WOODCOCK AT DUSK
“Now time for the woodcock,” calls Roy, dragging me from the fish. As we bump along in the Landie, he explains the Buccleuch estate’s approach to sport. “We
believe that as many people as possible should enjoy what we have on
offer, whether it’s full-blown driven days, some smaller walk-and-stand
mini days, or a combination of rough- and driven-shooting. But what
we’re about to do is new, even for us.
“We’re heading to a small beef farm, owned by Willy Smyth, whose
policies include a large block of sitka spruce adjoining some marshy
pasture. It’s a perfect place for flighting woodcock.”
has invited some local farming friends and we sidle off in the
gloaming. I’m dropped off on a piece of bare ground by a dirt track and
instantly, I feel under pressure. Woodcock, like all wildfowl, navigate
by landmarks and this is the inland equivalent of a creek bisecting a
mere. If the ’cock come at all, they’ll come here.
I’m settling into the rhythm of the place, noting the exact spot where
the other guns have hunkered down, mapping the breaks in the trees
where the ’cock will materialise. Hoodie crows flap home from crimes
committed and the air is tangy with wet bracken. A soft snuffle breaks
the moment between night and day as Willy arrives with his cocker. “I’ve been watching the flight-lines for the past week,” he whispers, “and there’s a few in. We only shoot this six times a year, and the rest of the season it’s left strictly undisturbed.”
Stare into a darkening sky, every sense primped, and only midges
move. Light a cigarette or talk to a friend and a bird will arrive at
that very instant. A woodcock is now twisting above the spruce before
dropping and arrowing to our right. I’ve seen it far too late and miss
with the first barrel. Swinging behind, the second shot arrives just as
the ’cock corkscrews earthwards. I can’t see Willy or his spaniel but
am conscious of the same Scottish summary: “We’ve got a right one here.” But 30 seconds later a second woodcock ghosts over the trees and, concentrating now, I drop it over to the right.
A fusillade booms softly over the wind from the far edge of the wood;
we hear later that Mike had a chance at a right-and-left. For 20
minutes the shots are fast and ragged as 30 or so woodcock flit between
the guns nestled behind stone walls and gorse. A single ’cock floats
out from the wood’s gloom but, just visible against the paleness of the
track, tumbles to my shot. Seconds later, another clips out far to the
right, and also falls, this time to the second barrel. With the last of
the light draining from the dusk, it’s time to help with the pick-up.
We’ve eight woodcock in the bag; if we’d held straighter, it would have
been 15 but no one cares. Missing a steady, reared pheasant might bring
self-recrimination but this is wild-quarry snap-shooting and half the
shots weren’t attempted because of safety issues.
Roy is delighted with the evening, and he and Rab are plotting.
The Queensberry estate has countless little patches of tree and pasture
that replicate tonight’s venue. Could woodcock-flighting become another
feature of Buccleuch Sporting? Almost certainly, they decide, so long
as they don’t overdo it. “Mind you, we get a fair few ’cock at our Boughton estate,” says Roy. “Last
year we were working a small covert at the end of the season when five
’cock flushed at the same time over the guns on 5, 6 and 7. Numbers 5
and 6 each shot a right-and-left and No 7 shot the fifth.”
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