Woodcock shooting in the Welsh countryside
With continental woodcock now well settled in the Welsh countryside, a wintry walkabout finally results in a hard-won bird and a happy team
I promised to take Vova shooting with me the day we both visited the GWCT Welsh Game Fair in September. His mother told me Vova spoke of little else for days after the event and was clearly as keen as mustard to accompany me on a shooting day out, having already been trout fishing with me. Vova is from Ukraine and left his home city of Dnipro, together with his mother, elder brother and grandmother, shortly after the start of the Russian invasion. They’re now living with a host family here in north-west Wales.
With the hills of Eryri white with snow and a sprinkling on lower ground, the conditions were perfect to head out in search of woodcock. The migrant birds, which are numerous in my area of Wales, had already been around for a few weeks. The colder weather meant that they should be in those areas of low ground that remained unfrozen.
Finding woodcock in any weather means a long hike over rough ground, with few chances offered as my labrador Chester finds and flushes the birds. Despite the cold on this occasion, it also didn’t help that there was very little or no wind, meaning that Chester struggled to find the scent until he was nearly on top of the birds.
Woodcock shooting has generated some discussion recently, not least because of a petition started by Chris Packham and Wild Justice, the purpose of which is to secure a debate in Parliament on changing the start of the woodcock shooting season from 1 October (1 September in Scotland) to the later date of 1 December. At the time of writing, the petition had gathered more than 85,000 signatures — it needs to reach 100,000 by 25 January to secure a debate. Earlier this year, a petition to the Welsh Government that proposed an outright ban on woodcock shooting, as well as other species, was closed after gaining a total of 122 signatures in six months.
The Welsh petition advocating a total ban fell at the first hurdle, but the petition from Wild Justice appears to be more pragmatic, at least at first glance. Its goal is to push back the start date of the woodcock season to 1 December, which is the same date that the GWCT recommends that woodcock shooting should start, in order to reduce the risk of shooting birds from the declining UK population.
However, the movement of wild, migratory birds owes more to continental temperatures, the phase of the moon, wind direction and innumerable other factors that we are still learning about than simple calendar dates.
Vova and I drove to a piece of ground that remains undisturbed all year, save for a few grazing sheep. The ground is a mixture of rough pasture, marsh and woodland. Woodcock can be found in almost any piece of cover here, so one has to be perpetually on one’s guard.
Chester was raring to go, and I suspected I’d have trouble keeping him close so as not to flush birds out of range. I thought that controlling him might also be difficult on such a quiet, windless day without alerting the woodcock. However, I needn’t have worried, as he kept a beady canine eye on where I was and obeyed my hand signals without fail.
I know this ground intimately, having shot over it for many years, and can usually predict within three to four days when the woodcock are likely to appear here each autumn. The location is a 15-minute drive from my front door but has a surprisingly wild feel to it, with open vistas up to the mountains of Eryri. I’ve only recently discovered that an RAF bomber crashed into a hillside here during World War II, with the loss of two aircrew, which might explain the distinct sensation that I’m not entirely alone when I happen to find myself here after dark.
On approaching the marsh, which is bordered by a wood that has a deep bracken and bramble-covered ditch running along it, I slipped a couple of 30g steel No 5s into the chambers of my side-by-side. As there’s always lots of ground to cover, I usually take a 20-bore when walking-up woodcock. However, I haven’t been able to find any suitable lead-free ammunition for it, so I took my 6½lb 12-bore, which is only slightly heavier.
Letting Chester off his lead, I quietly waved him towards the first piece of cover only a dozen paces into the marsh. As soon as he was off, that tell-tale sound of a woodcock taking flight shattered the silence of the still afternoon and the characteristic dashing brown shape zig-zagged through the trees a mere 20 yards away. My hurried shot missed
behind and Vova and I watched it fly onwards through the woods before it vanished. At least Vova had now seen his first woodcock.
We tramped along the edge of the wood, trying our best to keep quiet lest any more birds were alerted by our approach — not an easy thing to do when walking over wet ground nor with a crunchy layer of snow underfoot. We reached a spot where Chester had flushed three woodcock on a Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks ago. This hotspot nearly always holds a bird or two, and I held my breath as I approached before waving Chester in. Despite his efforts, it was clear that there was no scent and no woodcock were at home.
Further up the marsh, a small copse with some silver birch was also worth a look. The ground between the trees was strewn with bracken and brambles that had yet to die down despite the frosty weather, making it less than enticing for Chester to enter. However, I knew he’d be straight in if he got the scent of a bird, no matter how prickly the cover.
As I carefully approached the copse, I noticed Chester’s rudder signalling that he’d picked up a scent. A split second later, a woodcock broke cover and headed left at speed.
As I mounted my gun, another took off and headed straight away from me. I swung and fired at the first bird but missed behind again. I swung on to the second bird and fired once more, but the bird jinked and my shot went hopelessly wide. What is it about a potential right-and-left at woodcock that always makes me miss both birds?
This wouldn’t do. Vova was amazed to see so many woodcock but my poor shooting wasn’t going to get him his supper. We turned to walk down the opposite side of the marsh, which also has some rough patches that can be good spots for woodcock. One boundary wall has a tangled mass of rhododendron bushes along it, which woodcock love.
With the wintry weather closing in and the light failing, this would be our last chance. Keeping Chester hunting as close as he’d stay, we made our way down to the further boundary, all the while looking and listening for a woodcock flushing. About 20 yards from the end of this piece of cover, Chester vanished into the greenery. Woodcock flushed here can be very tricky as they tend to fly out low and then flip over the boundary, dipping again when safely on the other side.
Without warning, and in almost total silence, a darting mottled brown shape appeared at the other end of the bushes where Chester had vanished. Somehow, I mounted the gun quickly enough to line up my bead with the rapidly departing bird and pulled the trigger. Vova would have his woodcock supper after all.
I can recall precisely where I was and who I was with when I shot my first woodcock on another winter’s day, many years ago. Now, as then, I took the time to admire the intricate camouflage plumage of this mystical bird. There are always mixed feelings when holding such a bird in the hand and one never ceases to wonder at their beauty.
Vova looked intently as I showed him the bird’s pin feathers, and I explained to him how I’d make him a trophy by inserting them into a piece of the woodcock’s lower mandible.
We reached the car just before the sleet came in and the three of us headed for home and a hot supper.