Oxhill News

www.oxhill.com / www.oxhill.org.uk

South Warwickshire, England.

The Oxhill News

January 2004


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Nature Notes

The Midwinter month – named after the double-faced Roman god Janus who look back towards the old year and forward to the New Year.

While walking down the side of the brook at dawn last week I had a ‘first’ for Oxhill, although I have seen many on the army camp at Kineton – a woodcock with the fabulous Latin name of Scalloped rust cola (that’s a good one to amaze friends at parties “I see that Scalloped rust cola is a bit thin on the ground this year!”).  The woodcock had been probing the mud in the brook with its long beak for earthworks and insects.  It silently flew into the air and dived rapidly through the trees and vanished off along the brook within seconds.  The woodcock is technically a wading bird which has taken to the land, especially to woodland areas that have opened up by clearings and rides – hence its name.  British woodcock are mainly residents, although the numbers are often increased by winter visitors that come in across the North Sea by night.  They are rarely seen by day unless flushed out of the leaf litter where the usually roost.  They fly by moonlight and at dawn and dusk, and like to feed on marshy or boggy ground.  During the 17th and 18th centuries it was believed that woodcock were among the birds that went to the Moon in autumn.  The bird is handsome with short legs and a plump round body, the eyes set high in the head and well to the back, which gives it all round vision.  The plumage is a beautiful dappled russet, perfect camouflage on the woodland floor.  The woodcock also has a unique feature in that it carries its young between its legs if startled or threatened and will return to ‘rescue’ any remaining offspring.  This was thought to be fanciful folklore for many years, but has recently been proven correct.  Another fascinating fact about woodcock is its ‘pin’ feathers or ‘pen’ feathers which are located at the first joint of the wings and are tight fine feathers about 10 – 15 cm long and shaped exactly like a fine paint brush.  They were prized among artists and scribes and it is said that many of the medieval manuscript illuminated panels were painted using woodcock pin feathers.

Sadly for the woodcock, it is a game bird (meaning it is legal to shoot them) and is judged by many to be the finest of all birds taken to the table.  Traditionally woodcock and snipe are both cooked rare complete with head, feet and entrails and served on toast or fried bread.  On presentation at the table the entrails are pulled and spread on to the toast (during cooking they completely dissolve into a paste reminiscent of liver pate).  The woodcock does not have the normal intestines of other birds and on springing from the ground it excretes all waste from its small stomach.  If you were to order Scotch woodcock you would receive a dish of egg yolks, cream and anchovies.  The name is a play on the English belief that the Scots are cautious with their money and that this offers a substitute for the choice and costly woodcock.

During the progressive supper (which I can’t recommend highly enough – do come to the next one if you haven’t yet tried it) someone enquired if I knew anything of the history of their breed of dog, so I though I might each month include a small piece on dogs, and as I’ve been talking about woodcock …

A pair of red and white spaniels sent to John Churchill, later Duke of Marlborough, as a present from China , were christened ‘Blenheim’ spaniels.  These small spaniels could be used as working dogs and would be employed in low and close-growing cover to spring woodcock, hence they became known as cocker spaniels.

A happy and prosperous new year to all readers, and remember that January 13th is St Hilary’s day and traditionally the coldest day of the year – wrap up well!

Grenville Moore

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Last modified: June 04, 2004