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Too great a price?

Outdoor Living

SHY BEAUTY The woodcock’s stunning feathers lose their vibrant lustre in death, and the small bird rapidly palls.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

We thought that nip of cold might slow that subtle greening of hedgerow and covert, yet spring continues to advance unabated. A stroll through the woods will show us new leaves on honeysuckle above and violet and celandine below.
The first day of February is traditionally the first day of spring, though I think it a rather optimistic designation, and perhaps an unfortunate one, for we can be sure that as soon as those words come from our mouths they are carried away by a week of brisk easterlies or buried in three feet of snow.
Spring will come in its own time, either early or late, and very much dependent on one’s own outlook. For now we have winter birds to keep us content.
As I crunched through the frost of early morning, woodcock sprang from their bed of brown leaves, one at every 20 steps or so. It must be many years since I saw as many.
They move west in the hope of finding a kinder climate, and the colder the weather to the east and north, the further they come, needing nothing more than ground soft enough to admit their probing bills and a few trees to hide beneath.
On the other hand, perhaps they are so confident at finding a mild and prosperous few weeks ahead they are already moving back, en masse, to the lands from which they came. That must be it. Spring is imminent.
The most popular collective name for woodcock is a ‘Fall’, which presumably derives from the manner in which numbers of this darkly mottled, ginger-feathered wader arrive in woodland as if from nowhere.
Small flocks of woodcock often fly together and are renowned for their crepuscular flight, that is, they like to move from one location to another only as the last glimmering light of day fades into darkness. Thus, a piece of woodland devoid of these birds today might hold a healthy itinerant population tomorrow.
Birds newly arrived after a long and arduous flight sometimes come to ground only 30 or 40 metres away after being roused. On the other hand, a well-rested woodcock will burst from its hiding place almost under our feet and make its jinking flight to the far side of the wood faster than the eye can follow.
It is the woodcock’s rapid flight that makes it such an attraction for the sporting gun. My own shooting days ended before they properly began, and I consider the argument in favour of the sport – if it can rightly be described as such – unsteady at the least. The whole affair always seemed rather one-sided, and clumping about the countryside hoping to frighten some other living creature out into the open where it could be filled with lead soon lost its appeal. Still, it is a skilful man, or a lucky one, who goes home with more than a brace of woodcock in his game bag.
The absolute beauty of these birds in the hand is rivalled only by a cock pheasant in his prime. Even then we must look quickly, for, more than is the case for any other bird, the woodcock in death soon loses that vibrant lustre and rapidly palls. It would be better for all, in my opinion, if he were not shot at all. But then I never ate one. Friends that have maintain my mind would be forever changed were I to crunch that plump breast, bones and all, between my teeth, and have the sad little creature’s belly grease run down my chin.
As far back as 1508 The Boke of Keruynge (The book of Carving) gave advice as to how a procured woodcock might be prepared. ‘Take a woodcocke, & reyse his legges and his wynges as an henne; this done, dyght the brayne. And here begynneth the feest from Pentecost unto mydsommer.’ (The word ‘dyght’ is taken to mean ‘prepare’.)
Nowadays we have strict open and closed seasons for hunting: February 1, our first day of spring, brings the birds a reprieve and gives the few that stay for the summer a chance to breed.
Until then, the shot birds are hung by the feet for varying lengths of time, with the gaminess of the flesh increasing with each passing day. So slight they are when stripped of their feathers, one woodcock might comfortably fill two slices of toast. It feels too great a price.