The woodcock provides the only trophy in British game shooting, the two pin feathers that lie along the shoulder of the wing. They are sported in hatbands and in former times painters of miniatures used them to apply fine detail.
The majority of British birds are winter migrants, many making the North Sea crossing on the first full moon in November. Occasionally, large numbers arrive in one spot and this is known as a “fall” of woodcock.
A right-and-left at woodcock is considered an extraordinary feat. Two birds are seldom seen together and their flight is erratic. There is much debate about what constitutes a true right-and-left. Some maintain the gun cannot be removed from the shoulder between shots, but this is erroneous: many dismount before firing the second barrel. The critical factor is whether the Gun knows two birds are in the air and therefore the prized “double” is on the cards.
On 20 November 1829, the renowned, one-eyed sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey shot two woodcock with one discharge of his muzzle-loader, the feat being commemorated with a marble tableau at Holkham, Norfolk. This created a spate of witticisms, not all of them kind: “Luckless our fate – a doubly luckless lot! A sportsman carved us whom an artist shot.”
Woodcock were the favourite quarry of George VI. Every ’cock was recorded in his Sandringham game diary in red ink. At the time, the birds were traditionally presented to the Guns with the lower leg removed. This enabled the sinews in the thighs to be carefully withdrawn before the bird reached the table. Woodcock are served undrawn, so that the cooked intestines – known as the “trail” – can be savoured.
The correct call, to alert fellow Guns, is not “Woodcock forward!” but “Mark woodcock!”
Some shoots, such as Lanarth in Cornwall, are keepered entirely for ’cock and pheasants are regarded as troublesome intruders. To minimise disturbance, these shoots tend to have few days, and bags can be impressive. On 21 December 1920, at Lanarth, seven Guns accounted for 106.