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Shooting snipe over setters – a chance for a young spaniel to practice retrieves

High winds mean low snipe, and a day of shooting over setters in the windy wilds of west Ireland gives a young spaniel the chance to practise some retrieves

The aged green leather of my Chesterfield armchair creaks as I sit back and conjure up a rose-tinted daydream of hunting snipe in the wilds of the west of Ireland: the pursuit of snipe with a side-by-side on an ancient bog over Irish setters on a blue-sky winter’s day. 

Daydreams are great, but reality is a little different. First, my Chesterfield chair is actually the driver’s seat of my Defender, the daydream is a phone call, my side-by-side has long since been replaced by a semi-automatic Beretta and, as it turns out, instead of blue sky on the day we have planned the forecast is for a torrent of wind and rain — sideways rain. A plan is hatched to hunt snipe over setters, which turns out to be a more multinational rabble of setters, springers and German pointers, but snipe over setters makes an excellent title for a story.

Will has swapped his old side-by-side for a Beretta semi-auto


Trading insults

Brian O’Flaherty is my host, a man with vast experience of hunting, shooting and adventure at home and afar. We meet at his shop, Curlew Mountain Outdoors, perched on the edge of Boyle, Co Roscommon. After trading insults on our preferred 4×4 — as is the norm when die-hard fans of Land Rover meet those of Land Cruiser — we head for the bog. 

Brian has a number of spots in mind for today. We will start high on the mountain before the wind picks up, then we will head for more sheltered ground — well, as sheltered as a wide-open bog can get. 

Brian’s setter Manla indicates the first snipe of the day


Wild places

As we drive to the bog, I note a number of excavators in small stone-walled fields and it reminds me of that increasingly common narrative I have encountered in recent years — the rapid diminishment of hunting grounds. Really, this is the diminishment of wild places through the ‘improvement’ of land by clearing and draining.

While I understand and support the principle of making a living, I also see the value in having areas that provide good habitat for wild birds and game. True wild gamebirds, which favour those quiet secluded areas, have fewer and fewer areas of suitable habitat. Perhaps it is time to start rewarding landowners for facilitating such wilderness, instead of them spending time and money ‘improving’ it for marginal agricultural gains. 

The wipers are at full tilt as we pull up at the first high bog. I buckle my cartridge belt full of 32g No 8s, and I am thankful for my Beretta Gore-Tex belt; today it will earn its keep. Brian collars the setters with bells and their excitement is palpable, deep copper coats gleaming, those long fine limbs and sleek heads. Manla is off and her athleticism is on full display as she quarters the bog. My springers, Ben and Pepper, quarter close to my front while Brian’s German wirehaired pointer, Huck, does the same for him. 

With red setters as an advance party and springers and pointer in close quartering, it feels like we have all angles covered. I don’t see the first bird to rise but I hear a call from Brian, “woodcock”. The woodcock comes from my five o’clock and is quartering away by the time I have mounted the Beretta. The speed of my swing carries through as I catch him up and pass him. The paint stroke of my No 8 shot brings him down in the rhododendron that borders the bog.

I send Ben for the retrieve — he has marked the woodcock and is straight in and back with bird in mouth. As I zip up my game pocket, I see that Manla is set. She is closer to me than Brian, so I step it out, but the snipe are wild — up and gone before I am in range. As I watch one depart, I see another erupt from in front of my puppy, Pepper. 

Will’s young spaniel, Pepper, gets a chance to make his first retrieve of snipe

My actions are automatic right up to the point that I acquire the target, which is by now a mere frantic dot at 50 yards. I aim on and immediately know that my shot may never catch up with the bird as it pulls high and away. My shot puts three more snipe up at range, more misses. The setters are still again and I see Brian shoulder his side-by-side; two shots yield one snipe, the account is open at least. 

The setters are working well but always that little bit far ahead of us. The snipe are not holding tight and despite a large number of birds showing, there are few within range. Those that are fly on out of range despite our impressive rate of fire.

We loop around the bog to take the other side with the continued advantage of the wind. A snipe erupts ahead of Brian; it swings back between us, Brian has no shot. I swing 180 degrees and cleanly connect with my first shot. Pepper is straight in for the retrieve. My smile is instant as he gallops back, snipe in mouth. I kneel and turn my head away, keen that he remains confident and returns the bird to hand. Once the snipe is in hand, I make a great fuss of him with rubs and praise. I am keen to reinforce the positive memory in his young mind.

The wind has picked up and high winds mean low snipe — each bird that erupts from the heather is low and fast, making it difficult to get a safe opportunity with so many dogs to our front. We head back to the wagons to find some more sheltered ground. 



The next bog is a drive away, the rain is now torrential; field drains, streams, rivers and the roads themselves are visibly rising. We brave the rain in hope of more action and our bravery is rewarded almost instantly. The setters are on and we are close; a snipe breaks left across me, I swing left and pull, the snipe crashes hard into a turf bank and I send Ben. He has marked it too and I enjoy seeing the full detail of the retrieve. 

As I shower praise on Ben, Brian’s shot barks out. I see the snipe drop and his pointer Huck retrieve the bird. We have reached the treeline and I move to Brian to hear the plan. As we chat, I notice that Ben is missing; he was at heel following the retrieve but has now vanished. There are slits in the bog that can swallow man and beast. 

I track back close to the point of the retrieve and, after a minute of searching, I spot the springer in a 6ft-deep bog hole with undercut sides. As I haul the dog out, Brian recounts several occasions when the same has happened to his dogs. Sometimes their howling or barking is the main method of locating them. I guess this is where the GPS collar really comes into its own. 

Brian’s German wirehaired pointer makes a flawless retrieve, showing young Pepper the ropes


Ancient forest

We hunt out the next section of bog, stopping only to admire a huge piece of bog oak, a tree trunk thousands of years old and black as night. It reminds me that this seemingly barren landscape was once a forest of oak, which in turn reminds me that Ireland itself was an island of oak forests, now all but disappeared and replaced with characterless commercial Scandinavian softwoods. 

We are now near the end of the bog and within range of the vehicles again. The terrain changes in that the ground becomes undulating and a peninsula of rhododendron and birch splits the boggy plain. I drop low and hunt some bushes. I hear Brian’s shots ring out and, as they do, my 12-bore is called to action. We regroup. I have a snipe and Brian a woodcock and both of us have an ear-to-frozen-ear grin that even the sideways driving rain cannot wash away. 

Someday I will have an old leather armchair and I will recall with joy these red-letter days in the wildest of weather out west.