Can less mean more?
Reflecting on the widespread change in attitude towards game shooting since the advent of commercial shooting, Mark Crudgington considers the thrill of smaller days and describes why, for him, there are far better ways to get more from the sport than striving for bigger bags and higher birds.
I was lucky earlier this season to load for a friend on what turned out to be a near record day for the moor to which we were invited. My friend shot just over a slab of cartridges in the five drives and achieved a respectable average. He had never seen or shot driven grouse before and was somewhat overwhelmed on a couple of the drives when the birds simply poured forward. It was an amazing day harvesting wild birds in a well-managed environment – the result of good gamekeeping and habitat management which resulted in a large surplus of birds that have to be shot to maintain the health of the grouse population and the moor.
When driving home afterwards we had time to discuss the day, and later at home I was able to reflect on why we regard a large bag as a prodigious achievement... Is it the mesmerising clouds of birds, the near constant gun fire, and the adrenaline-fuelled rush of fast action akin to being in the passenger seat of Steve McQueen’s car in Bullitt?
I was born in the ’60s and started shooting in the early ’70s, before buying a day’s shooting had been invented. I started like most boys, with an airgun and then a .410, creeping up hedgerows in the hope of bagging a rabbit or, even more exciting, a pigeon. I would go beating on small local shoots in the winter and occasionally be allowed to join in on the large organised pigeon roost shoots in February; these experiences allowed me to hone a love and understanding of the rural environment as well as my latent hunting skills.
I used to listen in awe as some Guns would talk of the 100-bird days they had shot on. Once, a friend of my father’s told me of a 500-brace day’s grouse shooting he had participated in before the war, when all the Guns came down to dinner afterwards in their dinner suits but without shirts, so that they could compare bruises!
Most ‘formal’ shooting in my youth was by invitation to the local farmers’ shoots or small DIY syndicates where the number of Guns was usually around 10 and the bags would average 30 birds. Those birds would be carefully laid out at the end of the day, ceremoniously counted, and then distributed between Guns, beaters and helpers. I can also remember how the local butcher, who was one of the Guns, would take birds to sell on (at £4 a brace in the feather, when a gallon of petrol cost 68p), if the bag exceeded what we could reasonably share between us. I now find I am reminded of the camaraderie of those days when I am lucky enough to shoot on smallish shoots on the Continent.
I can vividly remember my first 100-bird day. It was in Wiltshire and such an overpowering experience that I struggled to record it accurately in my gamebook. The difference between shooting three or four birds all day and shooting, in my case, 11 on one drive, meant I didn’t fully remember each bird afterwards.
On the smaller days I was accustomed to, however, if I had a particularly memorable shot, I could usually pick that bird out when the bag was presented at the end of the day, and ask if I could have it. If I was lucky enough to get it, I could then perform a rudimentary autopsy when I got it home and was preparing it for the table. These autopsies helped my teenage self understand the importance of the lead I gave each bird and how the interaction between pellets and bird affected the outcome – deductions which would often be carefully noted in my gamebook. I wonder how many people still do this?
As I got older, I was invited on some much bigger days including a very large mixed duck and pheasant day, the aftermath of which left me questioning why I had attended; a much looked-forward to activity ended up feeling like a day’s hard labour!
I then met a great man called Roy Whitehead, for whom I did a lot of work and for whom, a couple of years after we met, I managed to secure a few days at the North Molton syndicate run by Jack Toussel. Delighted by this, Roy asked me to load for him and subsequently I spent more than 10 years attending some of the most prodigious shoots in the country and observing Guns who have spent large amounts of money pursuing their favoured hobby. To me, at the time, the bags seemed large, although they would probably be viewed as average today; indeed I remember a very nice man telling me last year that he “wouldn’t get out of bed for a day of less than 300 birds”!
The thing that struck me most was that after many of those ‘commercial’ days, it seemed to me as if none of the Guns could remember more than four or five special birds that they had shot. I came to wonder if there was much difference, after all, between some of the farmers’ shoots I had attended near Bath – especially those on Lansdown where you might get the chance to shoot birds as good as those at Whitfield or North Molton. The dissimilarity being that, instead of getting a couple of hundred chances in the day at an exceptional bird, you would get four or five and might only kill one of those if you were skilled or lucky enough.
I started to wonder if those farmers, some of which were fine Shots and could bring down three out of five of those high birds, were not getting a better experience than my friend Roy who could achieve a good average but was able to ‘practise’ at many such birds on a typical day.
Roy died a few years ago and I now attend the big shoots a few times a year rather than most weeks throughout the season. The shooting I do is now more akin to that enjoyed in my youth, and I have a good number of smaller days with a great group of friends. We make the days challenging in our own way by either shooting with muzzle loading guns (where the skill of loading, picking your bird and actually hitting it gives such a thrill that for some of us it is the only way to shoot), 28 bores (where no load over 21g, and preferably 18g, is allowed), or hammer gun days where we use black powder cartridges. It is the thrill and skill involved in the day which provides the satisfaction and not large numbers of ‘extreme’ birds on a gamecard. Every year some of our group shoot exceptional birds either in height or distance that go down in the annals of legend. And rather than just the man who shot the bird remembering it, we all do.
Today, most people are introduced to shooting via a clay lesson or a corporate entertainment day, where a lot of time is occupied solely by pulling the trigger. Combine this with the fact that cartridges have never been cheaper and it is maybe no surprise that commercial shoots have formed to service the needs of this generation. As a result, more land is taken up by these larger game shooting operations, thereby reducing the land available for rough shooting which allowed my generation the chance of an apprenticeship. Is there a place for the rough shoot in the future of game shooting?
I do not want to see bag restrictions or other such interference, but I would love to think that people would choose to try something different rather than just striving for higher birds or bigger bags. Simulated game days, such as those started in the ’80s by the likes of Bruce Gauntlett and Wendy Plummer, can provide the mechanical thrill of shooting hundreds of cartridges at a stand, without the blood and feathers. I do feel saddened when the quarry seems to be regarded as the by-product of the day and not the object of it. It may be worth considering Robert Browning’s much used quote from 1855: “less is more”.