North Devon farmer and shoot manager Alan Marshall believes snipe are the most challenging gamebird, and for good reason. ?A few weeks back we had a team of Guns that had 70 snipe over them, and shot only one between them,? he said.?Some clayshooters don?t like it. Compared with other driven game their flight is too unpredictable and they feel they?ve failed when they can?t hit them.? Alan farms beef and sheep on 350 acres in the village of Chilsworthy, near Holsworthy, close to the Cornish border. He and his brother, Andrew, organise six driven snipe days per year, shooting over several local farms, covering an impressive 3,000 acres.
I joined them on one such day in December, and while the visiting Guns tucked in to their breakfasts, cooked by his son, Dec, Alan explained why driven snipe shooting is possible in his part of the world. ?The snipe are drawn here to what?s known as the Culm Measures or Devon Culm. It is wet grassland and marginal rough grazing. The heavy rainfall and being near the sea create a special microclimate. The season starts on 12 August but we don?t start shooting until the full moon in November. Most snipe are migratory and fly from the same parts of northern Europe as the woodcock, but we also have breeding pairs.
?A lot of the farmers whose farms we shoot over don?t themselves shoot but are happy for us to take Guns on their land,? Alan continued. ?The teams who come know it?s wild game and that there?s no guarantee. I normally take a deposit, but I don?t if I am unsure whether I can deliver the sport. I always suggest a shoot captain brings around 10 Guns, because otherwise you can?t cover a field properly. Some may get as many as five birds over them in a drive and some may get none.?
Guaranteeing a successful day is all about reconnaissance. In the days before the shoot, I will go into a field and, if fewer than 10 get up I will not shoot it, knowing they will generally stay there and the numbers may build. But it is vital they are not disturbed. It?s now more common for dairy farmers to have sheep on their land for winter grazing, and are a nuisance as they put up the birds.
?Normally, snipe roost during the day in winter crops or pasture and then fly off to feed on invertebrates in wetter areas only at night. But during the 2010-2011 season the ground was frozen, so they changed the pattern, feeding in the wetter areas during the day when the frost thawed temporarily. This meant they would keep coming back to a feeding spot, but we would only shoot it once and then leave them to it. When it got really cold we lost them to the coast as they went in search of areas less likely to be subject to frost, and we had to cancel some days. It is a myth that snipe only come in hard frosts. Unlike the woodcock, they leave us in search of milder temperatures if it gets too cold. We haven?t seen as many woodcock this season because the weather has been so mild.?
A necessary silence
All keen shooters, the team of 11 had driven from Stroud in Gloucestershire that morning. Among them were a butcher, two keepers, a garage owner, two professional stalkers and shoot captain Ivan Reid who is parts manager at an Audi dealership. Once they had finished their full English round the farmhouse dining table, they moved outside for the briefing from Andrew. Some of the drives would be on Alan?s land but many would be on other farms. Ten were planned with a break for lunch. There was no ground game but, to keep the farmers happy, foxes could be taken if they were safe and in range. Naturally, all cartridges should be picked up as a courtesy to the landowners.
The day was to involve quite a bit of walking over heavy terrain, so was not for the unfit. We were to take the minimum number of vehicles for ease of parking and they had to be 4x4s. Ivan kindly offered to ferry us in his state-of-the-art Audi Q7, a luxurious shooting vehicle that did not stay quite as clean as it had been at the start of the day. The first drive was several miles from the farm. As we got out of the vehicles, everyone walked in strict silence so as not to disturb the birds. Four Guns went with Andrew to be positioned along the field edge. The rest of us followed Alan up an old track, which was so flooded waders would have been safer than wellies. Gaps in the hedge produced glimpses of a high windswept landscape, with trees bent sideways by the salty air.
When we got to the gateway of a field of beet, about 15 snipe got up. The Guns lined out into the beet and crouched down to wait. Three whistles signalled the off. From the start, the beaters were clearly visible walking across the grass half of the field towards the Guns. They kept a perfectly choreographed line, blowing their whistles when a snipe got up from the grass.
I am used to walking-up snipe when you are often shooting at them going away jinking and quite low, but this was completely different. The flight is extraordinary. They take off and begin to climb to a great height, not only jinking from side to side but dipping up and down. As a result, it is very difficult to follow their trajectory and swing through on the right line. In addition, they use the wind (of which there is plenty in this part of the world) to brake and change direction on a sixpence. Furthermore, though they are capable of lightning speed, they may not be going as fast as you think, which means there is a danger of giving too much lead.
The first drive brought home the challenge of snipe as the only one of 11 Guns to bag one was John Edmunds, known to his friends as the Welshman. Plenty of birds were flushed but most climbed too high too fast. Despite this, on the way back to the cars everyone was in great spirits, clearly delighting in such an incredible shooting experience.
The next drive was near a wind turbine, an indication of the height of the ground. We walked down the edge of a field of kale, lined up under the hedge and waited for the beaters to flush the beet field in front. The sun appeared through the clouds and, as we waited, a wisp of about 20 snipe flew high behind. We listened to their harsh ?scape, scape? call and saw their extended bills just visible and their pale undersides catching the light, a beautiful sight against the strong green of the crop. The whistle went and the birds were flushed in ones and twos. Ivan downed a single and John Bell proudly collected a right-and-left.
A thrilling shot
The third drive was within walking distance and the Guns spread out along a country lane which, Alan explained, rarely saw any traffic. The beaters formed a line the whole width of the field of kale in front of us and were clearly visible over the low hedge as they walked across together, occasionally pausing as singles or pairs were flushed to skit and jet skywards over us. Shots rang out all the way down the line this time. I joined the end of the line and managed to shoot my only snipe of the day, downing it with my second barrel just as it crossed the hedge behind me. It was a thrilling shot that left a smile on my face.
Snipe are extremely difficult to pick, even in an open grass field, and it took about 20 minutes to find my bird. Alan had been determined not to leave it and it was finally picked by his tenacious young springer, Brian. Springers are ideal for this work as they will push their way through the wide bramble-filled hedges with no worries about injuring themselves.
Before lunch, we just had time to squeeze in a woodcock drive which was much more as I had imagined snipe terrain to be than the high open arable and pasture fields we had been shooting over up to that point. We walked across boggy fields dotted with clumps of reeds, to line up along a wood of gnarled oaks and ashes coated in pale green lichens. It looked like something from The Lord of the Rings, a landscape well suited to the magical, mysterious birds that inhabit it. The two woodcock that were flushed called for impressive shooting, but the wood had produced several more the previous year. Lunch was bangers and mash in an old cowshed. By the time we?d finished, the skies had darkened and it was beginning to rain. We drove to a farm belonging to a neighbour of Alan?s, in the hope of shooting some more snipe off a large grass field. Unfortunately, sheep got there before us and scuppered the plan, but everyone was philosophical. This is wild bird shooting, after all, and the joy is in its unpredictability.
Ivan had requested a drive that might produce another woodcock to finish with, so Alan and Andrew ferried all the Guns by ATV to another Tolkienesque copse with a narrow, winding stream running through it. A woodcock winged its way out of the hedge as we passed and several more snipe were driven over the wood from the sloping field behind.
At the end of the day, the Guns thanked the beaters and pickers-up and were not unhappy to hand over the £50 each on top of the £50 they had already put down as a deposit. The 11 Guns had fired 252 shots for 32 snipe, averaging less than three birds each, but they were satisfied. ?We all do our fair share of reared bird shooting,? said Ivan, ?so we were looking for something a bit different?and this was special.?