all. And although there is a relaxed sense everything is tucked in and ready, your entire body is locked in anticipation.

Tom fires a shot.

‘I didn’t even see that,’ I offer.

‘Did you not? Teal that was. I just caught a glimpse. It was a bit of guessing where it was but turns out I did right.’

The dogs bound off to get it. I hear them splash through the bogs and feel glad it’s not my job to retrieve, shaking my body once more against the cold.

‘You’ve got to have dogs?’

‘Oh, definitely. Ben down there’s not got a dog, so he’ll have to mark where they’ve landed and we’ll go later and help him find ‘em. Good dog, come here, leave it. There’s a knack to this: the most humane way is to break its neck. With a snipe you can’t break its neck so I just bite into it. Sounds grotesque but it’s the cleanest way to do it. Its neck is so thin you can just bite right through it.’

‘There’s a group,’ I suggest. I second guess. ‘Or perhaps it’s just dark skies.’

‘I’ve done that enough nights,’ says Tom. ‘Shooting at shadows.’

The sky is starting to play tricks on me. There seems to be an overwhelming amount of light from one star. It’s amazing how light the sky appears when you’re waiting for it to go dark. Another shot – again I miss it. I didn’t even see where he was pointing. I had thought I was alert, ready. The dogs splash off into the marsh and become indiscernible shows, blending with the uneven landscape, blurring into the cold. When they come back empty handed, Tom goes off with them to find the bird, returning with his prize and yawning. Earlier his dad told me he was up at 5am to get his jobs done at the shop so he could get out at 9am for the earlier shoot.

My train leaves in half an hour, but we can’t leave until we’ve helped Ben find the birds he’s downed. We pack up and I offer to carry the crate of decoys and Tom’s gun, now safely in its case. I load myself carefully in order to maintain equilibrium over the boggy marsh. As I struggle to find my feet, Tom goes off with the dogs to help Ben find his birds.

Suddenly I can’t see him. Suddenly it is dark. I try to move and find a small mound, just big enough for my feet in Tom’s childhood wellies. If I coddle the mound with the instep of both feet I can just about retain balance. I hear in the distance shouts of ‘where was it? Was that two? Have they got it? It definitely landed here?’

I cannot move as the cold and the darkness suddenly envelope me all at once. I start to think of the train, of meeting my friend at the platform and the dinner I have booked at a local restaurant in the city. Perhaps a cocktail first? My other thoughts are of sinking down into the bog or falling and breaking my ankle, the boys or the dogs not finding me and having to wait it out until the morning. The torch I brought with me that belongs to my three-year-old daughter has immediately run out of battery.

The guys return after ten minutes, though it seemed an age. We walk together and I talk to Ben a little. He’s an estate agent from the south, expecting his first child and will get a dog once the baby has settled in. Loves the shoot, loves the time out there to think and get away from the everyday. Better than Netflix.

We have twelve minutes to get to the station, but it’s a twenty-minute journey. We throw the day’s shoot back into Tom’s boot, now cooler and aired slightly, then take off. He tears down the narrow lanes, through red lights, overtaking into oncoming traffic. My toes regain consciousness as the blood races through my veins. They stamp on imaginary brakes. We make it with time for a few quick goodbyes. I bundle out and dash. As the train door closes with me safely inside I hear the boom of Tom’s turbo engine as it ricochets off the quaint buildings that surround the village green of Lytham.