No sporting bird matches the woodcock in its mystique. It is an elusive, unpredictable creature, seldom seen except jinking down a forest ride. If you are lucky enough to have shot driven woodcock, you’re familiar with that heart-thumping few seconds from hearing the cry of a beater, first sight of the ‘cock, a snap-shot, then more often than not, a quick, angry left as your quarry makes its silent escape.
There is plenty of time afterwards to think about why you missed. The problem is, you won’t remember a thing. Woodcock-shooting is instinctive. And the cartridge-to-bird ratio is very high indeed.
Nowhere is better married to the woodcock’s wild nature than Temple House in Co Sligo. Ireland has exceptional woodcock shoots, and many unique country houses but, here, the Perceval family has both. A good-humoured, make-do attitude has kept estates like Temple House running since long before the Celtic Tiger met its grisly end. Roderick and Helena Perceval and their children George and Saffron exemplify this.
Arriving after dark, up half a mile of sheep-crowded avenue, I am met in the hall by Roderick, arms laden with logs for the dining-room fire. Helena is busy looking after the shooting party while George and Saffron fetch and carry for French chef Guillaume. I join my host, shoot captain Bernard Barton, and his party in the dining-room, where Guillaume’s cooking is a welcome reward for braving the black ice on the Dublin to Sligo Road.
The Bartons have been shooting at Temple House for 15 years. Others have been regulars since the first commercial day here in 1979. Quick introductions across the vast dining-table hint that here are some serious shots present. Bernard Barton is a member of the Shooting Times Woodcock Club, open to the skilled and lucky few who have achieved that rare right-and-left. Terry O’Neill is a sought-after shooting instructor from Co Wicklow.
“I love the shotgun and woodcock especially,” O’Neill explains, “because it’s so creative. Everyone has a distinctive style.”
Mick McBennett, Ray Hawkins and Charles Carroll are well-known in Irish shooting circles. William Sleeman and Mike Tanner have had nail-biting waits for a break in the Baltic Christmas weather to allow travel from England. Anne Marie Barton, Jane Sleeman, Mary McBennett and Kat Hawkins add to the house-party atmosphere.
The guests have shot together for years, so the banter is unwavering right through dinner and port, into the drawing-room and on several trips to the gunroom. Bernard Barton has brought a selection from his collection of unusual shotguns. By the time the last guns retire, Guillaume’s wonderful breakfast is just a few hours away.
As guns are unsleeved the following morning, Roderick Perceval, with spaniel man Gareth Norris and headbeater Padraig Faul, assess the frosty weather.
“You don’t shoot woodcock, you hunt them,” says Roderick. With thousands of acres of country to choose from, he brings his guns to where they are most likely to find the ‘cock. After a bitterly cold December, and with the ground underfoot still unyielding to a woodcock’s probing bill, he judges that the best shooting will be found nearest the sea.
If Temple House proves sparse, Roderick can move his guests on to Lissadell, where the Perceval family leases woodland from Coillte, the Irish forestry service. Lissadell used to belong to the Gore-Booth family and is famed for its association with WB Yeats. It was a favourite haunt of Victorian crack-shot, the Earl de Grey (who became the Marquess of Ripon). Frequently mentioned in the Ripon gamebooks, Lissadell still holds some of the best Irish woodcock coverts.
Roderick briefs beaters Paddy Skeffington and Noel Maloney while the guns fortify themselves with ginger-and-honey poitín. All the beaters carry guns to pick off back birds. With just four men and 13 assorted cockers and springers, plus a couple of labs, Roderick’s small team is more efficient than two dozen men trying to fight their way through the thick undergrowth.
“This can be damned dangerous sport. I only shoot woodcock with people I trust,” says Barton. It’s a view shared by most of us, and everyone pays attention as Roderick holds his safety briefing: “You all know the drill. If in doubt, leave it. No shooting lower than 45 degrees, unless you’re flanking and there is a mile of flat bog beside you. Same applies to safe foxes. No pheasants. Oh, and anyone who shoots a hare has to carry it around all day. I’m very fond of them.”
With eight guns and long, narrow drives, Roderick usually places three or four at the head, with flanking guns walking in line or spaced ahead of the beaters. He has an uncanny sense of where the birds will break. Within the first couple of drives he’s also aware of how the guns are performing.
“We don’t use pegs or numbers. I prefer to keep an eye on who is getting good shooting and then rotate everyone based on that. It’s the fairest way,” he says. “Some of the drives do have names, given by our regular syndicates, but most are too impolite to mention,” he adds.
A few steps into the first wood and it is clear how harsh the winter has been. The very dry ground is like granite underfoot. Scent is poor and the first four birds put up sit very tight. As we thrash our way through the second drive, Roderick relates some Temple House history. The estate has been in his family since 1665 except for a brief, unhappy period in the 19th century. Its name derives from the ivy-clad ruin of a Knights Templar castle, crumbling into the lake near the house. Roderick and Helena have been here since taking over from his parents Sandy and Deb in 2004. From April to November they also do B&B, house parties and weddings.
“We don’t do wedding receptions, we do wedding parties,” claims Roderick. His enthusiasm for guests to experience what it’s really like to live in a house like this is infectious. “It’s about coming to join in with life here. But we don’t ask anyone except friends to help us with the 1,500 sheep.”
His favourite time of year is, without doubt, woodcock season.”I won’t say it’s a holiday for us because everyone in the family works very hard during the winter, but with B&B you’re always giving, whereas with the shoots we get lots back from the guests. There is so much craic and banter. It’s a proper house party.”
After the sparse first drive, Roderick moves the team to better cover where the night’s frost may not have penetrated quite so deeply. If the cold has driven the woodcock to the coast, they’ll look for them there tomorrow. In any case, the guns are enjoying themselves.
Conservation of woodcock habitat has continued here for over a hundred years. Recently, Roderick has planted and maintained woodland, including clearing vast tracts of invasive rhododendrons. Rides have been cut through the softwood forestry and, where possible, they abide by the tradition of great Irish woodcock shoots in keeping human traffic into the woods as light as possible. Putting down pheasants is out of the question.
Our third drive takes us through an area that Roderick has returned to native woodland, with frozen lichen hanging from the older trees and brilliantly coloured sphagnum mosses covering the ground.
“It’s my favourite place on the whole estate,” he says happily, working his dogs through the covert. Having such a little troop means that minimal time is wasted between drives. This is fast shooting in every way, covering a huge amount of territory in three days.
By the time we break for elevenses of sherry, spiced beef and smoked salmon, the guns are getting their eye in, with England one point ahead after a snap-shot off the flank from William Sleeman. The dogs sit in a patch of warm sunshine, clearly eager to get on with the job. Roderick is just as keen to get back out and give his guns their money’s worth.
Flanking the next drive means stepping on to a frozen stretch of bog. The bag grows with fine shots from Mick McBennett and Bernard Barton. After the horn blows at the end, a springer fussing at a bramble thicket encourages cartridges back into barrels. One has never witnessed so many guns disappointed to see a pheasant put up within easy range.
Over a fine lunch, at which beaters and guns alike muck in around the dining-table, there is plenty of the craic and banter that Roderick and Helena enjoy so much. Ripe for ribbing is Terry O’Neill’s graceful swing at a jinking woodcock. Roderick appraises the guests’ dogs, wondering whether he might find a suitable partner for his labrador bitch Treacle. “Knowing this lot, I’d ask for papers first,” jokes Bernard Barton.
Heading back out, Roderick confidently eases fears about Temple’s bird numbers today. A nationwide statutory ban has just been lifted following the harsh weather. But the frozen bog easily supports the weight of a Land Rover and one can’t imagine this habitat yielding much-needed sustenance. Padraig Faul takes great pride in making sure the guests warm up their barrels. If there are woodcock about, he’ll find them, especially now that his beaters have refuelled and are ready for some tough going. “The ‘cock know the snow is coming again. They’re heading for better cover, so that’s where we’ll go,” he says.
Having been promised good shooting, on the post-lunch drive, Bernard Barton reveals his secret weapon: a Jeffery & Son 28-borehammergun, built in the 1880s, with beautiful Damascus barrels. He has no trouble despatching two ‘cock within minutes.
Most of the syndicate members shoot side-by-sides, with short barrels much in evidence. Like many Irish guns, Terry O’Neill shoots with a Beretta over-and-under, preferring a well-balanced, light, 20-bore. Members of Bernard Barton’s syndicate are loaded with 7½ shot, but some of Temple House’s Italian visitors have been known to use no 10.
However, true to Irish country-house form, Roderick Perceval carries a well-loved .410, held together with electrical tape. He’s been shooting with it since he was 13. “I tell people it’s nice and light, so I can keep one hand free for beating but, really, it gives me a great excuse for missing a bird in front of the guests,” he jokes.
Even this far west, the light fades fast in early January but, moving quickly, Roderick takes his team through two more coverts. There are no snipe or duck on the frozen bog, but a wigeon calls out high overhead during the penultimate drive. Ray Hawkins scans the skyline and rummages in his jacket. “I always have a couple of number fives in the left-hand pocket just in case,” he says, gazing upwards.
The last shot of the day is fired at a flighting ‘cock against a dusky skyline. After that, the guns repair to Durkin’s pub for post-shoot analysis.”Some people might prefer a 300-bird pheasant day, but that misses the point,” says Mike Tanner. “The opportunity to shoot driven woodcock and snipe is so rare and the atmosphere is so special, that I don’t care how many birds we see.”
Earl de Grey would have approved. Although he could shoot several hundred woodcock in a week, he, too, enjoyed a day’s sport without recourse to massive, Victorian bags. One of his entries in the Ripon gamebooks recalls his return from shooting at Lissadell in the company of his friend Sir Henry Gore-Booth – with a woodcock apiece. “Splendid afternoon’s sport,” he writes.
These guns have better luck, though. The next two days see more than 70 ‘cock shot. Roderick Perceval and Padraig Faul are right. One hunts woodcock. The rest is up to being blessed with a keen eye and steady nerves.