Woodcock habitat is much reduced

WINTER came striding in, no less imposing for being late. We had advance warning: on a calm bright day, I saw a woodcock flickering through the trees, the first in that forest this year.

I had previously seen others in different woodland, roused by the beaters, to give the challenging shot, the testing find and the sportsman’s dish.

Just as one swallow does not make a summer, so one woodcock does not warn of winter, but when more come ahead of the moon and the north European weather, you know what will follow behind.

We are right on the edge of their range, though there is increasing evidence that some are staying, a compliment to the habitat management of our game shoots.

Some of these attractive little gamebirds will remain, and give us the treat of seeing their roding* flight at the start of the breeding season, when they are staking out their territory.

Like the hare, the woodcock has an other-worldly look to it, as if it does not quite belong.

With the hare, it shares an unusual eye, though a quite different one, dark and liquid to the hare’s glowing amber, and its plumage is all shades of autumn leaves, similar to the hare’s pelage.

Both are mysterious creatures, the sort you can study for a lifetime and still learn more almost every time you meet, yet feeling still that you know so very little.

They are challenging quarry, and almost as revered on the table as they are when hunted in their own habitat. Each has a feel of old magic about it, and to see either, however briefly, makes the day special.

So after the woodcock’s warning, we had a sample of winter’s range, from high winds and lashing rain to those bright, bitter days so lovely to look at, though bringing their own challenges to those of us who spend more of our day outdoors than in.

Feeding and watering livestock takes priority no matter what; it must have been so hard in the old days before piped water, for though good wells don’t freeze in a hurry, the water still had to be carted.

I remember years ago bringing horses out to the trough to water several times a day, before looseboxes were the norm and water was freely available as it is now.

Horses have much pleasanter winters than they did in those days, when rugs were harsh jute and kept on with rollers and breast bands, rather than the lightweight fabrics and comfortable cross surcingles of today.

Yes, a lot has changed for the better, though any time I see an old-style stable-yard with herringbone floors and stone troughs, it brings a pang of nostalgia which conveniently glosses over the sheer hard work required in those days.

It’s the same with farm stock: caring for animals is still hard work, and there are fewer people to do it nowadays, but when I look back at the old days, I am glad to be here now.

For the woodcock - and the hare - little has changed. Habitat is much reduced, and largely dependent now on shooting interests and kindly farming, which keep the wild places maintained and the predators controlled where possible.

But creatures know only that the land is the way they like it, and that they must remain alert for enemies all their lives, just as their forebears needed to be.

For me, I am sometimes predator and sometimes custodian, but always supreme in my admiration of these beings with which I am fortunate enough to share my world.

The sky was clearing for nightfall in edges of gathering dusk and I turned my collar to the wind and started for home, my mind on woodcock, hares and winter, as the shivering hoot of the first owl sounded silver in the darkness.