There was snow on the Chayne for three weeks. The first dump was soft and powdery, but then it froze and melted alternately with added dashes of hail, sleet and rain which made the entire hill into a frozen desert.
The full moon was coming in and we were determined to try the woodcock while the time was right, but access to the farm was almost impossible and a mass of ice gathered on the road to form one huge crackling mattress. After what seemed like an eternity in the car, turning each corner with excruciating slowness, we arrived on the hillside and walked up to the only strip of woodland on the Chayne. The six hundred yard strip of sitka spruce trees climbs over a low rise and descends again to touch the main grouse moor, and we were fairly sure that it was going to be our best chance of success.
For reasons best known to Richard, I was appointed as beater. He walked outside with his labrador while I fought my way through the impenetrable undergrowth of a semi-mature pine plantation. The dead branches on the bottom few feet of trunk clawed at my hands and hair, and many areas were so thick that I had to walk through them backwards. The rich musty smell of fallen needles was all around me and I had fallen four times before I realised that I had to get out. Fighting against the grain of the branches, I broke out into the open snow again. I had covered less than a hundred yards and I was exhausted. I looked down my gun barrels to check that they weren’t blocked, then turned to see a woodcock swinging directly towards me. I crouched down in the snow and closed the breech. The gently urgent wingbeats turned the bird just seconds before I fired, flicking it over the canopy to sweep among the high, skinny forest of pine tops. I had a glimpse of beige stripes and a wet, lively eye and then he was gone.
Walking on, I heard Richard fire on the far side of the strip. He had progressed further than I had and I ran to keep up. Another woodcock twisted round overhead like a soft bat, then flickered back into the wood again, but there was no time to shoot. Looking down to my feet again, I noticed a bank of snow rushing up to meet me. I was falling again. The thick bank of drifted snow was perforated by a series of thin, coral like strands of vegetation. I had never noticed them before, and as my face slapped wetly against them, I wondered what they were. Richard fired again and I heard him whoop in triumph. Gathering a handful of the strange new plant into my jacket pocket and wiping the worst of the snow off my jacket, I pushed on along the side of the pine strip. Twenty yards ahead, another woodcock flipped out of the cover and scooted away just a few inches above the bog. My shots churned up the snow, but he scarcely even acknowledged them.
By the end of the drive my legs felt like lead. The sun was setting over the Galloway hills and the snow was glowing a deep blue as we walked back to the car. We spoke of ways to improve the strip by opening it up and making it more woodcock friendly by planting some indigenous shrubs and trees. When we stopped in the pub on the way back, we identified the mystery plant. It was vaccinium myrtilius; bilberry, an important source of food for the black grouse. My fall had had its benefits…