The milder “Celtic fringe” countries of the British Isles are much favoured by this, almost mythical game bird of long beak and silent flight that shows himself on most pheasant shoots from mid-November onwards. Its jinxing and jiving around the trees is spell binding and even the most experienced of game shots will often miss the target of a woodcock emerging from a pheasant drive.
The woodcock is a bird relished by all sportsmen. It is colourful, distinctive, elusive and a very testing shot. They migrate from northern Europe and Russia, arriving in Ireland generally in mid-November. Undoubtedly the moon has some effect on their migration as the first “falls” of woodcock generally coincide with the new moon in November. Woodcock have a liking for dry, deciduous woodland that is in close proximity to damp ground where they can feed on earthworms and surface insects. Pheasant shoots, with their variety of woodland and wetlands, are a prime location for this winter visitor.
There are colonies of breeding woodcock present in Ireland but by far the largest proportion of woodcock shot annually are migratory birds. The tiny feathers that are located at the tip of the woodcock’s wings are referred to as “pin feathers” and these are much sought after by artists for fine painting work. Coincidentally, they are also sought by game shooters who will place them in the band of their hat to show friends that they have shot woodcock. It is thought that the phrase “a feather in his cap” is derived from this practice.
To shoot two woodcock with consecutive shots and without the gun being remounted is referred to as a “right and left.” Anyone shooting a right and left at woodcock and who has it witnessed by two independent parties can apply to become a member of the “Woodcock Club.” This UK society was formed solely for shooters who have achieved a right and left and who have had their kills confirmed by witnesses. Ireland has more than its share of Woodcock Club members due to the large numbers of the birds that migrate to its shores annually. That and the fact that most woodcock shooting in Ireland is of the walked-up variety where it is more likely that birds will be flushed in groups rather than individually.