Mark Cock!

The elusive woodcock is an icon of our sport and should be engaged lightly.

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Shooting|January 2020

Shooting woodcock in the UK has become something of a divisive issue. Rather like the shooting of hares, people tend to fall into one category or the other. It is well exemplified by the pre-shoot speeches of the joint shoot captains on my little syndicate in Shropshire. They take it in turns to hold court and when Mike gives the speech, he tells guns they are free to shoot ‘any legal quarry’ but no ground game. When it is Dave’s turn he tells Guns ‘We’ll leave the woodcock’.

I noticed similar disparities in Yorkshire recently; we shot on neighbouring estates two days running and at Snilesworth were told woodcock were on the menu, while at Place Newton, the instruction was not to shoot them.Towards the end of January, with the weather turning cold, we all hope for a fall of woodcock.

I am of the opinion that one should shoot what gives one pleasure, within the bounds of the law and the seasonal circumstances. I used to shoot hares. In fact, as a teenager, I shot a lot of them, walking-up a friend’s farmland and bagging them as they sprang-up ahead of me. When in a syndicate in Hertfordshire, where hares were plentiful, I shot the occasional one on a walk-and-stand day but as time passed, I began to let them run and at some point that I can’t exactly remember, I ceased to raise my gun to them at all.

Woodcock are still on my quarry list but I am uncomfortable with the big bags sometimes reported. I used to shoot them near Tenby once a year and the guides told of a nearby estate where a noted aristocrat and well-known Shot would often bring his friends and business associates and bag a hundred, or more, a day for several successive days. We all have our individual ideas about excess but that exceeds my own.

Greed in commercial shooting is a danger to us all and the cynical will look upon organising a woodcock shoot as a means of generating free cash. After all, a pheasant or partridge costs money to put over the Guns, while a woodcock is blown in by the wind and every bird paid for is 100% profit. To the commercial outfitter, more is more.

I am concerned about the reports I hear of commercial shoots driving or flighting woodcock for their paying Guns. A driven woodcock in open ground is not really a huge challenge if you have a cool head. The little chap’s forte is presenting himself only for a brief second, where you are challenged to take a snap-shot in cover before he is gone behind the trees or has dipped below a safe angle.

That, of course, is another reason some shoots make a ‘no-shoot’ policy for woodcock. His flight is always likely to tempt an inexperienced, un-safe or greedy Gun into letting-fly before clocking that the shot is 100% safe. We have all seen The Shooting Party, in which Edward Fox (a thinly disguised Lord Ripon) fatally shoots a stop (played by Gordon Jackson) when he swings on a dipping woodcock. None of us want that scene re-played on our own ground.

My rules of engagement for woodcock are as the occasional shot on a driven day, where his presence can add a level of uncertainty and excitement over and above the usual quarry. However, what I like best is to walk-up these nomads over my dogs.An old, open-choked hammer gun, snow on the ground and a woodcock in the bag.

I save a special gun for this special sport. My Thorn 12-bore hammer gun has a Jones under-lever and non-rebound locks, a stock 1/2” shorter than my usual ideal and no choke at all. It dates from around 1874, at which time Thorn disappeared from his premises on The Strand. He is not well known but the gun is exquisite, with not a flat edge anywhere. The action and lock filing has made everything slightly convex. The work of a true artist.

At the end of last season, a friend and I went to Scotland, to some ground he has, and spent two days tramping over the snow-covered bracken and clear-fell to put up a few woodcock. Vesper (my vizsla) and Ratty (my cross-breed terrier) did a good job and we bagged five on the first day and seven on the second. Every bird was hard-found and a challenging shot. Many more escaped un-saluted, as they zig-zagged away through the pines and silver birches. Sport at its purest, enabled by the noblest of birds. It would be a shame to lose them from the quarry list but it would equally be tragic to see them shot to the point that numbers decline.

So, as we head into the New Year, my plea to sportsmen young and old is to enjoy the opportunity to hunt our wild woodcock, should you be fortunate enough to have them but take them for what they are; a rare piece of nature’s bounty, to be respected and revered and taken in moderation.

I anticipate an informal walk-up over the dogs on Boxing Day. If we bag a ‘cock or two, it will make Christmas a good deal more Christmassy.

Published by Vintage Guns Ltd on (modified )

Shooting|January 2020

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