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Francis Wharton.

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wildfowl — especially pintails — pass on southwards (into
Africa) not to return till February; but numbers crowd
into the few places where the precious element — water
— still exists. Such a spot is the Retuerta ; and along
its ten-mile length of tasselled sedge and 30-foot bamboo
are concentrated such hosts of wildfowl as seldom entrance
the sportsman's eye. In this favoured nook in distant An-
dalucia let us now live again a few of those eventful days.

At length our party of ten guns are assembled in the
shooting-box. Never before, at this season, have we
ridden thos^ thirty miles across so thirsty a land. Vasquez
and his confreres received us reproachfully — Why have we
not come sooner ? But are all the geese gone ? Hay, hay
anseres^ pero no la decima parte de que hahia — ** there are
some geese," he replies, ^* but not the tenth part of what
there were.** Then a smile came over his Red-Indian coun-
tenance, as he added — pero todavia hay para divertirse —
** there are yet enough for sport." When Vasquez reckons
there are enough for sport we know that, allowing for
Andalucian exaggeration, there will be hot barrels before
the day is done. What he calls, in his expressive
language, a salpicon — a sprinkling, may mean several acres
in a flock ; a pnnado, or handful, a thick mass of several
thousand ! When he talks of a tiro regular — an ordinary
shot, we know he means about thirty couples of mallards
with one barrel. For Vasquez has striven for a living, as
his fathers did before him, with the ducks of these wilds ;
and when he did let off his ponderous blunderbuss it was
at very close quarters, and meant execution. Quantity was

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886 WILD SPAIN.

his desideratum, for he had to make a large bag for
little money, depending on others to realize his spoils in
the distant market, and, as usual, much of the hard-
earned coin stayed in the hands of middlemen. Thus
Vasquez, with other marsh-men, was tempted by our oflfer
of a fixed wage, and has for years been keeper on the
marisma, where his reed-thatched choza is barely visible
amidst waving sedges and bulrushes hard by the most
favoured haunts of his aquatic charges. Vasquez cannot
tell you who is Prime Minister at Madrid, and cares not
whether England may wish to surrender Gibraltar to
Spain ; but he can tell you whither that pack of duck,
like a small cloud on the horizon, is hurrying to alight ;
he can point out to you the birds fresh come from the
north, as distinguished from earlier arrivals, as he can
also tell you when ducks, which, to the uninitiated, appear
quite happy and content, are packing up, and will be gone
with the morning's light. He will take you where the
snipe are in hundreds when you have searched their
favourite haunts in vain ; and will place you at dusk, if
you have faith in him and wait till sunset, where the
greylags will pass within ten yards. So Vasquez is a
useful man, though he knows nothing of the great world
outside of the Eetuerta. We felt, nevertheless, that we
were a week too late, and had perhaps lost the best chance
of a century.

The plan of campaign was to line the northern end of
the marsh for some five or six miles, placing a gun in
each one of certain selected spots. For this purpose, large
casks are sunk at intervals, some well hidden among
rushes, others in open pools; but in these latter cases the
tubs were cunningly concealed by cut tamarisks and other
water-plants.

To place the guns in their respective tubs, extending
over six miles of bog, and the nearest tub almost the
same distance from our quarters, is a lengthy operation,
necessitating a very early start. Long before dawn we
were in the saddle. Dark and rough at first was the
ride just preceding that impressive change — the lifting of



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WILDFOWIiING IN THE WILDERNESS. 887

night's mantle from the earth. Gradually grew these first
rays, and soon the whole east was aglow, gleaming across
parched plains, as the glorious morn awakened. To the
enticing oasis of the Eetuerta pushed forward the long
cavalcade, but the sun was high ere all the strategical
points could be simultaneously occupied. For it was
arranged that each gunner should advance at a given
signal to his post, and that no shot should be fired
till all were in position. Of the difficulties and dangers
in reaching those points, through marsh and quaking bog.



we will not stop to speak; at length all were in place,
and ducks already streamed overhead within half gunshot
while we awaited the signal to open. Then from the
distant land a shot resounded, and simultaneously, all
along our line, rang out a merry fusillade; here comes
my first chance, a pack of wigeon, straight for the tub.
A bright-winged drake paid first tribute, and two more
from " the brown " fall to the left. As fast as car-
tridges can be slipped into the breech they are required^
and two guns are kept going continuously — now at a

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388 WILD SPAIN.

swinging flight of teal or swift garganey,* then at the
more stately pintails, next at a single shoveler-drake
on his straight and hurried course. Now the ten-
bore is useful for a string of mallards which are already
seeking safer altitudes, and for a couple of curlews, for
once at fault. But we need not recapitulate, even were
it possible to remember, the rapid sequence of shots,
which for an hour were almost continuous. Shots of
every kind there offered — incoming, outgoing, to right and
left, direct or oblique, and at every height and angle,
acute, obtuse, and perpendicular. Now a flight of wigeon,
skimming low on the water-level, suddenly fling themselves
in one's face, all unseen till far too near ; then from
behind, with a rush as of a whirlwind, a trip of swift-
winged teal or swifter garganeys almost take one's hat
off, then ** sky " like rockets, on seeing the danger —
difficult to stop are these ! At intervals, there is a vari-
ation, when, during the earlier part of the action, the
files of grey geese are seen and heard as they sail along,
looming so huge among the smaller fowl. They are
not too high as, outward-bound, they cross our posts ; but
let them get well over-head, as near as ever they will
come, ere you open fire, or no mighty splash in the water
behind will gratify your ear. The bulk of the shooting,
however, is at files of duck speeding fast and straight in
bee-lines overhead : high as a rule, mostly trry high, the
sort of shot that, once learnt, can be generally pulled off
— and satisfactory shots they are, requiring an infinite
degree of faith and forward allowance.

At the end of an hour the file-firing slackened, but
still for another hour it continued fairly fast. The larger
ducks and the geese had betaken themselves to the sea, or
to the dried marisma respectively ; but great numbers of
wigeon and the smaller ducks still sought resting-places
up and down the long Retuerta. Of the geese but few
comparatively had fallen, though thousands were seen in

* Garganeys are said to be the swiftest of all the duck-tribe, and
to lead the migrating flights, both on their southern journey and
also when steering north. Hence their name : " capitanes,''



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WILDFOWLING IN THE WILDERNESS. S89

air. Hardly had the firing commenced than these botook
themselves to the dry marisma where they made shift
to feed on the roots of the castanuela (spear-gi*ass). This
circumstance, however, was foreseen, and troubled us little;
it is the geese coming in that offer sport, not the geese
going out, and we well knew that before night they would
be needing a cool draught at the pools of Eetuerta.

At the end of two hours, the writer left his battery to
collect his spoils; a goodly pile of ducks, besides three
geese and two flamingoes, though perhaps not in due
proportion to the heap of emptied cartridges. About a
quarter-mile away lay the shore, to which, during the
mid-day interlude, I made my way through water, mud,
and matted tamarisk. The nearer strand, where cattle
had cropped the rush, was alive with snipe, while amidst
the heavier covert beyond, numbers of teal had sought
asylum. With these, and passing ducks, there was plenty
of employment, and at the end of an hour, when it was
necessary to flounder back to the battery, I had exhausted
my cartridges and formed sundry piles of slain — in all
nineteen ducks, two geese (right and left) and over twenty
snipe, besides a bittern and a few ** various."

The sun was now lowering, and the return of the geese
might belooked for* I had started none too soon on the
return " plodge," for with the heavy walking and yet
heavier burden, I had hardly ensconced myself in my
battery ere the welcome konk ! konk ! was audible, and
some twenty greylags came gliding in. Straight for the
sunken tub they held their course, and not till alnlost
overhead did they descry the lurking gun. Then \vith
redoubled flaps they swerved off, changing the downward
gliding flight for an upward movement ; but, though for a
moment they hung in air, yet, somehow, it took both
barrels ere the leader collajised. Shot after shot at what
appeared a fatal range failed to stop them clean, and I
decided to let the next come in even nearer* This time
only three came drifting down. They passed \<rithin shot,
but I refrained; wheeled round the pool, and headed
straight in ; there was no mistake this time— the geese Were



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390 WILD SPAIN.

not twenty yards off, and two of the three fell stone-dead.
I breathed more freely now ; and let the geese come in to a
range that for any other fowl would be too near^ holding even
then well forward, and sundry heavy thuds on the darken-
ing waters attested the success of these waiting tactics, and
registered the death of another greylag or bean-goose.
These latter came in singly, or in twos and threes, and
are distinguishable by their harsher note and rather
smaller size; the greylags average eight pounds, some
old ganders turning the scale at ten. Every minute it
became more diflScult to see ; night was closing in apace.



but with it came more and m(wre geese. The rattle of gun-
shots and rustling of strong pinions was incessant — hardly
had one gone down than another flight swept in. At last
the geese came silently ; the call-note which during day-
light announced their approach was now no longer uttered,
and they drifted so fast on to the water that one only
became aware of their arrival by the heavy ploughing
splash as they alighted. Presently only those that came
low against the dying after-glow in the west could be seen
at all, and after a shot one had to listen for the splash
that bespoke a kill. Gunshots now became fewer, a mere



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WILDFOWLINO IN THE WILDERNESS. 891

dropping fire, and in a few minutes more even this shooting
at ghosts became no longer possible. Then came the
splashing of horses, and I knew that Caraballo was coming
to look for me, and a good line he took in the dark and
featureless morass.

Half an hour later we were beginning to assemble at the
bonfire of blazing samphire-bushes which had been lighted
as a beacon to gather around. The day ended with a
slight contretemps : one of our party with his servant was
missing. No answer could be obtained to our signals : nor
on our arrival at the lodge were the lost ones there.
Though there could be no danger, yet it would be most
unpleasant for our friend to pass the night in the wilds
without food or shelter. At ten o'clock keepers were



GREYLAGS-DAYBREAK.

despatched to scour the country, but it was four hours
later ere Manuel (at 2 a.m.) returned with the luckless
wanderers in charge. They had mistaken our beacon,
and had steered for what proved to be a charcoal-burning
miles away.

When the tale of slain had been told off, and Vasquez
brought in the totals as 81 geese and over 800 ducks
(besides sundries) for the day, we were inclined to forget
those unresponsive greylags, and to imagine that, for flight-
shooting, with 12-bores, at passing fowl, such results were
not to be obtained every day, nor in every land.*

♦ In the previous year (1888) the opening bag was 87 geese, 878
ducks, and 46 various.



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892 WILD SPAIN.

Three other field-days followed with the wildfowl,
besides two interludes with small-game, and a two-days
snipe-shoot along the remote Kocina, which produced
853 snipe,* a few duck, teal, bitterns, and sundries : and,
when these happy days were over, the total score stood : —

718 ducks. 8 quail.

247 wild geese. 86 rabbits.
402 snipe. 7 hares.

15 woodcock. 9 bitterns.

161 partridge. 44 sundries.

Among " sundries " were included common and ruddy
sheldrakes, gad wall and garganey, marbled ducks (a few),
common and white-eyed pochards (several), many coots,
an egret, stilts, and a pair of oyster-catchers.



An Arctic Winter in Southern Spain.

Never in out experience of well-nigh a quarter of a
century had such extremes of cold been known in this
sunny land as those of December, 1890. Nor will the
destruction wrought by that phenomenal winter be
remedied for many a long year, as brown and blasted olive-
yards, and thousands of acres of orange-groves, almost
every tree cut back to the bole and grafted as a last
resource, bear testimony.

Here, in a sporting sense, is the report of that winter,
and its effects on fowl and fowling. December 8fA, 1890.
— Not a drop of rain fell this year till the 2nd inst., and
the conditions for sport appeared as favourable as those
of last year (already described above). Cold as Siberia
was our ride to Vasquez's choza (November 28), in the
teeth of the bitter east wind which swept across the dry
marisma, and cut into our very marrow-

VaUente helada va caer este noche ! say the keepers, and

* The best day, walking for snipe, December 4, 1889» produced
282 snipe — six guns.



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WILDFOWLING IN THE WILDERNESS. 893

verily a terrible frost did fall that night : for when Caraballo
awakened us at six in the morning, the poor fellow's teeth
chattered, his limbs shook, and he declared that never
before had Dios made so cold a morning.

My luck favoured me for once, and by lot, No- 5 was
placed by the deeps of " El Jondon," flanked by miles of
bamboo and cane-brakes of tropical dimensions- The oozes
were covered with ice, at first so thick as almost to bear
the horses ; but as the water deepened^ the ice broke and
cut their fetlocks ; so we had to seek our posts on foot,
dry shot for the first time on record- It fell to me to
fire the signal-shot, so I took an opportunity of sending
to speedy end just nine teal with the two barrels. I had
never before held the luckiest number ; to-day I was in the
flor and the nata of the fray ; it will give some idea of the
character of the sport this day that, at times, it was
desirable to decline all offers from the duck-tribe, and to
reserve one's attention, and cartridges, exclusively for the
geese.

The solid ice around my battery lent a novel feature to
experiences of wild sport in Spain. The ducks, even heavy
mallard alid pintail, rebounded from the ice-bound surface ;
and a goose, falling obUquely, also slid for twenty yards
before remaining still- No ducks broke the frozen coverlet ;
but geese came crashing down through the ice, each
making itself a captive in its own chasm- I was soon
surrounded by these ice-bound prisoners, bringing down,
during the day, over thirty greylags, besides some eighty
ducks. Many of these, however, fell in the tall canes
and reed-brakes behind, and as we shot till well after dark,
it was impossible to gather all — even of the dead. The
whole bag, which, had the shooting been uniform, should
have been much greater, amounted to 868 ducks and 72
geese, besides snipe and 89 "various."

A note on the subsequent movements of the wildfowl
may be an appropriate complement to this chapter.
During the severe weather of December, most of the ducks
disappeared. At the New Year comparatively few remained,
and a second shoot resulted, as regards wildfowl, in



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894 WILD SPAIN.

failure. This, however, did not greatly disturb us — other
game demanded attention, and we knew our web-footed
friends had only bid us au revoir. " They will return at the
end of February," asserted Vasquez ; and return they did,
to find the sunken tubs at El Jondon and along the cane-
brakes of Quebrantiero again " occupied in force " — once
more along the line rang out a fusillade.

The transit of the aquatic birds to and from Africa
often presents remarkable spectacles. During several days
at this season (February-March), while cruising in the
Straits, the sea has been sprinkled in every direction —
both Atlantic and Mediterranean — with bands of duck
coming off from the African shore and skimming low on
the waves on a northerly or north-westerly course. They
do not proceed direct to the Far North, but Unger for some
days on the Spanish side. Here, early in March, their
numbers almost equalled those of November ; that is of
ducks, for the geese had almost entirely withdrawn. On
March 5th clouds of wigeon gyrated at vast altitudes —
mere specks in the upper air, while others assembled,
massed together in hordes on the water, echando corros para
irse — arranging travelling parties, as Vasquez puts it : sure
signs both, of the coming change. By March 10th fully
four-fifths had disappeared ; while on the 15th scarcely a
duck of all their thousands remained, except of those
species which habitually nest in Spain — eg., mallards,
sheld-ducks, &c., or which come there in spring expressly
for that purpose, such as the white-eyed pochards, marbled
and white-fronted ducks, and the like.



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895



CHAPTER XXXV.
THE STANCHION-GUN IN SPAIN.

During wet winters in Spain, when marismas and
submerged marshes form miniature seas, the customary
methods of wildfowling are no longer of any avail.
Opportunities of employing the cahresto are few and far
between : while flight-shooting on an area indefinitely
extended is profitless and uncertain to the last degree.
But the marismas, with their myriads of winter wildfowl,
appeared to offer, during such seasons, an exceptional —
indeed an ideal field for the use of the gunning-punt,
and stanchion-gun.

During the wet winter of 1887-8, when we were
constrained helplessly to contemplate floating flotillas,
all, in effect, inaccessible to our guns — these tantalizing
spectacles urged us to seek "some new thing.** A gun-
ning-punt with its artillery appeared to be the one thing
needed, and with it, we felt confident that from fifty to
a hundred duck might often be secured at a shot.
Accordingly, in the autumn of that year (1888), we sent
out from England boat, gun, and gear — in short, the
complete equipment for ** the wildfowler afloat.**

The little craft duly reached the Guadalquivir in
September ; but here an unexpected difficulty arose.
The Spanish custom-house took alarm. True, the little
vessel was an entire novelty and an innovation ; even in
the Millwall Docks she had created some surprise, and here,
she was incomprehensible. No such vessel had ever before
floated on Spanish waters, and the official mind took time
to consider. That oracle, after several weeks of cogitation,
ordered the removal of the tiny craft from the obscure port



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396 WILD SPAIN.

of Bonanza to the full light of the custom-house at Seville.
Here, after many more weeks of delay, it was solemnly
declared that that white-painted six-foot barrel was ** an
arm of war " ; that ** the combination of boat and gun
savoured of the mechanism of war " ; and, lastly, that
" the boat could not be permitted to pass the Customs
until it had been repistcred at the Admiralty as a ship



of war,*' thus forming an integral part of the Imperial
navy of Spain.

We were informed, in reply to a respectful protest, that
a high official of the Admiralty at Madrid— the Deputy
Chief Constructor, we think, was his title — would
** shortly *' be visiting the arsenal at San Fernando, where
a new war-ship was nearly ready for launching, and that



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THE STANCHION-GUN IN SPAIN. 897

he would then take the opportunity of inspecting our
impounded gunboat at Seville.

The measurements of this " British Armada " were :
length over all, 22 feet, breadth of beam, 3 feet 6 inches,
by 9 inches depth of hold ; her armanent a gun of eighty
pounds weight, throwing sixteen ounces of shot. Not a
very formidable vessel, yet a hostile fleet off Malaga
would hardly have aroused more official fuss.

Six or seven months elapsed before these difficulties
were smoothed away, as difficulties in Spain, or elsewhere,
do dissolve when prudently and properly treated ; but the
wildfowling season was over, the ducks had disappeared,
ere the " Boadicea '* was released from official durance
and allowed to proceed to the scene of action.

The first obstacle was now surmounted, but a second,
and more insuperable difficulty arose, one which forms
the real " pith '* of the present chapter. From the first
our local wildfowlers reported badly of the new craft ;
her trial cruises were not satisfactory, for, while the pat eras
experienced no difficulty in approaching the less wary
birds, such as flamingoes, herons, and the like, yet ducks
of no sort could be outmanoeuvred ; at any rate not on the
open waters. On the return of the ducks in autumn follow-
ing, the fowlers still reported that they found the large
packs wholly inaccessible, nor could they secure more than
a paltry half-dozen or so at a shot.

These reports, however, did not disturb us greatly ; we
attributed the failure of the jmteros to lack of experience
and technical knowledge in handling the "Boadicea";
for, despite their skill in fowling, the art of working a big
gun afloat was one of which they could know nothing. It
was, therefore, with imabated confidence that the writer
embarked on board the trim, light craft, and shoved off
on his first Spanish punt-gunning campaign.

An exhilarating prospect lay before us; nowhere in
British seas could such aggregations of wildfowl be seen,
nor so favourable a spot be found : there was no tide or
current to fight against, no deeps where one loses bottom,
no hidden shoals nor shifting sand-banks to bar one's



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898 WILD SPAIN.

course ; and, as too often happens in our tidal waters at
home, to snatch success from one's grasp in the very
moment of its realization.

No ; here we had smooth shallow water, uniform in depth,
practically stagnant, and with a firm level bed of mud.
And everywhere on its surface, and in the clear atmo*
sphere above, floated or flew those wild and graceful forms
so dear to a fowler's eye — the duck-tribe in endless variety.
Half a mile away, the opposite shores of the sound, the
Lucio de los Caballeros, were dark with multitudes of



i



duck : fresh files kept streaming in to aUght among their
fellows, and at intervals the roar of wings, as some bird of
prey put their battalions in motion, resounded like the
rumble of thunder. Close overhead hovered graceful Little
Gulls {Larm minutus), adults whose dark under-wing con-
trasted with the snowy breast, others in the marbled
plumage of immaturity. As the punt shot forward, hidden
amidst islanded clumps of rush and sedge, we passed,
almost within arm's-length, the weird-looking grebes and
singular long-legged stilts in every posture of repose and



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THE STANCmON-OUN IN SPAIN. 899

security — more rarely in those of suspicion. Rather
further away waded half a dozen spoonbills, revolving on
their axis at each forward step in their peculiar fashion ;
a purple heron or two, and sedate storks seeking a feast of
frogs. A pack of avocets swept by in chattering flight :
ruffs and redshanks, green sandpipers, and others of that
class, with whole troops [of plovers, splashed and preened
in the shallows. All these we passed silently by. Even a
'' bunch '' of the beautiful garganey teal would not tempt
us this morning, for ambition soared high.

Gradually we stole round the flank of the ducks — a
long way oflf, for it was necessary to save the wind and
get to leeward. In this we succeeded, and there now only
remained between us and the black streak that represented



Online LibraryFrancis WhartonWharton and Stillé's medical jurisprudence .. → online text (page 30 of 36)