CALL OF THE WILD
Sporting Shooter|December 2020
Dom Holtam reconnects with one of the purest forms of shotgun shooting as he walks-up woodcock over pointing dogs in the Scottish Highlands
DOM HOLTAM

What does shooting mean to you? What image does it conjure in your mind? What should our sport really stand for? These are the questions we have been asking ourselves increasingly in recent times, as shooting has come under continued attack from every angle.

I think we have all looked at ways to defend, or justify, our relationship with the natural world. For me, all the forms of shooting I love most – stalking, duck flighting and walked-up shooting – have a shared end purpose: they take me out in the countryside – often to some really wild places. And, although bag size is generally modest, there is usually something fabulous for the pot at the end of the day. The satisfaction that having hunted, butchered, cooked and eaten your quarry brings is like nothing else.

While I do enjoy the company and spectacle of a driven shoot, if I am being perfectly honest, a walk-up with a few mates would be my preference every time. Why? I love to watch the dogs working and I want to savour every shot – not just my own, but the success of my comrades; I want the bag to be the star at the dinner table, along with a tale or two about how it arrived there. And, if I had to pick just one venue to do it, it would be the West Highlands. Walking-up snipe and woodcock over tough terrain with even tougher dogs, surrounded by spectacular scenery... if it isn’t on your shooting bucket list, it should be!

The West Highlands’ milder winter climate, mellowed by the Gulf Stream, makes it an attractive destination for woodcock migrating from the frozen north. The thick forestry, plentiful watercourses, boggy ground and the proliferation of grazed pasture provides an ideal habitat for these birds. It’s no surprise, then, that large numbers populate the area every year.

Shooting pressure on the Ardnamurchan estate is strictly controlled, with limited numbers of Guns and shooting days throughout the season. While Ardnamurchan has become a regular destination for my winter deer stalking in recent years, last year’s late-November trip coincided with prime woodcock shooting, so the chance to mix up days on the hill with a day’s walking-up was too good to miss.

We started our day on humpy, coastal ground that drops away into the ocean. Views don’t come much better or air much cleaner. As we got our gear together, we got a stern briefing on safety – despite both Guns being pretty experienced.

We were told from the off that if we carried our guns broken all day, we wouldn’t have many chances. The opportunities are fleeting, and much of the shooting is instinctive: chances come and go in a split second.

Of course, that means that muzzle awareness is of the utmost importance. You need to be constantly checking where the dogs and other Guns are. Fellow Gun, Frederic (our Blaser host), was wearing a jacket with a blaze orange flash and an orange hat band. Wearing an armband or scarf would be an excellent idea — if not a legal requirement — to aid recognition. But, whatever your wardrobe, you need to trust your fellow Guns to be super safe at all times.

‘These birds aren’t known as brown ghosts for nothing! They appear as if by magic, flashing out into the open sky, demanding a quick, instinctive shot’

Working the dogs

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