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Wild woodcock of the Hebrides

With a soft whirr of wings, the mottled brown bird flushed and darted high into the birch canopy above. Struggling to find level ground upon which to stand, I gripped the barrels of the 20-bore and leaned into the shot. I knew that I had missed almost before I had fired, for the chance had been a fleeting one at best, with only a glimpse of the departing woodcock as it flitted through the leaf-bare branches. The result of the shot, mostly twigs and moss, fell down around me as the cock’s jinking flight took it deeper into the dank Hebridean woodland, no doubt looking for a sheltered, dark place to rest out of the reach of shooters and their pointing dogs.

Ejecting the empty cartridge case into my hand, I caught the whiff of burned powder and looked down at Alice, the vizsla, who had so stoically held point as I stumbled over slippery rocks and tree roots to reach her. The dog’s expression was one of reproach. Clearly unimpressed by my ineptitude, she turned away and headed out again in search of another point. Replacing the spent cartridge, I closed the side-by-side and, settling its weight in the crook of my arm, set out in pursuit of Alice’s tinkling copper collar bell.

This isle of woodcock had become well known to me and my shooting friends over the years, as it is to this brackenclad haven that we make our annual woodcock shooting pilgrimage each December. Located on the West Coast of Scotland, the tiny island is largely protected from severe frosts and prolonged snowfall by the warming effect of the Gulf Stream, thus allowing wintering woodcock to find reliable feeding throughout the coldest months of the year.

Western wilderness

Standing for a moment in the deep russet bracken, I gazed about me and marvelled at the island’s matchless wild beauty. Moss-covered stunted birch trees, twisted into tortured aspects by fierce Atlantic storms, clung to the rocky hillsides in defiance of gravity and seemed to belong more to a dark European fairy tale than the West Coast of Scotland. Their gnarled branches resembled a witch’s bony fingers as they reached up towards a watery winter sun. Below me lay the unruffled Sound of Sleet upon which the wilderness of the Knoydart Hills was reflected with perfect clarity. Above was a sky so cobalt blue that its colour might have been applied by an artist’s palette knife.

With the sudden realisation that I could no longer hear the tinkling of Alice’s collar bell, I snapped out of my reverie and scanned the surrounding woodland for a vizsla on point. Unable to locate the stationary dog, I headed uphill with all speed through a jungle of clawing broom and gorse. Cresting the top of the bracken bank, I was greeted by a sight to raise the pulse of any woodcock shooter, for no more than 40 yards in front of me, on the edge of a dense birch thicket, stood Alice, locked on point. The dog was a picture of motionless concentration, her entire body transfixed by the scent of a woodcock roosting somewhere within the web of branches before her.

With my heart pounding from both adrenalin and the exertion of fighting through waist-deep vegetation, I stalked in behind the rigid pointer, my pulse drumming in my ears, my gun’s muzzles high and its stock tucked beneath my elbow in readiness for the flush. There may well be more exciting things than inching toward a vizsla holding point on a woodcock in a birch thicket, but at that particular moment those things eluded me. This was the very finest of sport with dog and gun. As I drew alongside Alice, she slowly raised one paw off the ground. Seasons of shooting over this talented dog had taught me exactly what this motion meant. This was no false point. I was about to see a woodcock.

Sudden flight

At that moment and without warning, the woodcock burst from the dark heart of the thicket in a blur of wings and fallen leaves, twisting and turning up towards the light, its jinking bat-like outline silhouetted against the winter sky. Careening wildly to the right, the woodcock’s evasive flight took it between two huge decaying birches and thus provided the only chance of a clear and safe shot.

With my weight on my front foot, I mounted the gun, covered the bird and fired almost in one movement. Looking down the 20-bore’s concave rib I saw the woodcock crumple in flight, its open wings causing it to spin into the tall bracken. With a wave of the hand, Alice, who had remained steady throughout, headed into the tangled mass of cover to retrieve the bird, which, though dead, would not be easy to find.

Anxious moments went by until the crackling of bracken stems signalled the approach of the victorious dog. With head held high and docked tail wagging furiously, Alice burst out of the bracken, the prized woodcock gently held between her jaws, its long beak tapping against her muzzle as she trotted over to deliver the retrieve. Stooping, I praised the dog’s good work as she carefully deposited her burden into my cupped hand.

I held the feathered form in my fingers and wondered from which far northern land this migrant had travelled and how a creature so ungainly in appearance could complete such an arduous journey, arriving in Britain on silent wings under the November moon. I glanced down at Alice, her wagging tail telling me that she was keen to be off in search of another point.

Placing the precious bird in the net of my gamebag so that it would cool fully and taste at its very best when on the table, I replaced the spent cartridge and with a whispered word of command sent the jubilant vizsla out into the jungle of birch and furze. The short winter’s day was beginning to fade and a chill breeze was blowing in off the bay. There was perhaps time to put one more woodcock in the bag, so I set out in pursuit of my dog as she faded into the gloomy thickets of the wild Hebridean woodland. Once more the isle of woodcock had woven its special magic, leaving me certain to return when next the cold November moon brings its mysterious nocturnal visitors to our shores.

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