Prime ministers, Charles Darwin and many more besides have all enjoyed the prospect of snipe; says Jeremy Hobson
A hand-written note scrawled across an aircraft menu by Sir Winston Churchill whilst on a BOAC flight to America in June 1954, contained an unusual request. His amendments to the airline’s more usual breakfast choices were, however, most likely penned tongue-in-cheek as even the very best first-class service would have been hard-pushed – at several thousand feet – to procure and fulfill the prime minister’s demands of a brace of snipe accompanied by a pint of port!
If they had been available in-flight as it were, I wonder whether Sir Winston would have taken his on toast? There’s not much meat on a brace of snipe and breakfast would have needed some extra bulk in order to satisfy the appetite of the 80-year-old elder statesman.
Whilst they might only provide a morsel of eating, they are though, as the American chef and food writer, Hank Shaw says: “… a bird with a flavour all out of proportion to its size.”
But, to paraphrase the oft-misquoted words of another chef – Mrs. Beeton – it is of course, necessary to first catch your snipe. Going in pursuit of these marsh will-o-the-wisps often takes much planning.
For 20 years or more, it was the annual tradition that the ‘snipe-field’ would be driven as part of our Boxing Day foray. The name was actually a somewhat grandiose moniker as it was, in fact, nothing more than a rough, very damp field grazed by young cattle during the drier months of summer. Their hooves pock-marked the ground, making miniature puddles in winter and these, together with the reedy tussocks of vegetation, made it perfect for snipe.
Driven snipe-shooting is a sport that doesn’t suffer duffers and to have any chance of success, Guns and beaters had to arrive at opposite ends of the field at precisely the right time. Ever fearful of being the one to mess things up and incur their host’s wrath, guests would approach their allotted spots at a crouching run whilst laden with gunslip, cartridges and the very real prospect of tripping over their generally excited dogs. Often arriving out of breath and somewhat flustered, the phrase “Fred Karno’s Army” sprang readily to mind!
Boxing Day was, as is the case on many shoots, a day for young Guns to be out during their Christmas holidays and for many, the ‘snipe field’ drive was their first opportunity to take part in such sport. If they were lucky in their aim, their first snipe would, after the drive was over, be proudly displayed and carefully examined.
As well as his fame as a naturalist and work on the science of evolution, Charles Darwin was an enthusiastic follower of fieldsports. In a collection of his letters published in 1887, he remembered shooting his first snipe: “… my excitement was so great that I had much difficulty in reloading my gun from the trembling of my hands.”
Then as now, the prospect of driven snipe causes great excitements and successes to be recorded in the game book. Not all however, take the form of this particular entry of 1925: “22 snipe and 1 golden plover. Shot the golden plover by mistake when missing a snipe…”
There are obvious safety issues to consider when snipe shooting. In the days when complaints of an accidental peppering of a beater or faithful family retainer might have been quietened by a ten shilling note (50p) rather than, as is more likely these days, a huge claim for compensation, the knowledge of such possible largesse was put to good use by one entrepreneurial youngster. In Border Reflections, Lord Home tells the following tale:
“A small boy who had been hiding under the bank of the river rose as Henry fired a shot at snipe, clutching his ear. The lobe was not even penetrated. [However] The magic tariff produced smiles all round. But when we next went to shoot in the same place the bank was lined with youths eager to earn such danger-money.”
Staying with ex-prime ministers, but returning to the subject of snipe as a tasty meal, I’m sure that Sir Winston Churchill would have had been in total agreement with the unknown early 20th century writer of these particular pearls of wisdom: “By way of a postscript let me add that there is no morceau that brings out the true flavour of a good Bordeaux or Burgundy so well as snipe does. Let him who takes white wine with snipe… be accounted a heathen.”!