Some memories never fade. I am a hardy young splinter of 17, on an impromptu driven shoot in the next village, full of testosterone and an urge to shoot things. I had to cycle there. Being a standing Gun was a rare privilege and that day I could not miss. The lack of choke in the sexton?s Belgian hammergun, in the days when both hammers still worked, was a factor; that and my confidence, quick eye, suppleness of youth and not very testing pheasants.
On the last drive of the morning I stood with my back to the farm buildings while the boys drove an apple orchard with a field of kale below it. I was in pole position and shot several pheasants, not caring that some clattered on to the tin roof of the tractor shed and would have to be retrieved with great difficulty by someone else; and then, two strange birds came flickering towards me. I knew enough to recognise them as woodcock. I cocked both hammers and dropped one that fell well in front, and a second that tumbled at my feet. They were the only woodcock seen that day, the only ones I had ever shot. A right-and-left no less, and no end of witnesses.
I sent off for my tie, port glasses, bottle of apricot brandy, badge and scrap of fame from the Bols Snippen Club, now known as the Woodcock Club and run so well by Shooting Times. In my day there were but a handful of members. I was grateful for the opportunity, especially as one of the beaters told me later that he had flushed the birds from beneath an apple tree and flung his stick, narrowly missing one of them to his obvious chagrin. Beaters in those days were unfamiliar with the work as we were in roughshooters?, pot hunters? and bag fillers? country.
A bewitching power
The woodcock is imbued with more than a pinch of fairy dust. By comparison the pheasant is a vulgar, strutting popinjay, and even the grey partridge of Edwardian stubbles cuts a Hodge-like figure. Only the grey geese clamouring in from the tide share the same bewitching power. Along with the short-eared owls the woodcock flies over from Scandinavia beneath the first November moon, often called the woodcock moon, keeping ahead of winters that hold ancient memories of the Ice Age. He drifts across the UK from Norfolk to Ireland and in spring flies back to nest.
The woodcock?s body has turned up in trawl nets and the stomachs of cod. He lifts from the very bush whence you flushed him last year and his eyes shine like moonstones in the dark.
He may be caught with horsehair springes known to Shakespeare, or mesmerised with a light on his nocturnal feeding meadows. His feathers are painted every shade of brown known to God, from the palest fawns to near-black. Sportsmen count him not in brace but in couples, and when you eat him you include his innards, known as ?trail?. He is the only bird to carry his chicks tucked between his thighs ? and if that is not magic, I?d like to know what is.
It was the sportsman rather than the ornithologist who learned about the bird, but there are still woodcock secrets to uncover. Renowned for its lazy, moth-like flight the ?cock seems a doddle as it lumbers past, but suddenly swift it swoops down, jinking round the bole of an ash, soaring high and then whipping round the chicane of beech trunks. He flies at a height just too low for safety but high enough to tantalise, past bushes behind which stop or flanker lurks.
This teasing flight causes sober Shots to shoot wildly, and to those whom the gods wish to destroy they send a dodgy woodcock at the wrong moment. One second the prize is there to be taken, the next it is between your muzzles and the head of the next Gun ? but that certain something makes you press the trigger anyway. The ?cock flies off unscathed and your neighbour is wounded. When asked to what he attributed his longevity, an octogenarian Wessex gamekeeper replied, ?Each time I hear the shout ?Cock Forrard? I throw myself face-down in the bracken.?
A notable coup
He who bags a ?cock is a shooter literally with feathers in his cap, for the bird?s short, stiff pin feathers are pretty things, in demand by artists for the finest brushwork, or they make trophies for a hat band. ?Cock are solitary and rarely do you see more than one at a time, thus the formation of the Shooting Times Woodcock Club, which rewards the shooting of two with consecutive shots, as part of the same shooting action, at two birds seen simultaneously in front of two witnesses, both birds retrieved.
You?d be amazed, or you might not, by how many ?nearlys? there are, how many second birds shared, unloaded guns, easy ones missed or killed and not found. Many reading this will have a tale to tell of how close they came to the coveted prize. Anyone who does it properly has executed a notable coup.
After my early triumph by the orchard when a boy, my next chance of fame came in December 1977, roughshooting round some Suffolk hedges and ditches with my late friend, Major Gerald Astley Cooper. We plodded along and knocked down an old cock pheasant and a snipe that flushed from the wet meadow. Then, unexpectedly, a woodcock lifted from the bracken-clad fringe of a wet ditch, and as I raised the gun I saw another following it. I had two quick shots and both birds fell, one snapping through tree branches. Gerald was close enough to have seen it but he examined the snow for spoor, checking the two spent cartridges, and concluded it was a fair claim, the second bird having dropped beyond his view.
My second witness was a bit of a stretch, for it was Gerald?s wife Joan who was sat in the warm car in the farmyard watching us through binoculars. She swore she saw everything ? and who was I to question such an unshakeable witness? By this time the Club was in the hands of Shooting Times, and my piece of parchment, tie and bottle of grog duly arrived.
The challenge of the double
The fates abandoned me for the third time, which was perhaps the most clear-cut. Shooting in Devon with Pat Carey, ?The Warrener?, three of us were sent to blank-in a bit of clear felled ground seamed with deep runnels and covered with brash, through which impenetrable brambles had grown waist-high. We were told to slip in a cartridge in case of an outlier. I was a few steps in front of my companions, and as I hopped across the first runnel two ?cock arose as one. Easy shots, I took my time and both fell as dead.
My friends applauded. ?A right-and-left ? with witnesses too!? One of them had a young Lab that he sent for the harder of the two and back she came with it stone dead. But could she find the other? She worked until she was dropping. Pat came up with his pack of sprockers and all the beaters? dogs. He put them in the cover and they raked it to and fro. They gave it a good half-hour and, typical of the men they were, my sporting companions voiced no concern that they were losing sport. They just wanted my bird found. At one point, Pat told me later, he considered dropping a bird he had in his pocket so it could be retrieved; but it would not have been right.
That second cock must have dropped through the tangle, found the bottom of a runnel that ran for quarter of a mile and scuttled along it as only a wounded woodcock can. Thus I joined the much-larger club of rights-and-lefts that never were, although morally I felt I had qualified. A right-and-left man to the manner born is the great Gareth Edwards. There was a time when it seemed that each time I was out with him in Wales he scored a double, often in quite a small bag.
Glance at Gladstone?s Record Bags and Shooting Records and you will be amazed to read that Lord Balfour was once presented with four woodcock at once on a driven shoot, and killed them all with two shots. Two with one shot has been recorded several times, while to stretch credibility further it was said that Sir Wilfrid Lawson?s gamekeeper killed 16 woodcock to one shot in November 1804.
My favourite flying double concerns the sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey who killed two with one shot at Holkham in 1829. Furthermore, Sir Francis was in fact blind in one eye and handicapped by using a flintlock with a crossover stock. Many witty epigrams were coined to mark this feat that captured the sporting public?s imagination. Luckless our fate ? a doubly luckless lot! / A sportsman carved us whom an artist shot. Another ran, The cocks are two, the shot was one, Chantry had double-cocked his gun. For proof of how easy the bird is to miss, once at Shouldham in Norfolk, a woodcock was killed by the 13th cartridge fired at it. Some gundogs will not pick a woodcock: there is something about the taste they do not like. Old keepers used to train puppies to retrieve a tobacco pouch, in order to cure the aversion.
JJ Manley wrote in 1880, in his Notes on Game and Game Shooting, No man… forgets his first woodcock to the day of his death. You may forget your first salmon or even ?the first kiss at love?s beginning?, but never your first woodcock… To hold in your hand that soft feathered bird and admire those thousand browns and great eyes set atop its head the better to watch the world from deep in the bracken, is to feel regret as well as pride. If shooting one is an event rather than just an occurrence then how can it be bettered by shooting a dozen? Is that twelve times as exciting? Impossible.
Overlarge bags seem to this scribe to be unsustainable, for like the finest Champagne, woodcock shooting must be sipped and never gulped. The woodcock comes and goes on the moon, a fleeting visitor who honours us briefly with his presence: catch him at a disadvantage and murder him enmasse, and shame on you. After the bitter winter in the mid-1960s three Guns shot about 160 on Stackpole estate in west Wales. They stopped because the sack used to carry the birds burst and the keeper would walk no further. To shoot so many at such a time was indefensible.
To take too many gives ammunition to our enemies and pleasure only to the benighted. To shoot a few sporting birds is challenging, exciting and justifiable. Some gameshoots, such as Stetchworth Park in Cambridgeshire, have placed a moratorium on woodcock, a rule imposed partly for safety reasons but mainly because the shoot owner loves the little brown bird.
You may still shoot driven woodcock as far apart as west Wales, the Orkneys and Holkham in Norfolk, the scene of Chantrey?s great feat. In Cornwall the famed Trengwainton estate shoots little else.
The ?cock is a canny traveller and sets off across the North Sea when the weather promises well. In the teeth of a westerly wind he struggles, hence dead birds being found in cod and trawler nets. Those that make the journey sink, exhausted, on to the Norfolk dunes to recover, before moving in stages westward, resting in the bottoms of woods, small streams and hedge bottoms where rotting leaves match that superbly camouflaged cloak.
At last light they fly out to probe with their sensitive bills for worms in the meadows, and here boys used to set their springes of horsehair or shine a light into their softly glowing eyes when they could be caught by hand.
The woodcock?s special magic
Some woodcock stay in the UK all year and breed. This is when the ritual flight known as roding occurs, when birds establish territories. They fly back and forth down forest rides crooning and grunting their eerie song, once heard never forgotten. That woodcock carry their young between their thighs from nest to feeding ground has been seen too often to be doubted, although it has never been photographed. A fortune awaits the happy snapper who captures it on film.
The standard work on this amazing bird remains The Book of the Woodcock by Colin McKelvie, (Debrett?s Peerage, 1986), and more recently The Woodcock: Artists? Impressions by Simon Gudgeon et al (Quiller 2007). Best of all, and to capture the essence of its special magic, go to that doyen of country authors Richard Jefferies and search in his classic, The Amateur Poacher, for his account of shooting the woodcock on old Farmer Willum?s land under the nose of their enemy, the next-door keeper. The magical bird and the magical writer were made one for the other.
As for me, I have shot a lot of woodcock, and maybe the time has come for me to give the ?little brown ghost? a rest.