It was an odd feeling to head off for a day’s shooting woodcock on Friday without my dog. She has just come on heat during the last week, and I decided that it wasn’t fair on the other dogs to have her pumping a frenzy of hormones and excitement into the day. As it turned out, a few of the other dogs were also similarly indisposed and we were down to a skeleton crew as we set off into the rain.
The farm was extensively planted with a mix of hardwoods around twenty five years ago, and many of these large blocks are now well on their way to maturity. They are always good for a woodcock or two, but after a couple of drives we descended upon a little scrap of boggy ground where the real action was.
This corner has been extremely fruitful in previous years, but we had no indication what a bonanza it would provide this time as the scanty gang of cockers and springers began to hunt through the white grass. For mysterious reasons known only to themselves, the birds had packed themselves into this two or three acre bed of blackthorn, birch and myrtle. Groups of two and three were flushed together, and perhaps two dozen got up during the course of ten minutes. And there were snipe in the ditches which rose to swirl around like flakes of snow in the wind – we had kicked the bee’s byke, and the sound of the guns raced away in the rain-filled wind.
And all the while I was missing my dog. I noticed patches that the other dogs had missed, and wished I could send mine pounding through the blow grass with her tail wagging like a sprinkler. She would have loved it, and I was forced to stand back and wait for guns with dogs to come up once the drive was over so that they could pick the birds that had fallen further back. It was excruciating, particularly during a drawn-out search for a snipe that had fallen into the rushes. I don’t think that my dog could have done a better job than the cocker who eventually found the bird, but it was frustrating to feel like a spare part during one of the most enjoyable parts of the day.
The rain came on harder and we worked through the thicker ground. My host factored in my absent dog and I spent more of my time as a standing gun, envying the shouts of fury and delight from the deepest reaches of the thickets as I stood inactive on the margins. You’re not much use without a dog in these circumstances, and I felt like I was standing on the wing in a rugby match. The real fun was going on in the rucks, and if the ball (or the woodcock) came out to me, I had a chance to get the glory without any of the work.
As it was, we shot through and ended with an early lunch as the rain finally became intolerable. The final drive saw a frowsy long eared owl flushed from the comfort of some cosy spruce tree, and he tumbled down the wind in a reluctant fury, shaking the water from his wings as he vanished out of sight. Inside the sheds, we spread out the bag and realised that we had broken the farm’s record for the day.
So much myth and legend surrounds woodcock that we had set off with some pessimism. Some guns had said that it hasn’t yet been cold enough to bring birds in this winter, and nobody expected much from a mild, blustery day. But they had been there in huge numbers – I had seen and counted thirty seven birds, and I have no idea how many others must have passed out of sight in dark, hidden corners. I had brought one to book, but having had to pick it myself, I felt slightly deflated. It wasn’t a difficult job – the bird had fallen thirty yards away into some deep grass, but how much more fun it would have been to have sent the dog and seen her grandiose triumph at finding it. It would have been the latest in a long line of valuable memories we share.