Sir Ian Botham
The cricketing legend on his love of shooting and fishing, and why ignorance is the greatest threat to our country way of life.
How and when did you get into shooting and fishing?
I'm a country boy at heart and always have been. For as long as I can remember, I have always loved my fishing and shooting. I started fishing as a child at a place near Yeovil in Somerset called Chudley's Mill – I can clearly remember catching my first gudgeon and dace there. And by my teens I had discovered salmon and trout. Fishing is the most soothing, therapeutic thing I know. Some people get that from music, but for me, it is rivers. Time just seems to fly by. I love the whole environment, the wildlife, the scenery, the sights, sounds and smells. And no two days are ever the same. Rivers are such dynamic environments, they change all the time. And I love the process of learning about salmon, such an enigmatic fish, such a precious fish. I have been practising catch and release for 30 years – we have to do all we can to look after our salmon. I have always been first and foremost a country boy and conservationist.
And what is it about shooting that you so enjoy?
I started shooting as a kid – rabbits with an air rifle at first, and then on to pigeons. When I lived in Lincolnshire, I did a lot of pigeon shooting. And then, over time, and through the people I met, I got into game shooting. As with fishing, I have loved the process of understanding how shooting fits into the bigger picture, into the wider countryside, and all the good that it does for people, our rural communities and our wildlife. I have loved learning about how keepers work, the conservation work they do, and seeing how much respect they have for Mother Nature. They are so easily and often vilified, but that is unfair. Yes, we get the odd rogue keeper, but one in a thousand isn't a bad ratio. Yes, we should prosecute and make examples of those who break the law – just as we do in other walks of life – but to tar them all with the same brush is ridiculous.
I want my grandchildren, great grandchildren and their grandchildren to enjoy the countryside as I have. Cities do little for me. But those who don't understand the countryside must ask themselves: who looks after the rivers, the fields, the hedgerows, the woods? Our countryside doesn't look after itself; it never has and never will. Our rivers, lakes, hills, woods and fields are looked after by people – country people, gamekeepers, riverkeepers, shooters and fishers. Not city-dwelling pencil pushers with their online petitions. Take away the shooting and fishing and you remove the protection these people provide for our wildlife. Ignorance is a dangerous thing. People need a reality check. We who shoot and fish love our wildlife and will do everything we can to manage, conserve and protect it.
The shooting family is a wonderful one. These cries that it is an elitist sport are complete nonsense. Those who make such claims are pathetic. Apparently, fishing is an elitist sport now, too! These people have got blinkers on and see only what they want to see. Most live in the cities. I don't go to London and tell them what colour their buses should be. It's the same with these people who want to ban lead; they find problems that just don't exist. Please, go and push your pencils around London and stop interfering with our way of life.
What is your favourite form of shooting?
Honestly, I really don't have a preference. I enjoy it all, from pigeon decoying, wildfowling and walked-up days, to driven partridge, pheasant or grouse. I even enjoy doing vermin control. I love the whole experience and everything that goes with shooting. And I also love the seasonality of it.
Who is a better Shot out of you and Liam?!
Only because I have taught him everything he knows, I would have to say Liam! He is an exceptionally good Shot.
Who is the best Shot you know?
I am very fortunate to have shot with some terrific Guns, guys who really aren't human, guys like George Digweed, Simon Ward, Dave Carrie and David Flux... I have learnt a great deal from them.
Who would be in your dream team?
One of the best days we have is on our local syndicate – the banter is just fantastic. Sometimes Dave Carrie, Simon Ward or George Digweed will come and join us. But I am a grass roots type of guy, so I enjoy the company of all country folk, from all walks of life.
What do you think is the key to being an exceptional Shot?
I think it's like anything – some people just have a natural talent for something, whether it is cricket, tennis, rugby or shooting.
Do you have an all-time favourite shoot and drive?
It is very difficult to choose one good shoot over another. I can't recall ever having a bad day's shooting up here in North Yorkshire and I can certainly remember lots and lots of wonderful days. We are blessed up here; we have such great pheasant, grouse and partridge shooting.
And anywhere in particular that you would like to fish or shoot?
I have an invite to fish the Alta next year which I am very excited about. I have never fished Norway. I fished Russia four years in a row and got snowed off four years in a row. New Zealand is a favourite fishing destination of mine, too; I try to get down there every year. The big driving force is the countryside and the scenery – their natural resources are incredibly well managed. I love my shooting, but fishing is my big passion. I would also love to fish Argentina for big sea trout.
What gun and cartridges do you use for pheasants?
After seeing David Flux shoot so well with a 28 bore, I went and got myself a pair of Caesar Guerini 28s for early in the season, and I have to say that they are a lot of fun to shoot. Later on in the year I'll switch to my pair of B25 Browning 12 bores. Custom fitted and custom engraved, I love them.
In terms of cartridges, most of the big manufacturers are producing excellent loads, but I seem to get on quite well with Gamebore Black Gold. I only ever use fibre wads – they perform just as well as plastic these days. Ten or 15 years ago that might not have been the case, but nowadays there is no excuse for using plastic.
As a famous personality, do you find that people regard you differently in the shooting field?
No, not at all. My quarry doesn't treat me any differently, so why should my fellow fishers and shooters? You have to earn respect in whatever field you are participating in, no matter who you are. If you are completely useless, you will get stick – and that's exactly how it should be! Half of the fun is the banter. The key is to make sure no one is looking when you miss or make a duff cast!
You are obviously a highly competitive person – but are you competitive in the shooting field?
Yes, of course! Everyone is competitive to a certain degree. That's part of the banter and camaraderie of shooting.
What would you regard as the most difficult shot in the book?
I think long crossers – whether they are pigeons, pheasants or grouse – cause most people problems. If you are right-handed, a bird coming over your right shoulder is challenging and most people will miss it behind as they stop their swing. Everyone will have a weaker side. Unless you are one of the elite few I have already mentioned. The rest of us are human.
Are you tense before the first drive?
No, no, no! Nervous is 100,000 screaming Aussies wanting to kill you. Shooting and fishing are relaxing sports!
Do you clean your own guns?
Absolutely. Admittedly, I do have a very good friend in the village who is an ex-keeper, and if we have had very bad weather, he insists on taking my guns off me and stripping them down. But apart from that, I look after my own guns.
What, if anything, frustrates you on a shoot day?
I enjoy shooting through and having a nice meal at the end of the day. I don't like to shoot too late in the day as the birds need time to settle and make their way back to where they roost.
A day's shooting should be a relaxed, convivial affair with plenty of time to chat to your fellow Guns. I like a nice long elevenses and a really good meal at the end of the day. I also don't like it when Guns rush off after the final drive – the social side of things is important. And whenever possible, I also like to meet up with my fellow Guns the night before a shoot day.
Another thing I also really don't like to see is Guns who shoot at everything that comes their way early in the season. Some birds need a bit of time to really find their wings. Remember, a low bird in October could potentially be an absolute screamer in January – so a bit of discernment is required.
Do you think that game shooting has a bright future in the UK?
Yes, I do. Without shooting, our countryside as we know it wouldn't exist. I would suggest to all these ignorant people with their petitions that they look at the bigger picture. It is a £2 billion industry. If you take shooting away, who will look after our birds, our wildlife, our countryside? And what about the employment? Keepers, beaters, loaders, pickers-up, accommodation providers, food and beverage providers – they all depend on shooting. Just go to a place like Helmsley, the little market town in North Yorkshire, and ask the locals what they think about shooting. Rural communities, families and businesses depend on the country way of life for their income, their social lives and their sense of community. These people who want to take our way of life away from us need to wake up to the reality of the situation. They are blinkered.
What do you regard as the greatest threats to our rural way of life?
One of the biggest enemies is ignorance. From what I have seen this year, I would say that a lot of people – including many from within the ranks of the RSPB – could learn a thing or two from our gamekeepers about protecting wildlife. People need to be a lot more pragmatic and realistic about wildlife – it needs to be carefully managed. There have been 18 successful hen harrier fledglings on our grouse moors this year. What does that tell you? Controlling vermin gives the wildlife a chance, and that includes hen harriers.