Snipe continue to keep their elusive status


SNIPE are the most thrilling of all water birds. I don’t know why but they give me a real moment of joy when I get a sighting on the WEBS counts each month in Chichester Harbour.

As a lad years and years ago I used to shoot them. Maybe it is something to do with that.

There were scores of them, or I should properly say wisps of them. Wisp is the correct group word.

They were so good to eat. A couple of snipe could be a decent evening meal for a hungry boy.

Like woodcock, you did not gut them so you had a good gravy. The juices ran into the thick slab of crusty bread on which they entered the oven for twenty minutes.

With brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes this was as good as you could get, and much better than whale meat and horse meat.

You could never cheat with snipe. All other waders and ducks gather together and many coastal fowlers and punt gunners used to make block shots at the ranks from time to time.

Even on the Derwent Ings you could apparently ‘brown’ peewits when they flocked together. Or I should say when they were a ‘desert’ of birds. Desert is the correct group word for peewits and don’t ask me why, the word doesn’t make sense to me or anybody else.

But snipe were hardly ever seen flying near you in wisps. Only when they settled on the edge of water after a thaw. And only a cad would shoot them on the ground anyway, everyone would tell you.

You had to take them on the wing, and that was a difficult thing.

Snipe when flushed zigzagged and almost always escaped. That was the thing that made them so sought after.

But the snipe has not lost its elusive status decades after I stopped shooting them.

Back in January I flushed twenty birds from amongst the sea purslane and sea arrow grass on the edge of Fishbourne channel.

They sped off calling with that rasping warning note that used to thrill me and indeed still does.

In today’s world that wisp of twenty is a rare sight. Numbers plummeted in Britain not because of shooting but because of marsh drainage in NW Europe.

However, WEBS counts are showing that in the past five years they are making a comeback, possibly due to the acquisition by conservation bodies like the RSPB of marshes for nature reserves.

The Somerset Levels holds at least 1,200 snipe in winter. Derwent Ings, the same. In Sussex the Adur estuary has 200 and the Arun valley 170.

We shall all listen out in spring for that weird sound in the darkness of the night sky of a lamb bleating up against the stars.

It will be a cock snipe vibrating his two outer tail feathers in the slip stream as he dives repeatedly.

This peculiar ‘song’ gave the snipe its name of Heather Bleater, and Hammer Blate. Tennyson caught the magic of the bird and gave it a line all to itself describing a desolate savage scenery: ‘ . . . the moor, where hummed the dropping snipe’. I wonder if it made a brief appearance in the Hound of the Baskervilles?

Richard Williamson