Sir Edward Dashwood
My first woodcock, by Sir Edward Dashwood.
(PAINTING: Ben Hoskyns)
I vividly recall my first ever woodcock. I had just turned 13 and had a broken wrist at the time; it was just a hairline fracture, so it wasn’t in a cast – just strapped and in a sling. It was either an exeat weekend or the school holidays, but regardless, I was meant to be off all games and really shouldn’t have been out shooting as far as the doctor was concerned. But after a lot of pleading, my father eventually relented and allowed me to join him and his friends on a driven pheasant day here in the park at West Wycombe.
I was a walking Gun with the beaters – where no-one could see me (or that I had left the sling at home). I had my double-barrelled AYA .410 and a pocketful of those purple 3" cartridges we used to get in those days – I think they were Italian – and on the Temple of the Winds Drive, not far from the house, a fox suddenly bolted back past the beaters. So I shot the fox with my first barrel and, as I looked up, someone shouted “woodcock!”, so I shot it with my second barrel. It was my first fox and my first woodcock, a right-and-left that I’ll never forget!
Ever since that day I have had a thing for woodcock. One of the reasons why I love them is because of the terrain you find them in, particularly in West Wales and Cornwall – they love wet, brambly ground, wild ground untouched by man or manicured in any way. And there’s something magical about them, they’re full of character.
And of course they’re incredibly aerobatic and challenging to shoot, which is why a right-and-left on woodcock is so special. Indeed, I can clearly recall every one of mine (Ed – in excess of 40!). Some people joke that if I shoot one on a Monday and one on a Tuesday I count that, but practically every one was witnessed by someone else.
But I do love the whole process; it’s proper hunter-gatherer shooting. People always say that you ought to be able to remember every bird you shoot, well, with woodcock you do because you never shoot very many. The fact is, where we tend to shoot in West Wales, we only do our covers once a season and then we leave them completely quiet for the rest of the year. In fact, there are two places I shot this year that I hadn’t shot in 20 years. Of course, by doing that you will only ever end up harvesting a tiny percentage of the woodcock there.
Here in Pembrokeshire, I have had a woodcock keeper on our estate for 20 years and we have never seen a woodcock in the summer. I believe that all of our birds are migratory – either from the Continent or from elsewhere in the UK, but we don’t have any resident birds. Having said that, I absolutely do buy into the idea of waiting until late November or December to shoot woodcock, no matter where you are in the UK – that makes sense.
To encourage woodcock on our ground, we fence a lot of woodland so that no livestock can go in and disturb them. They’re a very shy, secretive bird, so the key is to ensure that they remain as undisturbed as possible. We also plant a lot of hedges on wet ground and allow them to thicken out, which makes for great habitat. And we put a lot of rides into our woods as they favour woodland edges. It gives them avenues to fly out of, which they like.
But the thing that has the biggest effect on woodcock populations is, of course, weather, not shooting pressure. When the ground freezes in Scandinavia, they have no choice but to migrate to warmer climes. But if they encounter particularly rough weather en route, they can be blown off-course. Like in the winter of 1963 when we heard lots of stories of them landing on oil rigs and fishing trawlers in the North Sea.
This year, our woodcock have been in excellent condition, despite how wet it has been. But interestingly, I have never shot a wet woodcock, even when it is too wet for pheasants. They always find somewhere sheltered and dry.
Numbers have been better than I expected this year, considering how warm it has been – we haven’t had the cold weather to push them west.
My favourite place to shoot woodcock is a dingle in Canaston Wood at Slevech Estate in Pembrokeshire which used to belong to my grandfather. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that it’s called Woodcock Alley.