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The snipe and the sniper

Outdoor Living

WINTER VISITORS Snipe travel thousands of kilometres to Ireland to escape the harsh winters of cooler climes.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

Dawn broke cold, crisp and clear. Our boots crunched through leaves under the trees and crushed a pie-crust frost over brown bog grass. A late dragonfly clung tenuously to an upright stem, its worn out wings touched with rime, waiting for a shaft of sunlight to bring it back to life for one more day.
A pair of greybacks surmounted a distant rise. With eyes on the watch for the slightest morsel they coursed the ground. A dragonfly would serve for breakfast, a frog for lunch, and if they were lucky, a dead hill sheep would feed them well, to carry them through another long winter night.
November, I feel, is the deadest month of the year. Days shorten inexorably as night falls ever more early. A sky filled with rain draws dawn as far as dusk. Two, three, four days it might last, leaving us pacing from window to porch and back to the fireside. December, at least, gives the notion that we shall soon turn the corner and find new growth in the hedgerows.
Four snipe flew overhead, changing from swift silhouettes to brown-barred birds and back again as they circled uneasily. James was quite taken with them. “Look,” he said admiringly, “see there. They’d be a challenge for any man.” He followed them with the eye of a hunter.
“They’ve probably come all the way from Norway.” I told him. “Apart from those two crows those are the only birds we’ve seen, and you’d have them dead in your pocket, and for what? Imagine if they weren’t there at all, how poor we’d be then, traipsing over these empty miles with nothing at all to look at.”
The snipe circled and called harshly to each other. ‘Skaark! Skaark!’ Their cries rent the still air, seemed to hang for a moment and disappeared. Only the sound of their wings was constant.
James knows how I feel about shooting small birds. As a boy I once borrowed a gun and shot a robin. As I held its small body in my hand the momentary flush of success I felt on seeing it fall to the ground was replaced with immediate regret. Appalled at the sudden violence of the moment, I buried it beneath the same tree in which it had sung its last song, put the gun secretly back in its place and swore that if only my sin might remain hidden I would never repeat such an act. The sound of gunshot and an empty cartridge could not be explained away; I was exposed as the callous killer of a hand-tame farmyard pet. Justice was administered and no, I never did repeat the deed.
One might as well eat a robin as a snipe. Both are insignificant in culinary terms. Yes, in some lands it is deemed acceptable to kill and eat anything that moves, but here we are more civilised, are we not?  
I put it to James, who was not in agreement. “There are plenty of birds. How long do snipe live? Of those that come here for the winter, how many would find their way home again. Wouldn’t most of them die from old age or from the cold or from hunger?”
I had to confess, I didn’t actually know.
“And how many people are there, that come to Ireland especially for the shooting?”
Again, I had no idea.
“Then I’ll tell you. There’s thousands of folks spending millions of euros shooting here. Most of ’em go for farm-bred pheasants, that’s true. But as you know yourself, you’d much rather a trout born and raised in the wild than one raised in a cage on some fish farm. And if you couldn’t find a wild fish then you probably wouldn’t bother at all. You’d be sitting in front of the telly vegetating. It’s just the same with folks shooting. You can’t take away people’s livelihoods just for the sake of a few birds. If they truly got scarce the people that look to them for sport would be the very same people that’d step in to protect them. Most of them would, anyway.”
He’s right, of course. As if to support his argument, a salvo of gunshot sounded from across the lake. Still, I cannot help but feel something for those small birds that have travelled so very far – some of them thousands of kilometers – leaving behind the encroaching cold of Siberian and Icelandic winters to weather another set of difficult circumstances on an inhospitable Irish bog.