For artist Ben Hoskyns woodcock are very special, both on shoot day and in his studio.
Most shoots, that I have been lucky enough to have been invited to, have the odd woodcock and sometimes they have a good few although they are usually passing through and the day happens to coincide. I cannot, offhand, think of any shoot where I have never seen one but plenty where I only occasionally do. And then there are those where a handful always show and those where, come the November and December moons, woodcock are in abundance.
For years, the shoot here was somewhere in the middle. We usually flushed a couple and frequently four or five and these were mostly to be found in a boggy Alder Carr although, during the eighties, they were beginning to show signs of favouring other drives and there were certain shrubs and ditches where you could lay bets on flushing one. But when the 1987 hurricane blew, it severely damaged a couple of big ancient woods just off our boundary. These had largely been neglected for many years and the storm opened them up creating a vastly improved habitat.
We hadn't suffered a great deal of damage ourselves, and I didn't think a lot of it at the time but we pretty much stopped seeing woodcock after that. I would see a few, whilst walking the dogs, around the time of the November moon and then they would disappear. I scratched my head for about five years, wondering whether it was to do with a change in the cover in our drives or the increasing spread of pheasant feeders and the disturbance in filling them. I had just about decided - until a cold one threw everything into question once more - that it was due to the milder winters, when I went picking-up on a neighbour's shoot and watched seven or eight woodcock come out of one of the big woods that had been so badly hit by the hurricane. I hadn't seen the wood driven for many years - they only ever shot it on their last day and I was always invited to shoot in November - and, indeed, it hadn't been as it had taken them a while to clear enough of the damage to allow the beaters in. But the wood was only a couple of hundred yards from our Alder Carr and the woodcock clearly preferred it to our, largely unchanged, cover (and they had only, actually, driven an eight or ten acre block of it). I realised that I would have to wait until the canopy of regenerating and replacement trees closed up the gaps and made things a little less appealing. It took about 14 years. Whilst it is still not consistent, we do usually flush two or three on a shoot now and sometimes as many as ten.
I have seen good numbers on a snipe shoot in Devon when frost has sent their little cousins away down the ditches, forcing us to resort to a series of short woodcock drives from longish blocks of woodland. They would have some 50 rises on one of these 'rough' days as they called them (probably because the bag was considerably smaller than on their snipe days).
I have seen a lot more in Norfolk on various shoots, especially when it is cold. A friend had a small, rough, overgrown marsh near Martham - half covered with Norfolk reed and birch scrub and half with alders and a nightmarish bramble undergrowth. Three or four of us would meet for lunch in the pub and spend the afternoon walking up woodcock and the odd pheasant. We always saw woodcock but, sometimes, they were really 'in' and we would have flushes every 30 or 40 yards. We never shot very many as they rarely offered more than a fleeting chance but the whole place was always full of promise.
More recently, I have been invited on pheasant days to a shoot which borders this marsh and have seen dozens of woodcock flushed. As the pegs were set back for the pheasants rather than close to the woodland edge for woodcock, a great many would turn before reaching the guns. There were no walking guns either to take those slipping out of the sides or turning back. It was run as a driven pheasant shoot and the woodcock were incidentals and yet they regularly shot 20 or more. The last time I shot there, the guns were limited to one woodcock each as they had shot 57 a couple of weeks before. They must have had something in the region of 150 rises on that remarkable day. On the day I shot there, there were 19 shootable woodcock from my peg and I shot the first one - which was unlike me.
I have worked hard for them in Thetford forest, stumbling down the piled-up rows of old roots where the woodcock tend to lie up, snapping at half-chances in the narrow skylight left by the growing trees on either side. Five or six of us have shot a dozen or 15 head, of which less than ten would be woodcock although we would have flushed some 30 or 40. This has to have been some of the most rewarding shooting I have done.
But I have never seen so many as in 2002, when Alan Wood invited me to shoot on the woodcock day at Burton Constable, just outside Hull. Alan had commissioned a grouse painting which I was due to deliver around Christmas time and thought I might be interested in bringing my gun. They only do the woodcock day once during the season and then, only if they are in good order and in good numbers - they didn't in either of the seasons 2003/04 or 2004/05.
I have heard it said that woodcock do not favour areas where there are a lot of pheasants but the highest densities I have seen, have been on pheasant shoots and Burton Constable was no exception. It was December 27 but none of the drives we did that day had been shot up until that point for fear of disturbing the woodcock, and they were heaving with pheasants. But this was a woodcock day, however on the last drive we were told that we could shoot 'some good ones' (although I chose to concentrate solely on woodcock) and we ended up with 28 pheasants in the bag but we could have, very selectively, shot 200 during the course of the day without much difficulty.
There were drives from short, scrubby or recently planted areas where the guns could just see over the top of the whole drive and from start to finish (in a drive that might last some thirty or forty minutes) there was barely a moment without a woodcock in the air. I even saw one running ahead of the beating line when it was still 100 yards away. And I saw woodcock in the air like I have never seen them before with every bird different from the last, testing the limits of self-control and safety. Two guns had a chance of a right and left. The first missed his 'right' with both barrels and the second dropped his 'right' and broke his gun to reload when the 'left' emerged.
The final bag on such a remarkable day should not matter but it will help to give an indication of the numbers we saw:
I was told that we saw 60-70 percent of what we would have seen had the conditions been perfect. The day typically produced 70 to 100 woodcock in the bag and the record is 138. These are figures that will upset some people who may, or may not be, morally, beyond reproach but I felt it was worth the risk to show what the place could be like. We saw a great many woodcock - probably more than most guns will see in five or ten seasons - and we missed rather a lot, too.
There were no oddities amongst the shot birds. There were no short-bills and, although the plumage varied considerably as it does with most birds, there was nothing out of the ordinary - all colours conformed to what we would expect to see a woodcock dressed in. But they have, over the years, shot quite a few short-billed woodcock and several light coloured birds.
I have always taken the time to look closely and marvel at any woodcock that have been shot. I have, simply, not had much in the way of opportunity to study and compare them in the field and feel it is important to note the differences. But, in 30 years of shooting, I have only seen one oddity - a bird that I shot in Suffolk last season which I have heard variously called flavistic, leucistic, bohemian and, perhaps most accurately, ginger. It had fallen, rather embarrassingly, at my neighbour's feet and at the end of the drive, he bent down, picked it for me, walked the 100 odd yards back to the trailer and handed it to the man who was busy bracing-up pheasant. He hadn't noticed the odd colouring which was something that struck me the instant I went to look at it and was surprised by his lack of interest. Most people simply don't handle that many woodcock during the course of a season; surely you would give it a cursory glance?
Incidentally, Alan told me a story of a Burton Constable keeper who was sitting up and watching one evening, as keepers do. He had removed his hat for some reason and, as dusk descended, a flighting woodcock fluttered down and landed on his follically-challenged head. He came up with his hat but the bird beat a hasty retreat before he was able to cover it.
Woodcock have always stirred huge emotions within me. Even at the age of eight, as a beater, I sensed the excitement amongst the guns when a woodcock flushed. A pheasant was a pheasant - very beautiful and all that but it did not require anyone to point it out. A woodcock, on the other hand, was greeted with great enthusiastic shouts and all eyes would focus on the covert edge in front. No change there, then. The implication that you are not as observant as your neighbouring guns seems to pass unnoticed. No offence intended, none taken and, for that matter, I'll shout 'woodcock,' too, for good measure, just in case my next door gun hasn't woken up.
I had no doubts, growing up, about how special woodcock were. With the added adrenalin, therefore, it took me a while to come to terms with them, as a gun, and, in a way, I am still trying. I know that they can present the easiest of shots - having missed a fair few of the very easiest, I really am well aware of that. They can be remarkably agile and have a mesmerising gear change one minute and the next they will flop out of a wood like a hesitant moorhen. You would leave the latter sort, without thinking, if they were pheasants but I know few who would leave an 'easy' woodcock.
So whilst I greatly admire those who simply choose not to shoot any woodcock, I am not yet ready to join their ranks. I have not shot hares for, probably, 20 years and have no urge to do so. I like eating them and we have plenty around but I just do not want to shoot them. Much as I love the sight of them, my pulse does not quicken when I see them out shooting as it does with woodcock and, I guess, once you have made up your mind, it is not a particularly difficult decision to adhere to. If I ever felt that I was a competent and consistent enough shot to make a difference to the woodcock population, I would probably stop trying to shoot them - there is more than enough challenge in trying to paint them.
Born in 1963, Ben Hoskyns spent most of his childhood in Suffolk where he now lives with his wife Sally and their twin sons Will and Chandos.
He was passionate about painting as a young child but his art master at school offered him little encouragement and he gave up before 'O' levels although he continued to sketch from time to time, his subjects invariably being birds.
After several years in insurance, Ben decided that he had to move on. Stubbornly ignoring any well-intended suggestion that he should perhaps get some training first, he started to paint for a living in 1988. Having been fascinated by wildlife from early childhood he never seriously considered painting anything else once he turned professional.
Concentrating generally on British wildlife and on game birds in particular, Ben wrote and illustrated Holland & Holland's, The Nature of Game (Quiller Press 1994) and has illustrated several other books, magazine articles and his paintings have appeared on GCT and CA Christmas cards. He produced paintings for two GCT annual reviews, for the front cover of the 2005 Scottish Game Fair programme and was commissioned to paint the 2006 Wildlife Habitat Trust UK Habitat Conservation Stamp.
Meanwhile he gets endless inspiration from his shooting.
"The most important thing is to have a varied season. I love, equally, pottering around with friends as a formal driven day. I enjoy both for what they are."
He is also not short of first hand experience, running his own 120 acre shoot in the village, and does everything from feeding and vermin control to cover planting.
"It gives me two days' shooting and a lot of fun. "