Woodcock in the Western Isles
Finding decent woodcock shooting is not easy, but for the lucky few, Islay offers an experience second to none...
The Isle of Islay, also known as the ?Queen of the Hebrides', is an island renowned for rich culture, untainted scenery and, of course, whisky, with eight operating distilleries and the annual Feis Ile festival showcasing their best malt and music. However, the island has another ace card up its sleeve - its woodcock shooting.
Islay is the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides, located approximately 20 miles west of the Mull of Kintyre, with a population of 3,500 people. In the northeastern region of the island is Islay Estate, which has been in the ownership of the Morrison Family since 1853 and is presently run by Lord Alastair Margadale.
The estate covers an area of 55,000 acres, 22,000 of which offer fantastic red deer stalking on moorland, with approximately 90 stags and 100 hinds taken each season.
With 3,500 acres of forestry, the estate is also a great holding place for woodcock, and the management team are utilising their resources to ensure this remains the case. 'Our woodland is specifically managed for woodcock,' explains Willy Inglis, who has been the estate factor since 2007.
'We create ideal ground cover with rides that are open, but not cold, and overarching hardwoods. Our location also plays hugely into our favour, as being so far west offers the perfect destination for the migrating woodcock, especially if the mainland is very cold.'
Due to the nature and diverse weather of the island, annual woodcock numbers can vary hugely. It isn't a place for large corporate days, but rather a shoot where the Guns get involved and take an interest in the Islay way of life. 'We have a different mentality towards shooting out here,' Willy adds. 'We aren't interested in numbers. Instead, we have a huge variety of drives and we produce quality, wild birds.'
This admirable approach to shooting has made their woodcock days hard to come by as once a team of Guns has visited the island they invariably want to re-book. Only four driven days and ten walked-up days are sold (as well as eight mixed driven days with a bag of 50-60 head). Johnny Watson, from East Lothian, is one of the lucky few, having captained a team of Guns, taking woodcock shooting on the estate, for the past five seasons. 'I consider myself very fortunate to have one of the two driven weekends up here,? says Johnny.' It is a very special place and certainly one of the finest woodcock shoots in the country.'
Johnny is a grass seed merchant and despite having only shot on the island for five years, his connection to Islay extends back decades. ?I supply a lot of grass seed to the farms here, and my family have been doing it for three generations now.
Every January, Johnny flies from Glasgow with a group of friends on a Thursday afternoon, and after being collected by Willy and headkeeper Scott Brown, their guns are taken away and cleaned in preparation for the morning's shoot. After a hearty breakfast in the estate's Bridgend Hotel, the team begin the first of two days of driven shooting on the Friday and Saturday, with lunch taken in the estate bothy, giving the beaters and Guns a chance to catch up.
'Over the years, we've built up a great relationship with everyone involved in the shoot,' says Johnny. 'It's very sociable and there's always a lovely, cheery atmosphere to the day.' Headkeeper Scott has been with the estate for 15 years (three as headkeeper) and, with underkeeper Alan MacDonald's help, is responsible for the smooth running of each day. Scott also works on the hill and maintains the estate's driven pheasant and partridge shoot. However, he takes a huge amount of pleasure from the woodcock days. 'It's always a welcome change,' adds Scott, 'as you never know what to expect and everyday is different.'
The average bag on each day is 30 woodcock. 'It's very different shooting,' Johnny explains. 'It's always challenging and far less predictable than other forms of shooting. I haven't shot a right-and-left yet, but if ever there was a place to do it, Islay would be it. I had a chance last year, but my neighbouring Gun, Peter Addie, shot the second bird before I had time to fire again!'
Each evening, Johnny and his party retire to the Bridgend Hotel. 'I can't speak highly enough of the hotel,? he says. ?The food and hospitality is terrific. Lorna and her team make us feel very at home.' Every year, on their last night, Johnny invites everyone involved in the shoot days down to the hotel for an open bar.' Last year, Alec Telfer's invention, the 'Bridgend', (double Botanist gin from Islay's Bruichladdich distillery, Crabbie's ginger beer, ice and a slice of lime) went down extremely well - the bar bill gets bigger every year!
'We look forward to this trip all year,' he adds. 'It's a fantastic celebration of the very best Islay has to offer. With such a warm welcome and shooting amidst stunning backdrops to Jura, indeed it is no surprise that Guns follow the 'woodcocks' example and return to the island every winter.'