If such things are to be believed, research analysts now tell us that fewer and fewer people in the civilised world can make a connection between an egg that sells on a supermarket shelf and the chicken that lays it. Whilst that may be a sad factor of modern life, happily the same analogy can be made of snipe shooting in ratio to the remainder of sport shooting for game. For this is a well-guarded secret owned by those privileged eyes and ears of the few who have done it.
I know many shooting folk who have never seen a snipe let alone loosed of their piece at one or, for that matter, would know how or when or where to seek this elusive quarry. This letter might be a help in assisting anyone considering taking up this worthy sporting pastime. It may also provide ideas for those already well versed on the subject to take a look at alternative approaches to their own shooting formats.
I have been fortunate in my life to have had the opportunity to shoot snipe and over many years standing. Sharing that pleasure in this way enables me to look back and recall the happy hours spent out in all weathers pitting my wits against a creature several hundred times smaller, yet several fold smarter and quicker than any human being. It all began for me, as a gangly youth, one late afternoon in the county of Suffolk on the eastern seaboard of middle England. I walked into some marshy ground in search of wild duck and emerged with my first brace of snipe. Little could I foretell at that time that this form of shooting would grow with me quite in the way it has. Whatever my friend and I had done that day we had done it right and that gave me the yardstick for everything I was to plan with snipe from that time to this.
I will elucidate firstly on the format that shooting takes in Britain so that we have understanding and clarity of some of the terminology. To hunt in Britain means to pursue a quarry with hounds either on horseback as in the case of Foxhunting and Staghunting, or on foot as in the case of Greyhound Coursing or Beagling. Shooting in contrast to the term "hunting" per se means exactly that, shooting, and usually by that we mean game and vermin. Clay or trap shooting is another thing altogether of which I am wholly unqualified to comment upon, which by definition is also both an embarrassing admission of hopelessness and of defeatism in not having the courage to go out and really try. My best excuse is to draw on one of my earliest lessons in youth; to speak only of what I do know about and not what I don't.
In order to possess a shotgun in Britain the only licence required is a shotgun licence; similarly a rifle requires the holder to be granted a firearms certificate. These are not simple processes and are subject to much scrutiny on the applicant by the police. Any subsequent criminal record, such as drunk driving, renders both licences terminated and all weapons confiscated. There is no such thing as a licence to shoot. All the land is in private hands and the shooting rights to that land is in private hands. So an owner of the shooting rights over property can either run a shoot upon it, or rent it to a third party or do neither. What is certain is that any uninvited person apprehended shooting on privately owned land is deemed a poacher, and poaching is a criminal act and is punishable through the courts.
Perhaps as much as 95% of the game shooting in the British Isles is formal shooting. Depending on your circle of friends you could be rubbing shoulders with an Peer of the Realm one minute or just as easily with a bounder like me the next. Either way you might be as host, or as a guest, or as paying guest being part of a shooting syndicate that has leased land for the purpose of game shooting. Shooting takes the form of driven pheasants, partridge, grouse, wildfowling and vermin. On most shoots in Britain a gamekeeper is employed. This is a highly responsible job and a full time one. A gamekeeper's duties would be to the safeguard and rearing of his game birds and to the control of vermin that represent a constant threat to that venture. Every day he will hand feed his bird stock around the estate. As well as build and repair his release pens, and assist in any other way the estate might require him on other duties. The gamekeeper is ultimately responsible for producing a fine day of sport. On the day of the shoot itself a gamekeeper will draw in a large number of locally based beaters to assist him in presenting the birds over the line of guns for perhaps anything up to seven drives during the day. A properly run shoot will endeavour to show really challenging and high birds to their guests. Good topography is vital to this of course, and an estate that lack the hills, valleys and woods, has an uphill (no pun intended) struggle to present decent sporting birds. The skills of a good gamekeeper are hard to find and secure but he's a man worth his weight in gold when you do. Judge this as you may but there are an increasing number of shoots that are bagging an unhealthy tally of birds in a day's shooting. One Arab-owned shoot within a short distance of where I farm is reputed to kill in the region of 1700 birds every time they shoot and they shoot in excess of twenty days annually. These numbers don't do our sport any favours and are strongly frowned upon by many true sportsmen and most especially by your correspondent.
Of the less formal shooting that takes place in these Isles is that of rough shooting and Wildfowling. The partakers in a day's rough shooting might be one when a few people tapping out hedges and woods with their dogs in the hope of loosing off a few shots at whatever they may find. This is a most enjoyable way of spending as day out with a friend and enjoying the dog work. Wildfowling is the toughest form of our shooting sport; it is for those shooters who prefer the more solitary life. The chill and bitter conditions of an easterly wind blowing full in the face, soaked, crouched under dark, cloudy and threatening skies waiting for a passing duck, comes easily to them. And I with them. It is not something that appeals to couch potatoes, but then "each to his own choice" I say.
To be invited to shoot anywhere in this country is a triumph of being considered both a safe shot and thoroughly decent and sociable sort of a fellow. I'm still trying to fathom out quite how I have managed to spoof so many people with my own lack of these most enviable qualities for so long.
My own experiences in this, the sport of all sports, are limited solely to the British Isles. I wish I had developed opportunities to pursue snipe in different countries, but holiday time was precious time and family requirements demanded my presence with them to soak up vitamin D whilst sitting on a beach building sandcastles and whilst also watching all the pretty girls go by, but pretending not to. The pocket had a casting vote in this too, and during the early part of my married life children needed my commitments to education, food and shoes; Daddies are there to pay not to play.
But in a sense I was luckier than most for I married a girl with a bog, or at least her father rented an Island from the Duke of Argyll which had many bogs and happily all of them contained the greatest creature of all, the common snipe. My father-in-law was extremely generous to me in enabling me to fulfil this passion and would ask me through all those years, even to his own life's end, with regularity. He was most knowledgeable about snipe shooting, was a first class shot and thoroughly enjoyable company. I became so much a part of that island and it taught me so much about snipe shooting. I knew the bogs well and I worked out how the wind could alter everything, where snipe fed and the places they preferred to shelter. I learned how to read the land by doing it so often.
The well-tried and tested system adopted for snipe shooting on the island became second nature to us. Some bogs were better walked up whilst others better driven and so on. We walked up four guns line abreast interspersed with a dog man or beater or the ghillie. The pace was always taken slowly and steadily and thoroughly. Walked up snipe should never be taken in a hurry and always as silently as possible. The first thing the uninitiated do is to start coffee housing at the commencement of a walk. This is a sure-fire way to move on the snipe and put them out of reach.
Each approach to a beat is planned solely on the way the wind behaves. The elementary rule is to walk with the wind striking your back. Snipe will always fly head into wind. This gives the shooter a better chance of making the connection. Once a snipe is airborne and spots the approaching guns they will rise and jink rapidly and at some point turn away and then back to face the wind once more to climb and jink and climb. If a drive is taken at too fast a pace the snipe may sit tight and get walked over.
I have seen so many guns (shooters) come out for the first time either too tense or too laid back in their approach. When out snipe shooting you need to be loose and ready all at the same time. Hold the gun in both hands in the port arms position but with the barrels pointing down. Fingers always away from the trigger guard for there is the every possibility of tripping at awkward times during the walk. Think safety. The ground ahead is uncertain, tufted, boggy, sloppy, rocky, slippery or firm. In such conditions anything goes. You must be vigilant and alert all the time. And never forget that whilst you may be travelling easily one moment, your fellow gun may be having difficulties with the terrain that he encounters. Snipe ground is that variable and at times treacherous.
So much a part of the enjoyment of shooting snipe is just being out there; filling your lungs with good clean air, watching your dog doing his utmost best to please his master by putting up snipe or finding and retrieving them when they're down. There are some dogs who won't pick up a snipe and these need watching carefully simply due to the fact that they may have the scent on one and won't carry out the full contract of the retrieve. Never reprimand a dog for failing on this, but try instead to teach him the new scent by rubbing the body of a dead snipe all over your hands and then stroking him lovingly around his muzzle. He will soon connect the two. Alternatively cut the wings off a dead snipe and tie them onto a dummy and do some retrieving practice at home with that.
To shoot snipe is often regarded as the pinnacle on a man's quarry "must-have" list. This little chap is admired for his cunning and his stealth; he is very wild and he's lightening quick. Man by contrast is several mental clicks behind this slippery little bird. One moment the eye is fixed to that rocky outcrop with some rushes lying beyond and along a shallow ditch just ahead. Yes, that's where he lies you think. In the next split second you hear that creaky squeelch as the snipe takes flight but where; left? right? behind? And there you see him too late, he's away; another wild shot taken and missed by a country mile. In the next scene a very high snipe comes winging in from another part, he's miles up but you swing anyway. You pull the muzzle through the bird and give it yards more lead, and more than you dare admit to. A single pellet does the trick and down he comes, delta wings splayed back, beak pointing straight outwards diving headlong for a soggy piece of the bog. Now it's the turn of man's best friend, your trusty dog. A pricked snipe is so clever. He will disguise himself and his scent very quickly. He can bury himself in mud or rushes in split seconds. He can run very fast too. I have seen so many certain pick-ups ending in despair and utter disbelief.
By far the most challenging, and indeed the most exhilarating, experience is to be on the receiving end of driven snipe. To drive snipe is usually the form decided upon when considering taking in a small bog and one that is known to contain dozens of birds. The rules of engagement remain as for walked up shooting with the guns strategically placed, crouched, away from the end point of the bog with their backs to the wind. The beaters will need to make a wide detour well away from the bog to reach the start point. Absolute silence is imperative. Once the drive begins and the first shot rings out the snipe will be very jumpy. Their climb will be rapid and jinking but by the time the bird gets to the line of guns he will be very high and his flight line will have flattened out. To brings these stonkers down successfully out of the ether sorts out the true men from the boys.
There is another less common method of shooting snipe and one which I have never consciously committed myself to; it is that of flighting snipe in just the same way that duck are flighted. There have been many times whilst standing on the foreshore waiting for a passing pintail that I have heard, and barely seen, wisps of snipe pass overhead. The marsh can be a lively place at dusk and fairly boiling with snipe at certain times. A 10 bore is a hefty tool to raise for a passing snipe and given the effort taken in raising it for a target I am bound to miss, would be an effort in vain. Instead I merely raise my right arm, salute them and bid them a very good night.
When a day is planned for snipe it is advisable to think clearly ahead and envisage any pitfalls that may arise that could ruin the day, and indeed just as equally make the day run more smoothly. The weather is the primary consideration. If the ground is frozen you are not likely to see snipe at all. You'd be better off lighting a fire and staying indoors. Snipe will hunt for food only when they can get their long beaks easily into soft ground. So if the conditions under foot will allow snipe to probe in your favoured shooting bog then you are in with a chance of seeing your quarry.
People often ask me about how to recognise the ideal haunts for snipe. Any land that comprises of marshes and bog patches bounding shallow streams perhaps, or dykes and ditches or inlets and creeks off the sea wall. Look in places where floodwater is just running off and where the grass tops are just about poking up through the surface. Other places where they are likely to lie are in places where the rushes might grow. Never be fooled too greatly by this; it can be mistakenly thought of as the only place by those with little experience. Sometimes a grassy and partly water-laden field near the water's edge where cattle graze is a good place, for snipe like dirty things such as probing dung pats, which adds a further dimension to their delicious table flavour! I have one field in permanent set-a-side on my farm which is always worth a walk up at the right time of year and when the nature of the field has readied itself to beckon the snipe. The reason this is mentioned is that it is surrounded for miles by cultivated arable land and the existence of snipe in this field invariably raises eyebrows amongst my envious friends and I quite as suddenly become a man worthy of talking to. The truth is that they are not there for long and are passing through. If a brace can be bagged then what great joy that brings. Snipe will lie perhaps sometimes in or around small rocky outcrops. These might harbour some wild Irises and reed grasses as well as a puddle of water but little else to offer more clues. Such places often reveal two or three snipe in a small wisp, so beware. I include this because it is pure fallacy to believe that snipe always have to have their feet wet, they don't.
It is a point to note that snipe population can be made up by two factors. A number of areas may hold resident birds with the remainder being made up from migratory visitors. Local knowledge alone will determine the prospect of decent sport.
The correct clothing is vitally important, too little could leave the shooter exposed to sudden change in weather conditions. I always check the weather forecast and take extra clothing in case of mishap. Make sure that the clothing you buy is comfortable too. There is nothing more irritating on a long trek through the bogs than if the clothes you are wearing are either uncomfortably tight or too clumsy and awkward. Spend time and effort and perhaps a bit of extra money on getting that right. Camouflage yourself well to blend in with the surrounding landscape. I know that in some countries it is the law to conform to wearing garish and brightly coloured flashes, I have no suggestions as to how you disguise yourself wearing that.
Take food and drink. Food is a survival kit. Your car might break down miles out from anywhere and you need to sustain yourself until help arrives, so pack extra food and water for yourself and for your dog. A few years ago I came across a marvellous little lifesaver called a Kelly Kettle. Last year I backed my car over it and so I bought another recently. It is a simple apparatus for boiling up a litre of water very quickly; using the bare minimum of twigs for fuel and in my view comes high onto the essentials list. At the day's end a quick brew of coffee before the journey home will revitalise you and help to keep you from falling asleep at the wheel.
And last, and certainly by no means least is your gun. It is every bit at the top of the list to get absolutely right. After a short while of walking the bog the gun becomes something you cannot help but notice. It starts to get heavy. Snipe shooting doesn't require a great big cannon, although many of the old master sportsmen advocated a 12 bore as being the essential tool for the job. And there is nothing wrong with that at all, but when it weighs in at over 9lbs then it does start to become a very big issue especially with the next five to ten miles trek in front to complete. So weight is very important, as is balance. That moment arrives when a snipe lifts off, the shooter has a two-movement exercise to complete before loosing off his piece. I believe our American friends might describe this as "a fast-handling gun". The port arms position to the shoulder position has to be done effectively and with a minimal energy loss. The very moment you need this co-ordination to work effectively it will, if not done right, affect your shooting ability for the worse and frustrate the day. Your reflexes take command as hand to eye contact with your gun swings to the line of your jinking target. My favourite choice for snipe shooting is a 28 bore side by side. I use a 21g load with No.7 shot. There is however a potential problem with this. I know of no company that loads 28 bore with Bismuth in Europe. Strictly speaking a lead load should not be used near the foreshore. I am looking at ways of reloading my own cartridges to overcome the possibility of having to forego my 28 on snipe shooting days. In summary, this gun is light, well balanced and flies up into the shoulder without even being invited to do so.
I do abide by one golden rule when out shooting in the countryside, which is to leave the land as I would expect to find it. Many cartridge makers load with fibre wads, try to seek these out and use them as plastic is not only unsightly it is also harmful to any grazing animal that may eat it. The same rule applies to empty cartridge cases. It requires so little effort to pick them up and carry them home.
At the day's close there's the journey home, but before you do give the dog a good rubbing down with a dry towel and when you reach home he needs to be fed, and the gun too needs to be cleaned before seeing to your own comforts and needs. You're tired and you put your feet up and re-live every stride of that day's experiences all over again. One thing is certain; the shooting man can have nothing but tremendous respect for this amazing little bird. This creature like no other on the quarry list tricks man more than the snipe. He is the ultimate flying machine and I love him and I admire him.
Any opportunity to take a day out snipe shooting should never be missed or refused in my view. It is always an unforgettable experience and I am already dreaming of the days to come in November this year when I return again to the island I have described and to practice exactly the do's and don'ts I have shared with you in this letter.