The former Leicester Tigers, England, and British and Irish Lions flanker on shooting, stalking and his love of the Great British countryside.
How and when did you first get into shooting?
I bought an air rifle when I was 18 with my first pay cheque from Tigers – I just used to shoot targets and tin cans from my bedroom window in Oadby (on the outskirts of Leicester). That got me interested in shooting, so I started going to Kibworth Shooting Ground with my friend and then Tigers teammate, Ben Pienaar. We then went 50/50 on a Miroku MK38 together which cost us about £500 each, a lot of money for us at that age.
I got into stalking several years later through Owen Beardsmore of Cervus-UK, who I met at Burton Rugby Club where I was doing an appearance for Tigers. He then invited me down to Nettlebed in Oxfordshire to stalk my first deer, a fallow buck. I absolutely loved it and continued to stalk with Owen for a few years after that until I got my own rifle. I have been a keen stalker ever since.
What was your first ever live quarry?
The first thing I ever shot was a woodpigeon. Ben (Pienaar) and I were on the co-op estate at the back of Stoughton (outskirts of Leicester!) with our brand new shotgun and I shot at the first pigeon that flew past. I couldn't believe it when it dropped dead! But in hindsight, we were probably a bit too close to a built-up area as the police turned up 10 minutes later and told us we were alarming the locals!
What is it about shooting and stalking that appeals to you?
It is difficult to explain, but I guess with stalking, I love the peace, tranquility and solitude of being alone in the outdoors, particularly at first or last light when the woods and hills just seem to come alive. And because your senses are heightened, you are so much more aware of your surroundings, which adds to the excitement and anticipation. I am obviously highly competitive, so I do enjoy pitting my skills against Mother Nature in trying to overcome and outwit my quarry. It's always a challenge – it would be boring if it wasn't – but there is never any disappointment when I come away empty-handed; it is just a bonus when I do shoot something. I always tell myself that that is the reason why it's called hunting, not shooting.
Obviously driven game shooting is completely different. On a driven day, I thoroughly enjoy the traditions and rituals, as well as the banter and camaraderie of being out in the countryside with friends and like-minded people. It's more of a social occasion and is always a good laugh.
What is your favourite form of shooting?
To be honest, I enjoy all forms of shooting. I love the sociable aspect of driven days – if you are with good friends, it doesn't particularly matter if the shooting isn't brilliant. I also love pigeon decoying, but my favourite would probably be wildfowling and duck flighting. I had an outing with Owen Beardsmore last year which was incredibly memorable – the weather was horrendous, it rained solidly, the wind howled and the ducks bulleted past us. It was a real test, not just in terms of shooting ability, but of resolve to stay out in conditions like that! That was the first time I took Geoff Parling shooting – it was a real eye-opener for him. I think he almost froze to death because he wore a Skinz base layer which he thought would keep him warm but later realised was designed to keep you cool! He was pretty cold.
But in the time that I have been shooting – almost 10 years – I have introduced a lot of my close friends to it. In fact, I would say that as many as half of my close friends now have shotgun certificates.
Tell us about your most memorable stalk
My first stalk is definitely the one I remember most vividly. It was just so exciting. Owen and I stalked to within about 150m of a group of fallow and as I lifted the rifle onto the sticks and saw them through the scope, I realised that I was unbelievably nervous, more nervous than I have ever been for any rugby game; my legs were like jelly, my breathing was erratic and my heart was racing. It was literally the first time I had looked at a deer through a scope and all of a sudden it felt very real. Owen told me to take the shot when I was ready but I couldn't – I was shaking and couldn't seem to keep the crosshairs on the vitals. But after a while my nerves did settle and I took the shot. Thankfully, we found my first ever deer stone-dead just a few paces from where it had been standing. My biggest fear in shooting is wounding something, so it's always a big relief when it's a clean kill.
What kit do you use?
For my deer stalking I use a Sauer 202 in .308 Win with a synthetic stock and Swarovski Z6i scope, and I really like Harkila's stalking gear. I also have a Webley & Scott .22 rimfire for lamping rabbits, a Beretta Silver Pigeon 12 bore for game and clays, and a Browning semi-automatic 12 bore for wildfowling.
Anything on the shopping list?
Yes! I have got my eyes on a Sauer 404 in .22-250, and I have to admit I have always wanted a Winchester lever action .22! And although I would have no real use for it, the dream is to own a double rifle one day. I also need a pair of shooting sticks and I am always in the market for a new knife.
Do you have any working dogs?
Yes, I have a highly trained Bavarian mountain hound called Rolo who, despite being a lovely pet at home, turns into a machine in the woods. She is amazing at finding deer and, touch wood, I haven't lost one yet. I also have a killer terrier called Scampi who bullies dogs 10 times his size. Matt Smith (Leicester Tigers centre) has a spaniel that is terrified of Scampi.
If you could hunt/shoot any quarry anywhere on earth, what would it be and why?
I have no real desire to hunt abroad yet, to be honest. Maybe that will come later, but there is still so much that I want to do here in the UK. More than anything, I would love to stalk a hill stag in the Highlands of Scotland. And one day, once I've learnt to salmon fish, I would like to try my hand at a MacNab. That would be amazing.
And if you could shoot game anywhere in the UK?
I would really like to test myself on some of North Yorkshire's high pheasants. I have heard a lot about some of the great shoots in that neck of the woods.
Who are the best Shots you know?
With a rifle, it would have to be Owen Beardsmore, and with a shotgun I would say Rob Fenwick. Leon Lloyd (ex Leicester Tigers player) is also a handy Shot.
Do any of your current team mates at Tigers shoot?
Yes, quite a few do. Ben Youngs, Tom Youngs, Matt Smith and Geordan Murphy all shoot. Ben Youngs is a good game Shot and Matt Smith is surprisingly good at clays.
And who would be in your dream team?
Geordan Murphy, Dean Richards, Karl Pilkington, Billy Connolly, Mary Berry, Pierre Koffman, Stephen Merchant, David Seaman, Winston Churchill and Wyatt Earp!
Do you have any pet hates?
I really don't have time for people who are rude – there's just no need for it. But, as a rugby player, you have to be able to ignore or block out negative sentiment, especially when you are playing away from home, so I tend to be pretty good at ignoring rude people.
I also hate undiscerning or indiscriminate Shots. Live quarry shouldn't be used for target practice; think before you pull the trigger and never forget that you are shooting at a live animal, not clays.
Is there anything that you would like to change about how shooting/stalking is conducted in the UK?
No, not particularly. But I do think that shooting gets a lot of unjustified bad press in the UK. I think, on the whole, there is a lot of misinformation out there and most people don't know the facts. So we could definitely be doing a better job of informing and educating the wider public of the benefits of shooting to the economy, rural communities, the countryside and ecosystems. In the past, I was nervous about telling people that I shoot and stalk, but I have got to the point now where I get very frustrated with people who aren't willing to look at the bigger picture and consider the potential benefits of shooting.
Tie or no tie on a day's shooting?
I quite like the traditions attached to shooting, so yes, I am happy to wear a tie on a driven day.