The right way to walk-up woodcock
As walked-up boundary days increase, Tom Payne gives his top tips on how to master this challenging and exhilarating sport
For many people in this country, walked-up shooting or roughshooting is how we started.
It is the grass roots of our sport and, until driven gameshooting became more accessible, it was the only form of shooting that many Guns would experience. I remember as a Young Shot walking in a line with my father and friends, carrying my wooden gun and learning what it was all about, while Dad watched me carefully to make sure I was conducting myself safely. The gun may have been wooden, but once I was older and more competent it was soon supplanted by a real one.
What I find so fantastic about walked-up sport is the variety of species — it has less to do with bag sizes and is more about the anticipation of what you may see. It’s the surprise factor and the excitement of it. You may not get many chances and you know that if one does arise and it is safe to shoot, it could be your only shot of the day. It is also a wonderful way of spending time with friends in the field, working dogs and working together to achieve a bag and something for the pot.
Walked-up shooting is not as common as it once was. Many small farms now have syndicates with small driven shoots, but opportunities to go to a friend’s with a small team of Guns and walk the hedgerows, spinneys and woodland have all but disappeared. In many cases, the walked-up day has entered the commercial side of shooting, with certain parts of the UK offering such days at a sensible cost – but it is still at a cost.
Complex and demanding
Roughshooting is far more complex and demands more discipline, safety and awareness than many other forms of gameshooting. As a gameshooting instructor I would recommend that a new game Shot become more experienced before going on a walked-up day. A Shot must be completely competent with all safety aspects before any type of shooting, but in a driven situation, when you are standing still on a peg, it is easier for the Gun to be aware of what is going on and where all parties are, and it is easier to work out arcs of fire.
A walked-up day introduces so many aspects of completely different and, in some cases, unnerving situations for many Guns. I understand now why I was made to carry that wooden gun from an early age: it taught me to watch, learn and listen to everything that was going on. The shooting was not, in many cases, the priority at all.
I’ve been lucky enough to shoot at home on some successful woodcock days and it is with this celebrated migrant species that many Guns associate walked-up shooting. It is the best way to appreciate this amazing bird’s initial speed and agility on the wing. Woodcock poses the trickiest of all forms of walked-up shooting because of this flying ability as well as the terrain and situations in which you will find yourself on a walked-up day.
Walked-up days will generally consist of four to six Guns in the line. In 90 per cent of cases you will also have between two and four dog handlers working their dogs in singles or pairs split between the Guns. In the middle of the line, you will have the captain of the team, usually in the form of the headkeeper or most experienced person for the ground you’re on. Their job is the most important of the day as they will be making sure that everyone knows exactly what is going on, what the lie of the land is and, most importantly, making sure everyone stays in a line and keeps communicating with each other.
Safety is the main priority for everyone involved on a day’s walked-up woodcock. The terrain can be testing because the woodcock is a forest wader and will be found in woodland with damp grassland areas for feeding. Thick bracken and underlying obstacles such as fallen trees can be common and soft ground can make walking through tricky.
As a Gun, you must be careful as you walk as a line. If there are any situations or obstacles that you feel are unsafe, take your time to work out the safest possible route through. Make sure your gun is broken at all times and ensure that everyone in the line is aware of your movements.
When walking-up woodcock, the slower you move – allowing the dogs to work the ground – the safer and more successful you will be. The birds can be flighty or you can walk straight over the top of them, so less haste is key.
If safe to do so and you have a clear path, then walking with a gun closed and pointing to the sky is safe, but you must be fully aware of where you are going. I can’t stress enough the importance of communication and awareness at all times.
A woodcock’s initial burst in flight can be quick, with sharp movements, weaving and dodging when it first takes to the skies. However they are not as fast as they look and if you stay calm, they do straighten up and provide a shot.
Ensuring safe shooting
Birds must be going forward and you must have a clear view of it. You should have taken the time to check with the person running the day that you are completely safe to shoot going forward.
Birds can also flush back, and at no point should you ever swing through the line. Turn safely with your gun pointing upwards and, if safe to do so, attempt to shoot the bird going back.
If you are successful with your shot, don’t rush in to pick the bird and leave the line. Mark your bird correctly and stay in the line. The bird will be picked-up as you come through.
Dogs can struggle to pick woodcock due to poor scent, so make sure you mark any fallen birds well. Rushing and panicking when shooting is dangerous; remember if there is any doubt, do not take the shot.
Tom’s top tips for walked-up days
- If you are hoping to go walked-up shooting for the first time, see if you can follow a day without taking a gun. It is a brilliant way to learn- and just as exciting.
- Safety is a priority. Walked-up shooting, especially woodcock, offers its own challenges. Make sure you are fully aware of the terrain; this is paramount not only for safe walking, but also for knowing your safe angles of fire.
- Always walk and stay in a line. Be aware of everything that is happening around you and communicate with everyone involved so that you all stay safe.
- On woodcock days, do not rush. Walking at a steady speed means that you will be more aware of any obstacles and where everyone is. By taking your time, you will also have far more success at flushing birds and shooting them.
- Never panic or rush your shots. After a woodcock’s first burst, it will straighten up.
- Never swing through the line and, if you have any doubt whatsoever, never take the shot.