Bill Oddie: invading The Dumbles


The story so far ... It's the early 1960s. Bill and his father have driven down the M5 for a day out at Slimbridge. It's late afternoon and time to head home to Birmingham. Dad has had a good time, but he isn't sure about Bill.

"Bill, are you sulking?"

"No, but I suppose I am a bit disappointed that I haven't really seen any properly wild geese. In big flocks. Flying over us in a V-formation like ...”"

"Like in a Peter Scott painting?"

"Exactly. Apparently, today they may be feeding on the mud over by the river, or grazing out on The Dumbles."

"The what?"

"Over in that direction, about half a mile away."

"Can we get closer?"

"I doubt it. They’ll probably spook. Mind you, they'll look great, and they'll all be calling. Just like in ..."

"A Peter Scott painting. But we're too late. That woman with the collie is closing the gate. They are obviously shutting up for the day. No more visitors." 

It was then that I had a bad thought. "Dad, I am going to get a bit closer. You don't have to come with me."

"I am not going to. Where are you going to go?"

"I am going to cross The Dumbles."

"Bill, if you are going to do this, don't expect me to defend you if you get caught."

"Dad, it's ok. I will explain that I am a totally fanatical young birdwatcher, and there are several species of geese out there that I have never seen. Which is true. Ok? Wish me luck. If I am caught, you can disown me."

Bill's Slimbridge break-in brought him face to face with Russian White-fronted Geese (Jari Peltomaki / www.agami.nl).


The break in

Thus did my act – and life – of delinquency begin. I started by trying to slip under the iron gate. Then I decided it was easier to climb over. I scuttled urgently yet quietly, taking cover behind a high, thick, tangly and painful hawthorn hedge which led towards the Severn. In a movie I would've been an escaped prisoner blindsiding with my back pressed against a wall, followed by a spotlight and pursued by a guard with a machine gun. 

In reality I was heading towards one of the many concrete 'pill boxes' that are scattered along the river, looking like the monoliths of Stonehenge. I could hear geese 'chortling' and 'whinnying' not far ahead. They were clearly not panicking. Yet. I resolved that the nearest pill box would be my hide. I broke from cover and – using dried cowpats as stepping stones – took a leap that a triple jumper would have been proud of. At the entrance I was greeted by two dribbling cows who looked more shocked than me. They sloshed out, leaving me floundering in a slurry of ripe cow dung. My bins and my old brass 'scope were liberally spattered, but my mission was nearing its goal. The soundtrack was a cacophony of honks, chunters and squeaks. My concrete igloo was obviously surrounded by birds, which I could hear but not see.

Fortunately the 'hide' had several viewing slots at about cow height, which was about the same height as me! Most had hinged flaps, although many of them were closed. My groping fingers reached up like a blooded hand in a horror movie, except that what I touched wasn't blood – it was mud and cow poo. I slowly pulled open a flap to create a narrow horizontal sliver of a peephole. Enough to find myself staring eye to eye with a family of Greater White-fronts and a pair of antisocial Pink-feet.

Mission accomplished, I crawled and slithered out using a technique I would come to perfect over years of negotiating iron gates and barbed wire fences, trespassing in pursuit of birds. The experience could be scary or a bit embarrassing, but I confess I relished the simultaneous frissons of triumph and guilt. Inevitably I was occasionally 'seen off' by farmers, reserve wardens and gamekeepers, but not that evening. 

As I clambered back into Dad's car, and asked him to get away from there as rapidly as possible, he wouldn't let it lie. 

"Did you see Peter Scott, then?"


"Did he see you?"

"I don'’t think so."

"So, would you still want to meet him?"

I shrugged, chuckled, fell asleep and was driven home. Little did I know that eventually I would meet Sir Peter Scott on a number of occasions. And next time I will tell a very different tale about one of the world's greatest conservationists, which took place in much happier circumstances.

Written by: Bill Oddie