I am lucky enough to spend an unusual number of days out in the field with teams of people who are there for one common purpose: to enjoy themselves.

This is not just the guns, of course, but includes beaters and pickers up. I cannot honestly say that many gamekeepers share the same joy until the day is over, or the shooting part at least.

“There is no such thing as a bad day’s shooting” is something I hear bandied about every now and then, and in principle I would agree – but we all have one day that we would rather forget. On a driven day one needs to be a bit unlucky to be out of the shooting all day, but on smaller walked up or boundary day one really must make the most of every opportunity, especially when hunting wild quarry.

This neatly leads me into a day we took in January up in the wilds of mid-Wales that ended up being one of the most challenging and memorable days of the season. We met in the usual place – a small, exposed car park on the top of the moor with stunning views stretching in all directions. I was late as my truck was going through its December breakdown crisis, and for some reason I had opted to follow the satnav in my rented vehicle rather than use my brain. I was welcomed by a grimacing team of guns and the keeper, who shuffling about in freezing, windswept conditions. The dog even refused to get out of the car.

Solid ground

It was a wild bird day, with the main target species being common snipe and woodcock. Three days of this intense cold weather meant the ground was rock solid and a lot of the smaller areas of standing water were frozen, so our snipe opportunities were going to be highly prized.

We were a team of six guns with only two dogs – Nelson my latest terrier, who hunts like a spaniel and stays relatively close, and Woody, a very enthusiastic vizsla who had not done as much shooting this season as he would like. The plan was to walk up the bracken, gorse and heather in two valleys in the morning and then cross to the far end of the 17,000 acre estate to walk up some other areas around a collection of mawn pools and mountain streams.

The keeper pointed us in the right direction and explained that he would not be walking with us across the frozen wastes but pointed out a distant copse of conifers where he would meet us for elevenses. Keen to get going and warm up, we lined out and set off enthusiastically, anticipating an exciting and productive day in the field. We agreed that if we all got one or two into our respective game bags then we would be happy.

The terrain was pretty hard going but the frost had flattened the bracken and the ground was firm. Yet after 50 minutes not a shot had been fired. We later discovered that David, at the top of the line, had put up a single woodcock while sliding down a slope on his backside. It was hard to see why any animal would be out on the exposed ground we were walking, but in the distance we could see a much more promising area of gorse and splashes that the keeper had indicated would bear fruit.


We opted to walk the plot in two halves and as we spaced ourselves out a brace of snipe did get up. There were a long way off, but at least it was some encouragement at last. Jon, Andrew, Nelson and I had the left flank and almost immediately I heard a commotion behind me. A hare was up and away. My first shot went over its head and when it popped out of the gorse again my reactions were too slow and I was behind it. Anyway it was the first action of the day and a fresh wave of excitement ran through the team.

The two Toms and David also put up a hare and saw a fox running way ahead with Woody in full pursuit. No more shots were fired and there was a hint of despondency setting in as we lined out for the return half of the plot to where the keeper was waiting.

Nothing moved until about halfway up, when Tom L on the left took a very speculative shot at a crow flushed out of the conifers and I had another unsuccessful shot at a hare.

As we finished the last 20yd my terrier, on the trail of another hare, put up a single snipe that got stuck in the wind. An absolute sitter. I missed it comfortably and the bird succumbed to the wind and went straight over Jon on my right, who also managed to miss it stylishly.

It was the right time to stop for a break and have a reset. We took refuge from the wind behind the keeper’s truck and eagerly tucked into some local pies and pasties he had brought along. Sadly, the bullshot I had made was back in the car park but the damson gin did a good job of warming us up. It had been a tough morning and the keeper’s tales of just how many woodcock they had seen two weeks ago did little to lift our spirits.

We all piled into the truck and headed back to our vehicles and then on to a sheltered valley, where we hoped the softer ground would hold a few more birds and possibly a couple of partridge left over from earlier in the season.

The keeper and Tom B headed for the high ground. The other four worked both sides of the brook at the bottom of the valley, while Nelson and I pushed up a wide area of soggy bracken hoping to flush a partridge or two. Almost immediately as Andrew passed an old gatepost a woodcock got up behind him. He swivelled round and got a shot off but the bird was safely away. Not five minutes later Tom L and David had another one in front of them, but even four shots were not enough to bring it down.

It was extremely quiet on our side and as I looked to the edge of the bracken I saw a covey of half a dozen partridges trotting away 40yd ahead. I simply couldn’t get round them and they vanished into the cover.

We opted to shoot the return side of the valley as driven. It did mean that four of the guns would have to be stationery in the cold, but they were happy enough to have a break from walking. The keeper, Tom B, the dogs and I pushed through the bracken towards them but put nothing at all up. I did have another unsuccessful shot at a hare.Tough Times

Subdued lunch

We stopped for our shared lunch and the bullshot was a welcome warmer. It was quite subdued as we had only fired a dozen cartridges so far and six of those had been mine. I did feel a bit guilty about this as I was only shooting that day because one gun had dropped out due to illness. The keeper assured us there would be a lot more opportunities that afternoon, so we headed 
up and round to another beautifully remote part of the estate through an impressive but dilapidated group of farm buildings.

I had shot this area last year and I recalled it being very wet. I picked the dryer side, but we were all walking in six inches of water.

It was tricky getting through the reeds and moss while focusing on what might get up in front. Soon a couple of shots rang out as the boys on the right had flushed some snipe a good way out. There was a brief period where we did see quite a bit of activity, but they were either too far out or Jack snipe.

However, as we neared the mawn pool word travelled down the line that there were some duck on it. Eight mallard got up going away from the guns on the right and turned on the wind heading to the left. I crouched down into reeds and bowed my head, praying they would come my way. Even the dog stayed completely still. It still haunts me now and I can feel my face reddening. They turned perfectly and came straight over the top of me about 35yd up. I waited patiently, lifted my head and picked two targets as I was obviously going to get a left and right. The obvious happened and I could feel a collective sigh of disappointment travel across the reedbed.

It was now getting serious. Someone had to save the team’s honour and it was clearly not going to be me. The keeper was also starting to stress, never having experienced the indignity of having to complete a blank day in the estate’s game book.

We pushed through the final area of bracken. Woody and Tom B flushed another woodcock that got up behind them, obviously sitting very tight. Heads were definitely down and we all feared that we were facing a zero score as we lined up for the final push. It was probably another mile and a half of bracken, or about 40 minutes of shooting, to save face.

We were all exhausted and the negative waves crept in and concentration wavered. Andrew in the centre of the line didn’t even see a woodcock that got up directly in front of him. The keeper remained tight lipped but there was steam coming out of his ears.

As we got close to the final fence I called out words of encouragement that any minute now our chance would come. In order to show willing, I had taken the longest, steepest climb high up on the left bank as we pushed out the last 100yd.

Suddenly the unmistakable launch sound of a woodcock drew every ounce of my focus as it lifted about 15yd in front of me. It jinked first to the left, then to the right and as it shaped to go left again I fired a single shot and it came down.

On the score card

I raised my gun above my head and gave an enthusiastic cheer to the team, who seemed equally pleased that one of us had at last shot something. The inexperienced terrier could not find the bird immediately, but it was soon safe in my game bag. In the next 10yd Tom L put up another one at the far right of the line, but normal service was resumed.

The day had been saved and we all realised we had endured, enjoyed and shared something special. So rather than disappear off, we found the perfect parlour pub (Ye Olde Tavern, Kington) to mull over the day. I love a hard-walking rough day, but I was lucky enough to have had several opportunities and I should have a had a brace of mallard, a snipe, a woodcock and a hare in my game bag.

Although disappointed, we did all agree that it had been a good day. Hard work, limited shooting, but good company, team spirit and absolutely incredible scenery. And the most important and delicious woodcock I have ever shot.