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Six of the best on woodcock

Most of us would dearly like to join the elite band of those who have had a right-and-left at woodcock. Two in a drive is the best I’ve managed and many Guns won’t get a shot at all during the season. All keepers here agree this is the most magical and mysterious of quarry. It may be small, but it’s good to eat and while you’re digesting the Christmas leftovers you can dream about the prospect of a shot in January.

• George Thompson, keeper, Llysdula estate, Anglesey
I saw the first woodcock of the season on 2 November. On the first full moon in November the island suddenly comes alive with them. On 6 November I was out lamping and there were woodcock all over the place — they’d obviously come in on that full moon. The island is good because we don’t get a lot of snow or frost. Once they get hard weather up north the birds come down here for the soft ground. Woodcock like our warm woodlands, with rhododendrons and laurels, and dead leafy cover underneath where there’s no disturbance. There are good feeding areas: in my back garden at dusk you can see as many as 20. The attraction of shooting them is not so much the challenge as their elusiveness. So many people don’t see woodcock except up here. On the estate we have a few places that are not regularly shot. We shoot them once or twice in the season and there’ll be woodcock as well as a good few pheasants. I’ve had a right-and-left twice and had one pair mounted.

• David Pooler, keeper, North Wales
It’s a secretive little bird and we’re very late getting woodcock here. It’s the same every year: we don’t see them in any numbers until the latter part of November. Whether it’s because we’re 60 miles inland I don’t know; they shoot more on the coast than we do, but I don’t know why. We’ve a good resident population in areas that we don’t shoot. We’ve got everything they need, such as bracken banks, a bit of deciduous woodland and rhododendrons. Luck plays a large part in shooting them. Our best days for woodcock shooting tend to be the wetter days; they seem to fly better for us when the pheasants don’t. We don’t have enough for a full day, though there are blocks that we know hold reasonable numbers — our best day isn’t as large as Cornwall. They’re a fantastic sporting bird on boundary and walked-up days, and we see a few in summer. I’ve not shot a right-and-left myself, though we’ve had two on the estate. My employer has seen them carrying their young.

• Steve Gee, headkeeper, Bulford and Tidworth Garrison shoot, Hampshire
We see an increase in numbers in the favoured woods by the fourth week in November. Snipe also become common in the area, indicating good feeding on the stubbles and withybeds. This mysterious quarry is always sure to raise the adrenalin of beaters and shooters alike. Safety is always a concern, however, as the birds are notorious for flying low and using flight corridors to make their escape, rather than breaking through the canopy. The quality of woodcock shooting is always dependent on terrain and, more often than not, this most elusive of birds provides excellent snap shooting. We attract a good number of migratory birds but I have never known any of our Guns shoot a right-and-left — not because they’re difficult to shoot, but because it’s rare to have a pair come over in range. When it does happen you have to keep calm and do the business. There has been an increase in numbers this year and we also have a few resident birds. They’re happy accidents, the by-product of game drives. It’s nice to see them.

• Stephen Toft, headkeeper, Cornwall
All our woodcock beats are set out for driven days. We shoot with only five or six Guns doing 20 or 30 drives in a day. The drives are 150 to 200 yards long. We use a dozen beaters, all with spaniels. You cover much more ground with the dogs, but they have to be good. Luckily with woodcock there’s not a lot of scent, so the dogs can work quite tight. We spend an enormous amount of time on habitat management, which means creating large openings in the spring for the woodcock to pitch in. We also make open places on the sides where they can land and walk in. Brambles are good for them and they love holly because it’s nice and dry underneath. Enticement of woodcock is the main aim. They’re a magical bird to shoot: they’re silent when you’re driving them and the Guns at the end of the drive will say it raises the hairs on the back of their necks knowing there’s a bird coming. It can turn some of the best Guns into gibbering wrecks. One visiting Gun said, “I’m sure there’ll be no woodcock shooting in heaven and I only hope God’s love will compensate.”

• Roger Curtis, woodcock keeper, Cornwall
West Country coverts are ideal woodcock habitat: dry, with damp places and good feeding. We’re in a dairy area with cows out in the fields, which means good dung and lots of worms. The birds feed in the fields at night; at dusk you can see them fly as far as a mile to their feeding grounds and at dawn flight back in again. As soon as the rooks and crows have gone quiet, the woodcock come out. The beats are short and narrow, maybe 200 yards long and 50 wide. In a day we’ll do two-dozen drives with six beaters, one or two pickers-up, 17 or 18 spaniels in the line and four or five Guns at most. We do eight or nine main days and each covert is only shot once. They’re a wild bird and we don’t over-shoot them. Our bags have been pretty steady over the past 20 years. They always come in on the full moon and a local chap has seen them flying by the light of the Lizard lighthouse. In the past, trawlermen used to see hundreds of woodcock floating on the water because they lacked the strength to carry on.

• David Mills, stalker, Glen Moidart, Inverness
This is my first season here and they haven’t come in yet. We’ve a lot of bracken and bramble, and I expect it will be good when they do arrive. In Sutherland we had a lot of scrubland on the edge of the moor and used to walk out with pointers and a couple of Guns, just as you would with grouse. We did have some quite thick plantations that it was difficult to work the dog in, but quite often the woodcock would flush anyway. We did get a reasonable number, but never had a true right-and-left. Once one woodcock got up off the pointer’s nose and was shot. The Gun opened his gun and as he did so another bird got up, so he quickly closed the gun and shot it. I don’t know if that constitutes a right-and-left as he didn’t actually reload. On Lewis we went on the hill and I was surprised to find a lot of woodcock out where there were no trees. We had a lot of heather and grass, and the woodcock tended to be tucked up in the burns. We shot them over a pointer there, too.