Forbidden fruit

Why do so many refuse to shoot woodcock?

Country Notes

This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Believe it or not, even among ruddy-faced men who blaze away at plump pheasants while wearing little tweed trousers there can still be a fair dollop of virtue signalling.

Currently tucked away at the back of my freezer are six woodcock. For those of you who’ve never had the pleasure, woodcock are chunky wading birds with long bills, round bodies like cricket balls, and intricately patterned russet plumage that allows them to go unseen when they’re hunkered among the warmth of fallen leaves in wintery woodland. They are also, brains and innards included, absolutely delicious.

At the tail end of January, in Hampshire, I set out with three local guys and their spaniels. It was one of those mornings when shimmering sunlight runs through the trees like water but frost lies hard all day. Dick Carne, who’d invited me, is a woodcock nut. Books detailing the species’ remarkable life are piled up in his kitchen while cases of stuffed woodcock line his stairs.

“How we do it,”Dick explained, as his three cockers tore through the brambles, “is we’ll only push this bit of ground once a year, always in January, and we count every rise to ensure the numbers stay steady.” Dick has been chasing woodcock for almost 40 years and he’d shot the first bird of the day, 50 yards out, before I’d even seen it. “That’s classic”, he told me, as his chestnut dog dropped the bird at his feet, “it got up from under that big holly. It gives protection from sparrowhawks, you see”.

I watched as Dick ran his fingers over the bird’s breast before plucking its pin feathers and sticking them in his cap. It had most likely been born in Russia or Scandinavia. There is a small resident population here, but most of what we see are migratory. 

When the weather in the far north turns and woodcock can no longer get their soft bills into the frozen ground, they fly south. In hard winters it’s thought 1.5 million of them seek temperate sanctuary in Britain. Dick’s approach of not setting foot on his ground for most of the year and only shooting after Christmas, when the migrants have arrived, seems to be working. In recent years they’ve seen more birds than ever before.

We weren’t wearing tweed breeks. The brambles would’ve torn them to ribbons, leaving us standing naked in the woods. 

The thinking was that the noisy non-native birds disturb woodcock during the day, when they like to sleep

But on the sort of days when people do, there’ll always be somebody who falls over themselves to tell you they no longer shoot woodcock. “Wouldn’t want to eat a resident and the migrants have come such a long way” — indeed, old boy, almost as far as all those pheasants you’ve enjoyed shooting this season that were hatched from eggs brought over from Poland on a lorry. 

“It’s just so nice to see them fly,” is another common refrain. Absolutely, I bet they love being pushed from pillar to post by beaters each week while their cousins enjoy Dick’s silent patch of Hampshire.

Recently, when digging in the famously messy Shooting Times archive, I found a feature from the 1950s which noted that some prolific shoots in the West Country saw numbers of woodcock plummet when pheasants were released. 

The thinking was that the noisy non-native birds disturb woodcock during the day, when they like to sleep. Impressively, when they drift out of the trees at twilight to feed, woodcock will often eat their own bodyweight in worms.

Not long ago, I visited a retired Norfolk gamekeeper who told me his grandfather believed releasing game-birds was wrong and that shooting is about harvesting a sustainable surplus of birds that are here naturally. It’s a view that requires a profound understanding of nature: you’d only shoot grey partridges in years when they’d bred successfully, woodcock in January, and grouse when they were plentiful.

A jolly announcement that you no longer raise your gun to woodcock might be met with positive murmurings at elevenses. But I’d be more impressed by a man who said no thanks to pheasants but happily set out with dog and gun, in the depths of winter, when cold northerlies have blown those beautiful birds across the sea. But enough virtue signalling for now. The season’s over and I’m off to get my little tweed trousers dry cleaned.

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