Woodcock in the Western Isles
Simon K. Barr heads to the Isle of Harris to test his sporting prowess against our most enigmatic wader.
Time seems to have forgotten the Outer Hebrides. To some it is desolate, barren and bleak, but to a fieldsports enthusiast it is without question one of the most stunning places on Earth. Many do not realise that the Western Isles boast soft, white sandy beaches and aquamarine waters comparable to tropical islands.
Walked-up woodcock shooting on Harris has to be one of my favourite diary entries of last year.
Harris is in fact part of one island, joined with Lewis to the north and divided into North and South Harris by a narrow isthmus. Those living on the island tend to be orthodox Presbyterian, meaning virtually all commercial activity ceases on a Sunday and a large proportion of the population attend church every week. Inhabitants do not drive their cars, draw their curtains or hang out their washing on this sacred day. The slow pace of Harris, paired with the peace and quiet, makes a visit somewhat soul cleansing and completely restorative. In fact, people who live in this isolated corner report the highest levels of life satisfaction, self-worth and happiness across the whole of Great Britain, according to recent data from the Office for National Statistics.
My wife Selena and I stayed on Borve Estate, a 7,500-acre playground located on the island's west coast, with stunning views over the Atlantic. Originally built as a sporting lodge in about 1868 by Charles Adolphus Murray, 7th Earl of Dunmore, Borve Lodge was an aristocratic destination for shooting and fishing. The word ‘Borve' means a fortress, and the ruins of a Bronze Age fortress or ‘duin' are within a few hundred yards of the lodge itself. We had the whole place to ourselves.
A member of the Scottish Country Sports Tourism Group, marbled wet rooms, million-thread count cotton bed linen, and breathtaking views across the Sound of Taransay all come as standard since a recent refurbishment. This is five-star luxury accommodation where you would not expect it. With space for up to 16 people, the lodge comes with a private chef and housekeeper, whilst the estate also has four self-catering cottages – two traditional island dwellings and two unbelievable, highly modern, architecturally-inspired one-bedroom spaces – which take the whole experience to a level previously unheard of on the remote island.
Getting to Harris from London is not difficult. There are two options: fly into Stornaway, or drive 680 miles – almost the full length of the UK – up through Skye, and catch a ferry. From London this takes about two long days, but the scenery out of the car window is spectacular. We opted for the latter. Road trips provide unrivalled thinking time and are a great way of shaking off work stresses before you arrive.
The weather during our stay was phenomenal – wall-to-wall sunshine. “The old adage runs, if you don't like the weather in Harris, wait five minutes,” quipped our host Steve Woodhall, the Borve estate manager. “In one day, particularly in the transition months as autumn moves into winter, you can experience blinding blue skies, a squall, and a hailstorm. The Atlantic provides dramatic and intense weather patterns, so you need to be well prepared to get the most from this unique environment,” he added.
After three years working for Griffith Island, a private sport shooting and hunting club in Canada, Steve returned to the Hebrides last year to help establish Borve Lodge as a top drawer sporting destination. As a seasoned gamekeeper, he is relishing the challenge of Borve. “After the estate was bought by Adam and Cathra Kelliher in 2008, they wanted to inject new life into the area. Not only do we now offer woodcock and snipe shooting, but also red deer stalking plus salmon and trout fishing on the Laxdale System and Loch Fincastle.”
For our taster day of walked-up woodcock shooting, Steve and I had a corner of the island all to ourselves. We were joined by my veteran cocker, Archie. The plan was to work him nice and close and attempt to bag us supper. “The island is teeming with woodcock so only take the sporting birds,” warned Steve as we prepared to quietly start making our way through the marshy grasslands.
On Harris, the woodcock are plentiful, and within seconds of taking our first few strides through the boggy grass we'd flushed our first, but I'd seen it too late. We continued walking in search of the diminutive wader. Archie knew his job inside out – he quartered the cover in front of us and turned to the whistle with each pip, rarely ranging more than 15 feet away – working steadily to ensure every inch was sniffed out. Then, in a flash, a woodcock lifted. We watched it tumble to my shot. To succeed at this kind of shooting you need lightning reactions. Unlike being stood at a peg on a reared pheasant shoot, there are no beaters or flaggers funneling the quarry over you in predictable waves. If you miss, that could be your only opportunity of the day. This is the sport of proper hunter-gatherers. No frills. Just you, the shotgun, gundog and wild bird.
Throughout the afternoon, my heart was pumping through my chest and each of my senses were amplified. My next chance came as out of the corner of my eye I spied a brace of woodcock trying to make a getaway. Steve let out an animated cry and pointed to the racing birds. Without hesitation, I connected the muzzle to the first bird's flight line but narrowly missed the second. It was hugely satisfying to watch the spent bird corkscrew earthward. Another one for the pot and almost enough for our supper.
Trying to ignore the distracting far-reaching views across to the neighbouring island of Taransay, I focused on scanning the grass ahead for the whirr of wings and stared into the darkening sky. My Zoli shotgun had proved itself as the perfect tool for the job.
To my mind there's something a bit old-fashioned about woodcock shooting. Reminiscent of day's gone by, the method of hunting these wily gamebirds has not changed for centuries. It tests your sporting prowess and leaves your flaws on full display for all to see. Instinctual snap shooting tests not only your ability to connect with a target, but also identify quarry correctly and assess safety – all in a wing-beat. If you enjoy the challenge of a jinking woodcock, returning to driven game shooting can seem a little pedestrian by comparison. Some of these birds have survived an arduous migration all the way from Siberia, so they are well equipped for dodging predators wanting to eat them. The cartridge-to-bird ratio is always very high indeed – if it was easy and straightforward, I probably would not be so drawn to the sport. Just like salmon fishing, shooting woodcock is far from predictable – there's every chance you'll go home empty-handed and be forced to swing by the local chippy for supper instead of gorging on nature's bounty.
By now the light was just beginning to fade. In the distance we spotted more woodcock ghosting above the tree line. Out of range, sadly, but there's always a chance they'll fly closer. With the last of the light draining from the spectacular landscape, it was time to call it a day.
That evening we took our harvest back to Borve Lodge, where the chef prepared the bag in the traditional way. Each bird was oven roasted and served rare, trussed with its own beak and accompanied by its entrails on fried bread. Not for the faint hearted, but a real delicacy if, like me, you are a lover of all game meat.
The next morning we awoke in our enormous super king to the soft sound of the sea outside our window. Emerging downstairs for breakfast was delayed somewhat due to the complimentary spotting scope and tripod set up in our bedroom, which meant that we could spy on wildlife frolicking on the lodge's private beach. Somehow I knew the long drive home wasn't going to be half as enjoyable as it was travelling the other way. A return trip is already on the cards.
A day's walked-up woodcock shooting on Harris costs £225 per Gun (minimum booking is for three Guns). They can accommodate up to four Guns in one party with a maximum of two parties at any one time.
Zoli Expedition EL: £4,800
NSI SIPE cartridges: £310 per 1,000