The recent snow and freezing conditions in Scotland almost scuppered my trip to the Isle of Lewis to shoot woodcock and snipe over pointers on the 14,000-acre Scaliscro estate. Fortunately, the Scottish Government lifted the two-week ban on shooting certain birds including our quarry the day before my arrival.
It is the first time the ban has been implemented in more than a decade. The emergency measure was last used in the UK in 1996 and is designed to provide extra protection to birds while icy conditions disrupt their feeding and roosting patterns. Aside from shooting, the trip presented me with a rare insight into how a shooting ban directly impacts on those in the shooting industry and how the cold snap affected wintering birds in the Outer Hebrides. My host, sporting agent Russell Hird of RJH Sports, said the ban had proven highly disruptive for his clients: In the last week of the ban, temperatures here picked up, but I was still forced to cancel three different groups of shooters who all had non-refundable flights. I have utmost respect for and fully understand the reason for the ban, but I think that the Government could consider regional bans in future. A blanket ban across the whole of Scotland at the height of the shooting season has proven to be costly for a number of local businesses, and I imagine that Scotlands shooting industry would have lost hundreds of thousands of pounds. Today it will be interesting to see how the prolonged spell of freezing conditions has affected the numbers and conditions of the birds present. It has been the coldest weather the Western Isles has seen for 30 years.
Crossing the world for woodcock
Our small shooting party consisted of only three Guns, and Russell was working his three pointers. Gun John Hannagan had travelled to Lewis specifically to shoot woodcock, which are not found in his native Australia. Last week I took delivery of my new Beretta SO10 from the Beretta Gallery in London. I had it engraved with my three favourite quarry species woodcock, hare and partridge. I have never shot a woodcock, so I would love to christen my new shotgun with this particular quarry today.
Local Gun Bob Chaffer is another woodcock enthusiast. He is currently in discussions with the British Trust for Ornithology about becoming a licensed woodcock ringer. At the moment, there is no-one ringing woodcock on the island. During my career as an ecologist, I have studied the behaviour of numerous different species, including wild boar, ruddy duck and American mink, but I consider woodcock to be by far the most interesting bird species in the UK. There is very little known about them and I am perfectly located here on the Western Isles to study them. There are, I believe, more woodcock wintering here than anywhere else in the British Isles.
Bob works as foreman trapper on the Hebridean Mink Project, which is a Scottish Natural Heritage project designed to eradicate non-native American mink from the Hebrides. Gamekeepers are very supportive of our work, as it helps to preserve their wild bird stocks. Mink are highly invasive and can devastate populations of ground-nesting birds, so managing their numbers is imperative.
Working with pointers
As the Guns and I collected up our shooting paraphernalia from the car, Russell explained the practicalities of shooting over pointers: Once the dog goes on point, two Guns need to position themselves 15 yards either side of the dog. The pointer will not move until the Guns are within shooting range. Russell added that if a bird has been flushed and the Guns miss it, sporting etiquette dictates that it is not followed.
The terrain was like nothing I had shot over before. The mountainous moor comprised soft boggy heather mixed with a rocky moonscape littered with rose quartz and granite. Within only 10 minutes of setting out, Amber, Russells more experienced vizsla, was on point. As instructed, John and I drew level with the dog and closed our shotguns in readiness to take a shot. Suddenly, a snipe flew out to the left, from behind a rock. John expertly brought it down with his first barrel before it could disappear down a glen. Johns dream of christening his gun with a woodcock was fulfilled shortly into the second point when he despatched a jinking bird with his second barrel.
Russells other vizsla, Poppy, located the third bird of the day. The three Guns quickly assumed the positions to shoot, covering every direction the bird could flush from the dog. As Poppy raised her paw, the bird lifted from the heather, but with the unmistakable flutter of an out-of-season red grouse. Last year, this particular area gave my dogs 51 separate rises, said Russell. Scaliscro estate, along with the neighbouring Hamanavay estate, holds one of the most dense populations of woodcock on the island, but we are way off that figure today.
The next two points were at the edge of a loch on the top of the moor. Corrie, Russells 11-year-old Irish setter, was lying rigid in the heather. Another two grouse lifted from the banks and we broke our guns. As we continued across the moorland, Russell explained that when the island was frozen, he also had to cancel his deerstalking trips. He told me that while he believed the ban should be regional, it should also cover mammals: I think the ministers need to look at the legislation again. Restrictions should possibly be considered to incorporate deerstalking. The deer have lost a lot of condition due to the recent harsh weather. I felt that to cause them any further stress was a bad idea.
The chill wind sweeping across the island ensured that we stayed cool throughout the five-hour hike across the moor. The eight beats took us across spectacular glacial corries and up windy burns where woodcock often feed on he steep banks. From a plateau we allowed ourselves a moment to watch a golden eagle soar overhead and admire the view across to the Isle of Skye and down to the islands famous sandy beaches.
It was from there that Bob spied Amber on point on a bank 20ft above us. We made our way over to her side and within seconds a woodcock was darting its way to the right. With impressive reactions, Bob brought it down with his replica Churchill 25, and Poppy, the other vizsla, cleanly picked it from the heather and brought it back to Russells waiting hand.
As we scaled the moors steep banks en route to the vehicle, John managed to shoot one last woodcock. Russell commented: On an average day, I would hope to shoot around five birds per Gun, so today was a little disappointing, though 12 woodcock and numerous grouse were flushed. Lets hope the birds have moved to somewhere warmer and have not fallen victim to the low temperatures. The days shooting had given us the chance to see first-hand how the weather had affected these elusive birds. Shooting wild birds is always unpredictable but that is what makes woodcock such a sought-after quarry, Russell concluded.
For further information about shooting with RJH Sports, contact Russell Hird, tel 07751 839579 or visit www.rjhsports.co.uk.