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The Great Debate: Woodcock shooting

Rather not by Ben Samuelson

I admit I’ve pretended not to see woodcock so as not to shoot at them. I’ve also intentionally shot well over them so as not to hit them.

Until now, it’s something I’ve not liked to talk about as I’m aware many people regard it as one of the pinnacles of our sport. But, I guess now’s the time to come out and say it in the privacy of my own column – I just don’t like shooting woodcock.

Firstly, most of those we shoot are migratory birds, flying from as far as Siberia to overwinter in the British Isles. That’s a pretty amazing feat for birds that weigh not much more than half a pound, and it isn’t something I want to congratulate them on by firing 28 grams of Number 7s in their direction.

I’m also not a great fan of eating woodcock, and I know an awful lot of people who would rather just have the pinfeathers for fly tying. I think it’s all part of not drawing them, and eating the innards on toast, and maybe the brains with a spoon. And there being so little on them, and it being a bit dry and stringy, and not tasting all that good. I’m very happy to shoot things that I or someone else is going to enjoy eating, and of course vermin are fair game, as it were. But it seems rather wrong to shoot something I wouldn’t want to eat, if it’s not hurting anyone and if their numbers have been steadily declining over the last few years.

And then there’s the actual sport of shooting them. They are very infrequently great shots, flying high and fast. I accept there is often plenty of challenge in actually hitting them, but I counter there is also often plenty of challenge in not getting hit yourself, as they all too often fly low and unpredictably through woods at head height.

So, I’m not telling anyone else they shouldn’t shoot woodcock, especially those with lovely Irish estates where they can host driven woodcock shooting parties. But I am saying there just may be occasions when I have a more valid excuse for not seeing or hitting a bird than my conventional daydreaming or having limited hand/eye co-ordination.

Yes please by Giles Catchpole

The woodcock is a noble bird. They migrate thousands of miles and they pop across the North Sea under the first full moon following hard weather in Scandinavia. They are devoted parents and have big, deep, dark, and mournful eyes.

On the other hand, they fly like dingbats and are superbly challenging targets. Everyone who shoots knows the heart beats faster and the eyes squint a little tighter when the cry of, “Woodcock! Woodcock forward!” carries across the frosty air. To shoot one is an achievement. To shoot a right and left makes you a member of an exclusive club. In a lunchroom of my acquaintance there is a sculpture of a brace of woodcock that the sculptor killed with a single shot. Apparently he promptly burst into tears because he had, thereby, deprived himself of the opportunity to achieve the elusive double.

However, I can think of no better reason to justify the shooting of the bird than a woodcock recipe. It comes from that mistress of culinary sporting canon Prue Coats. Here’s her Terrine of Woodcock with Truffle from The Poacher’s Cookbook

“Take the breasts of two woodcock, slice them very thinly and lay them in a dish with a black truffle. Sprinkle over a tablespoon of brandy and leave for two hours. Blitz the rest of the woodcock flesh and their livers with 8oz of chicken livers and season with salt, pepper and a pinch of allspice. Mix in two eggs, well beaten, and the brandy from the marinade. Line a half-pint terrine with hard pork fat and spoon in half the mixture. Place the shreds of breast meat on top and then add the rest of the mixture. Lay the truffle slices down the middle. Cover with more pork fat. Seal the whole with foil and cook in a bain marie at 175C for an hour or until the juices run clear. Cool and refrigerate for two to three days before serving with Melba toast and a spoonful of plum chutney.”

If that doesn’t convince you, nothing will.