Let the fun begin
Rupert Butler on the start of his and his companions' shooting year and the good times to look forward to
As the first rays of light streak from the east, a lone mallard calls way out in front, quickly followed by several of his companions as they swoop down from the heavens to dine.
Lying still in the centre of a 70-acre stubble field I can feel the anticipation coursing through my veins, anticipation of not only what the morning may bring but of the season that lies ahead. While others delight beneath a warm duvet, I am here alone apart from the company of Toffee, my lab, and a bunch of decoys that I have scattered randomly.
Three shapes whoosh past, disappearing into gloom once again before I have a chance to release a barrel. I blow seductively on my caller in the hope that some rusty notes may change their minds. More by luck than my prowess, they decide to have a closer look and I manage to scrape one down at the second time of asking. Half an hour later I have half a dozen in the bag to join some woeful misses.
Our first day out, 1 September, wouldn’t be complete without a wander around those purple monstrosities in search of a grouse or two. After some quick refreshments I’m on the road again, meandering my way towards the Knockmealdown Mountains, which loom large on the horizon, traversing counties Tipperary and Waterford in southern Ireland. I stop en route to see if a duck or three might be lurking beneath some sallies on the River Tar. My intuition pays off as a large squadron takes to the air. On this occasion, however, I manage to miss with both barrels and the disgust on Toffee’s face is clearly evident. In my defence I often find that too many birds is more of a hindrance than anything, as one tends to switch targets without ever settling properly.
Climbing ever higher, it’s not long before I reach our designated starting point. As is usually the case on the first day of the season, several of us will meet up for a crack at a grouse or two. The Knockmealdown Mountains cover a vast area on the borders of Tipperary and Waterford. I know that they are unforgiving in many respects, especially for those of us who haven’t ventured up here since this time last year. The first climb is always the hardest and it isn’t long before I’m out of breath. On many occasions over the years I have told myself that I must engage in a few practice runs before the day in question, but I never do. More often than not it isn’t the sharp incline that takes your wind away but rather the knee-height heather that spans the lower reaches.
After much huffing and puffing we finally reach the shorter stuff and the relief is clearly evident on our faces. From here we will circumnavigate several peaks in the hope that a covey or two will burst from their heathery haunts. Just being up here is a treat in itself, with the views majestic in all directions. Way down below one of the lad’s setters comes to the point and a couple of Guns converge in anticipation. The dog in question is only a year or so old and not familiar with such terrain. For those of us who are watching the outcome from high above, we cannot but smile as a meadow pipit is pushed from its heathery retreat, much to the disgust of the Guns below.
Shooting in Ireland is as much about the banter and the camaraderie as it is about birds in the bag, so there is no doubt that this little episode will be regaled in the not-toodistant future over a pint.
An hour or so into our walk, with not a grouse to be seen, my springer, Cookie, suddenly goes into overdrive. She races back and forth several times before disappearing over a small hillock at a rate of knots, with yours truly trying to keep pace. The Gun to my right has also spotted her interest and rushes down to offer his assistance. Some 100 yards or more from where she initially picked up the scent, an old cockbird bursts forth. Cackling furiously as he takes the wind to aid his escape, he provides a cracking shot for Seamus to my left, one which he takes with aplomb.
Moments later Cookie brings his prize to hand, a majestic bird with hairy feet and large red wattles. Moments later, we hear several shots way down below and are just in time to see a decent covey disappear over some distant peat hags. As is usually the case up here, one could travel for hours without meeting a bird before flushing a couple of coveys in quick succession. Many moons ago when I was a wee lad with my first gun, a single-barrel 20-bore, I was allowed to accompany my dad in search of a grouse or two. Having walked for four hours without seeing a bird I was disillusioned to say the least, my humour having taken a turn for the worse. I told dad that I wasn’t going another step without a rest, so he suggested I sit on a nearby boulder while he circled a plateau in front before returning to where I waited.
Imagine my disgust as I watched him flush three coveys in the space of a few hundred yards, bagging five birds in the process. It was a lesson well learned; always push forward even when your legs are about to betray you, for you never know what lies around the corner.
Anyway, here and now and some hours later we eventually reach our vehicles with most of us in a state of near exhaustion. A quick descent to the local hostelry where some pints of the ‘black stuff ’ are waiting and welcome. We managed to get six birds between us, more than enough for any outing. One of the patrons has never seen a grouse, so we give him a brace to try and are rewarded with a round to send us on our way.
From the first day of September until the last day of January, those of us of a similar mindset will travel the rivers and valleys in search of game. From November onwards woodcock and duck will be our primary targets, with a longtail or two thrown in for good measure. An afternoon or two on the snipe bogs is always a welcome distraction. But it will be the first real fall of woodcock in late November that will take many from the comforts of a roaring fire out into the mountains and bogs.
Woodcock are a shy, secretive bird but for many they herald the start of the real game season over here on the greener isle. For many, woodcock shooting is an affliction that will never go away; even when we are old and contrary and our legs will not carry us to such places, we will need to hear the younger ones regale stories of their travels. There is no better place to be on a frosty morning towards the end of the year than in the glens and valleys in search of these delightful birds. (Read more about joining The Woodcock Club here.)
Woodcock shooting is not for everybody. You can expect to get wet, you can expect to get ripped from marauding briars and furze bushes, you can expect to have some woeful misses. If you can live with the latter then you can expect to have some of the most exciting shooting available on these isles.
So there you have it, a quick synopsis of our shooting year here in southern Ireland. There will be highs and lows, mad dogs and mad people, but above all there will be much joking and laughter. There will be tales aplenty, most of them with a hint of exaggeration, especially if several ears are listening. There is no place I’d rather be in the depths of winter than in the valleys and mountains that abound close by.
Every outing is an adventure and I can only hope that my legs will carry me to such places for many years to come.