As if to confuse the situation even further, having posted about a lack of woodcock yesterday, I now have to report that there are stacks of them. I went out on the darkening this evening with the shotgun on the offchance that there would be something to be seen. What with work and my trip to Croatia, I won’t be around the Chayne much over the next week, so it was as much of a temporary farewell to the farm that I visit every day of my life as it was an effort to get into some sport.
Just before four o’clock, the sun slipped behind the Rhinns of Kells and left the high ground bathed in glorious golden sunlight. Down on the march dyke, the trees and rough grass glowered miserably as I strode into the evening with my gun in its new slip. I was early, so there was time to watch a stunning sunset of cream and crimson light up the hills to the south as far as the Cumbria and the Isle of Man. A not-altogether-wholesome northerly wind was raking down the side of the old sitka spruces like waves of burning acid, and there were small speckles of rain amongst the gales which slapped into my ears like rock salt. As I am finding, woodcock often choose the gap between young and old trees to flight along, and it didn’t take much to press in next to the dyke and get some shelter behind the lichen covered stones. Still, my head began to swim as the wind twisted itself into my ears, and a drip grew down from the tip of my nose and ran unpleasantly onto my top lip.
The sheer thrill of this sport is down to the magical genius of the birds themselves. On a still night, they are a force to be reckoned with, but with a blustering northerly wind they came out from the young sitkas as if they had been fired out of a washing machine; giddy, swirling and irresistably fast. The first bird was well behind me before I had even got the shotgun to my shoulder, and I gave him two barrels more out of surprise than in any realistic hope. Having found that the action takes place over a very short period during woodcock flighting, I struggled to get the gun broken and new cartridges (paper cases no less!) installed before the next spiralling silhouette came twisting out against the golden sky. Too slow again, and this time as I reloaded and the glowing brass cartridge caps pounced out of the breech, I watched three other birds fly in close formation amongst the treetops eighty yards to my left. The gun came together again with a metallic “clop” which was immediately lost in the wind just in time for a low bird which flew directly towards me at head height and then spiralled vertically up over the tall spruces to my left. I never stood a chance, and lowered the gun in an amazed salute.
All the while, small formations of woodcock came out of the young trees to my left like the old footage of Goering’s bombers over the channel; monochromatic against the harsh, gravelly sky. I saw almost twenty pass down the dyke from where I stood, and scarcely managed to squeeze off another two shots at birds which seemed to swing from side to side like Michael Caine’s mini in an Italian sewer. I thought that flighting woodcock on a still night was difficult, but having seen every british gamebird flushed and shot over the past twenty years, I have no doubt whatsoever in saying that I have never seen anything that came close to being as hard to hit as those flighting woodcock. A combination of speed, agility and the distinct impression that they were slightly out of control of the situation made the exercise as difficult as trying to throw a stone at a leaf that is blowing in the wind.
I put up more than a dozen woodcock on the walk back to the car, and wondered whether they have all arrived in past twenty four hours, or whether they were here all along and I was looking in the wrong place. As soon as I got back, the only thing in my head was a crystal clear mental image of the three birds I’d seen flying together, and I’ve spent the past hour painting this picture (above) into my gamebook. Yes, I suppose that since I didn’t hit anything it doesn’t really deserve a mention in the game book, but I have a feeling that those three shapes in the wind will stay in my head far longer than any number of pheasants.