With all the attention given to the woodcock’s declining conservation status at the beginning of the season, it has been interesting to see how shoots have reacted over the last few months. Many have banned the shooting of woodcock altogether, while others have waited until they could be sure that Scandinavian and Russian birds were “in” before shooting at the end of November in a bid to save British birds. And at the same time, there was an inevitable small percentage of guns who are apparently unreachable by normal publicity channels and had never heard of any challenge to the woodcock’s status.
Aside from anything, the well publicised warnings at the start of the season have allowed lots of shooting folk to have a good think about woodcock. It is useful to reexamine the logic behind everything we do, and it has been fascinating to find many guns voluntarily giving up woodcock after decades of shooting them. Whether or not they will return to the hunt in subsequent years remains to be seen, but the raised level of awareness has sent a thoughtful murmur through the shooting community.
From my perspective, I have only shot a single woodcock this season and that was a pricked bird which might otherwise have flown on and been lost. I have had the chance to shoot perhaps twenty others (albeit mainly on flightlines), but I let them all go by. My appetite for pulling the trigger is noticeably declining when it comes to woodcock, and I am more likely to wish them well as they come rushing past. Perhaps this has been driven by some sour observations over the past few years, and I am now more inclined to hope they get away than end up in the bag.
While a woodcock is an speedy, challenging sporting bird, not every individual is a shining star. Flushed into the open, bleary eyed and panicking on a windless day, he will sometimes flutter up in an attempt to get over the line and away, and in so doing he can be quite easily accounted for. This seems a shame, since when he is on his toes he is cannier and faster than any human being on earth. I dislike this kind of shooting, which does the bird little credit, but it requires a certain amount of context and technical knowledge to put my finger on why. You could call it snobbishness, but most of these birds are killed by guns who don’t often get a chance to shoot woodcock and seize any opportunity that comes their way. I am lucky enough to be able to pick and choose, and while I understand their enthusiasm, I am happy to bide my time.
I’ve also written before about the warning shouts of “woodcock” which ring out when a bird rises. I always like to stay silent if I see a bird nipping quietly down the hedgerow towards the guns – if the human beings are not sufficiently “on the ball” to take their chance then they don’t deserve it, and I always wince when the whole wood echoes with yells of warning. The woodcock is a bird of secrecy and speed, and his best tactic relies upon the element of surprise – that’s why he is such a hero – rob him of that and he is hamstrung from the outset.
So I’ve seen poorly presented birds this season and I’ve seen them shot anyway, but I wouldn’t argue that they should not be shot at all. Perhaps I will shoot another woodcock if the circumstances are right and a real barnstormer comes flicking past overhead, but the pleasure for me would be the freedom to make that decision. There is often a kind of onus that guns are expected to take any safe shot at a legal quarry species and there can be a slightly huffy reaction from the host on deliberately passing one up. It actually takes a bit of nerve to say “I don’t like shooting x or y” because other guns might and you could be blamed for throwing away a chance that could have been taken by another. Shooting can be a complex minefield of custom and etiquette, and operating outside established norms is sometimes tricky.
Wild game is the beating heart of shooting, and I would give up my shotguns now if I thought that I’d never again shoot anything but pheasants. I don’t fully understand my reluctance to shoot woodcock, but whatever the reason, the calls for restraint on shooting the birds this year have had far-reaching effects on the shooting community. Perhaps we should reexamine our sporting choices more often, not on a legislative level but on a more personal one.