With a whir of wings, the mottled, brown bird, flushed, and jinking, twisted up into the thick Birch canopy above. Trying desperately,to find level ground upon which to stand, amongst the tangled tree roots, rocks and bracken, I gripped the barrels of the 20 bore, and leaned into the shot.
In my heart I knew that I had missed, almost before I had pulled the trigger. The chance had been a fleeting one at best – just a glimmer of the departing Woodcock, as it flitted through the woodland canopy. The result of my shot – mostly twigs and moss – fell down around me, as the bird jinked it’s way deeper into the West coast woodlands – doubtless looking for a dark, cool, shady place to rest – out of the reach of shooters and their pointing dogs. Easing the gun’s top lever over, I ejected the empty cartridge case into my hand, and as I caught a whiff of burned powder, looked down at Alice, the Vizsla bitch, who had so stoically held point for me, as I blundered through the tangled trees, to reach her.
The expression on her face, was a mixture of disgust and disbelief !. “I know, I know”, I exclaimed to her, “I missed him behind again”. Seemingly unimpressed with my explanation – Alice headed off once more, in search of another point – another Woodcock. Replacing the spent cartridge, I closed the little side by side, and hefting it’s weight across my right arm, set off in pursuit of Alice’s tinkling collar bell.
These areas of Hebridean woodland, myself and a small party of friends, have come to know rather well, as we make our annual Woodcock shooting pilgrimage, each December, to the tiny Isle of Skye, on Scotland’s West coast.
Being on the west coast of the U.K. – Skye is protected from severe frosts, and prolonged heavy snows, by the fact that it is warmed by the Gulf stream. This enables Woodcock, migrating from colder weather, in Russia, Scandinavia, and the Baltic States, to find reliable feeding, all Winter long. This of course does not apply to Skye alone – as all of the Hebridean Islands, and for that matter, the West Coast mainland, experience good numbers of Woodcock, whilst other parts of Europe, and indeed, the British Isles, are effected by heavy frosts.
Added to climatic conditions – the habitat of Skye also suites the Woodcock’s needs. This applies particularly, to the south of the Island. Here the vegetation is made up of bracken, ( dead, orange, dried ferns ) Gorse bushes, and uncountable acres of Birch, Alder, and Willow. The thicker the latter – the better the Woodcock like them !.
The very nature of this dense vegetation, makes it essential to have good, well trained dogs to hand, if guns expect to have a few brace of birds in the bag, by the end of the day. Over the years, we have shot over Labs, Spaniels, and various breeds of HPR’s. Although all work well, and produce birds – it is the latter which we find, give the guns the best chance of a productive shot. The Birch and Alder thickets are so dense, that a Woodcock flushed wild by Spaniel or Lab, will often fly away completely unseen. Working a brace of HPR’s, wearing blaze orange collars, and bells, does at least give the shooter following, an idea as to where the dog, and for that matter, the bird, is !. So many times we have stood, ears straining, trying to discern the tinkling of the little copper, cow bell – only to realise that the dog is on point – and then stalk forward, frantically searching for the give away sign of the fluorescent collar – to show us where the pointer is.
There may be more exciting things, than walking up behind a Vizsla, or German Wirehaired Pointer – that is locked on point – on a Woodcock – in a Birch thicket; but just now, those things elude me !. All that I can recall is the pounding of my heart – through excitement, and the effort of racing over fallen logs, rocks, and through gorse bushes, desperately trying to reach the dog, before the bird will hold no longer.
Even if one has managed all of the above successfully – there is still no guarantee that the bird will flush into the open. Maddeningly, they seem to have an inbuilt instinct to jink behind a tree trunk, or into the thickest branches available. How do they know ?!.
Fortunately however, things sometimes do all come together, and the shot is successful. The dog is given the command to flush – the ‘Cock’ darts up and away – and the shooter, mounting his gun with matching speed, tries to lead the bird, and shoot – and all in the blink of an eye !. As beautiful as the Woodcock is – there is tremendous satisfaction, seeing the bird fold in the air, and fall earthward, amongst the Scrubby Birch, Heather and Alder. This achieved – the HPR can then be sent forward to make the retrieve.
I have long had a passion for chasing the mysterious Woodcock. This bird that arrives out of the October night, under a full moon, from only it knows where; but no matter how many I see or shoot, it’s beauty never diminishes. It’s mottled colours. It’s huge, black, button eye, and delicate wader feet. Can there be a more striking creature in all of nature ?.
I am also happy to report, that my delight in eating the Woodcock, never diminishes either. They are simply delicious !. One may eat them in the traditional manner – undrawn – on toast – and with the lower body skewered by the beak – or – as I prefer, wrapped in streaky bacon, covered in tin foil, and roasted in the oven.
Sporting. Beautiful – and delicious to eat – Scolopax rusticola, the European Woodcock – must surely be the Prince of game birds !.
The Isle of Woodcock 2. Flighting Woodcock at dusk – to follow.
Yours in sport,
Scolopax, ( photos by kind permission of Luise Janniche )