Oh, the curséd snipe. Not for nothing is the highly skilled rifleman known as a sniper; these birds are truly buggers to shoot. Equally, a fruitless task is known as a snipe hunt - think of sending that poor apprentice for a left-handed screwdriver or a box of holes.
The classic snipe hunt joke involves sitting someone out in the open on a chilly evening, armed only with a chair, a sack and a baseball bat, or local equivalent. The poor bugger is told to sit quietly until he hears a particular low sound, and is told to stalk the bird until he can throw the sack over its head, upon which he is obliged to beat the brains out of the poor bird. Not only would this never work with a real snipe, but even armed with the appropriate shotgun and birdshot, it takes a particularly good shot to bring one down.
This is a bird which, if human, would be a world-class boxer, or an international-standard rugby winger, able to bob and weave, dodge and jink to evade punches or tackles as appropriate. The funny thing is that they don't look as though they'd be capable of such aerobatics as are necessary to avoid several grams of lead shot fired at colossal speed. They're kind of funny-looking, to be honest, what with their long, thin beaks (almost half the length of their bodies) and skinny little knobbly-kneed legs. The RSPB describes them as "medium sized, skulking wading birds with short legs", and boy, do they skulk. When they aren't hunting for wriggly things in their native marshlands, they are laughing their arses off as they avoid hunters by the bloody score.
I went once, on a real snipe hunt somewhere near Lincoln - the only time I'd fired a gun before my recent handgun experiments and after my junior years of shooting bottles with an airgun. We didn't go to hunt snipe, of course, we were after pheasant; tame, hand-reared pheasant, at that. These were the kind of birds that, when beaten out of cover, whirr across a single hedgerow to land exhausted in front of the "hunters", most of whom were either rank amateurs like myself, or City gents who had paid an arm and a leg for the privilege of getting up to their knees in mud and cowpats. They were stupid. The birds and the hunters. There's a hard rule amongst real hunters that you never shoot a walking bird. These ninnies ignored this rule, the only one that would have given these daft gamebirds anything even close to a sporting chance. About a quarter of the birds I saw bagged that day were standing still, looking directly down the barrels of a hand-tooled Purdey wielded by someone with more money than experience.
I tried, I really did. The landowning friend who had invited me up for the weekend had given me a quick rundown on how to shoot these bloody cannons of double barreled shotgun. It's only today that I realise that I'd not have been able to load one, as there were no lessons in that. Someone was loading guns as fast as we could shoot them - I think his name was Gatling - he was the gamekeeper, and a blacker, dourer soul I have yet to meet. But I digress - after about an hour, and two or three sweeps of the cover I hadn't shot a single bird, and was chilly, damp and uncomfortable in my borrowed boots, and sore of shoulder to boot. I'd fired several times, and done all the newbie shooting things, including falling over as I attempted to fire at too steep an angle, but bird I had shot none. I'd winged a bush or two, and there's a fencepost there that's the worse for wear, but that was it. No casualties other than a moderately wounded pride, I'd managed to avoid pulling a Cheney but had a bag of zero. Nul points, as they say in Eurovison. I was about to quit, go back for a nice cup of tea, but my good friend John encouraged me to stay for "just one more drive".
I sighed, of course, told myself that he was right, and that I should await it out 'til the bitter end. Ignoring the laughter of the inbred half-nobility and inane city toffs, I plonked myself once more next to my stick and awaited. Heard the beaters working up out of the copse, heard the mad helicopter sound of a dozen idiot pheasant flying up from cover, heard the excited howls of my fellows, and the roar of their guns as they stroked yet more poor birds out of the sky. Then all was silent for just one golden moment, and I saw a solitary bird just above hedge level, dipping and swooping, delightfully acrobatic after the inept antics of the poor bloody pheasants lying about the place, waiting for the dogs to bring them back. The world slowed to a crawl, a strange peace enveloped me, and dreamlike, my gun came to my shoulder almost under its own bidding; I recall no conscious thought. Now the bird was flying straight for me, now diving, now climbing and ducking and doing everything expect the hummingbird trick of flying backward. No barnstormer pilot ever did what this bird did, and as the gun nested in my shoulder, and I squeezed the trigger, it all stopped. There was a chasmic silence, even the echoes were muted, and all slow-motion, John signalled "guns up", and a dozen guns were broken into the quiet.
That's all I remember until the whisky came around, and the noise returned. John practically bowed as he brought me the limp body of this wee creature. "It's a snipe", he said, and everyone gathered, gazing in some awe at what had been wrought (or unwrought, for this crazy aerobat was no more than a bedraggled feathermass, even its beak seemed to droop in dismay at its own failure). I stroked it, sad that this clown of a bird had been brought low by such an inept shot as I. Of course, I was lionised when we got back - every single soul seems to have believed that I had merely been waiting, getting my eye in, or simply becoming accustomed to an unfamiliar gun or terrain. To this day, I have no doubt that these Hooray Henries still tell this tale as they pass the port or swill their ill-earned champers, all the while guffawing and stressing how they'd thought I was a total plank up 'til the last shot.
For myself, I mourn that bird, madly diving through all its dimensions, exerting all its evolutionary skill before failing on that one last crazy flight. I never hunted again.
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