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If cocks were more abundant, woodcock shooting would, I believe, take the precedence of even grouse-shooting. As it is, I am one of those who infinitely prefer it to that or any other kind of shooting. There is so much variety attached to it; the spot in which you find the bird is so frequently unexpected; then his irregular manner of rising, the peculiar flap of his wings, which cannot be mistaken, electrically vibrating on the sportsman's ear, especially if it be the first cock of the season; his varied flight when up— sometimes slow, heavy, and oscillating, at other times direct and rapid as that of a hawk; then there is always an uncertainty as to the direction which he may take—whether he will go to the right or to the left, straight forward, or come exactly towards you :—in fact, there is sometimes a suspense of several moments, first between your hearing and seeing him, next between your seeing and being able to decide when to shoot at him; at other times you hear, see, and shoot at him at the same moment, and although you had only an instant's glance at him, are as successful as if you had had him in sight for several moments. All these circumstances create an interest, and produce an anxiety with the keen sportsman, which constitute the peculiar charm of woodcock shooting.
But as this combination of circumstances can only occur in a wild country, amongst rocks, heather, brushwood, dingles and dells, the excitement and the interest which I attach to woodcock shooting may appear exaggerated to those who have simply shot this bird in England, where the uniform character of the cover is such, that the rising and flight of the woodcock may present little variety; but still I believe it is rare to find a genuine sportsman who is not more pleased at shooting a woodcock than any other bird. Those who have shot in wild countries will thoroughly enter into my sporting feelings on the subject.
The woodcock is generally considered an easy shot; but notwithstanding this opinion, there is no bird so frequently missed; and if the experience of good shots be appealed to, I think it will be admitted no great number of cocks has ever been killed consecutively.
To this it may be replied that numerous chance and long shots are taken, because the cock, being a bird of passage, and also a tender bird, and easily brought down, the remotest chance is taken advantage of; but still, apart from this consideration, I believe more fair shots are missed by even good shots, than at any other bird; and if this be the case, I think it fair to conclude that he is not so easy a bird to kill as is generally supposed. If he would rise, like any other bird, at a fair distance, and be off at once, he would rarely be missed; but this is not often the case, as he frequently rises so clumsily, and at the same time so near, that you cannot shoot immediately, but must await his departure, and are thus kept in a state of suspense, and sometimes of doubt, whether you will even get a shot at all, as the direction he may take when you are very close upon him is always uncertain. And it not unfrequently happens, that a bird you thought as safe as bagged on rising, there being no apparent obstacle to your having the fairest shot in the world, by some extraordinary quick turn eludes all your skill. As you cannot shoot at ten or twelve yards, and as a cock often rises at this distance, you are obliged to wait; and just when you suppose you must have a certain shot, by his going either to the right or left, or straight forward, the coast being quite clear, in an instant he flies exactly towards your face, in so bungling a manner that you could almost fancy he was wounded, or could not fly at all; and as you turn round to bring your gun up, you either stumble, or your gun is impeded by a branch, or he turns out of sight behind a rock, or a tree, exactly as you pull the trigger, and you thus, in spite of yourself, shoot behind him, and he escapes; and, as an aggravation to your disappointment, all your efforts to find him again are fruitless.
In a rough wild country, where there is a mixture of blackthorn, hazel, birch, ash, and dwarf scrubby oak, with rocks and heather, and where there are many steep rugged acclivities, inaccessible to the best of beaters, good spaniels are indispensable, as it is impossible to flush cocks without them. Even tolerable spaniels would be useless in many of these places, as cocks will not rise except forced to do so by good, hardworking, persevering dogs, who thoroughly understand their business, and will go round and under every rock and blackthorn; for so indisposed are cocks to be disturbed out of these favourite spots, that they will often settle within a few yards from where they took their flight, and it is only by the perseverance of good dogs that they can be forced to quit them, so as to afford a chance to the sportsman ; and sometimes this is but an indifferent one, as they fly so low between the rocks and bushes that the shot is quite a doubtful one.
No bird lies closer than a cock, or is more difficult to flush when he is in a cover where he intends remaining, of the nature I have just described. In fact, I have seen a spaniel catch one before he would rise, although he was for some time hunting very busily close to him, before he winded, and rushed in upon and caught him. At other times they are very easily flushed, but in these respects they are influenced by the wind and weather; on some days being so excessively wild that they cannot be approached within shot, except you go down wind upon them; and these occasions arise when a change of weather is about to take place, especially after a few days' frost, when a turn in the wind arrives indicating a thaw. But generally through the winter, i.e. during the months of November, December, and January, they lie well. The first two months are, however, the best, although I have sometimes had excellent sport as late as February; but this depends entirely upon the nature of the season and of the country, as the peculiar weather which brings cocks to one place drives them away from another.
In England, Ireland, and in the northern and inland parts of Scotland, the cocks which arrive in November remain there so long as the weather continues mild and open; but as soon as a severe frost sets in, and extends beyond three days, the cocks move off to milder quarters: so that the western part of Scotland, which adjoins the seacoast, is, during severe weather, a very favourite place of resort for cocks. The snow never lying long on this coast, nor on the adjacent grounds, nor on those sides of the covers facing the south