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The snipe’s delight

Outdoor Living

WATER LOVERS Snipe seek out wild pasture with partly flooded plains and inefficient drainage.

Country sights and sounds

John Shelley

James and I strolled leisurely in the sunshine, beneath the still-bare twigs of beech that formed a sparse canopy overhead. A temporarily adopted liver and white springer spaniel loped between us and in and out of the hedgerow, its keen nostrils interpreting various scents and odours.
“Just look at that animal,” said James admiringly. “That nose is like a third and far-seeing eye. Wouldn’t it be great to smell like a dog?”
An answer sprang to mind but I let it go.
The dog ran onward with its head held high and those ridiculous ears flopping about like a pair of old slippers, its stump of a tail aquiver with eager delight. It came to a stop and the stump wagged furiously while at the other end those soft brown eyes stared intently.
‘The faster the tail, the closer the game,’ said James. ‘You watch now, I’ll warrant there’s a bleater within. Any pheasant would have flown and that place is far too wet for woodcock.’
Sure enough, as we stepped forward the spaniel made a dart and away went a small brown bird with a shriek like a stricken sheep and that crazy, zigzag flight that makes the snipe such a challenge for the shooting man. Not that we would have been tempted to take a shot, not at this time of year with the season closed since the end of January. They suffer pressure enough.
Here in the west we enjoy a combination of factors that ought to ensure the safety of these beautiful little wading birds. We have abundant rainfall (copious showers, remarks my ever-optimistic wife) which keeps extensive areas of ground moist throughout the year. This is essential if the snipe are to feed well, for although they eat seeds and chase insects if they must, the greater part of their diet is found by thrusting their long and sensitive bills deep into the soil in search of invertebrates such as worms and insect larvae.
We also have large tracts of land that remain pretty much as they were made and are ideal for supporting small native populations of snipe, as well as hosting many more that travel south and west according to the severity of the weather. It is wild pasture with partly flooded plains and inefficient drainage that are the snipe’s delight. If trees are planted these birds disappear, as they do if the ground is drained and turned over to cereal or rye grass. But what would you rather; a field full of useful crops or one or two small birds per acre? There, then, lies the challenge.
More snipe were in that same damp flush. Two came up together with cries of panic, then more singly. Each of them followed the same general course with the same high speed twisting flight.
“See how they always fly into the wind,” James pointed out. “That helps them try to avoid danger. They know nothing of gunshot, most of them have never been hunted, but I bet there wouldn’t be a hawk in this country that could take one of them down, not while they fly like that.”
When the spaniel went off to hunt for a hare in a stand of hazel, the remaining snipe sat much tighter, only springing for freedom within footfall. In this way, we got a much better view of some, even noting the richly coloured plumage for the first time. Was there ever a prettier thing came out of an Irish bog? Normally seen as nothing more than a briefly darting silhouette or, by the successful hunter, as a lacklustre pile of feathers from which the pulse of life has been extinguished, here were quick white wing bars and a bright flash of tail, a brooding bird filled with spontaneous life.
Those snipe we met that day were likely migrant birds gathering for the trip home, perhaps to Britain or Scotland. Some will stay to build fragile nests of dead grass in the wildest place they can find. There will never be enough. Perhaps we love them more for their scarcity.