There was a distant shout of “Woodcock For’ard!”, barely heard above the soughing of the wind through the agitated bare branches. Scanning the woodland before me, I picked out a quick brown shape weaving and dodging through the branches to my left, gaining height as it cleared the trees to turn and fly down the ride. Norman, the Gun to my left, fired one shot, as the bird passed me I fired two, and Den on my right also emptied both his barrels before this elusive and twisting target swerved over the treetops and went on its way unscathed.
At the end of the drive, Norman approached, grinning. “Did you miss that woodcock with both barrels?” he asked, relaxing when I answered in the affirmative, “Ah, I only fired and missed with one shot — does that make me twice as good a Shot as you?” Ever since the first Woodcock Broadcast appeared in Shooting Times seven years ago, I have followed the reports closely, with my particular focus on the south west. I have to declare a personal interest. On the northern flanks of the Forest of Neroche, in south Somerset, lies a block of woodland known as the Piddle Wood, the home of a recently-formed syndicate to shoot the occasional pheasant and seek out the enigmatic woodcock.
Four hundred acres of mature mixed oak and ash woodland with an occasional stand of tall conifers, over time it has developed a dense and tangled understorey of hazel, willow and bramble, making it a nightmare to walk through. It is interspersed with some small rectangles of more recently planted maple, poplar and birch saplings. The wood is criss-crossed with rides, deeply rutted and very muddy in winter, yet they create a break in the woodland canopy that woodcock seem to appreciate.
John Dryden, previously south-west regional director of BASC, has been the shooting tenant on this ground for more than a decade, but it is only recently that he has had the time to devote himself to developing the shooting potential. In previous years, the ground has been shot only two or three times per season. These shoot days involved a handful of close friends and any of their partners and children he could press gang into the thinly spread beating line. Beating through the dense undergrowth for each “drive” was not for the faint-hearted, often visibility was no more than a yard or two, and any attempt to keep some semblance of a straight line depended on calling to locate your neighbouring stickwavers. The Guns did not fare much better — the walking flank Guns shared the beaters’ struggles through the dense undergrowth, and the standing Guns were often required to walk long distances along slippery and treacherous forest tracks in order to reach their pegs. A hard day for all involved, but this was forgotten when the distant cry of “’Cock For’ard!” reached the Guns, straining their eyes for a glimpse of a swift brown enigma silently jinking between the trees, affording only a split-second chance of a hasty snap shot before vanishing behind the bough screened backdrop again.
In order to add a little variety to the shooting day, John has always reared and released a couple of dozen pheasants each year, and though some of these found their way into the bag on shoot days, it was woodcock we were really after. Success is always uncertain, particularly with this secretive here-today-gone-tomorrow migratory bird. There have been days when we could count the number of rises on the fingers of one hand, but others when woodcock appeared from the unlikeliest of places and 30 or more rises clicked on to John’s counter.
In his retirement year, John was told that some major forestry operations were in the offing, so last year he reorganised the shoot into an informal syndicate, the Piddlewoodcock shoot. Numbers of reared pheasants increased to high double figures, still modest compared to many rough shoots, and the birds quickly learned to avoid the line of Guns!
Last season was like the proverbial curate’s egg… good in parts. Our best day included a smattering of pheasants and more than 50 woodcock rising, of which six were brought to bag — the dense undergrowth, the closely spaced mature tree trunks and the challenging terrain meant that the flushed birds seldom went in the right direction, and, it has to be admitted, many that did go over the Guns flew on unscathed.
From the end of last season, the woodland has seen some dramatic
changes. In early February 2008, the woods reverberated to the sound of heavy machinery and the crash of falling trees as loggers moved in and cleared large swathes of land. In addition to these clearance operations, there were also areas where selective felling took place so that the woodland was really opened up — much of the hitherto impenetrable scrub was cleared and the sunlight let in to reach the woodland floor. Nature has reacted with vigour, healing the scars of the felling and covering the disturbed ground with a lush carpet of summer greenery dotted with many orchids, while silver-washed fritillaries and numerous dragonflies patrolled the new clearings.
Responding to this general improvement and opening up of the ground, shoot work days over the spring and summer months created one large and two smaller release pens, feeding and drinking stations in various parts of the wood, and beaters’ paths were cut through the low plantations. The rearing programme has, for the first time, crept into three figures and even includes a handful of redlegged partridge.
All is now set for the Piddlewoodcock shoot’s second season, with the improved habitat and prospect of seeing just a few more pheasants, John plans to shoot the ground on fi ve days starting in mid-November. All we need now is one more magic ingredient, so please keep the Woodcock Broadcast coming, and if you see any birds, direct them to south Somerset!