Editor Pete Carr looks at the methods, equipment and areas involved in the pursuit of this diminutive and elusive wader found in bog and marsh
The tiny snipe makes up for its lack in stature with the sport it always provides the roving gun who chooses to pursue it. Snipe specialists are few, and snipe are mostly shot as interesting incidentals on more formal driven days, on both moor and lowground. Snipe can in fact be pursued fairly easily by interested fowlers and roving game shots who are willing to do a little homework and are prepared to travel for their sport.
Large numbers of snipe can be found in certain areas of Ireland, the west coast of Scotland and outlying islands. In some of these places snipe can be found in sufficient numbers to allow driving, and what fantastic sport they provide. This little wader can also be walked up, targeting the boggy areas, and preferably walking them into the wind (if it is light) so that any birds that do choose altitude as way of escape may be brought back over the guns by the breeze and provide some opportune driven shots. Walked-up over pointers is more formal but very enjoyable for those who like the dog work too. The third method is flighting, which relies much on local knowledge and more than a dash of luck.
Snipe are found in wild, exposed boggy areas and as such one must be prepared. Never set out alone, and always let someone know of your intended destination and duration of sporting activity. Sound, warm and waterproof clothing that will give sufficient protection and sensible footwear are a given. Don’t forget, even with driving these birds you will probably have to walk a fair mileage over infirm and challenging terrain.
Common Snipe – Gallinago gallinago
Small brown wader with characteristic long, straight bill. Upper parts brown and black with golden buff stripes on head and back; under parts white with dark brown markings and pale barred flank. White trailing edge to wing in flight. Juvenile resembles adult. Characteristic zigzag flight pattern when disturbed with “scaap, scaap” alarm call. Most easily confused with jack snipe (protected except in Northern Ireland).
- Shooting season August 12 to January 31 England, Wales and Scotland.
- Northern Ireland September 1 to January 31.
Jack snipe – Lymnocryptes minimus
Small, relatively short-billed and large-headed snipe, with dark plumage, and rather slow, reluctant flight. Longitudinal back stripes obvious at close range; flanks mottled or softly streaked, not barred. Tail wedge-shaped.
Almost silent except when displaying. Sexes similar. Juvenile not separable in field. Distinguished from common snipe by smaller size, and when flushed (often at close range) rises silently, flying a short distance and falling back to ground.
- Shooting season September 1 to January 31 in Northern Ireland.
- Fully protected in England, Wales and Scotland.
Short drives are the order of the day with snipe. They cannot be pushed far before pitching back in. Strategic placement of stops who know how to work a flag are often the difference between success and failure. No one can be really certain the direction the birds will chose once flushed, but their habit of circling causes a fair percentage to go over the guns, often very high. In a wind, their direction will be easier to predict but nothing is ever certain. Indeed wind is most important. It is hopeless to try to drive snipe against a strong wind, as a great number will go away at right angles. The best chance is to drive snipe down-wind, which, if it is a good gale, blows them over the guns in a very enthusing manner.
A regiment of beaters is not necessary for driving snipe; a handful of beaters who know their game marshaled by an experienced keeper will most often than not deliver the results.
Driven snipe may come low and fast with all the associated jinks to begin with, certainly, but their rapid flight soon takes a more direct course. That said, they can begin their jigs again for myriad reasons. However, when the birds choose to go high the real acrobatics are displayed as they spiral into the sky and provide some of the most testing shooting one could wish for.
Often the shot must be taken from a sitting position, which of course only adds to the difficulties, but that’s what makes it challenging. Make your position comfortable, secure and be sure of your safe arcs of fire and all will be well.
The state of the moon is of great importance to the snipe-driver, for if there is no moon the snipe will be busy feeding all day, and will, even after being disturbed, continually return during the course of the drive to their feeding grounds. But after a moonlit night, they are very wild, and if disturbed will fly great distances.
Snipe can be shot at flight time, both morning and night if the gunner knows where to go and does not object to a large element of uncertainty. I have been fortunate enough to enjoy some small success in that department of the sport. In the corner of east Yorkshire where I grew up, there used to be a network of small rough pastures. These would semi-flood most winters, and were a huge draw for snipe. Grazed by cattle for most of the year, their dung encouraged the worm rich areas that the snipe and woodcock adored. Those landed grasses had been there since time immemorial, and any thought of crop rotation, if indeed ever there ever was one, remained just that – a thought – until recent times.
This patchwork of rough grasses and seaves (Yorkshire term for rushes or sedge grass) provided me with ample opportunity to walk up and flight snipe with some regularity. And if one positioned oneself between these fields at dusk or dawn, with enough wind to work out their probable flight path between the snipe rest and feeding areas, really good sport could sometimes be had, but it is certainly a hit and miss affair.
Good fieldcraft is essential in snipe shooting, and knowing the habits of your quarry is of the utmost importance. Indeed it takes out some speculation from what is essentially complete guesswork. I would watch the reed beds morning and evening, taking full use of any intel received from the farmers and see which reed beds had become favoured snipe roosts (they differed from year to year). Once found it just remained to work out the wind and choose a shooting position accordingly, and await the “scaap, scaap” call of the first airborne snipe – the harbinger of the sport to come, which can often be fast and furious.
The British record bag of 249 snipe shot in one day was taken on the Island of Tiree (Inner Hebrides), October 29 1906 by two guns: Lord Elphinstone and Mr. J.D. Cobbold. Apparently they would have shot many more if the birds hadn’t been so unapproachable due to the flooded bogs.
Despite the hours spent flighting this diminutive wader, most of the birds that have fallen to my gun have been walked-up. Walking them into a light wind is superb fun as they twist and jig away, or alternatively rise like skylarks if the fancy takes them, spiraling to great heights until they surrender to the breeze and are pushed back over the gun to make as difficult a mark as one could wish for. More than once, I have heard it tell that when a snipe flushes and begins its twisting deception, one must wait for the third turn before picking a line to swing on. I must confess I have never subscribed to this notion, and my best advice is to shoot as the snipe flushes; it is snap-shooting at its best.
If working over flushing dogs, no more than one or two kept working in tight are needed for a small party of guns. Pointing dogs is more formal and very enjoyable indeed. One of my most memorable shots at snipe was after a strong point from one of Davy Thomas’s superb pointers on the Black Corries Estate, in Glen Coe last season. The beauty of working the pointers is the spectacle provided. You will cover great distances in a day but it will be at a leisurely pace.
The snipe of course has the longest shooting season of all our gamebirds and wildfowl. He is as welcome an addition to a formal grouse day as he is on the last excursion of a mixed rough day on January 31. By whatever method you chose to engage him, the snipe will provide exceptional sport. Be fair to him and use a gun you are familiar with (be prepared to get it damp and spattered in mud), and use suitable cartridges for the species and environment.
Cartridge choice for snipe with Richard Atkins
Selecting the ideal cartridge for shooting any quarry requires several factors be considered to help ensure success. Prime factors are the size of the quarry and the distance shots are most likely to be taken at, and in the snipe’s case, take into account where the snipe are to be engaged.
The long established maxim for sportsmen dictates that:
a) The pellets in the cartridge chosen will have sufficient energy to cleanly kill the quarry at the range envisaged.
b) The pattern produced by the gun/cartridge combination must place sufficient pellets onto the vital areas of the quarry.
Central to cartridge choice for snipe is its size; the common snipe at 27 cm (10 ½”) is the smallest quarry species in England, Wales, and Scotland. It has the longest shooting season: August 12 to January 31 (September 1 to January 31 in Northern Ireland). Indeed Northern Ireland also has the jack snipe on the quarry list, though this bird is fully protected in England, Wales, and Scotland. The jack snipe is smaller still at 17-19cm (7”). Small shot is required to ensure that patterns are dense enough to hit vital areas. Being so small the need for pellet energy is not so great as with larger species and the often preferred shot size for snipe, as detailed on the BASC’s chart of shot selection for species, has long been UK No. 8 shot. Choice in No. 8 shot in game ammunition can be limited and incur a price premium. Increasingly chosen today are clay target loads with No. 7.5 shot being a favourite. This can be a good compromise but do be sure you select either a UK brand, or if continental, choose shot size No. 8 (confirmed by the diameter being stated as 2.2mm).
An ounce (28 grams) of UK No. 7.5 shot will perform well under many circumstances, including the farther end of ethical range, such as where snipe are walked-up over land with low cover so the shooter will be spotted at distance. Where high driven birds are expected, No. 7.5s will still deliver the required killing energy and some choke will ensure pattern density. Where shorter range shots are more likely, say where terrain affords taller cover that helps the shooter get closer before the snipe rise, UK No. 8 and even No. 9 shot can be used in a fast handling gun with little choke. Killing range will be restricted but quick reactions and small shot in open bored barrels will suffice.
Snipe were originally on the list of birds only permitted to be shot using non-lead shot, but was later removed. However, there remain several circumstances where non-lead shot remains a legal requirement. These include some SSIs, RAMSAR sites and, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, ‘Wetlands’. It is therefore essential that clarification is sought to ensure that only legally permitted ammunition is used and lead alternatives considered.