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Reminiscences of the Lews
Chapter XV - Woodcocks again

AT one time in the Lews the woodcock shooting was very good. F. M. on his shootings, and I on mine, followed it up most zealously, and we have often agreed it was some of the best fun we ever had in our lives. There was one particular year when he killed 550 woodcocks at Aline and over the Harris ground adjoining, which was very good, and I killed 350 at Soval. One day he killed thirty-seven, which was the most I ever knew killed any one day. Shortly after I was out on my pet Dalbeg ground, when I think I had the best day’s sport I ever had in my life—fifty-seven head of different sorts on a short December day, thirty-one of which were woodcocks. I knew I had killed a good many, but was astonished, while heartily devouring a bit of luncheon, to find I had over twenty considerably, and a famous bit of ground to beat yet. “By Jove! we’ll beat Fred,” I said. And so I ought to have done, for, with moderate shooting, I ought to have killed over forty woodcocks that day; but, as is always the way with me if anxious about getting stuff, I can’t. So, for the rest of the day, down went everything else that got up—grouse, snipe, plover, duck, and teal—but I tailored the woodcocks most awfully, or the bag would have been a thing to talk of. As it was, it was a very pretty one to look at. I remember among the cocks there was a rare specimen of what I never saw before—a pied woodcock, white bars or stripes over the wing, a pied head and breast. It was a very fine bird, and very handsome to look at. All the woodcocks and game were put by in what we thought a safe place, when a cat got in and (will you believe it?) picked out the pied woodcock, and the pied woodcock alone, for her prey. Dire and deep were the blessings that cat received. John Munro, my keeper then, who was a bit of a naturalist, with a pretty notion of stuffing, and had set his heart on adding this bird to his collection, said little; but that cat shortly afterwards disappeared.

Well, those times of the woodcocks were merry times; but things don’t last for ever, and, for some reason or other, the cocks became scarcer and scarcer every year for the last five or six years of my tenure of Soval, till they dwindled down to almost nothing, and the game-books told a sad tale. I never could account for it. I never killed them down close, as I seldom shot a woodcock beat more than once. Sometimes I thought my little malignant fairy had done it; but, no, that could not be, for they equally lessened and almost disappeared on F. M.’s ground, too. Now this phenomenon —the disappearance of woodcocks for a time in districts where they have been plentiful—is not peculiar to the Lews. I have known it happen in other places; at Killarney, for instance. I remember four or five—nay, more— consecutive years, when these birds there became so comparatively scarce that they seemed about to desert their favourite haunts. I have thought much on the subject, and don’t know what conclusion to come to.

There is, or was, in Argyllshire, a very wise man about cocks—a Campbell, of course—who wrote very well on them and their ways some years ago in the Field. I wish he would let us have his ideas on the subject. That they do disappear where they were plentiful is a fact; it is also a fact that they come back again. As for wise saws on the subject, I don’t much care for them. One, they take the eggs in Norway and Sweden, where they breed and from whence they come. Gammon and spinach! Woodcocks appear in all parts of Europe, parts of Asia, parts of Africa and America, very nearly about the same time. Given Norway and Sweden as the universal starting-point, does it take them exactly the same time to go from Norway to Norfolk that it does to all other parts of Europe, to Asia, Africa, and America? This can’t be, and therefore they must breed in a great many other places where there is no egg trade. Now I have an idea, though I don’t know that there is anything in it. We know that at particular stages of the growth of trees and plantations the coverts are particularly frequented by woodcocks. Does this particular growth affect the food of the bird, or the soil that produces the food? But how can this affect a country like the Long Island, where there is no wood, nothing but the bare hill side? True, my good sir, but is it not possible (I know nothing about it) that some temporary alteration may take place in the soil of the hill side which may affect the food produced by that soil, and therefore the last year’s experience of his feeding-grounds may have warned Mr. Cock not to go there next year?

All this is, perhaps, mere useless coinage of the brain. Let us come to something practical, which can be apprehended by all. The woodcock’s travelling time ranges, I should say, from the commencement to the end of the autumnal equinox. Now autumn, a most delightful time and climate in other places, cannot be said to be so in the Hebrides, or some parts of Ireland. From the middle of September to the middle of November you are sure of one month, if not more, of the most unpleasant weather the imagination can conceive, and the most opposed to migratory operations. For the last five or six years that particular season has been severe beyond measure, and I attribute the scarcity of these birds to their having been driven clean out of their course by stress of weather. But, from whatever cause their absence has proceeded, it has been a severe loss, though I have no doubt the time will come when they will return, just as they have done in other places. For my part, however, I would rather the grouse had decreased than the woodcocks and the snipes; but then I presume they had not offended the fairy, and three or four successive breeding seasons brought them up wonderfully, till, when I left Soval, the grouse-shooting was really good.

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