Recent issues of Shooting Times have devoted themselves to the arrival of woodcock, for it is indeed a most mystical quarry. It seems that devotees fall into two camps:those who would never lift a gun to them, and others who would travel miles to get among quality sport. Falconers fall firmly into the first category, but they are equally devoted to their arrival.
ST readers will be under no illusion that woodcock are hard to bag ? there is no club for a right-and-left at any other gamebird. The trouble is that they are easy to miss and equally easy to damage. Whenever I have tried to shoot them, it seems I give either too much or too little lead ? but I am no great Shot. With a tiercel (male) goshawk or hen sparrowhawk, they are worthy of pursuit.
This is an honourable match, but not one that puts much meat on the table or ticks in the gamebook, which is why falconers are falconers and only rarely shooters. However, it is one of the reasons I have welcomed a move to west Wales ? a woodcock hot spot. When I lived in Kent, they existed but never in sufficient quantity on my hawking ground, and at that time I was hare obsessed so I flew the heavier and less manoeuvrable female goshawk. Circumstances in Wales have led me to stop carting 2lb14oz hawks on my fist all day, instead opting for Baldrick, who weighs a mere 1lb9oz.
The deep sheltered valleys hold goodly numbers but little did I realise my goshawk would switch on to them. He had already killed duck, pheasant and rabbit in his first season. Taking him for a brief exercise flight into the valley below our farm with no intention to hunt, he suddenly took flight with the vehemence that is the exclusive preserve of the hunting hawk that sees a prospective meal. So powerful is their kick-down acceleration that the fist vibrates with the shock of it. The small, brown woodcock that I didn?t immediately recognise was gone in an instant, but Baldrick was on its tail. The flight was unsuccessful but I realised that this was to be a prize we were both determined to gain.
Shortly after Christmas, my sister and her husband came to stay. I am always somewhat wary about forcing town-dwelling relatives into the hawking field. Mostly, they puff and pant into the wrong position, chattering like parrots and scaring off the game. However, I was determined to find a woodcock and they were briefed like a military task force.
We set off down the valley without much success. Then, across the stream and into the bottom of a boggy wood where I had found woodcock before. Suddenly two erupted below my bird, who was only about 15ft up in a tree. Number one was well away, but the second flew out of the wood and over my sister before curling around the edge and down the stream out of sight. Baldrick was having some of this.
I have never seen him pump so hard. Next, there was an almost inaudible thunk, like a heavy and distant door closing, then silence. I followed my bird around the wood, but could hear nothing. He must have caught it, but no bells, no movement. Time for the telemetry and, heavens, what a strong signal from his tail-mounted transmitter. He must be almost at my feet ? and he was. I had stepped over him as he glared up at me from his lair ? he had caught his woodcock.
Trembling with excitement, I allowed him his fill, so there was nothing left for me, but I needed him to remember the experience and a heavy crop of warm meat is guarantee of this. My crop would be filled later with a more liquid potion.
The January season was shortened by illness and the hawk fed up to moult. Now the woodcock are on their way again and Baldrick is ready. Anticipation is not the exclusive preserve of the shooter.